Co-Drivers - why do they do that?

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Artist, masochist or just plain mad? What makes a co-driver take all the risks but not the glory? John Davenport describes life in the other seat

You are sitting, strapped into the passenger seat of a hugely powerful car that is about to be driven down a most unsuitable road at improbable speed. In a snowstorm. You are there of your own free will. You are looking forward to the experience. Most sane people reckon you are several am-rods short of a full rotating assembly. So what makes rally co-drivers do it?

Simply put, we are adrenalin addicts. The buzz that can be experienced as a passenger in a fast moving rally car is a very real high. It is comparable to riding one of the fastest of the modem fairground rides. But where the two experiences diverge is the rally car may actually crash – its speed and trajectory are unpredictable thanks to that human factor known as the rally driver. Rather more importantly, the fairground ride passenger is unable to contribute in any way to the safe completion of the journey whereas the co-driver can do a lot to help, even if that only amounts to screaming ‘Slow down!’ through the intercom.

Stuart Turner once famously called rally co-drivers “high speed office managers” and he should know as he was one of the best. The one thing that does tend to distinguish co-drivers is that they are not lacking in the little grey cells so beloved of Hercule Poirot. This normally means they have realised at an early stage that stimulating their adrenal gland by their own efforts behind the wheel are either ineffective or prohibitively expensive. The solution is to bring their intellectual skills to the business of making a rally car driven by someone else to go really list so that they can sit there and enjoy it.

Like any addiction, one has to start softly. Often the road to Nirvana commences with a daylight navigation rally tackled in a mate’s Morris Minor, Then comes a succession of quicker cars, quicker drivers and harder events until eventually you are sitting in a 500 bhp, 4WD device alongside a chap whose name you can’t pronounce about to digest 38 miles of Killer Kidder in the shortest possible time. It is this steady build-up that enables co-drivers to sit there and take what is apparently a series of near-death experiences and still emerge ready to check the stage time and give Top Gear a quick quote.

It used to be said that certain British co-drivers were able to ride fearlessly with the Scandinavians because they wore spectacles with lenses that resembled the bottom of Coca-Cola bottles. What you can’t see, can’t frighten you. Occasionally it did seem to be true. Henry Liddon, who had lenses of astronomical thickness, once arrived in considerable haste to check out of a control on the San Remo Rally clutching the remains of a toilet door. He claimed that someone had deliberately locked him in, but closer inspection of the offending barrier revealed the lock was on the inside.

Before the standardisation of things like road books, the co-driver had to navigate from maps during the rally. In France, this was relatively straightforward thanks to the road numbering system, but in countries where the route was defined simply by a string of village names it was much more difficult. Teams started to do recces that at first were purely navigational, but then had the idea of identifying the ‘difficult’ corners. The continentals took to spray paint and soon every rally road looked like a psychedelic experience. The Brits, perhaps from the example of Denis Jenkinson’s Mille Miglia loo-roll, took to writing bend sequences in short-hand, and thus were born pace notes, the co-driver’s pre-occupation for the last 30 years.

Pace notes are symphonies to co-drivers. If the crew has made good notes and he reads them back just right, it can feel as if he is controlling the car as the conductor controls an orchestra. When a stage is flowing with crew and car in harmony it is not at all frightening, but it’s always in the back of your mind that you could make a mistake. Every co-driver has had the nightmare where he reads notes to the end of the book, and looks up to see there is still a lot of stage left.

The trust that exists between co-driver and driver is essential. In the ’60s and 70s, I worked with many top drivers and always there was this defining moment when that trust was established. The only rally I did with Markku Alen was a Welsh Rally that used Eppynt. We had four words between us: he knew ‘John’ and ‘Ford Escort’ and I knew the Finnish word for ‘take care.’ On the first stage at night with horizontal rain we caught and passed Per-Inge Walfiidsson in the Volvo. Markku was just brilliant and, from then on, I never worried even when, as in Radnor Forest, our contact with the road was through only two wheels at a time.

By contrast, I remember Motor Sport reporter Gerry Phillips getting landed with another up-and-coming Scandinavian on an RAC Rally. I saw Gerry at a time control far from a special stage and he was sitting there wearing both crash helmet and seat belt. I asked him why. He replied “I can’t get through to this bloody guy the difference between special stages and road sections. The only time I can relax is when we’re on a stage and I know no one’s coming the other way”.

The longer you spend rallying with a driver, the better you know the signs that things may not be totally A-OK. Ove Andersson, a tall chap who sat well back from the wheel, had a habit of pulling himself towards the wheel if we were in fir an unscheduled increase in adrenalin. He fooled me once in Glen Devon forest on an RAC Rally. The Lancia had a big moment on a fast descent and when I looked out of the corner of my eye expecting to see him rising towards the wheel, he was simply not there. The floor under his scat had collapsed and he was now sitting further away than ever.

I cannot recall any driver I rallied with at international level who did not give me that feeling of confidence. The time to worry is when your driver becomes dogmatic about something, especially if that something flies in the face of logic. Vic Elford had a theory that he could go quicker on gravel without notes and, at his insistence, we tried it on the Czech Rally. I am not saying that, up to that particular tree, the idea was without merit, but it was an experiment not repeated.

I guess the rally driver that I like most, but with whom I have never done a rally, is Ari Vatanen. He had a period in his driving career which extended from the last days of the Ford Escort to the Peugeot 205 T16 when I think all of us co-drivers were very happy that Terry Harryman was taking the strain in that particular hot seat. On one of his last Escort drives, Ari went on the Manx in the David Sutton Black Escort. All weekend, he was on the limit with several minor brushes with the scenery. Finally the island won and he had a spectacular accident right in front of the television cameras. As the car was helped to its feet, Terry asked if it was OK. When told that, sadly, it could not continue, he made the rather uncharacteristic but understandable comment on camera, “Thank Christ!”

The one thing that does happen when things go wrong and the car stops for whatever reason, is the buzz ceases, and the descent to reality can be quicker than a lead Zeppelin touchdown. In circumstances like that, fatigue and strain catch up fast. I have slept in places and situations one could not credit in normal circumstances. On one occasion, I slept on top of the spares and petrol cans in the back of a chase car for some six hours while it was being driven back to Nairobi over true African roads.

The high speed office manager normally plies his or her trade in a recce or rally car, but the job also implies a major input to the tactics and strategy of doing a rally. If I had to nominate the top co-driver ever, it would have to be Henry Liddon. Despite those famous glasses, he won the Monte Carlo Rally twice and played a big part in the careers of Paddy Hopkirk, Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Makinen before going on to be the team manager at Toyota. Henry was an innovator, whether it was in pace notes or service tactics. It was his idea to change tyres in the middle of the tightest road section of the 1969 San Remo; it was a masterstroke that won Lancia the rally.

For me, the true essence of the driver/co-driver relationship was summed up on the 1000 Likes Rally of ’74. The event was a no Queensbury Rules affair between the two works Ford Escorts of Makinen/Liddon, Mikkola/Davenport. The classic Myhinpaa stage with its 100mph swoops and leaps was an electrifying experience. On one jump, our car did not land perfectly in the road, or, to put it another way, it had two wheels in the ditch on my side. Somehow its speed and Hannu’s skill brought it out again, felling a small mail box and a few bushes on the way, and we only lost four seconds to Timo and Henry. As we drove away from the end of the stage, Hannu turned to me and said “Best change that crest to slight-leftover-crest for next time.” Next time was to be a year later. Now I knew how a Finn never forgets.

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