These Three Skills Make The Best Rally Driver

Uncategorized | October 01, 2017

Here at DirtFish, we are consistently asked what it takes to become a top level rally driver. We caught up with Lead Instructor, Nate Tennis, to answer a few questions about the most valuable skills for a rally driver… or any driver for that matter!

Q: When we teach the rally driving techniques to our customers, what are the top three most valuable skills they can take away from our classes to help them be successful drivers?

The short answer; patience, smoothness and vision.

Q: What do you mean when you say patience?

Patience in the rally world means letting the car do the work for the driver. We see a lot of folks new to driving on a slippery road, and a common trait is that they try to force a car to do what they want it to do. A car at speed on gravel is going to slide. If a driver turns those slides into methods for positioning the car where they want it to go, then the effort to turn the car is reduced. Often in this case, a driver has to wait for the car to slide to the correct angle before hitting the gas. If they don’t, the car doesn’t end up in the direction they want it to go. Patience allows for the car to rotate to the appropriate angle, and in this way, the driver’s effort is reduced because the car does the work for them. 

Q: Why is it so important to be smooth? 

The rally driver’s world is never perfect. There are gravel roads, snow-covered roads, wet, dirty pavement, all of which are slippery. Considering the rally car’s tires have to keep up with all of that, a driver needs to understand that the faster they go, the more they ask from the tires, and the less overall traction is available. If the driver’s inputs aren’t smooth (brakes, throttle, steering), the tires are even less able to keep up. 

Scenario: a driver is at speed on gravel approaching a 90-degree corner, and needs to brake to slow for the corner, carry a slide through, and accelerate on the exit. If the driver brakes too aggressively, the tires lock and the car continues straight (in the direction of momentum). If the driver brakes enough to slow the car but steers really aggressively, the same situation happens: the front tires can’t keep up and the car continues straight. If the driver does the first two correctly but mashes the gas pedal, the tires spin, the car goes wide, or at the very least doesn’t accelerate as quickly as it could. Best case in all of these negative scenarios, the driver isn’t quick through the corner. Worst case, they’re off the road and out of the rally. So by being smooth, the driver works with the car instead of against it.

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Q: Some people might think that it’s not possible to smooth when you’re trying to be quick. What advice do you have for them?

There is a difference between smooth and having quick reactions. Despite common perception, the two are different. Driving quickly doesn’t mean physically grabbing the wheel and yanking it in different directions, driving aggressively is about carrying speed. Someone driving physically aggressive is likely not going as fast as the driver that is smooth and maintaining their speed. Being smooth ensures the car has as much traction as possible at all times, which is very challenging at the limit (especially on a loose surface). If tire runs out of traction, that’s when the driver needs to be quick to catch the situation before it gets worse. 

Watch the in-car footage of the top drivers; are they sawing at the wheel and physically working hard? Nope, they’re smooth with their inputs and quick to catch things before they get ugly. It’s amazing to watch the top drivers because most of them appear to be on a calm Sunday drive. They have ridiculously fast correction times, but they aren’t using these abilities to turn the car, only to catch it. 

Q: When you’re going through driver’s education, it is pretty rare to hear the instructor tell you to look where you want to go, but it is one of the most important skills when you’re behind the wheel of a rally car. Why is vision so important and why is it one of the skills we talk about so consistently here at DirtFish?

Probably because the driver’s ed instructor’s eyes are closed J . Actually, there is a lot going on the first time a new driver gets behind the wheel, and when learning, it is best to keep the eyes moving a lot to scan all areas to gather as much information as possible. In racing/rallying situations, there is actually a lot less going on. A driver on a rally stage isn’t worried about what the traffic light is going to do at the next intersection, or if the big truck in the next lane sees them, or if that kid on the sidewalk is going to chase the ball that is currently bouncing into the street. So the focus tends to be closer to the car itself.

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Another major difference is that the speeds on a rally stage are higher so a driver’s vision needs to be further ahead. There is plenty of time to stop, slow, or turn at 30 mph on a street with a lot of traction. But at 100 mph on gravel, it can take a surprisingly long amount of time to stop, slow, or turn, so the vision needs to be as far ahead of the vehicle to be able to plan accordingly. The further out the driver looks the more time they have to gather more information and be proactive. A driver should always have a plan entering a corner, and good vision allows more time to develop a good plan.

Q: If you’re going flat-out on a rally stage, why is it so important to be really good at each of these skills?

All of these skills combined are what make the best drivers faster than the rest. They are able to maximize the traction that’s available by being smooth, they’re able to be patient to allow the car to work for them, and they use vision to assess the above as well as have a solid plan before entering a corner. If these drivers can manipulate these methods effectively they are fastest on the road, make the least mistakes, and are easier on the car so it survives to the end of the rally.

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Q: Anything else you want to add?

The final piece that is also important is to be relaxed. A natural occurrence when in stressful situations is to be tense and make jerky, short movements. These are not smooth and certainly aren’t patient, so the outcome is less than ideal. A relaxed driver is smoother and more patient, and able to think clearer than someone stressed and flailing.

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