Assessing a racing driver’s style is relatively straightforward in that he or she obligingly whips past every 90 seconds or so. But to assess the black art of rally driving styles requires the insight of an experienced top-line co-driver. Step forward, John Davenport
It started on last year’s San Remo Rally as we spectated on the road from Apricale to Perinaldo. Was it possible, we wondered, to discern differences in style between drivers in the latest four-wheel-drive WRC cars on Tarmac?
Years ago, when men wore Escorts, there was no great difficulty in spotting variances in style. One would need to possess very high-grade myopia to miss the difference in approach to any halfway decent corner by the likes of, say, Roger Clark and Ove Andersson. It would not have mattered whether they were on Tarmac or gravel, Roger would have been the driver looking ahead through the side window. He was an exponent of the Narborough variation of a classic Viking technique. Expressed simply, it comprised entering all corners at highly optimistic speeds, but doing so sideways, in order that the trajectory of the car could be sharpened, if need be, to fit the corner.
Ove, as a Scandinavian, was quite capable of driving sideways but looked upon it as a technique of last resort. On a memorable occasion in Greece, I think he must have established an outright record for distance travelled sideways in a rally car.
It was on the fast, Tarmac stages of Serrai, north-east of Thessalonika. When we had looked at the route with our Lancia Fulvia, there had been a newly constructed — but as yet unsurfaced — piece of road that cut off a descent to a bridge. Upon asking the organisers, they said it was okay to use the new road and even issued a piece of paper to that effect.
On the event, we arrived at the small crest before the new road flat out in top, which was about 90mph for a 1300cc Fulvia. The new road, of course, was closed with concrete blocks and barrels. Ove put the car sideways and we went down the old road with the Fulvia’s rear end in a ditch. We stayed that way for close on 200 yards — an eternity, especially as we could see the bridge parapet looming up. With only a short distance to go, Ove removed the rear end from the ditch; the car then obligingly headed towards the other side of the road and we were lined up to pass safely over the bridge. Full marks for style in my book.
It is certainly true to say that the rally cars of the ’60s were sufficiently unsophisticated that drivers with widely varying styles could enjoy success with them, using their performance in sometimes radically different ways. There are many such examples: Erik Carlsson, perhaps the creator of the defining rally driving style of the early 1960s, drove a front-wheel drive Saab but never left-foot braked. In the same car, first Rauno Aaltonen and then Simo Lampinen did nothing but rest their left foot on the brake and take advantage of the Saab’s free-wheel to change gear without the clutch. Having done many rallies in a Saab 96 with the benefit of Simo’s ballet skill on the pedals, my admiration for Erik’s ability is only increased.
In the Lancia team, Leo Cella did not left-foot brake the frontwheel-drive Fulvia and, until his untimely death testing an Alfa Romeo T33 in February 1968, he was the ace in that little car. I drove the Swedish Rally with him the previous year and it was amazing to watch him doing everything with the steering wheel when I was used to guys steering with the brakes. We were lying eighth and had kept it on the road when the sump broke. In complete contrast Sandro Munari, whom I drove with in 1969, had been determined to learn left-foot braking and persisted to the point where he had perfected it for all surfaces.
I never drove a rally with Roger Clark but I did spend some time with him in a rally car during testing and recceing. I was codriving for Vic Elford in the same team and we were using Lotus Cortina Mk is. Two more diverse driving styles would have been difficult to find. Roger was never happier than with the car unbalanced, sliding on the entry to the corner, but instantly able to change direction to cope with whatever hidden problems it might conceal. Vic, on the other hand, was a natural racing driver and sent the car round the corner on the right line and on the limit. His contribution to the development of pacenotes in the mid 1960s was considerable. Where the majority of Scandinavian drivers were content to have a ‘pretty good’ correlation between pacenotes and the road, reckoning that they could always improvise something, for Vic they had to be right.
In 1969,1 was on a visit to the Porsche factory when Helmut Bott took me to the courtyard behind Werk Zwei, where there was a collection of some seven or eight orange 911 rally and recce cars. He asked me if I could explain why Vic’s were always dented at the front while Bjorn Waldegard’s were always dented on the rear wings. I told him what I knew of their two driving styles and he was a happy man, the mystery solved.
But style is only part of the equation since technique is the whole thing and comprises style and method. The reason I say that is because an aggressive style can be matched to any particular method and the end result is the man himself. Anyone watching Colin Malkin on his winning way in a Hillman Imp in the late 1960s would have thought that here was a man who had discovered from Ake Andersson how to left-foot brake a rear-engined car. But the Imp’s power-to-weight ratio would never have allowed it. Instead, Malkin had a raised extepsion welded to the handbrake lever and would use this in combination with the steering wheel to direct the car. It was left-foot braking by another method, and was certainly impressive from inside the car. We won the 1969 Manx Trophy using Weather Master tyres and our performance was based entirely on raising the entry speed to all corners and using Colin’s incredible reactions to sort it out. It must have been the most sideways victory ever witnessed on that Tarmac rally. Using the handbrake to create oversteer is a technique as old as the hills in terms of getting a car round sharp bends or junctions. Its wider use by drivers such as Malkin is only appropriate if you have a car that can be successfully steered with one hand at all times.
This was not the case with many of the frontwheeldrive cars of that era. Both the Fulvia and Saab V4 became much heavier on the steering and generated more kickback thanks to their use of limited-slip differentials. Harry went through several pairs of driving gloves during his two victories on the RAC Rally in 1969 and ’70. And I have seen him with palms bleeding from the banging and friction of the Fulvia wheel. It was some years before power steering became sufficiently well developed — and adequately reliable — to be adopted on rally cars. It does not remove every single trace of kickback, but you are much less likely these days to see drivers unable to sign autographs at the end of major events.
Setting a car up before a comer and left-foot braking are two of the major techniques that are used, even today, to accommodate the imprecise knowledge of the road ahead possessed by the rally driver when compared with the racing driver. If either of the Schumacher brothers were to start chucking their car sideways before a corner in case they were uncertain how fast they could go round it, their lap times would soon experience a sharp incline — while their salaries headed the other way.
Left-foot braking is another matter. Lifting the foot away from the accelerator and moving it to the brake pedal takes time. This was never better demonstrated than when the Finnish rally drivers visited the Motor Show in the mid-1960s and discovered they all had quicker reactions on the racing simulator than the top racing drivers of the day. The reason was that they had their left foot over the brake at all times.
Thus, in current motor racing, left-foot braking is used widely; not so much to set the car up before, in or after the corner, but to reduce the time between lifting off the throttle and applying the brake. In fact, this can even be a slightly negative number, thus allowing the brakes to be at a fully effective temperature when the right foot does lift. The driving style of rallymen over the last 30 years has been enormously affected by two things. The first is the technology that now comprises a modern car. Since 4WD was ‘discovered’ by Audi, there is no major problem with traction and, provided that the driver has sorted out with the engineers the way the three differentials work together, the car will largely do what it is asked to by the steering wheel. That is not to say that left-foot braking has disappeared. Far from it. It still conveys significant advantages in balancing the car, especially on non-Tarmac surfaces, as well as speed of reaction. In that respect, it also enables the driver to keep the turbo ‘on the boil’ with his right foot.
The second important factor is pacenotes. These more than anything have contributed to the development of driving style and to the decrease in visible differences between drivers. The knowledge that is now contained in pacenotes is incredible. Without wishing to be contentious about ‘out of hours’ practising, it was quite evident on the San Remo Rally last year that the top drivers had no doubts about where the road went to within a tolerance of a centimetre or two. There was little evidence of improvisation. But then you would not expect too much of that on Tarmac or else shunts would be much more frequent. It was possible, however, to discern that, even on a stage where the times were just seconds apart, style still played a part.
The heart-throbs — and I mean that in the most literal sense — were Colin McRae and Francois Delecour, who liked to have a fraction too much speed into the corner and were on a slightly wider line in case that meant trouble. Thirty years ago, that would have been Roger or limo Malcinen. If there is any common factor in rallying driving style and the techniques used, it has to be that it requires a high degree of adaptability. There are suggestions that the modern WRC is becoming too clinical with shorter stages and fewer of them, superb machines able to think quicker than their drivers, and less spectator value. Fortunately, dialling the driver out of the equation in rallying is more difficult than in racing. The main reason is the weather. Look at the rallies so far this year. The Monte had slush when you expect ice, hard snow or Tarmac. Sweden had fresh snow when you normally expect packed snow, ice or gravel. As for Portugal, I’ve been going to those stages for more than 30 years and have never seen them in such a soft and gluey state — and it was the adaptable guys who came through on that occasion.