Pace Notes

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The expression “pace notes” in rallying terms refers to the written details that rally navigators use to aid the drivers to know what is approaching. These notes detail everything, such as direction and speed, road surfaces, bumps and dips, water splashes, blind brows and time controls, at all times telling the driver what he cannot see coming. These notes are compiled by the navigator in conjunction with the driver during a reconnaissance run over any particular section before the event. Sometimes rally organisers ban the use of “pace notes” by the simple expedient of banning reconnaissance runs. This tends to cause complaints from the more vociferous competitors, but generally speaking it doesn’t seem to make much difference, the same crews win.

In a recent Television programme I was named as being “the inventor of pace notes”, which is absolute nonsense, like so many myths and legends promulgated by the world of Television. I will admit to playing some part in proving the efficiency and effectiveness of pace notes, and subsequently spread the gospel on behalf of navigators, but I did not “invent” the idea.

I honestly do not know who “invented” pace-notes, but the first time I heard about the idea was from some friends who had been to the Carrera PanAmericana “Mexico”, the open road race over more than 2000 miles, the length of Mexico. The Lincoln team had used a form of rollermap from which the co-driver/navigator could have an accurate check of where they were and what was approaching. This interested me greatly because in 1952, while racing professionally as a sidecar passenger, I had assisted my driver round the original Nürburgring by a system of signals involving a thump on his leg. I learnt the way round the 14-mile “ring” pretty thoroughly, but he was not so sure, so at the approach of dodgy left hand bends I would thump his leg once and for dodgy right hand bends I would thump him twice. For full throttle over blind brows I would give his leg a comforting squeeze and it worked quite well,

In 1954 when I was planning to do the following year’s Mille Miglia with American John Fitch we discussed how the passenger could act as an advance pair of eyes for the driver, transmitting advance information from notes made during reconnaissance runs of the 1000-mile course round Italy. When plans changed and Stirling Moss asked me to accompany him in the works Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, and John Fitch sportingly agreed to free me from my commitment to him. I joined Stirling to discover that he was thinking of using me much as John had been planning, but on a slightly less ambitious scale. As a basis for our plans he produced some detailed notes from “Lofty” England of Jaguar Cars that had been made for the PanAmericana race when Jaguars had been thinking of competing with a team of MkVII saloons in the production category.

From all these sources the idea for the 1955 Mille Miglia gradually took shape and with the resources of Mercedes-Benz behind us I was able to do about 12,000 miles of reconnaissance in order to compile my 15-foot roll of detailed notes of the whole of the 1000-mile route. Between us we settled on what was needed and after a lot of experimentation we devised a system of communication by means of hand signals. In the open SLR there was too much noise and wind to attempt to shout at one another, and there was always the risk of not hearing correctly. Mercedes-Benz provided us with an inter-com system that used throat-microphones and ear-pieces wired into our helmets, but after some serious testing at speed we turned the idea down. At all normal speeds and under normal conditions the system was perfect, but when Stirling was driving on that knife-edge that few drivers can approach he found that his eyes needed all his mental performance and there was nothing left for “hearing”. Had I not experienced this phenomenon at first hand, sitting alongside him on a test session, I would not have believed it.

I took the problem to some medical friends I had in the aerospace research establishment and they confirmed that it was quite normal for the human hearing mechanism to diminish if some other faculty was being overstressed. We perfected our system of hand signals, for we felt they were foolproof, providing Stirling did not lose his eyesight during the race! On my part I memorised to 100% accuracy the first 350 miles of the route, and then my memory diminished to about 90%, not that I was going to rely on memory, of course. The whole route was handwritten in a short-hand that only I could interpret, and I had a second copy in my pocket as a back-up system. My memory for the Brescia to Pescara section was merely a back-up to the back-up, so to speak. I did this as a personal form of brain discipline, and would lie in bed repeating my notes like learning poetry and invariably I would fall asleep somewhere after Pescara!

We would practice our handsignals even when doing a practice lap in a Mercedes-Benz saloon, so that we could virtually carry on a conversation without saying a word. There were about 12 basic hand movements but they could be used to cover twice that number of “words” by combining two or three of them together. Our “conversation” was a one-way affair, for all Stirling wanted to know was what was coming beyond the depth of his vision, and how we were doing in the race. On some very long straights, of five or six miles, he wanted warning of the braking point and on one stretch in the race we joined an 11 kilometre straight alongside a canal side-by-side with Castellotti in a 4.4-litre Ferrari that out-accelerated us up to 170mph, though we were equal on maximum speed, and at close to 175mph we sat about 200 yards behind him. Now I knew exactly how long we could maintain this speed and to within 50 yards the point at which Stirling had to lift off and brake for the Ieft hand bend at the end.

As the end of the road came into view we saw the Ferrari brake lights come on and then off as Castellotti realized he had braked too early. This happened about three times as he tried to pin-point the corner, and all the time Stirling was flat-out, waiting for my signal. By the time we braked we had made up all the ground lost when we accelerated up to 170mph, and we took the left hand bend almost alongside the Ferrari. Some time later, after the race Castellotti asked me about that incident, because it had puzzled him how Stirling had made up so much ground on braking. When I explained it was my responsibility to signal to Stirling the Italian shook his head in disbelief and said he could never have relied on a “navigator’ like that.

Stirling reckoned that my “navigational aid” probably saved us 20 to 30 minutes in the 10 hours of racing we did to win that event, so as I say, I am prepared to accept that I proved the efficiency of “pace notes”, but I did not invent them.
Yours, DSJ

PS: This month’s Memorable Three Moments come from Andrew Everitt.

1. Archie Scott-Brown coming out of Stowe Corner at Silverstone in 1957, right on the limit in a Lister-Jaguar.
2. Pedro Rodriguez in a Gulf Potsche 917 in a deluge at Brands Hatch in 1970.
3. Ayrton Senna’s smoothness and balance as he fed the power on up the Raidillon on the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the Lotus-Renault in 1985 when winning in the wet.