Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Pacenotes and the Obscure Code of Rally Driving

Recently I've been playing far too much PlayStation, the game Gran Turismo in particular. For those who don't know, Gran Turismo is a racing game that dubs itself "the real driving simulator". One of the numerous ways it does this is by including a number of motorsport disciplines. One such discipline included is rallying, or rally racing.

A rally car taking a hairpin turn
If you haven't seen rally racing in real life, it's somewhat spectacular. Unlike other types of motorsports, rallying does not take place on a purpose-built circuit. Instead, drivers take modified road-legal cars from point A to point B on a series of public or private roads. The courses for rally driving are often in more rural areas, supposedly because this is far more interesting than watching cars drive through tightly-packed urban areas. Rather than having all the competing cars on the track simultaneously, the cars take turns, setting off from the start point at separate times with the intention of reaching the finish in the shortest possible time.

Another element that differentiates rallying from other motorsports is the presence of a second person in the car. While the route that drivers have to take is generally marked out for the drivers, the driver is given instructions, known as pacenotes, by their co-driver. These instructions, rather than being directions, e.g. which turn to take, the co-driver tells the driver the severity of the turn, the quality of the road, and any other useful information that will help the driver get from the start to the finish in the shortest possible time.

Those who've ever tried to navigate on a family holiday know that giving the driver directions will almost always result in a huge argument. So how do you do that hurtling down a narrow gravel road at 100 miles per hour? The answer is quite simple: quickly.

To the untrained eye and ear, the language used by co-pilots is pretty confusing. Even the written form of this language is little more than single letters, numbers, and the occasional symbol, all in shorthand.

When spoken, the pacenotes sound like little more than sound bites of seemingly random words and numbers. Rather than waste time with the various complications of grammar, the language used in rally pacenotes is there for the transmission of information in the quickest possible way.

It should also be noted that while there are general systems used in pacenotes, every driver and co-driver team will have their own nuances and personal lingo that they use in the car. English also retains a de facto status for pacenotes even though each team will read them in whichever language or languages feel most comfortable to them.

Find out more about the co-driver's role and hear an example of pacenotes in action in this video: