Ten Tips For Successful Road Rally Racing

Features, Racing I By Ross Bentley I April 29, 2015
A subscriber recently asked for advice on how to adapt his road racing experience and prepare to compete in the Targa Newfoundland. One of the most versatile drivers I know is Andrew Comrie-Picard, otherwise known as ACP. He’s won in every type of rally, in rallycross, competed at Baja, and tackled just about every kind of automotive adventure you can imagine. Oh, and he’s kicked butt in the Targa Newfoundland, so it was a no-brainer to reach out to Andrew to ask for his advice. – Ross
In the racing world, performance auto rallying is a strange beast. On a racetrack (set on some dozens of acres, in mostly predictable weather), you might go through a dozen or so corners…a thousand times each. On performance rallies (across vast rural landscapes, over days, in unpredictable weather) we go through thousands of corners… once each. 
This formula greatly increases uncertainty, and it can drive some experienced track racers crazy that there are so many moving parts and so many ways for it all to go wrong (if you doubt this, consider why the Nurburgring is considered such a challenge, and remember that it’s still not as variable as a rally). But that’s the challenge and the excitement of it: the whole art of good rally driving – planning, prepping, noting, contingencies, and brinksmanship – is about attenuating the challenges that come from uncertainty.
If you’re a track racer thinking about trying a performance rally – especially a tarmac event like Targa Newfoundland, for example – you’re going to need to adjust your settings a little, and incorporate some new thinking. But doing so is likely to give you some techniques and even lessons that you can take back to the track, too. Here are some things to think about:
1. You’re Only Racing Yourself.
This is one of the hardest things to become accustomed to in rally driving. Because cars leave in spaced intervals to run the course, there is effectively no wheel-to-wheel racing. This means you have to be able to manage your own aggression level completely without reference to any other car that you can see.
Psychologically, this is very interesting; some people need the cut-and-thrust of moment-to-moment competition to perform at their peak. But in a rally, you don’t race another driver in real time. You’re fighting the clock, trying to get a low score. It’s psychologically like golf. Really, really fast golf. Where a missed shot can be the end of your day.
Only experience will give you the sensitivity to know how fast you can go down a particular real-world rally road, a sense of how fast your competition can go, and techniques to motivate yourself to stay focused and out on the edge all the time. When you have that sense, you can develop the rally equivalents of what Ross calls R1, R2, and R3 settings in his books. But until you have that sensibility, keep this in mind: rarely (and at the amateur level, never) do you win a rally by going 100% into every corner. Usually, that’s how you lose it. Start at 70% on every single corner, no exceptions. Work up from there, carefully.
When you learn to drive fast and independent of everyone else, you may find that you can go even faster than you knew. Because even on a closed course, you might be able to go faster if you were racing a perfect-driving ghost, rather than all those other imperfect competitors around you. I always find I’m trying to compete with perfection, and only incidentally racing some other people.
2. Only three things matter: Surface, Surface, Surface.
The surface of a race track matters, of course. But on a track, you’re talking about that new three-square-feet paving on the apex of turn three, and what it does in the rain, and that little bump it gives. But when your race track is rural broken tarmac or dirt on which locals commute, on which a bunch of other nuts like you have cut and dragged gravel on to the apex, and on which there may have had a passing rain shower around the next corner, actively reading and anticipating traction on the various surfaces is everything.
How easily can this catch you out? I saw seven cars in a ditch after a new wooden-decked bridge during its first rain. A Porsche 944 of a friend of mine went straight into the ocean when he misread gravel in a braking zone.
There’s no comprehensive advice to give you on this point, except to say be sensitive to everything. Does your course blow through a stop sign? Remember that asphalt ripples where many vehicles stop. On a hillside? Watch for the places that water drains across the road and may have standing water or residual dust. Overhanging trees? The surface will be cooler and may be moist around the next corner. Never expect the next corner to be like the previous one. Each one is unique; that’s what keeps them interesting! And remember – it’s the same for everyone.
3. Everything needs a contingency.
If you break on the racetrack, often a truck comes out and tows you in and hopefully you have something in the pits to get the car ready for the next session. In rally, you are carrying your spares, your tools, and your know-how, and you have between 30 minutes and maybe an hour of margin to carry out any repairs yourself. On a race like Targa, you also have to make a movement plan for any support vehicle you may have with fuel/tools/spares/people to meet you at certain points at certain times. It’s like staging a war.
What kind of thing can happen? Many teams carry spare lug nuts on a ziptie on the roll cage. Not only can you lose them or cross-thread them in an excited tire change, but I’ve seen teams changing tires on winter rallies throw their lugnuts down on the road beside them, only to find that the hot nuts have melted down through layers of ice and are unextractable without a pick (which goes to another point: work deliberately, even in an emergency). On a rally last month, we broke a tie rod, but we were carrying a spare; I was able to change it with my helmet on in 17 minutes, and we still finished fourth.
Again, there is no specific advice, but think like an army general: what’s the fallback if we lose this battle? What if I can’t get the right fuel out on the peninsula? What if I have two simultaneous flats (easier to do than you might think if you’re cutting apexes). What if my jack breaks? (practice jamming the car onto a berm with a wheel in the air – sometimes it’s faster than jacking anyway). It sounds strange, but the more you can think about what could go wrong, the less chance there will be that something going wrong will have a serious effect on your outcome. Rallyists are good at imagining disasters, and so are exceptional at recovering from them.
4. Prepare for the race that will be, not the race you’d like it to be.
This is a big one, and while it’s not unique to rallies, it’s especially important on them. Countless times I’ve seen teams show up to Targa Newfoundland – known by everyone to be a five-day-long event on cold-surface poor tarmac with many bumpy sections and frequent rain – with cars with very little ground clearance, very little travel, or on slick tires, or ones that need temperature to work. Almost every time they say “that’s just the way the car is set up” or “this is how I always run it.”
No matter how much you dream of smooth, high-speed, dry, warm tarmac, that dream won’t cause it to be repaved and the event moved to July. On gravel rallies, most people don’t like mud, but you’re not going to stop the rain.
I’ll tell you one of my personal speed secrets here: I’ve learned to anticipate bad conditions and turn them into an advantage almost every time. Bring on the torrential rains! Bring on the ice! Bring on the mud! If I’m suffering, everyone else is suffering at least as much, and if I dig into it with the right attitude, I will beat them. On a tight Targa a few years ago, we physically passed three of our main competitors during a standing-water deluge, which is a gain of minutes. I was laughing in the car. Not because it was easy – it was dreadfully hard. But I laughed because I knew we were better at it than they were. Because we knew it could happen, and we were ready for it, technically and mentally.
5. Take care of the wetware.
Again, this is important on a racetrack too, but when you’re dealing with an event like Baja that’s a thousand miles long or, like Targa, several days long, it is crucial to take care of yourself and your codriver. When I was younger and dumber I ignored this, and while you can pump on adrenaline and energy drinks for a pretty long time, you’re never as good as when you’re well- rested, well-hydrated, and enjoying being in the car together, looking ahead to gain an advantage rather than just trying to keep moving because you’re shagged out. People say of Targa Newfoundland, especially, that by the fourth day they’ve just had it. Well, by coincidence, that’s normally just when the course gets hard. Those of us who’ve done it for a long time arrive at Day Four just ready to get the big guns out.
Some of the success in this regard is mental training, a good part is physical training, and some is just experience. But just like you shouldn’t stack into every corner on a rally at 100%, not knowing what’s really around the apex, so should you not bash into every single day like it’s your last. Eat carefully, hydrate, and get to bed. At all costs, try not to stay up all night wrenching on your car. You might have to do so, but at least if you go into that night with reserves from the previous three nights, you’ll have a fighting chance the next day. And if you arrive at the end of the race with plenty in reserve – well, you’ll just be the life of the party, won’t you?
6. Respect rally Karma.
At the racetrack, there can be a fortress mentality between teams. OK, you don’t want to give up your hot setup. Fine. But there can be, in some series, a sense that it’s all a zero-sum game: that if something is going wrong with your car, or if you’re suffering, that’s a good thing for me.
OK, if you’re running a factory team at Le Mans, that’s how the cookie crumbles. But in rallying, we’re all out battling Mother Nature. We’re only incidentally battling each other. So even at the highest level of rallying in North America, you’ll find teams helping each other out. My main competition for a long time was the Subaru USA team, yet on countless occasions we borrowed their welder, or a fastener, or even a guy. On a few occasions, we were able to help them, too. One of the best rally technicians in Canada is legendary for working on anyone’s car at any event, and he’s ensured that his own teams were kept honest when they were fighting for the podium (which they typically stood in the middle of).
This extends to the stages. Teams locked in tight battles will tow each other’s dead cars through transits, or pull each other out of ditches if possible. It’s one of the things I love about rallying: we want to beat each other like gentlemen (and ladies). It’s a wonderful thing. Always help everyone that you can. And rest assured: it always comes around. Some day you will be the one on the back end of the towrope.
Similarly, when you’re at the track: wouldn’t you rather beat the team that can’t say that something was wrong with their car?
7. Manage the machine.
In all racing, but especially in rallying, you’re on a vehicle-dependent expedition. There’s only one way you’re going to win this thing, and that’s by getting you and whatever’s left of the car to the finish. Now, I’ve finished on the podium with no lights, no bumpers, and only one fender left attached. But all the wheels were still on and aligned, and the car still drove surprisingly well….
At Baja, we often find we’re only going about 70% as fast as we really could. But we’ve won our class. It took great self-discipline to not put the throttle down harder, but there may be 800 more miles of hammering that the poor thing has to survive. There’s only so much metal on every gear face, in every piston ring, and in every fastener. Use it wisely. If you build your own car, it helps in developing what we call “mechanical sympathy” for it. But even if you don’t, remember that it’s just a machine, like you, and you can both be broken if beaten up enough.
8. Prepare, and look at whatever roads you can.
You already know that if you’re allowed, you should always walk the track. Even a track that you know like the back of your hand can change a good deal day to day.
And you can never prepare too much for a rally. There are so many moving parts – so many uncertainties – that any single factor that you can make easier, smoother, or more predictable will become a competitive advantage. This is particularly true for the roads themselves. Find out what the rules are for your event. On the Baja1000, which has open pre-running, teams take days and weeks driving the course and putting data into detailed GPS units. On performance rallies, we’re restricted to a certain number of “recce” passes of each road, but we make the most of those and efficiently add tons of information to our notes. If it’s allowed, we use notes honed over previous years that are already very accurate, and then trim them for the variations caused by erosion, recent weather, or re-grading. We spend more time on the road before the rally than we do on the rally.
On an event like Targa, if you’re able to even drive the correct way through some of the complex intersections in the days before the event, I guarantee that will be an advantage. Some of your competitors are locals. Think they’re going to be confused at a high-speed five-way intersection with a blind turn around the bushes? They’re not.
And if you haven’t pre-run the course, or certain sections of it, you’re just going to have to go slower where necessary. Where’s necessary? Well, now you’re going to have to use points 2, 4, and 5 from above…
9. Read the terrain, but remember it lies.
This is another fun thing in rallying. If you understand something about how roads are built, you can make pretty good guesses about where they go. One of my best co-drivers had a PhD in trail design, and as crazy as it sounds, that was a huge advantage. Relief, drainage, treelines, crests, compressions, soil composition, and age of tarmac all matter.
If you don’t happen to have Dr. Backroad beside you, you can still do a pretty good job by looking at the terrain out ahead, and especially by “reading the treeline,” or looking at where the treetops are cut away ahead of you, even if you can’t see the road. It’s terrifically effective 98% of the time.
But, oh dear, that 2% is exciting. I don’t know how to give you the Spidey-sense that tells you that the treeline or camber of a road is lying, but sometimes it does, and with experience, you can often tell when it feels wrong. If we pre-run or recce it, we’ll often add “deceptive” to our notes. But when you can’t, you just have to be ready. One of the fastest rally drivers in Canada saw a straight treeline gap ahead over a crest and, consistent with his personality, did not lift at all. Turns out the treeline was a fire cut, and the road went 90 degrees left over the crest. He went a good 200 yards into the woods and rolled several times. But, once again consistent with his personality, the car barely stopped rolling before he had the reverse lights on. He only lost a few seconds. Which brings us to our last point:
10. “Never, never, never give up.”
The quote is from Churchill, and the attitude got the Allies through the War. But it has gotten plenty of rallyists further than we should have rationally ever gone.
I once won a major championship on the last event of the year, in November, on a tie-breaker. Seven months previously and 3,000 miles away, my co-driver and I were on the side of a mountain in despair, looking at our car that had broken a rotor at 90mph, ripping out the rear diff, shearing off the driveshaft, and ripping off the exhaust for good measure. But we started working on it, knowing that we really had no chance to effect repairs without going over our max 30 minutes of lateness.
We removed the rotor and caliper, spaced the wheel with our spare lugnuts (see point 3) and pinched off the brake line with vise-grips. And as we were running out of time, using the spare-tire hold-down ratchet strap to hold the rear diff in place and mechanics-wiring the exhaust and driveshaft off the ground, we heard over our in-car HAM radio (not many teams have them, but knowledge is power) that there was a major incident and the stage would be cancelled (a bit of luck helps, too!). We got back in, locked the center diff (using a device we had installed for that exact purpose when we built the car), and drove out with front-wheel drive and three brakes.
On the three remaining stages, during which we drove as fast as the car would allow (see points 1 and 7), the driveshaft sheared through the transmission tunnel and fell out. But with a rag, duct tape, and zip ties, we staunched the bleeding to keep a little fluid in the gearbox. And then on the final stage, as the gearbox blew third (then fourth) gear and we had to slow since the (now two) remaining brakes had smoked and faded to a pedal-on the floor situation… we passed our main rival, sitting on the side of the road in a similar car with a diff that had fallen out. We were laughing… but it may have been because of the exhaust feeding directly in to that gaping hole in the transmission tunnel.
Against all reasonableness, we finished second on the rally, narrowly ahead of third. And we won the championship on (amongst other things), those points, with a tie-breaker. Against the guy who didn’t finish.
Never give up. Besides, what fun is there in giving up?
I got into racing for the challenge and the adventure. So rallying is, to me, the ultimate motorsport. Obviously, I’m biased. But if you are able to embrace the challenge of uncertainty and unpredictability, you may find yourself a better racer, you may convert to become a rallyist, and you might just have a bit of fun doing it.
Good luck. (Luck never hurts, either).

– Andrew Comrie-Picard


The Guide to Road Racing: Winding Road Magazine's ultimate guide to getting your start in racing.

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