The Driven Life: Efficient and Effective Communication in Rally
by John Cassidy, Rally Driver and bon vivant
Edited by Adrian Segura
For the third installment of Last Ditch Racing's, "The Driven Life," I want to discuss the concepts of efficient and effective communication.
In the sport of rallying, the co-driver's job is to manage information flow to the driver. The information has to reach the driver in a timely manner(more on that later), and in a format that is easy for the driver to process and comprehend.
In the rally car, the co-driver and I don't have a discussion when we're on stage. If we're having a discussion, something is likely wrong and we're standing on the side of the road next to a broken car. ;-)
During recce (reconnaissance) of the special stages(closed roads that we race down as fast as we can), we create our own pacenotes that describe every bit of the road. This includes, "pace," modifiers that would signify when we should push or exercise caution. Examples of these notes are, "max," "flat," "cut," "don't cut," "caution," etc.
The remainder of the notes describes the direction of the road, as well as corners, crests and distance between them.
Pacenotes are a specific language that has been developed over the years to help crews increase their pace. These are written from scratch, usually over two passes of a special stage during recce. Stage notes are often supplied at events where recce is either not possible or only one pass of the stage is possible. These are detailed notes created by a sophisticated computer system installed in a car. A routebook could be considered a skeleton description of the stage, with only major turns and hazards noted. During routebook events, driver's would, "drive what you see," with the co-driver helping to spot hazards visually.
In a higher speed car, efficient AND effective communication is of the utmost importance. With little room for error at speed, a single missed/misunderstood note could lead to an, "off," or a wreck in layman's terms.
Now that we understand that efficient and effective communication is paramount in a fast and dangerous sport and in turn, requires a synergistic relationship between driver and co-driver, let's look at some examples of communication in the rally car.
As a driver, I'm responsible for dictating the notes to the co-driver during recce. That said, we sometimes have discussions about the best way to note hazards and certain stretches of the stage. There can also be disagreement about how to note a particular section.
Distances are a good example of efficiency. Depending on which country you rally in, you'll likely note distances in yards or meters. We try to be as accurate as possible with these distances, since distance is crucial in low visibility situations like fog, dust or sunlight glare. The co-driver can look at the rally computer and have a sense of how much further to the next corner, hopefully removing some of the tentativeness and allowing for later braking for the driver.
A distance of "50," versus, "seventy-five," doesn't seem like much. Fifty meters is a short distance when you're traveling at speed. Seventy-five has once more syllable than fifty. I know, you're thinking I've gone around the bend. One syllable makes a difference?! The time it takes for a co-driver to speak that extra syllable can.
Short distances under 50 meters are often changed to "and," or "into" in the pacenotes. Those short distances at speed take too much time for the co-driver to enunciate, potentially leading to a delay in the next note. "And," is reserved for two corners that are linked, but there is a perceptible distance between. "Into," corners are directly linked. Picture a left/right "S" shaped turn and you have an idea of what, "left 3 into right 3," looks like in the real world.
Rarely do I ask for a note to be repeated on stage. Asking for a note to be repeated means one of two things: either I'm overwhelmed and can't keep up with the information being presented to me or I'm not paying attention. Asking my co-driver to repeat a note increases the chance that she/he will get lost in their notes, especially in busy sections. Repeating notes to me when I don't ask for it could cause me to doubt where I am on the stage. Some drivers prefer certain notes to be repeated. If you're paying attention to your co-driver, I think it's unnecessary. We reserve repetition for double and triple caution notes.
I'll only ask for clarification or a repeat if I didn't hear the note clearly or if I've been flustered and had to focus more outside myself, like correcting the car when it's gotten out of shape or when we've had a near off. Sometimes we have to find a way to gather ourselves up again and reset the information streaming process.
Crests, or small changes in increased elevation from the surrounding plane of the road on either side of the section of road are a particular sticking point for me in the notes. There are small crests, large crests, long crests, crests that could be a, "jump maybe." Any of these crests could be, "flat" crests. This means that I'm not to lift off the accelerator.
Take all those modifiers and add a turn that either leads into the crest, leads into and goes over the crest, or begins after the crest. Perhaps there's a different direction turn on either side and you have to change direction on top of the crest.
When we ran the inaugural Targa Newfoundland, we were given a routebook that had a note that read as a, "right over crest." What existed in reality was a, "crest into a right turn." I set the car up on the right side of the crest and as we came over, the road jogged a smidge to the left, and I found both passenger tires in the gravel. This led to a spin, and I nearly put our Subaru into a cliff face. We escaped with a flat tire and made it to the end of the stage, eventually winning our class at the event.
Another incident with a crest occurred at a Canadian Rally. We were given notes that were prepared for us as recce was not an option. The specific note in question, indicated a left turn over crest. Again, it was a short right over crest into left turn. Many of us stayed to the left side of the crest (which actually was a jump for most of us). Unfortunately, there was a large rock on the left side of the road that happened to be directly in line with our left front tire when we landed. We struck the rock while airborne in third gear. All the teeth on third gear sheared off as the rock stopped the front wheel from turning while all the others tried to continue on. The carnage was measured in the tens-of-thousands of dollars for several top teams and it was a literal rally car yard sale in the landing zone after the crest. My co-driver came back to the car with a part he thought was ours, and then realized it was the wrong color!
Crests are a points of concern for me due to the potential for damage to the car and crew. Crests are also the epitome of trust between drivers and co-drivers. If it's a flat crest, I'll take it flat. If we got the note wrong or are lost in the notes, well, you can guess the outcome (rally car yard sale).
So we use the shortest words possible; we avoid words that could be misunderstood. Using, "right," or "correct," as an affirmative answer is inefficient. "Yes," is one syllable and gets it done. "Right," happens to be a direction, so it's potentially dangerous!
While the need for efficient communication at speed is perhaps obvious, the effective component can be a bit more subtle to grasp. In order for the communication in the rally car to be effective, it has to be timely and it has to come from a trusted source.
Trust is usually total and implicit between drivers and co-drivers. But what if the co-driver is having a bad day? What if they're lost in the notes. Turned two pages? Once, "back on the notes," it may take the co-driver a few corners to feel confident they truly are back on. The driver might hold the pace back a bit until he/she is sure that the co-driver is back on.
When in doubt, slow down.
What about timing? Critical information doesn't work well for a driver if it's too late or too early. If the information is too late, then I'm driving what I see and have to slow down. When this happens, I'll indicate to the co-driver they're behind in the notes by either saying, "done it," or "in it." This allows them to increase the pace of note delivery. Co-driving is extremely challenging because the notes are often two corners ahead. While this might be ideal for me, when the co-driver looks out the window, what they see may not be the note they just called. It might not be visible yet.
If the information is too early, there's a good chance it'll slip out of my mental buffer before I can utilize it. Three corners early is my maximum retention, but I prefer two. That being said, if there's a one kilometer straight, I don't want to hear about the two corners at the end of it until we're almost there.
My rally instructor, Champion Tim O'Neil, once told me, "If you're not listening to your co-driver, you better figure out why and fix it!"
Have you ever had someone tell you a rambling story that didn't come to a conclusion, or punch line? Does that frustrate you? If so, you might make a good rally driver or co-driver.
Communication efficiency is important when interacting with the service crew as well. A twenty-minute service is not a long time. More often that not, the car goes up, wheels come off and all major fasteners are checked for tightness. Fluids are checked and topped off and windscreen/lights are cleaned. That's in addition to any damage that might need attention.
A rally weekend is experienced by the second. Schedules, stage results, scheduled time in to timing controls and service. It is mentally and physically taxing and we make every effort to maximize communication efficiency and effective so that we can go faster. Trust is implicit between myself and my co-driver.
There is a running joke during the rally weekend that I have to do everything I'm told once the rally starts. As a bit of a control freak, that's often more than a bit difficult, but we have fun with it and in order to go faster, I have to trust my co-driver and team and give the control to them so that I can focus on my job as the driver.
Thanks to all the co-drivers who have buckled in with me over the years to share the ride!
Stay tuned for more installments of, "The Driven Life!" We'll cover topics like nutrition, fitness, mental pacing, car preparation and other topics. Please feel free to leave comments about topics you'd like to see covered and we'll see what we can do!
Cheers! John Cassidy, aka JOMO