Secrets of a Rally Navigator

Secrets of a Rally Navigator

How much can a co-driver affect the final time during a rally? How exactly is an itinerary created, and what does the co-driver have to know?

28. 9. 2018 Lifestyle Motorsport

A good co-driver’s job involves much more than just reading while the car is in motion and not getting travel sick in the process. He has to have a great sense of rhythm, be in perfect shape, know how to drive and understand the technology under the bonnet. And, when it boils down to it, he’s a writer, too.

The rally season has 13 races – each event covers about 350 challenging kilometres, with each kilometre typically taking up one page of the pacenotes. Depending on their own personal style, how big their writing is, and how many rallies they have under their belt, navigators can write up to 4,500 pages in a single year!

Pavel Dresler
Navigator of factory team ŠKODA Motorsport

Secrets of a rally navigator

And it’s definitely not true that the co-driver plays second fiddle. “I first tried my hand at navigating in 2005 and I enjoyed it from the off. It’s an adrenaline rush, even though you’re not driving the car – you’re the driver’s second pair of eyes, and he has to trust you completely. Simply put, the driver has to drive exactly as I tell him. And the co-driver can always tell if the driver is really driving according to what’s being read. When it works, it’s a great feeling of teamwork, and that’s what I enjoy the most,” says Pavel Dresler, Jan Kopecký’s right-hand man.

How to write a race

What goes into the pacenotes that the co-driver reads to the driver? The most essential information for the driver is the sharpness of each turn, and whether the turn becomes more acute or gentler. Then there is the distance between each turn and the ideal positioning on the road, meaning whether it’s worth cutting the turn tight or sticking more to the outer edge because of a hazard on the inside, such as a stone. In poor visibility, information about signposts or trees can make orientation easier. “The order that I read in is also important because there is a difference between saying gravel-long-long or long-long-gravel. In the first case, the gravel is at the beginning of the turn, in the second it’s at the end,” explains Dresler.


To create a complete set of pacenotes, each crew is allowed only two run-throughs of the route ahead of the rally. On the first run, the driver dictates notes to the co-driver, who writes them down. During the second pass, the co-driver reads them out loud and the driver corrects and fine-tunes them. The car has an onboard camera, so they can both go through the practice runs several times to learn the route profile, perhaps overnight at the hotel. Each crew has its own system for pacenotes, but some elements are shared by all. Some teams use a numerical system to describe curves, so a sharp left turn would be described as a “left two”, while others prefer a descriptive system (“sharp left”).


More than just colleagues

As a rule, all drivers select their co-driver themselves. They need to understand each other perfectly. The right “chemistry” is important because, during a championship, they spend more time with each other than with their spouse or partner. “There are crews that are purely professional and go their separate ways when the day’s work is done. Jan, however, is the type of person who couldn’t have someone next to him who he simply does the rallying with. We’re friends, we hang around with the same people, we like to sit down together after the rally, and our families know each other. We’re actually like one big gang, and that’s just fine. 

The important thing is that we trust each other, so if anything does crop up, we settle it right there in the car, and we don’t keep bringing it up later,” says Dresler.

The driver and co-driver go through the same training; they have the same rally licence, and the co-driver is able to drive the rally car if need be. It is important for a navigator to be experienced, precise and a good organiser. After all, in some respects he’s a clerk – he has to deal with all the organisational requirements for the crew so that the driver can concentrate solely on the driving.


Navigating blind? Literally true.

Even though the drivers know most of the routes well, you can’t achieve a really good time without the help of a quality navigator. The right timing is essential when reading the itinerary. If the co-driver reads too slowly, the driver gets the information too late and the car could career off the track. If he reads too quickly, the driver is overloaded with information and could, again, end up in a ditch. Especially in fast sections, the navigator has no time to look ahead, so he simply needs to feel the track beneath him.

Secrets of a rally navigator

If the co-driver gets lost when reading the pacenotes, either because of a mistake in the notes or due to a lapse in concentration, the most important thing is to inform the driver immediately. It happens sometimes – the navigator is only human, he’s not a robot. And did you ever wonder what happens when the crew’s intercom stops working during the race? Shouting at that moment is pointless. There’s no way you’ll be heard through a helmet and over the noise of the gearbox, the engine, and the chassis. The only remaining option for the co-driver is to use his hands and finger gestures to at least show the direction and sharpness of the turn.


A tough job, not for just anyone

Just like the drivers, co-drivers have their more and less favourite rallies. And it’s not just about how much the track throws them around. Paradoxically, a fast race on asphalt can be more demanding than a broken gravel track because the crew is much more weighed down and the acceleration and braking is more brutal. “I personally like Corsica, which is very challenging for navigators. On the other hand, I really don’t like the Welsh rally. It’s the end of the season, fatigue is creeping in, and there are extremely long liaisons between the stages,” says Dresler.


A lot of the skills needed for a navigator’s career can be learned. Still, if you’re not born with a certain predisposition, it won’t work. If you can’t read a book in your car without getting sick, co-driver racing isn’t for you.

Jan Kopecký: I’m afraid in the passenger seat

Jan Kopecký
Pilot of factory team ŠKODA Motorsport

How does rally driver Jan Kopecký view the work of a navigator, how did he choose his own navigator, and why would he never ride in the passenger seat himself?

Why did you choose Pavel Dresler as your navigator?
I used to drive with Petr Starý, but the factory team needed a full-time professional in the co-driver’s seat. Petr didn’t want to do it, so I had to start looking for someone new. I tested several candidates, and Pavel was the best, hands down. That’s why I decided to offer him a long-term partnership.

Secrets of a rally navigator

What exactly was he the best in? Preparing the pacenotes?
That wasn’t the most important criterion for me. What was important was how he read the notes in the car. With several European rallies ahead of us, this is a crucial area. In the Czech Republic, you remember the track quite quickly, but out there it’s different. Correct reading and proper timing are essential in world and European races. Not all co-drivers are able to pull this off on a new track.


Do you think that you could handle the navigator’s work yourself? Have you ever tried it?
I’m pretty sure that I know what Pavel’s work involves. But I couldn’t do it. I could probably manage the preparation, but sitting in the passenger seat really unnerves me. Besides, I’d be throwing up by the fifteenth turn in the prep run, for sure. If I’m not the one driving, I have to look out the window at least, otherwise I feel sick, and there’s no telling what state the pacenotes would end up in.

Can you say how much slower you’d be without a navigator?
It depends – it’s different for the rallies we know and for the ones we’re riding the first time. On a familiar track, the pacenotes are mostly used for covering the current conditions. We jot them down during the recce, and even if we know the route of the stages by heart, this might give us a few extra seconds. For races that we don’t know, though, this difference is a lot bigger. With an unfamiliar 20-kilometre stage, you’re talking about a difference in minutes.

How important is the personal relationship between the pilot and the navigator?
It’s different for each crew. But if my co-driver weren’t my good friend, I wouldn’t keep him in my car. I’m an Aquarius, which means that I can get certain things out of my head pretty quickly; but I spend a lot of time with my co-driver. If we had nothing to talk about, or if we didn’t have a laugh together, it wouldn’t work. It simply couldn’t work.

What rally moments have you and Pavel enjoyed the most?
Most of all, I remember when we drive to the absolute limit – the 2013 Jänner Rally, or this year’s rally in Germany. There was a lot of emotion, and that’s something you remember. We also look forward to Corsica every year, which I think is the best asphalt race in the world. There, if you’re able to do the stage at top speed from start to finish, it sends shivers down your spine. At home in the Czech Republic, our favourite is, of course, the Barum Rally. I like the tough competition there, and I love the audience. We can see from day one how everyone gets psyched up about the rallying.