Inside Revolution: Plight of the Navigator

Monday 22 April 2024

“Go. 50. Very long k right, tightens to crest. 120. Caution, small crest, 40. Very long bad left,” said co-driver Nicky Grist at the start of Special Stage 22 on the 1993 Network Q RAC Rally. “50. Crest 100. Crest 50, fast right, tightens, and very long fast left, opens and tightens, and long fast right. Keep left over 50 to turn hairpin right. Tight. 150. Long k right.”

It may read like gobbledygook, but those words were Grist’s precise pace notes for the first minute of a frenetic drive on the icy gravel roads of the Kershope stage in Kielder Forest.

They, and the other hundreds of minutes he read, helped guide him and his driver, Juha Kankkunen, to victory, just as similar words guide drivers on Rally stages to this day.

The co-driver can often be the difference between success and failure on a Stage Rally, and Grist is one of the legends, having won rallies and titles with superstar drivers including
Kankkunen and Colin McRae. Asked to explain its importance, he quips: “It is far more complex than just somebody sitting there as ballast in a Rally car!”

Expanding on his tongue-in-cheek comment, he adds: “The driver presses the pedals and turns the steering wheel, but the co-driver reading the detailed pace notes actually controls the speed and is also there to follow the time schedule correctly and avoid any penalties. The co-driver has a huge input in the overall result.”

Just watching the onboard footage of that dramatic snowcovered stage on YouTube shows precisely how intense the co-driver’s job is. Kankkunen is sawing at the wheel as the car dances down the road, clattering over bumps and slithering sideways around corners while, all the time, Grist calmly reads out the notes as if it was a bedtime story to a child – almost oblivious to the rapid progress being made through unforgiving scenery.

Fast-forward 30 years and that juxtaposition of high adrenaline and intense focus is exactly what keeps Cameron Fair, a Team UK co-driver from Scotland, coming back for more. “Going through a forest and hearing the stones hitting underneath the car,” he says. “That noise, teamed with the smell of oil and brakes and fuel, and the speed, it gets me
every time.”

A multi-faceted role

Sometimes co-drivers are viewed as just hired hands – called in to do a job when required and simply reading the directions from a notebook. At Club level, some elements of that may be true, as most Clubman events involve prewritten route notes and co-drivers are often in short supply.

In reality, the co-driver job is an extremely specialist one and as the stakes get higher, the demands get greater. Dr Brian Cameron, an expert in motorsport training with a PhD in Talent Development and Elite Performance in Motorsport, has helped more than a dozen World Championship winning drivers, codrivers and teams. As co-founder of Elite Sports Performance, he works alongside former World Champion co-driver Robert Reid and says key to the role is working as a team.

“There are a huge range of psychological challenges involved,” he explains. “The way drivers and co-drivers practice, the way they talk about stages, the way they visualise them and the way they prepare for them, you need a strong relationship for that amount of intensity of working time together. It is all about doing things with a real purpose and you cannot look at the stage times until you have the processes right.”

The core to it all is reading the pace notes. Unlike basic route notes, which provide a simple description of the road as it presents itself, pace notes not only provide a corner by-corner description of the route but also include dynamic details that help guide the driver at the pace they believe they can drive the route.

These notes, for those who are not familiar with them, consist of reams of pages that look a bit like hieroglyphics. Each note combines a mix of symbols, squiggles and code
that must be read out by the co-driver in time, all while the car in which they are sitting is flying along some unfathomable stretches of road at incredible speed!

This, of course, is second nature to those who are good at it, and Grist explains: “The road ahead, the severity of the corner, the direction, the length, the braking points, what’s over the crest – you have to read all that out in a cool, calm manner and deliver it to the driver at the right time to enable him to adjust his speed and line accordingly. It is a real skill.”

The driver, meanwhile, is somehow able to tune into this reel of information, process it at speed and turn it into action. If the information arrives too early, the driver may fail to
visualise what is coming correctly, misjudge their speed and potentially slow them down; too late, and the driver has no time to correctly judge their speed and line and may crash.
Ultimately, it is these pace notes, their delivery and the driver’s interpretation and judgement of them that creates the end result: pace and performance.

“If you didn’t have pace notes, you would be so slow,” says Fair. “If a driver gets a slow time in the WRC, the most common thing they say is that the notes were not right. For example, that could be they were read too cautiously or it could be one corner was far too fast and that spooked them for the rest of the stage. That is just the way it goes.”

Any ‘normal’ person might find this overwhelming, but no Rally driver could do without it. Grists’ memories of his late team-mate McRae attest to this and he adds: “When Colin
did an ASCAR race once, with a spotter telling him where the other cars were, he told the guy ‘listen, I want you to talk to me more’ because he was just not used to the silence!”

Life inside the cockpit of a Rally car is also a test of endurance. Even a single day Clubman event on bumpy gravel stages can take it out of your body, so another part of the co-driver challenge is ensuring you can keep a cool head and cope with all the physical stresses involved.

“As soon as your body starts getting tired, your mind gets tired,” explains Fair. “You need to be fit and strong and ready to take impacts and you also need good nutrition. I live on
the Isle of Mull and we do not actually have a gym, so I train in the garage doing flexibility exercises and back and core work and I just keep fit by running and cycling.”

Then there is the organisational side of the co-driver role, which is another area that is often misunderstood. “It is like being an office manager,” explains Grist. “Rallies follow a
very strict timetable and check-in is vital because you can be penalised if you do not time it right. One mistake there from the co-driver could lose a Rally very easily.”

Emily Easton-Page, a 23-year-old co-driver who, like Fair, is part of the Motorsport UK Academy, explains: “Drivers drive the car, but a co-driver is a constant clock throughout the whole Rally. You have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge about the event. Any question that starts with ‘what time…’ or ‘where is…’ will come to you.”

Dr Cameron says that fundamentally, it is about getting all these processes right and he concludes: “Your performance is not always about measuring your stage times against others. That is often not a reliable indicator of how well you have done because other people might be having a great day or a bad day, and you do not know that, so you have to focus on doing your own processes as well as you can.”

Building a partnership

The combination of a fast and committed driver with a focused and organised co-driver is what creates a winning team. The best pairings are often ones with personalities that are like chalk and cheese – such is the nature of the two very different jobs – but at the relationship’s core is a deep understanding of how, when and where each performs best.

“All the different inputs involved to make the team successful – such as discussions with the team managers, talking with the engineers, dealing with things that happen during a recce – are all situations in which individuals will behave differently,” explains Dr Cameron. “Understanding how you and your driver will behave in different situations and adapting your own behaviours accordingly is what makes an effective team.

“When we work with a driver and co-driver team, we look at the different behavioural preferences and see how they relate to the different motorsport processes. Deciding who does what is not just about who has the skill and should do the role, but who has the preference of doing it, as that person will usually do a better job. That can really help a team gel.”

That level of connection, says Grist, is “worth a lot” when working as a team as it helps a good co-driver know “when to boost a driver when they are down or calm them when
they are overexcited.” It is something that Max Smart – an FIA Rally Stars winner and one of two drivers competing with Fair this season – knows very well.

“I actually come from a motocross background, where you are the only one on the machine,” he explains. “Rallying has so much more of a team element, and it really is the best
feeling when you and your co-driver are on a stage, you are flying, doing a really good time, and you both want to do well as much as each other.

“We are very different characters, Cam [Fair] and I, and I think that is good. Cam is so focused and precise but I can hear the passion in his voice when he says the notes. He is putting as much as he can into it and I am putting as much as I can into it, both for one goal. And there is no other feeling in the world like that.”

For a co-driver, sitting alongside a different driver can have a huge effect. That is what Fair will have to do this season, reading the notes for Smart in WRC3 while also sitting alongside Max McRae, the son of former WRC driver Alister and nephew of 1995 champion Colin, as the third-generation Scot challenges for the European Junior Championship.

“It is Max Attack this year, and I am loving the preparation,” smiles Fair. “It will be interesting, because having a different driver does create quite a big effect on the way you co-drive. I sat with John Armstrong last year and he had all his distances, like ‘long’ and ‘short’ before the corner, but then I jumped in with Max McRae and he has all his distances
after the corner.

“It is the co-driver who has to adjust and until you get really into it, your brain is thinking one thing and you have to read another. I also sat with (former Scottish Champion) Jock
Armstrong, and if you said ‘do not cut’ to him, it just meant ‘not as much as normal’ so we would have a few ambitious lines! Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but that is
just the way he was!”

Easton-Page, who this year will be supported by the 2300 Club after winning their John Easson Award, is now competing in the BTRDA Gold Star Rally 2 alongside 23-year old rookie driver Liam Clark. This is the first time she will be the senior partner in the car, and she adds: “It is something I have not done before, so it will be a new challenge.

“I am now the team manager in the car, so I have to keep an eye on pace and it can be quite difficult knowing when to rein your driver back and when to push them on. It is a fine
line, and it is a question of how much is too much? You have to find the right balance between pace and consistency and that develops over time.”

The art of the pace note

The art of reading pace notes is nothing when compared to the challenge of writing them, and once a co-driver has risen beyond Club level events that is another demanding element added into the mix. It requires a fast mind and a fast hand, as well as some amazingly complex code to get the job done.

“Pace notes are pretty much indecipherable from co-driver to co-driver,” explains Fair. “When I started to write my own notes, I spoke to a lot of people and asked them to send me their pace note glossary for what symbols they use then I scanned through them and highlighted the ones I liked and put my own system together.

“I mainly use symbols so, for example, I use a little up arrow without a line for ‘sharp’; for late, I use a Z; for a specific line through a corner, I use something that looks like the cancer support symbol; cautions are an exclamation mark; and if I don’t have a symbol for it, I just take the vowels out of the word, so slow, is SLW.

“I also underline specific notes to prompt me, with one line if it needs to come out all at the same time and two if it needs to come out early because it is maybe a very fast into
a slow corner. In the left-hand column, I grade the speed in lines and I put notes in such as ‘very busy now’ or ‘technical section’ or ‘rough now’ to give extra detail.”

Over the years, Fair has become a master. Like most of fellow co-drivers, he has devised his own set of scrawls and symbols and his own style of document that means something to him but would appear pretty baffling to anyone else. There is no ‘standard’ format for a set of pace notes, but there is a relatively standard way of putting them together.

“Each page normally covers 800m to 1.1km of the stage, so 14 pages or so for a 10km stage is quite normal,” explains Fair. “We have two recces and I write the notes on the first
pass. Most of the time we are speed-limited to 60-80kmph, and I just have to write really quickly, but clearly enough to be able to read it through on the second pass.

“We don’t really have time to rewrite the notes before the Rally, so I have to make them as neat as I can. To do that, I have a foam board on my knees, which takes a bit of the
vibration out, and I use a big 2mm pencil and a foam grip so nothing slips. They are never perfect, and there are some bits I have to rewrite where it was bumpy, but you just do what you can.”

The notes are so precious that Fair will even scan every page he has written and save them in his Google drive, so that if the worst case occurs and they are damaged or lost, he can read them off his iPad. But it is not just about what is in each page, it is also about how they are read – and for that, practice makes perfect.

Once the recces are complete, Easton-Page, like many co-drivers, will watch back onboard videos of them, run at 1.5x or 2x speed, and read the notes aloud to make sure they scan. Easton-Page adds: “I read as if I am on the stage, with the emphasis and the tone and I speed it up to try to simulate how fast we will be going. I can then see where the quick bits are underline bits that come up quickly and bits where I have a second or two to breathe.

“The style of notes will be different, depending on the driver. Some drivers might be more aggressive, and you have to work in reigning them back, so you might include a ‘slow’ or a ‘stop’ or a ‘watch’ comment if something is really nasty… and the words that I write prompt the tone that I use.

“My tone, and the emphasis I put on things, can actually change quite a lot. I sometimes triple underline a symbol – so I know I need to put emphasis on it, but a lot of it is impromptu, reading your driver, knowing how they are doing, how you are doing as a team, how the car is handling, whether they are pushing a bit much, or whether they need
to put their foot down.

“It is very much about adapting and giving encouragement, that is the main thing. Usually, if something does not quite go to plan, we get away with things, so then I will throw out a ‘well held’ or a ‘keep going’ or a ‘keep it tidy.” You just manage to get it out in between notes, it is very natural, quick fire, quite responsive.”

This year, having total understanding of the pace notes has never been more important for Easton-Page – because in the Rally 2 car, she cannot even see the road ahead. “The way the car handles, it is best for the co-driver to be as low down in the car as possible, so they stopped making the brackets high enough for the seat and you are forced to sit on the floor.

“I just have to get on with it. I have to learn how the car feels and how it handles around the corners to know where I am in the notes. It is called ‘co-driving by your bum’ and it is all about the feel you have in your backside! The only time I can see is when we are severely heavily breaking for a corner and by that point if I have not called the notes, it is too late!”

Preparing to succeed

The whole Rally process requires an extremely high level of dedication to preparation and, ultimately, a good co-driver must be very well organised. Paying attention to every little detail is the number one rule that Grist imparts when educating the young Academy co-drivers, and that means a huge amount of thought processing is required.

“A good co-driver needs to do the very best job for the driver, and for the team, and that involves looking at the route and the stages and pre-empting things – for example, knowing a particular stage has been historically tough on tyres so there is a higher likelihood of a tyre change – and feeding all that information to the driver and the team.

“That often requires a lot of research, but the sport has evolved a fair bit, and co-drivers can now dig out previous onboard footage and compare their notes against other drivers, to see how quickly they have taken a corner, what line they took. It is about going into those finer details because a few seconds here and there will get that victory.”

For Easton-Page, a key part of preparation is creating schedules. “I always produce one for the team and for myself,” she says. “A lot of drivers do not necessarily read the schedule, so to make sure they do I usually put a little test in there – so I will deliberately miss something out or change something to see if they notice!”

Fair turns to Google again for his pre-event preparations, using the Maps App to plot and save every road section route so he can simply select it and get the driver to follow it while he works on his pace notes for the stage ahead. He also syncs the timetable and event plan to his calendar, so he has everything to hand.

“You have to make sure you have all the boxes ticked before you even get to the event,” he says. “Once you get to the event, there is no relax time. As soon as we finish one stage,
I hand the time card in and straight away we are flying off to the next stage. While I am trying to take my helmet off, my driver is already asking me where to go!

“I used to be very nervous about the road sections – if you get lost in the road section, you are at fault straight away; you are tight for time; and you need to quickly figure out where to go. In the Academy, we worked on roadbooks and that sorted me out, as with preparation you know how long the section should take and how much time you have spare.

“Once we finish the day, I usually get 10-15 minutes for a shower and watch some rubbish on Instagram for ten minutes, just to decompress. After that, I do more video work for the next day. I always want to be productive in dead time, so if we have some time before a team dinner, for example, I pack my bags for the morning or look at onboards.”

Sometimes, things do not always go to plan, and in 2018, Fair misread a change in timings that ultimately cost his team a podium. He remembers that to this day and he adds: “Every document, every regulation, is double checked, weeks out from the rally. Anything I am not sure on, I ask. I have a lot of experienced friends, so I always ask questions.”

Getting started

There are several different routes into co-driving, but one of the most popular – and most cost-effective – is through competing in Club level road Rallying. These 30mph-limited
navigational challenges require meticulous planning and precise map reading, making them the perfect preparation for life in the co-driver seat.

This is exactly how Grist started his career and he explains: “It really helped me prepare for co-driving because it is much easier to read pace notes you have written down and
checked than to have to look at a map, decipher what it is there and then, read it at the right time and then move on to the next bit.

Having been invited to watch a Rally by a friend, he became hooked and joined a local motor Club. He did a few club stage Rallies and eventually got picked up by GM Dealer Sport, joined Dave Metcalfe in the British Rally Championship, went on to partner Malcolm Wilson and it kept on building from there.

“There is no better way to get involved than joining a local motor Club and talking to like-minded people, because then opportunities come along,” he recalls. “Motorsport UK offers a great range of licenses to allow you to compete at a costeffective level and before you know it, you could be doing Stage Rallies and eventually flying all over the world doing it, like I did!”

As a new co-driver it is mostly a case of grabbing the oneoff openings when you can. However, as you progress up the ladder, finding the right person to sit alongside becomes
increasingly important.

“At an early level, you are just reading literally what is in front of you,” Fair explains. “That is actually a great way to learn because you go from driver to driver with different techniques. Different people like different things and I document all of that, so I have an Excel document of the 130-or-so Rallies I have done, with different points that are
worth remembering.”

Progress up the ladder is something that does not just come to those who wait, but, Grist says, a co-driver that is well prepared and gets the basics right will always rise to the top and then the opportunities will come. “Once you get to a certain level, the phone will always ring,” he says. “But to get to that level, you have to work at it.

“You have to make yourself available to do the Rallies that somebody of a higher echelon would not do, just to gain the experience, and you have to make sure people know. It is all
about experience, especially at the sharp end of the sport, but you have to make your own opportunities and that is about doing things differently and better than the next person.”

“Every step I took through my career was with a better driver, and a better driver is a faster driver. It just became a gradual step and although the speeds increased dramatically, the ability of the driver just soaked it all up so it did not seem to be any more dramatic than somebody going half the speed with half the ability!

“Equally, a driver can jump up a few levels when they have an experienced co-driver who is one step ahead of them. And if somebody just jumped into a top flight Rally car expecting to do a job with no experience, without a competent codriver they would be absolutely blown away, totally phased by it, and they probably would not be able to handle it.”

Growing a team

That is exactly what Fair has been doing over the last year with Smart, having been brought in by Elite Sports Performance because of his own experience from the Motorsport UK Academy. It has been a ‘back to basics’ for the experienced Scot, and the whole experience has helped Fair recognise just how complex the job of a co-driver can be.

“It has been very good for me because I have had to simplify everything down,” he explains. “We had to develop a new system that works for Max, so we took words and phrases
from hundreds of different co-drivers, picked things he liked and made his own language. He has been fast-tracked through the system and we are still working on it…

“Every rally we add new things and focus on different parts, increasing complexity. We are not throwing an extra three things into every corner; it is more about adding precision.
For example, you could say ‘four right tightens’ but where does it tighten? Does it tighten to a three? Does it tighten early or late? Adding just one word can make a big change.”

Keeping it simple has allowed Smart to accelerate his development. The Elite Sports Performance team created a detailed programme to build a set of processes, and Fair brought the experience of structured learning from the Academy, to help convert those processes into performance on the Rally stage.

“The process of rebuilding the pace notes is a perspective you would not consider had you not gone through a learning process yourself,” says Dr Cameron. “What these two are
doing is building their game. It shows how, if you have been part of the Motorsport UK Talent development pathways, you have learned how to learn, and this means that you can be of enormous value to a driver.

“Max is on a fast-track development programme but the skill sets for driving and car control were largely not there, so they had to be built up. With Cameron Fair as a codriver, we had someone who understood you need a deeper understanding of the skill. He is the person in the car who is reinforcing the technical learning.

“Last year we took Max from someone who was six-seconds per-Kilometre off a top WRC3 car, and by the time he got to the end of the year he was within a second-per-Kilometre.
Having continued the programme through the winter, when they went to Sweden at the start of the year, we saw stages where they were the second fastest JWRC.”

Smart had suffered from cognitive overload in the early stages of his development, so did the process help him as a driver? “Absolutely. 100 per cent. When you are new, you are thinking of so many things, if your notes are way too complicated your head can be spinning, trying to break it all down instead of actually driving and using your eyes.

“Cam has been really good in knowing I have lots to learn, being really open to give me tips and suggest for me to try this and that. After a stage, he always has something to say
like ‘we could have done a little bit more of this or that’ and the amount he brings to the table as a co-driver is more than you would ever think.”

Finding the way

In the modern world, pressures are increasing but, in many ways, opportunities are growing. Social Media casts its eye over everything we do, but it also opens routes of communication, connecting co-drivers with drivers. Likewise, with the influx of onboard recordings, the footage available on YouTube gives nowhere to hide, but also offers plenty of help.

There is even onboard footage online of Grist calling for Kankkunen as the pair headed for victory in the Network Q Rally in 1993 – worth checking out, to see a master at work.
That was Grist’s first home World Championship win, but the multiple Champion believes there are different criteria for success these days.

“Handling yourself on a social level in the correct way is now more important than ever,” he explains. “It is very easy to be caught out saying the wrong thing and end up paying the price because of it. I think that now, more than ever, to get on at the higher echelons of the sport, your face has to fit. It is not just necessarily good enough to be a good co-driver.

“You need to have a good relationship with the driver, have a level of fun and enjoyment along the way, but be extremely professional. And the detail, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best, if you do that well, you can pre-empt any mistake or issue in your pre-event preparation and have it covered.”

Co-driving, says Easton-Page, is “very much about rhythm and flow and pace” but it is also about you, your team, and all those around you. “The sportsmanship and the comradery we have in Rallying means that you make a lot of really good friends. Some of my closest mates are from Rallying, and that is a really important part of it.

“As a team, you put a lot of trust in each other. Co-drivers may not physically be controlling the car, but what we say has a direct impact on what the driver does. Liam and I have this running joke of who is the boss. He likes to think it’s him, but the other day we were in a room full of co-drivers and they all said the nav is boss! He is coming to terms with that!”

Fair almost stopped co-driving last year, when his second child was born and his Mull-based fish and chip business required more of his attention. However, a phone call just a couple of weeks after the tragic death of Craig Breen was enough to change his mind and has catapulted him from enthusiastic amateur to paid professional.

“I realised you cannot take things for granted,” he recalls. “If something is in front of you, you have to take it. So, first of all it was just one round, the Rally Canaries International
with M-Sport, so I said ‘let’s do it!’ We won that, went to Poland and won, then went to Latvia and won, and it just kept snowballing. The next Rally, in Rome, we won the Championship.”

Despite a major accident in the Czech Republic which involved “a few nights in hospital” Fair decided to continue this season with the two Max’s. “I always say as soon as I stop enjoying it, I will not do it, because for the risk you are taking and the commitment levels and the time you put into things, if you are not enjoying it, why are you there?”

When it all comes together, he says, there is nothing like it, adding: “Making pace notes, spending hours altering them to the finest detail, then calling them out at the precise time
to make sense to the driver is a real challenge and when everything clicks, it is an almost out-of-body experience.”

Grist concurs, adding: “We co-drivers are a special breed. A lot of drivers will say they could never co-drive in a Rally car. They hate not being in control, which I can understand, but the higher up the ladder you go, the better everything becomes, the more in control you are, the more in control the driver is, and it is all, just, fine, really.

“I think, like anything in life, you only get out of it what you put into it. The really good co-drivers are few and far between, they are hard to find. To be a good one, you have to immerse yourself in the sport, and if you do that, there is a good possibility that you will go on to bigger and better things.”