Friday | 22 May 2020

Co-driver week: the in-car office

The office. You’re right, it’s not really an office. But it is where co-drivers sit to do their day job. And, like most offices, there are a good few buttons to press and screens to watch.

But what do those buttons do? And what sort of creature comforts and personal effects are permitted in this work place?

Seb Marshall, most recently co-driver to Kris Meeke at Toyota Gazoo Racing, is au fait with the business end of a modern rally car, so he’s going to be our guide to a co-driver’s personal space.

Starting on the floor, there’s the footrest. Back in time, this might have been a bar across the footwell. In the Group B days, co-drivers had rowing machine-style straps to keep their feet in place. But these days they’re moulded carbon fibre with a couple of buttons on.

“There’s a button to reset the trip metre on one side,” said Marshall, “and a button to activate the valve at a watersplash. I’d have a line in my notes reminding me to push and hold the button down as we came into a watersplash. This would do two things, it would activate the butterfly valve to stop the engine sucking in water and it would start the wipers working.

“There used to be a button for the horn on the footrest as well, but that’s in the control panel to the side of the seat now.”

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Going from floor to ceiling, the roof has a map light mounted on the roll cage. Marshall’s preference was to have the light in the car on all events.

“You could stipulate if you wanted it or not,” he said. “Naturally, there would be a battle with the engineers over the weight, but I always preferred to have it there. It offered consistent light.

“On rallies like Sardinia, you didn’t really need it, but on a lot of events the road would dive down under the trees or into tunnels on the Monte and you’d need it then.

“I used to write myself a line at the top of my pace notes to remind myself to turn it on, but it became part of the routine. And turning it on was either on the light itself or on the control panel. You could decide if you wanted it over your shoulder on the seat or coming directly from the roof down.”

Once strapped firmly into the seat, it’s vital the control panel comes easily to hand, given that everything is – quite literally – controlled from there.

Seb Marshall partnered Kris Meeke in the 2019 WRC

“The control panel varies from car to car. Some cars still prefer quite a few buttons. The only issue with that is the danger that you press the wrong one in the heat of the moment. Other cars have gone with pretty much the full ‘infotainment’ road car mode with the button pushed to turn it on and then a wheel to scroll through the menus,” Marshall explained.

“Generally the screen will have two settings: stage and road. Both options offer numbers at the bottom for things like the oil temperature, exhaust temperature and battery voltage. When you go into the road page, you’ll get more information like the fuel level.

“Obviously, there are plenty of pages to scroll through, but only so many of them were needed. The trip meter was always run off the central control panel and you could add in different settings, such as a countdown clock or a distance countdown from the start of the stage. That was always handy if you got a puncture as it means you can answer the inevitable question of ‘how far to go?’ immediately.

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“There were obviously lots of settings for launch modes and diff maps but co-drivers are generally warned to keep their fingers to themselves where they’re concerned!

“The co-driver’s screen was generally close to the dash, but set on the tunnel. The panel was next to the edge of my seat. The co-driver’s screen offers much more information than the one in front of the driver.

“The driver wants a gear indicator and shift lights in the stage, nothing else. If there was a warning from the car, it would come to the co-driver’s screen. And there’s no chance of missing it – it lights up like a Christmas tree!”

In addition to the control screen, each rally car is set up with a phone, which sits securely in a charging cradle. Most crews use WhatsApp for messaging the engineers and the phone is often used to take photographs of data logging pages to be sent back to the team.

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In terms of personal stuff, the co-driver gets to bring a bag for pace note books. And not much else.

“I keep the all-important timecards in a pocket on my trouser leg,” said Marshall. “Some co-drivers like to have them in a pocket on the door – just so they can see them all the time, but it’s not unheard of for rally cars to lose their door in a stage. I prefer to have them on me.

“On the door, there’s usually a couple of pockets to keep an energy bar or two, tyre pressure gauge and a pair of mechanics’ gloves to be used when we’re working on the car. These need to be close to hand in case of a puncture.

“Otherwise, there’s not much more you can do to personalise the place. I have my own moulded seat – we spend hours on end sat in that position. Despite what some people might think, one size does not fit all!”