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three men, one prayer book.

These men are the secret heroes of Volkswagen’s team triumph in the World Rally Championship. Here our three rally co-drivers Julien Ingrassia, Miikka Anttila and Ola Fløene explain the ins and outs of their critically important job. And what makes good pace notes.

Interview Jochen Förster
Illustrations Helge Jepsen

With the spotlight firmly trained on the racers behind the steering wheel, co-drivers don’t get much attention. Yet their role is just as decisive for the success of the team – not least in rally racing. Julien Ingrassia is the co-driver for two-time WRC world champion Sébastien Ogier of France, while Finn Miikka Anttila takes his place beside World Championship runner-up Jari-Matti Latvala, and Ola Fløene (Norway) sits in the Polo R WRC next to his compatriot Andreas Mikkelsen, who came third in last season’s WRC to complete the full podium sweep by the Volkswagen team. Ingrassia, Anttila and Fløene are the men who call out the contents of their meticulous notes – pace notes in rally jargon – during the race to let the drivers know what’s coming. Having perfect notes is regarded as a decisive factor in the success of the team. So important are these notebooks that in German they’re reverently referred to in the trade as “prayer books”. In “Das Auto. Magazine”, the three most successful team co-drivers in rally driving today come together to explain what really counts in their line of work.

The Prayer Notes of Rallying

In their top-secret notebooks – commonly known as pace notes – the co-drivers take down important information about the composition of the course during testing. During the race, they call out the information to the drivers – among other things, they tell them how tight the coming corners are, what kind of road surface is coming and what special features of the course have to be borne in mind (rocks, potholes, mud, etc.). Co-drivers develop their own personal styles of note-taking and abbreviation which can deviate significantly from those of their peers. Every rally co-driver keeps his pace notes under lock and key to keep the competition from gaining insights into the respective team’s analysis of the course.

Julien Ingrassia

Born in Aix-en-Provence in 1979, Julien started his career in 2002 in the club-level rally scene. Since 2006 he has been the co-driver for Sébastien Ogier. In 2008 the two took the junior world championship and debuted in the top class of the WRC; in 2009 they won the Rallye Monte Carlo (IRC). Since 2012, they’ve been driving for Volkswagen. After a test season in a Škoda Fabia Super 2000, in 2013 and 2014 they won both the individual and team titles in the Polo R WRC.

DA: Monsieur Ingrassia, what’s more difficult – flawlessly reading your course notes during a race or doing so while bungee jumping?

Julien Ingrassia (JI): (laughing) Well, when I tried to read my notes recently while in free-fall at the Verzasca dam, it was more of a fun challenge for our website rallytheworld.com. Ola, Miikka and I each had to perform a challenge as part of the “Pace Note Chronicles”. Ola was supposed to do somersaults in the scooter, Miikka loop-the-loops in a glider, and I was assigned the Swiss dam, the same one that James Bond jumped off of in “GoldenEye.” Of course, I didn’t feel under as much pressure doing that. When I’m performing in the WRC, I absolutely want to win; even the smallest error can cost us the victory. The “Pace Note Chronicles,” by contrast, were pure fun.

 

DA: In the YouTube video of your bungee jump, you didn’t seem scared at all. Does your job as a rally co-driver really toughen you up mentally that much?

JI: At such a fun event, I didn’t want to come across as some kind of party-pooper. I had already made two jumps, in Greece and New Zealand, so I had a decent idea of what I was getting myself into. Besides, I didn’t have much time to think about it. On the day when we were at the dam, it was cloudy all day. When the cloud cover broke for a few seconds, I had to be ready to go. That made it easier. I just looked up to the sky for a second and then just let it happen. In WRC races, I do something similar. I get into the car, bang my helmet against the seat three times, look up to the sky for a second and open up my pace notes. Then I’m ready to go.

DA: These “pace notes” – the handwritten notes detailing how to drive the course – are regarded as the holy scriptures of rally racing, and all the teams keep their note-taking techniques a closely guarded secret. Could you nevertheless give us a brief description of what exactly you put down in your notes?

Miikka Anttila (MA): As far as the content is concerned, we all work in quite similar fashion. The aim is to record every feature of the course as precisely as possible. In other words, sequences of corners, length and angles of the corners, distance to the next corner, sometimes also the speed at which a corner should be taken – in most cases, though, the driver chooses the right speed himself. It’s also important to call out important conditions such as the road surface, potholes, dry conditions. Not to mention sudden changes that our course observers report during the actual race. Where we differ is mainly in our personal abbreviation systems. Jari-Matti and I use a simple number system for the corner angles. 1 means a very flat curve, 9 is for maximum steepness.

JI: With us, it’s according to the inclination – “150” means a very slight bend, “40” a very tight corner. It takes a lot longer to say that; you guys have handled that much more simply, Miikka. We’ve also considered adopting the 1–9 system, but it’s difficult to change the habits of many years, so we’re sticking with it for now. The main thing is that the driver and co-driver understand each other immediately and the risk of misunderstandings is minimised. Every co-driver has his own personal symbols so he can understand his own notes as quickly as possible – such as for large rocks or dips on the course. The fact is that we could not completely understand the other guys’ notes, let alone use them on the course.

» You have to stay calm under massive time pressure. «

Ola Fløene

Ola Fløene

Born in Hamar (N) in 1969, Ola is one of the most experienced co-drivers. After early successes as a motocross rider, in 1996 he became the co-driver for Mads Østberg’s father Morten. Since 2006 he has been driving with the (then 16-year-old) Andreas Mikkelsen, with whom he won the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) in 2011 and 2012. In their first season together in the WRC, they promptly took third place in the championship.

DA: What makes a championship-calibre co-driver, in your opinion?

Ola Fløene (OF): Perfect navigation is a question of timing. The main thing is to make optimal use of the scarce time allotted to us in the “recce” testing. In other words, getting down all the relevant information precisely. You have to stay calm under massive time pressure and work with great accuracy. In the race itself, the key is to give the driver exactly as much information as is necessary, at just the right time. A person can only process a certain amount of information at once. If a corner is followed by another one in quick succession, for example, it’s important to state the distance to the second corner before the driver takes the first corner. You might say that the secret of a championship-calibre co-driver is in the effectiveness of his communication. There’s always room for improvement there. I’ve been doing this job for about twenty years now, and I’m still learning things.

 

DA: Which races are the most demanding with regard to note-taking?

MA: The most difficult situation is on asphalt because the cars have the best grip and are therefore moving the fastest, and the book can shake quite a bit then. There are also a lot of details from the course posts regarding current course conditions, and you have to take those into account as well. You have to talk fast and get a good look at things.

DA: You’re professionals, but not machines, and even if the wrong information about the course can have fatal consequences – it does happen, doesn’t it?

MA: Fortunately that’s pretty rare. I remember one time when I said something other than what I saw and read. No idea why. It was 2011 in Sicily, an inexplicable blackout. The result was that the car was totalled. Jari-Matti and I came out unscathed. Luckily it’s never happened to me again since.

JI: In 2009 in Cyprus, during “recce” I overlooked an intersection where we were supposed to go right. In the race itself, we drove straight ahead at that spot and were heading right for a race control vehicle at about 90 mph. Luckily Sébastien had the presence of mind to swerve past it. By a whisker. We were able to turn around and barely lost any time. But believe me – you don’t forget something like that. And you do everything to ensure that it never happens again.

OF: Fortunately, nowadays we’re able to largely rule out mistakes in the notes. After each “recce” we go through our notes at least two more times and meticulously compare them with video footage of the courses. Of course it does sometimes happen that you’re a second too early or too late with your instructions – but incorrect information is luckily the absolute exception.
 

DA: It’s notable that your teams are arranged by nationality; there are two Frenchmen, two Finns and two Norwegians. How important is it to share the same mother tongue in the cockpit?
OF: It definitely helps strengthen your mutual trust in each other, which is indispensable for successful teamwork.
MA: It’s not an absolute must, but highly recommended. When we teamed up in the beginning, Jari-Matti and I used English-language notes. At some point Jari-Matti told me that he found that very exhausting. As soon as we switched to Finnish, we immediately understood each other better.

» Rule number one is: no one touches my pace notes. «

Miikka Anttila

Miikka Anttila

Born in 1972 in Janakkala (FIN), Miikka was trained as a co-driver by Finland’s automobile sport club AKK, debuted in the World Rally Championship in 1999 in Finland and assisted 13 Finnish drivers before becoming the permanent co-driver of Jari-Matti Latvala in 2003. In 2008 the two won the WRC Rally Sweden, and in 2010 were runners-up in the championship. In their first season in the Polo R WRC, they took third place; in 2014 they took second in the individual, and in both years won the team classifications for Volkswagen Motorsport.

DA: You all take your notes by hand. Why aren’t laptops or tablets an option for you?
JI: I still don’t trust the technology enough. What would happen if my tablet stopped working during the race? We might as well just pack up there and then. My book is always with me, it can’t break like a device with a glass case, and I can quickly and easily add or change something in my notes. And if a couple of pages become unreadable, I can quickly borrow the notes from Miikka or Ola – two pages later I can continue with my own notes again. But you can’t salvage anything from a broken tablet. And then you have factors like reflections and glare that can make it hard to read. I was thinking of switching to an iPad last year, but in the end it just seemed like too risky a proposition.
OF: It will be interesting to see who first makes a successful switch to tablets in the upper echelons of the rally world. At some point it will happen. But I think it will still take a while.

 

DA: Your pace notes are, after the car, the most critical tool in a rally. How do you ensure that it stays intact?
MA: Rule number one is: no one touches my pace notes. And then we all ensure that in case of emergency we have digital copies stored. And thirdly, we all take very good care to ensure it doesn’t get wet. Rain and snow are the only true enemies that we have to fear. But the book has to really get very wet for the notes to blur. We don’t write with normal pencils, we use special wooden pencils that stay legible even when wet.

DA: In German, the pace notes are called the “prayer book”. Perhaps because the driver prays that his co-driver is speaking the truth about the next corner?

JI: I think the expression more likely derives from the fact that we co-drivers are always quoting from this book like some sort of litany. One thing’s for sure – during the race plenty of other people will be praying that our pace notes are perfect.

 

DA: Among the most curious aspects of rallying is that you, as the co-driver, sit considerably lower than the driver himself. Which in turn means that you cannot even see the course you are describing with your own eyes.

MA: For the casual observer it’s hard to imagine, but we really don’t have to see the course ourselves during the race. We know it from the “recce”. You feel the course, you feel the position. After all, it’s not the job of the co-driver to describe what the driver sees – it’s about what the driver is going to see next. In principle it would be possible for a blind person to do my job – provided it were possible to take perfect notes in Braille. One thing is for sure: in some corners and at great speed, I literally feel like a blind passenger (laughs).

DA: How close must the relationship between the driver and co-driver be to be successful together?

JI: To stay with our analogy: the driver has to have blind faith in the co-driver. On the other hand, the co-driver can help a stressed-out driver keep calm in tricky situations. In such cases, it helps a lot to know each other’s habits. If you sense without speaking what the other person is feeling, as the co-driver you can respond to that and try to relax things.

OF: And don’t forget: as a team we spend some 200 days a year together. When you spend so much time with someone, you need to get along very well or at some point it will become unbearable.

» The driver has to have blind faith in the co-driver. «

Julien Ingrassia

DA: With all the stress you endure, how do you relax away from the rally environment?

JI: I relax best by getting outdoors and into nature. I always liked to be outside, and at the rallies I take every chance I get to enjoy the wilderness – be it in Australia, Finland or Mexico. I’ve started to develop an eye for exotic animals. In Argentina I saw some large spiders, in Australia some rare birds, and in Mexico a large snake once slithered between my legs during a tyre pressure test. I really enjoy such moments. I feel very much at one with myself then.

MA: I relax best by getting outdoors and into nature. I always liked to be outside, and at the rallies I take every chance I get to enjoy the wilderness – be it in Australia, Finland or Mexico. I’ve started to develop an eye for exotic animals. In Argentina I saw some large spiders, in Australia some rare birds, and in Mexico a large snake once slithered between my legs during a tyre pressure test. I really enjoy such moments. I feel very much at one with myself then.

OF: In the summer I like to go fishing on Lake Mjøsa in my home country, Norway. In the winter, I like to relax at home.

DA: Last but not least – who’s going to win the WRC in 2015?

JI: Nothing is predictable in rally racing. If you miss a corner, you’re hopelessly behind the competition. It doesn’t matter if you had the best time over the last ten laps – it all goes up in smoke. The new regulations will also make it easier for the competition to catch up. So I think that things will be tighter this season than the previous two years.

OF: In my opinion, the title race will be between Sébastien and Jari-Matti. Andreas is still just 25, he needs time yet. But I’m sure that he’ll be ready sometime in the next few years.

MA: : It will be difficult. But I hope and believe that Volkswagen will come out on top once again.

The new Polo R WRC

The three Volkswagen teams in the WRC will drive the visually and technically revised Polo R WRC in 2015 in the hope of defending their individual and team titles. The biggest technological innovation is the hydraulically controlled transmission. More information on the Polo R WRC,the races and the drivers: