Navigator or Co-Driver?

First published May 2017.

NAVIGATOR or CO-DRIVER?   by Nigel Raeburn.

Rallyists have become rather lax over the years in the use of the terms Navigator and Co-Driver.  At one time it was simpler – a navigator only did navigation and read maps and never drove on the rally whereas a co-driver may also be called upon the drive for at least part of a rally – a true sharing of driver duties with the main driver.  Usually this meant that road rallies needed a navigator as they were rarely long enough to need shared driving duties, and special stage rallies, in the earlier years when they tended to be longer – say over 200 miles, needed two drivers to safely complete the route.  This also meant the prime driver had preferably to have at least a little grasp of navigation!

Today it is not so simple – and indeed the co-driver (the term usually used on all stage rallies, small and large) rarely does any driving at all!  Even the longer stage rallies (like WRC rounds such as Wales Rally GB) have so many rest or service halts, and limited hours of running, that I would be surprised if any of the WRC co-drivers drive during the rally even on the road sections.  In earlier years some of the major rallies (RAC, Welsh – even more so the Gulf) ran through two (or even more) successive nights with no lengthy rest halts so some sharing of driver duties made total sense.  Some of the longer historic rallies running today do still require the navigator/co-driver to do some driving – indeed Le Jog had (has?) compulsory driver-change sections – although I’ve always wondered how that would ever be checked by the organisers (there were no ID photos for example) – but many comply and the spirit of the issue lives on.

I have some lasting memories of some of the driving stints I did on rallies in the 60s and 70s – as the co-driver.  Some were quite challenging.  I especially remember an RAC or Scottish in the Martin Group Firenza (it was probably 1973).  We were just leaving a service point in rural Scotland when Will Sparrow decided he needed a snooze and asked me to drive the next road section.  I had never driven this particular car before, and with 240 bhp it was quite a monster.  As we pulled onto the public road a white Escort competing car drove past ahead of us – and it was Roger Clark at the wheel.  Well, to avoid Will having to navigate, my natural task was to follow the competitor in front!  I must say I was a bit nervous, being new to our car and not used to so much power – and when we came to some twisty bits I kept thinking that if Roger Clark got round a corner I might not necessarily also do so!  I’m pleased to say we made it safely to the next stage.  It was a strategic error by us that I had not even had a short drive in our car before the start.    Incidentally it was unusual for Roger to be driving on a road section as he was renowned for making his co-driver do most of the road driving while he had a nap.

A couple of other memories of real co-driving were from the Welsh International.  On my first international in 1965 with university friend Chris Baker-Duly in his Mini-Cooper, on the second night (after two nights on the road and no proper stops) shared driving was practised by most crews on the road sections – but in our case Chris was developing ‘flu as the rally progressed and towards the end of the second night he was not fit to drive at all – but we wanted to finish – so I actually drove several forest stages in the dark as well as much of the road sections.  Then in 1970 when Will and I managed to win the Welsh I remember having to drive through the south Wales valleys to the finish at Barry and being very conscious of the responsibility – we were in the lead and I had to stay on the road and not damage the car in any way.

Even away from actual rallies my connections led to some interesting driving experiences.  I had to demonstrate the Martin Group Firenza at Croft rallycross circuit in Will’s absence – and in front of a big crowd during an interval in the main rallycross meeting (and on the Martin Group’s home patch) I was expected to put on a good show!  I also got to have a good drive in our Mexico round the Long Marston rallycross circuit at a press day organised by Mike Stephens and his Thor Hammer company – our main sponsor at the time.  I had some good sideways laps keeping up with some proper rally drivers!  I also got to spin Will’s father’s Porsche (no damage)!

We used to quite enjoy the drives back from Motoring News rallies in the late 60s and early 70s in Will’s Minis.  On Sunday mornings the Welsh roads back to Warwickshire were very quiet so some swift motoring ensued – it helped keep you awake was our excuse – and often I was driving our rally car as Will’s wife (then) Sue was usually in support in her Sprite and Will would come home with her – so our two car convoy made good progress.  On one occasion we were in convoy with Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams in an Opel Manta (I think maybe we were in the Mexico) because a competition developed between Barrie and Will as to who could get most sideways through a series of open bends – I think it was a draw!

Another post-rally driving experience was in 1969 after Peter McDowell and I had to retire from the RAC in his Escort towards the end (in Dyfnant) with, I think, gearbox problems.  We ended up spending the night with a relative of Peter’s in Llandrindod Wells, and the next day we set off for London in our service car (a Cortina Estate I think) towing the rally car.  I drew the short straw and was to drive the rally car, while Peter drove the tow car.  Firstly I had no heating as we could not run the engine, and secondly, and rather more critical, we only had a very short tow rope – probably about 2 feet between the cars!  This might be OK at low speeds but we had a long way to go and Peter got more and more confident and we were hitting 70mph or more.  It was certainly a good test of my concentration and reactions!  I don’t think the cars ever made contact which was pretty good.

Le Jog is possibly an exception to the rule as you need both a navigator and a co-driver to deal with the plotting and sometimes devious route and timing as well as the long periods without rest on the road sections.  Thus I got to drive some interesting vehicles – Mike Tomlin’s 1930s Alvis (centre throttle and difficult gear change) and Phil Surtees’ zillion bhp Rover V8 P5B.   I remember on the event we were so tired towards the end that Phil and I ended up swapping seats every 10 minutes.  Le Jog has been made easier since those times!  By contrast Andy Nash’s Sunbeam Tiger was, once underway and the steering lightened up, not that different to drive to my MG Midget, so I quickly felt at home.  In many ways Le Jog was like the first internationals I did in the 60s.

So the increased specialisation of rallying has taken away the need for some of the skills both of the crew needed in the past – drivers had to be able to do some navigation, and navigators or co-drivers needed to be able to drive.  I think it’s a shame!

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