Sunday, March 29, 2015

Our Introduction To Rally Pacenotes

Last weekend we were fortunate enough to be introduced to the confusing world of rally pacenotes by our friends who have been running stage rallies for years. Our minds are still overflowing with information, so this post is my attempt to make sense of it all.

As you probably know, rallying is a team sport where the navigator has just as much responsibility on keeping the car on pace and on the road as the driver. Before running a rally stage competitively, each team goes on a reconnaissance or "recce" (pronounced "reh-key") drive through the stage, at road-legal speeds. This is the time when pace notes are made. The driver reads out how he wants each element of the road described, and the navigator writes down the descriptions in sequence using a short-form notation. During the stage, it is these notes that the navigator reads back to the driver so that the driver is able to paint a picture of the road ahead before getting there.

Because of the speed at which a rally car flies through the course, and the amount of information that has to be conveyed about each element, the language of rally is stripped of all grammar, articles, and other unnecessary words. Every word that is spoken contributes to the description of the road, nothing else. Further, some teams agree on shorter terms to use for elements that would otherwise take too long to describe. For example, using the term "neg" to describe an "off-camber corner".

Making and using pacenotes is something that takes years to master, and it's something that can set apart a very fast team from the winning team. Generally the more advanced a team is, the more detailed their notes will be. To add to the complexity, there are many different systems of writing notes out there. Some teams even develop their own systems. Being complete novices, we've started with the basics.

Regardless of the system you use, a pacenote will generally have the same basic form: [straight length] [corner direction] [corner severity] [corner length] [corner description]

The straight length is a number in meters denoting the distance to the next corner. This takes a lot of practice to estimate. Some teams even use a precise auxiliary odometer so that things like straight lengths don't distract them from noting the more intricate details of the road. If one corner flows into another without a noteworthy straight, the term "into" (->) is used.

The corner direction is simply whether the road turns left or right (denoted L or R respectively).

The corner severity is where a lot of difference between pacenote systems lies. The system most commonly used in North America is called Jemba, and is a good starting point for novices. Each corner can range in severity between 0 and 180 degrees. Jemba divides this 180 degree range into severities from 1 to 6, with 1 being the slowest (tightest) corner and 6 being the fastest. An easy way to think about it is that a corner severity very roughly corresponds to the gear you should be in to take it.

However, if we divide 180 degrees by the 6 possible severities, we'll get that each severity has a range of 30 degrees which makes it extremely imprecise. For that each severity can be augmented with a plus (+) or minus (-) modifier. That is, a 3+ is faster than a 3 but is slower than a 4-. This brings us to 18 severities, and only a 10 degree range per severity which is much more precise.

The corner length is, as the name suggests, how long a corner is. This is crucial, because a very short corner can be taken with a lot of speed, while a long corner of the same severity should be taken much slower. The options here are short (sh), long (lg), very long (Vlg) and extra long (Xlg). The length is omitted for regular-length corners (those between short and long).

Lastly, the corner description is a very broad and difficult to master category. To start, it may include such descriptions as "opens" (<) / "tightens" (>), don't cut (D/C), and caution (!).

The next thing one can add to the notes are crests (CR) and landmarks such as bridges (][), even on straights where the road seems obvious. Why? The road may seem obvious when driving in clear weather during recce, but when driving at night with nothing but the headlights illuminating the road, or in the dust-cloud of the car in front, the road ahead won't be as easy to see. So every detail will help reaffirm your place in the notes, and what's coming up ahead.

Putting it all together, a human description like "drive for 100 meters, then turn right into a 90 degree corner which tighens; be careful there's a big rock on the inside, so don't get too close to the apex" can be written as "100 R3> (D/C!)", and read as "one hundred right three tightens caution don't cut".

Working with rally pacenotes is a skill which takes years to master, and is very intimidating at first. However starting with basic notes is much easier than it seems, and once you drive with notes for the first time it immediately becomes apparent that any notes are better than no notes at all.

Do you remember the first time you tried to make sense of rally pacenotes? Let us know what it was like in the comments below!

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