Driving a Formula1 car requires tremendous skill and ability. Maniacal speeds and crazy twists and turns in a machine that’s built for the tracks, is a tremendous achievement, especially when it rains. But compare that to driving on ice, gravel, asphalt and even rocks, and suddenly, life in an F1 car seems so easy. Motoring aficionados claim that Rally cars and conditions are the hardest to tame of all motoring sports. After all, irrespective of surface and weather conditions, a driver is expected to race those monsters to the hilt. And then there’s the endurance element. Three long days of competition mean thousands of kilometres at the wheel and an awful amount of time spent tightly strapped into the car. A moment’s relaxation could mean trouble, accidents and possible injury (if not death). The WRC pushes mental concentration and physical fitness to the limit.
Who can underestimate the skill and nerve required to drive flat-out on some of the most unforgiving roads in the world. Whether speeding through forests, along cliff edges, or dodging snow banks, ditches or rocks the size of closets, there is never any room for error. There are no gravel traps in the WRC, and no pit-crews nearby to patch things up either. If the car is damaged, chances are that the driver and co-driver will be the ones who have to try and fix it. So they need to be pretty good at the ‘fix-it’ kits as well.
Unlike most other forms of motorsport, rally cars carry two people - a driver and a co-driver. The co-driver, who sits in the front passenger seat, provides the driver with a running commentary on what’s coming up on the road ahead. The commentary is the most important element and it decides the way a car negotiates the track. So much so that drivers almost drive ‘blind’, with the co-driver telling them what to do.
At every rally, drivers and co-drivers need to spend at least two days to traverse the route of the race in ‘recce’ cars. The organisers stipulate a maximum speed of 50-70 kph for the recce and the crew are allowed two runs through each stage. On the first run the driver calls out what he sees on the road, the severity of each corner, the position of every crest, bump & change of road surface, while the co-driver makes pace notes of these vital comments. On the second run the co-driver reads the pace notes back to the driver. Misunderstandings are sorted out during this run until the meaning is crystal clear.
Rallies will sometimes re-use a stage from the previous year, but drivers and co-drivers still recce them, because over 12 months, re-routing and re-grading can completely change the character of the stage and the road. On the day before the rally, the crew gets the opportunity to check their WRC car during ‘shakedown’, this is to prevent any driver gaining an unfair advantage. The stretches of road used for this process are not part of the rally route, but have similar characteristics to the roads of the special stages.
As well as advising the driver when he can, or can’t, safely take a blind hump at full throttle, the co-driver is also the car’s administrator. Organisers issue each crew with a time card which lists the times they must be at each time control and it is the co-driver’s job to make sure the car is in the right place at the right time. There are penalties for being late and (perhaps the only motor sport where it happens) being early too!
Once the stage begins, the co-driver relays the pace notes to the driver through an intercom system in their crash helmets. The secret here is, the all-important, timing. The information must be delivered at exactly the right moment - not too early and not too late. An added complication is that the co-driver can’t see the road too well, because in the interests of a low centre of gravity, his seat is mounted as low a possible. With a typical view of the underside of the dashboard, co-drivers are adept at feeling the direction of the car through the seat of their pants.
Such treacherous road & weather conditions, combined with the incredible number of handicaps makes Rally driving a true test of skill. It is, therefore, not a surprise to see many Rally drivers make their mark in other motorsports whereas the vice versa, may not always true.