OUR EXPERT COACH EXPLAINS WHY CIRCUIT RACING SKILLS ARE TRANSFERABLE TO SPECIAL STAGES
Rally drivers may look lairy on the limit, but the skills involved aren’t so different to circuit racing
When I started working with rally drivers at the turn of the century, the thinking from Prodrive and M-sport was that the asphalt stages must have a degree of similarity to circuit-racing techniques, but now it’s become relevant to the loose surfaces, snow and gravel, as well.
The actual difference is not huge, at least not as much as people think, and some general principles apply regardless of the surface. Whether you’re on asphalt, gravel or snow, you don’t want corners going on too long, you’ve still got to communicate with the surface in the same way with the rates of input, you’ve got to decrease the brake pressure in a smooth way and introduce the steering for the corner to make sure you’re not sliding with no forward trajectory, which only costs you time.
Certainly, we’re seeing a big reduction in the Scandinavian flick now, which of course happens naturally with the pendulum effect if you come out of a left-hander and you’ve got a right-hander coming up pretty soon. But assuming it’s a straight-ahead approach to a right-hand corner, then it’s more effective to just introduce the weight transfer to the left front in the same way you would with a racing car. On the loose, it’s still about achieving the straightest lines you can.
When it comes to acceleration, of course one doesn’t want too much wheelspin, but on the gravel sometimes a tiny bit of wheelspin cuts through to a harder surface below, so it is tolerable to tease the throttle more than you would do on the race track.
The attitude does have to be different though – one thing you’re not looking for in rally drivers is to be the world’s latest braker. When you train a racing driver at Bruntingthorpe, you’re rehearsing it 100 times over and always reducing speed for the slowest point of the corner, which is often further around the corner than you would expect. But in rallying, even with your pacenotes and the co-driver sitting alongside you, it’s often hard to know precisely what that point is.
There are further tools that a rally driver can
use compared to a racing driver, but just because they are there it doesn’t necessarily mean you should use them all the time. The handbrake is a case in point – it does have a place, but you’ve got to be careful that you don’t slow the car down too much and don’t bog down or stall the engine on the way out.
One former Monte Carlo Rally winner I spent some time training once asked for my thoughts on left-foot braking, and it’s my view that there will be times when you use it to change the direction of the car, but it’s just another tool and not as critical as people think. One doesn’t have to be a natural left-foot braker to win rallies – you can get rotation with the brake decrease and the steering wheel, as well as the handbrake.
Rally drivers are thoroughly enjoyable characters to work with, because they are in a rugged sport and you need a cheerful optimism in the harsh conditions they compete in, and the potential danger they face every time.
I’ve worked with several great drivers in that time: Marcus Gronholm had a tremendous competence about him and could have gone on for longer had he not been at a certain stage in his life, and Petter Solberg, the 2003 world champion, is a fantastic character and a real all-guns-blazing driver who has been very effective since switching to rallycross.
Of course, the environment is spectacular, even in rallycross, but it doesn’t mean that behind the wheel you’re driving it in the same way it looks.
Sebastien Loeb is the most successful rally driver of all time and is almost Alain Prost-like in the way he drives the car, with very little excess energy and not a huge amount of correction or aggressiveness with the throttle. There’s a great elegance to the way he performs and that’s almost the opposite of the impression that rallying creates.
Although it is necessary to be responsive to surface changes and oversteer/understeer as they come along, you can reduce the number of times you have to react by softening up your inputs, waiting until the car is rotated and not deliberately provoking the opposite lock.
Of course, this can make it more boring for spectators, but it’s effective and it’s here to stay.
“One thing you’re not looking for in rally drivers is to be the world’s latest braker”
The handbrake can be a useful tool, but shouldn’t be abused
Sliding looks dramatic, but isn’t always the quickest
Loeb transferred his skills to Le Mans with Pescarolo
Gronholm could have gone on for longer
Neat and tidy lines are still effective on rough roads