MUCH HARDER THAN IT LOOKS
Co-driving on a single venue is rather complicated. By Jack Benyon
“It’s just book reading while simultaneously hitching a lift,” was the description from one person, who will remain anonymous for their own safety. In March, I embarked upon my first rally as a co-driver. Scratch that, my first rally. The Lee Holland Memorial Rally at Anglesey Circuit.
It seemed easy on the face of things. On a single-venue circuit rally, the track is laid out in loops, which requires splits to access the next loop ( see sidebar). So the most important job for the navigator is to remember which way to turn at said splits and direct the driver around the track. It’s not like a stage rally with a recce and 20 pages of notes. Just split and corner guidance. That seems easy, yes? It turns out, absolutely not. First off, all you’re given is a map of the track. No pacenotes, no reconnaissance run. You can walk the track the day before the rally, but that’s it. And remember, the rally doesn’t just follow the circuit. It uses access roads and reverse loops, so there’s very little prior research that can help you prepare.
MSA Academy co-driver Phil Hall explains: “Because you aren’t using pacenotes – you’re just using maps – it gives you a really good opportunity to develop communication between a driver and co-driver. You’re having to describe a stage from a map you haven’t seen on a stage you probably haven’t seen before, so it’s a representation of the route. You have to run with it and it really helps you develop your ability to describe things on the fly.”
To make things that little bit harder, I hadn’t chosen a one-litre Nissan Micra for my debut. It was a 2.5-litre lightweight rocket ship; to give it its proper name, the Darrian T90+. It regularly beats World Rally cars like the Ford Focus WRC in the Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship.
Luckily, capable hands were behind the wheel. Experienced Darrian campaigner Ashley Field was there to put the car in the right place at the right time. He’d competed in the Peugeot 205 Cup that shot Richard Burns to glory and produced some of the best young rally drivers of the 1990s. Field won events and has done since, a very handy driver leading the points ahead of Anglesey.
However, luck had conspired against Field and he hadn’t yet won a round of the series overall. One of the failures was due to a co-driver sending him the wrong way at a split. Which did nothing to calm my nerves…
The Darrian accelerates as quickly as an F3 car according to one person involved with the Medi Cell Rally Team, but it feels quicker than the Saturn 5 rocket. It was so quick in fact that the pages of notes on my clipboard flew up under acceleration from the start, but luckily they stayed attached as the rear-wheel-drive car shot up the Anglesey pitlane.
Before the event, certain drivers and co-drivers (who will also remain nameless) took bets on when I’d be sick. I’ve sat in a Group B Ford RS200, Metro 6R4s and a Ford Fiesta WRC so I was confident in being OK. But after the first stage I understood why Chris Ingram (Opel works driver) and Michael Gilbey (M-sport mechanic and co-driver) had taken bets. Sorry lads.
Looking down at the diagram and back up at the circuit was nauseating and another hindrance to block concentration. Luckily I wasn’t ill, so happily their cruel bet failed.
The main issue in reading the map came with the fact that it was just a diagram and therefore wasn’t following the direction of travel. It’s just a drawing on a page, and it was rather too easy to lose your place when glancing up.
In essence, a lot of the tasks as a co-driver are simple. In the same way that a long-jumper’s individual steps are easy. Run-jump-extend-land. Easy right? Not when you’re doing it all at once. That’s where the trickiness lies.
As well as the notes there’s the obvious stopwatch and recording times, but the timecards can also throw up a curve ball. Especially when they fall off your clipboard and go under the seat. That was interesting. The marshal who saw a 6ft 2 inches broadshouldered lump running towards them instead of a car – which is the usual approach to a time control – must have been amused. Hopefully that gave something back to them for their valuable voluntary service.
The time card ensures that you reach the stages on time and is filled in by both the co-driver and the marshals. One item on the card that was confusing was the end time, to the control after the stage had ended. The regulations provide three minutes of road section, but that obviously isn’t needed in the 200 yards between stageend and control. Therefore the time given at the end of the stage must have the three minutes added to your stage finish time to hand to the marshal at the control. Easy enough, but when the adrenaline is pumping after a five and a half minute stage in a car like the Darrian, forgetting something as simple as that is easily done, especially when there’s a small calculation in dropping seconds from the time.
So all in all, it was a successful debut. The Techron- and Goodridgebacked T90 didn’t skip a beat all day and any rain that could have taken away the mid-engined car’s advantage stayed away.
I didn’t particularly enjoy the day: the pressure to make sure the car was where it was supposed to be was crippling.
But the feeling as the results went final and Irish rally legend Dessie Mccartney applauded us receiving trophies, that’s the moment that makes it all worthwhile.
Co-drivers, I salute you for your tough job. I can only imagine that the stakes and ability needed is multiplied for stage rallies and that’s a job I won’t be accepting anytime soon. ■