Nuances of Rallying: From a Co-Driver

Rallying is a sport unlike any other. Standing in a forest at a high-speed sweep, watching as the mean rally machine seemingly dances into the corner with thick dust trails in tow then rocket out of the corner to leave the spectators revelling in the echo of the screaming exhaust note, is but only ten seconds of the full story that is rallying.

Spectators experience only a sliver of the action, no matter the brilliant viewing spot they enjoy. Even walking through the Service Park, the area demarcated for all teams to repair (and in some cases rebuild) their rally cars by a team of mechanics and engineers, in what can only be described by the simple phrase “organised chaos” does not offer a full insight into essence of rallying. Only two people in each rally car know and understand that: driver and co-driver.

Rally drivers are a different breed of sportspeople. Harnessing a powerful rally car, controlling a car that teeters on the limits of traction on a surface that constantly changes, all in a bid to stop the clocks in the fastest time possible, is what inspires these athletes. This search for speed is the driving force for these athletes, and in rallying that pace needs to be controlled. Steering the driver not only through the stages, but in keeping the pressure in the car focused away from the driver, is a task that requires experience and confidence. More than simply reading the pace notes (which are an intricately detailed guide to the stage for the driver, serving as a word map for them to prepare for the upcoming conditions and obstacles), a co-driver’s role in and out of a rally car is as complex as those of their pace notes.

Andre Vermeulen is co-owner of a used car dealership in Gauteng, and has been involved in motorsport at its different levels and in various roles for most of his adult life. The Centurion businessman has been drafted into Team Total, South Africa’s largest privateer rally squad, to partner Mohammed Moosa in his third season in the top-flight Class S2000. Andre is the cool, calm and collected person you’d expect, the personality that brings a sense of calm to a situation saddled with stress and energy.

His first rally event was in 1990, and he joined Team Total to partner Etienne Lourens in 2004. He then switched to the role of Team Manager for two seasons before shifting to the South African National Off-Road Racing Championship for three seasons where he competed as a co-driver too.

“I am glad to be back in rallying,” said 42-year-old Andre. “This is where I belong and where I have the most fun in the cars. It will not be easy this season as the competition in Class S2000 is so fierce. Crews are pushing their limits, and to go just a bit quicker crews need to take big risks.”

Sitting alongside the talented Mohammed, who was a former Class S1600 National Champion before taking the step up to the mighty 2.0-litre, four-wheel-drive machines, Andre and his driver have already formed a strong relationship in the rally car.

Andre continues: “Trust, respect and confidence are very important in this role. When we approach a blind corner and we are going flat-out, and I tell Mohammed to keep his foot flat, he needs to have the trust and confidence in me to be able to do that. For him to lift off the accelerator for a split second each and every time we enter a similar corner in a stage, could mean the difference between a top five and a top 15 stage time.”

Speaking on building this confidence between a driver and co-driver, requires a depth of trust not required in another form of motorsport. Mohammed and Andre place their confidence in the mechanics to provide them a car that is first and foremost safe, reliable and of course the fastest possible. With just Andre in the car alongside him, Mohammed needs to allow Andre to take charge of all other aspects except the actual task of driving the car. This minimizes the stress on Mohammed, while also handing Andre the authority to control the rally from the co-driver’s seat.

“It takes five to seven years for a rally driver to mature into a good one,” believes Andre. “With the use of pace notes in our sport now, and Mohammed’s ability to learn quickly, he has gained in speed in giant steps. To compete at the top level is very demanding. The ‘works’ cars will always be slightly quicker than privateer entrants, but as a driver Mohammed is able to grow and push the limits of his abilities to match and exceed even those drivers. To stay on our limit, is simply not enough in Class S2000 anymore. We have to push beyond that, to learn how far we can do that. With experience this is achieved, and then a driver is able to extract even more from his car that was not thought possible before. This is what is needed to achieve in the top five, and to win rallies!”

Pace notes have a style and a personality as unique as the co-driver. From pace notes co-drivers are able to control the pace of the stage, to slow the driver according to the conditions or the situation, and to increase his pace to keep him completely focused on the stopwatch. “I might make a call a half second later than normal, and this will then make Mohammed driver faster to the next instruction,” explains Andre about the nuances of the role. “There are many ways of achieving this, and knowing when and how to do this, to read the stage and the moment, comes from experience. Quick decision-making is vital to not only stay in a rally, but to control the whole car.”

As a co-driver, what motivates Andre? Where does his dedication and passion come from? “Can I still do it? That is the question I asked myself before joining Mohammed in the car. I have the experience in Class S2000, so that is not the challenge. The challenge was to know if I can be a part of the fight for the rally win. Talent motivates me, and Mohammed has loads of it. I don’t think Mohammed has reached his ceiling point yet, and that is very exciting!”