Pace Notes:

All you X-Box or Playstation players who’ve tried a rally game know something that a lot of North American rallyists don’t – and no, it’s not how to properly execute a pendulum turn. You’ve heard the sound of a co-driver calling out “pace notes.” Don’t know what that electronic voice saying “three left tightens over crest slippy maybe into four right don’t cut opens” means?  I thought I’d take a moment to demystify these to the typical North American competitor, if not to the gaming enthusiast.

One of the main challenges in rallying in comparison to track racing is that you don’t know which way the road is going beyond what you can see. Pace notes are simply verbal descriptions of what the road ahead is like, which allow you to “see” beyond your eyes and drive with greater confidence through blind sight lines. The increase in speed and confidence is considerable.

The first use of pace notes is credited to Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson on the 1955 Milla Miglia, driving the mighty Mercedes 300SLR to victory over a thousand miles on public roads at an average of almost 100mph. “Jenks” was an auto journalist that Moss chose as a co-driver for his small size and light weight (most drivers did not carry co-drivers at all) and they drove the route some days ahead of time and marked several types of corners including – I’m not kidding here – “very dangerous ones,” “saucy ones,” and “dodgy ones.” Jenks made a device with two toilet-paper rollers, and the notes were made on an 18-foot long roll of paper which was scrolled upwards with a little handle. The noise of the car meant that they often had to rely on hand signals that they had developed. The technique worked almost flawlessly and the record book tells the story.

Of course the Mille was a road race. Rallying did not really develop into the flat-out race that we know until the late 1960s, but even then the value of reconnaissance and notes was understood. Ford, Castrol, and British Leyland sent teams out months ahead of time to do “recce” on the routes of the 1968 London-Sydney and the 1970 London-Mexico rallies, and no team without these notes had a competitive result. Although the Rally Great Britain maintained a ban on pace notes until 1990, all major European and world-level events have now allowed them for years. In the 1970s certain North American events did allow notes, but until 2000 essentially all North American rallies were “blind” – without notes. In 2000, the Rallye Charlevoix started allowing notes, and flew a professional note writer – someone who makes them for British events – over to prepare a set that everyone could use, then also allowed two passes over the entire route to make your own notes or tune the ones provided.

In 2002, the Rallye de Quebec started allowing pace notes, but did not provide any. This required competitors to show up a couple of days before to do the reconnaissance. Making notes is a very challenging thing to do well – you have to drive over a course at 30-50kmh and imagine what it will be like at 50-180kmh. Little bumps become jumps, crests become launching pads, and little wiggles in the road can become serious hazards.

When making notes, on the first pass through the driver will dictate to the codriver how he wants the road described. On the second pass they will go a little faster and the codriver will read the notes back and they will make corrections in the details. Before the actual event, a good codriver will go through all the notes and fiddle with them so that the line breaks and page breaks come at natural places – usually on a straightaway. He’ll also get his fingers dirty and mess up all the pages of the book a little so that they’re easier to turn – in 1990 Luis Moya turned two pages of notes at once in Argentina and he and Carlos Sainz had an enormous roll, putting them out of the rally.

Proper note reading requires a very skilled codriver who can judge the speed of delivery required based on how far ahead his driver likes to be (1 to 3 corners, usually) and how fast the instructions will flow. It makes the codriver a more essential member of the team, and it requires that the two people in the car communicate and understand each other very well.

There are many different systems to describe corners: the “descriptive” system (slow, tight, medium, fast, very fast), the “British Club” ascending numeric (1-5 with increasing severity), and the “McRae in gear” descending numeric (6-1 with increasing severity, roughly describing which gear you’ll be in) are just a few. The decision is very personal, but I like the British Club system, as it describes how much I’m going to have to throw the car around for the next corner.

But now I’ll reveal a little secret: the most important instructions are the high-speed ones, especially where you can’t see. I spend a lot of time thinking about and describing crests in the road, including which way I want us to fly off them at speed. You can sometimes jump over a whole corner if you go over a “big absolute crest left to right” which for me means foot on the floor and the landing is a little to the right. You save a huge amount of time at 180kmh by being on the side of the road you want to be on to straighten the next curve. And you can spend more time at 180kmh instead of backing off to 160kmh, which has a huge effect. If you get it right, it’s safer too, of course.

By contrast, once you are slowing down enough for, say, a 90 degree corner, it doesn’t matter so much if that corner is 120 degrees or even a hairpin – you’re going slow enough that you can make big adjustments while you’re in the corner. So my “1-5” range is roughly 10 degrees, 15, 30, 45, 60 and then I use “square” for 90 degree and “acute” and “hairpin” after that. It’s important to have a finer range on the faster corners.

Other very important things are whether a corner tightens or opens around a blind apex. If I hear “three left opens” I will punch the throttle before the apex and start sliding wider as we go past the blind spot. If all goes well we will save a little time; if the co-driver has made a reading error or I’ve made a description error we will certainly go off the road. If instead I hear “three left tightens” I’ll start the corner wider and plan to late-apex around the blind spot, rotating around the nose as we apex.

Of course you can (and we do) describe camber changes, surface changes (including the famous “slippy maybe” especially under tree cover or on the dark side of a hill), and – one of my favourites – “exposure” which means there’s a cliff or something and if you go off your clothes will be out of fashion before you get to the bottom.

It is important to use the right “connectors” between corners to keep pacing too – long straights are usually described in meters (3L 100 4R), corners closer than 40m described with “and” (3L + 4R), corners very close together with “into” (3L -> 4R), and immediate corners with nothing at all (3L 4R). Each will require a slightly different approach to weight transfer of the vehicle, which is everything in rally. With “and” you’ll rest the car on all four wheels evenly for a moment. With “into” you’ll use the suspension compression from one turn to transition the car into the next turn (skiers will know this feeling), and with no instruction you’ll be looking to snap the car from one side to the other with a major weight transfer or you might in fact start the next corner well before the first one is finished.

Novices should note an occasional landmark or odometer distance in their pacenotes as it is very easy to get “off book” (“was that the 2 left back there? Is this the yump?) which can be fatal. Codrivers should just tell the driver they’re off and go ahead to the next big instruction (eg. sharp corner or big jump) and warn that it’s coming and get back on book when they get to it. Also novices should not try to describe every corner or texture to the road – start with the big ones and get better at it.

This year, the one of the Alberta rallies (Rocky Mountain in Calgary May 23-25) will be supplying “Jemba” notes made by an automated accelerometer and a technician from Sweden. We will not be able to go over the course with these first, though, so we have to put a lot of faith in the maker of the notes. The American rallies have been using this for a year with good success. They can’t be as detailed or refined as real pace notes with reconnaissance, but they can help us stay on the road and go a little faster if we’re listening to our co-drivers, which is sort of the point in the first place.

Keep in mind that any rally that doesn’t have pace notes relies on a “route book” to describe the major hazards and corners. The problem is that the route book is made by the organizer of each event and is subjective – each organizer has a different opinion of what a difficult corner or crest looks like. Add to this the problem that there are only a handful of people in the country that know the speed of a truly modern rally car – turbo, all-wheel-drive, engine anti-lag etc. – and you can see that the route book prepared by an organizer may not clearly describe some major hazards. On an event earlier this year, there was a note for a “bump” which, at speed, was actually a huge jump with a downhill landing in a dip. We flew very high and on the landing broke our rear suspension and were out of the rally. Six other crews that I know either damaged their car or strained their necks on the landing. Obviously this should have been described as a major hazard, but at 30km/h in a street car when the author of the route book was driving, maybe it didn’t seem to. The use of pace notes puts the responsibility on the driver and co-driver to describe the route, and I like that.

Every year in Canada we debate whether the extra expense and time that competitors have to take for pace noting events is worth it. We still only have two events with real pace notes. But I expect that to change as rallying becomes more competitive, and as we have more competitors (like me!) that want to get ready to compete on an international level. I love pace notes, especially the ones we make ourselves with reconnaissance. It means extra time and money to go to a race during the week before the event, but the result is a whole different type of driving where the driver is able to visualize the near future and how he wants to slide through it – a way of flirting with the laws of physics but having some sense of how she’s going to react to your advances.

And for one event I’d like to be in a Mercedes SLR and have an English accent yell out “dodgy left into very saucy right!”