If you want to understand the essence of rally driving, it’s this: Real roads, real cars, really fast.
But if that isn’t a full enough explanation, let’s break it down a bit. Rally racing is against the clock. Teams compete to complete a section in the best time. Driving is done in a car which is souped up but essentially street legal. Why? Because although the race routes are sometimes off-road places and take place on closed sections of rural roads, some parts of the track are on public roads and so, unlike finely tuned formula cars, rally vehicles basically have to conform with the law. That means familiar family cars can – depending on where the race takes place – career along at incredible speeds through forests or deserts, over ice and snow or in incredible heat, to complete a run in the fastest time possible.
So how does it work? Rally teams are given a “route book”, which includes details of turns, water crossings, uneven ground, where spectators will be and so on. The navigator, or co-driver, goes over this book alongside his maps and then researches the route in what is called a “recce”. He does all this so that he can help the driver to keep on course and on time.
After the recce, the co-driver creates his own interpretation of the route book: the “pace notes”. The pace notes are like a code. The co-driver recites them as the driver put his pedal to the metal and they help him, for example, take a tight corner at speed by describing the corner as a radius or highlighting the landscape on the turn. Here’s an example: “Right 5 tightens over crest”. This means a relatively fast right turn that decreases in radius as it goes over a hill. The pace notes try to remove the unpredictable, but you can’t predict the weather, wayward animals or other hazards such as fallen boulders that all become part of the rally experience.
The race itself consists of a number of sections – either “transit” or “special” sections. Transit sections are the parts of the rally that take place on open roads and include time for servicing the car. Special, or competitive, stages take place on areas that are closed to other traffic. The car is tuned to be able to take on the challenges of the track. And the track can throw all sorts of things at the drivers.
You will be safely behind the crash barriers, though, so at no personal risk. But watching drivers push cars to their absolute limit is a thrilling pastime that attracts huge numbers of enthusiasts. Get to grips with the rules and follow the races, and before too long you’re sure to be hooked. Happy rallying!