How to get a rally car off the line

Craig Breen gives DirtFish an expert insight into launching a rally car from the start-line

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For our latest how-to article, we asked newly-signed M-Sport Ford driver Craig Breen for his tips on how to launch a rally car. As you’ll discover, it’s not as simple as just selecting first gear, revving the engine, and setting off on your way.

If the car is cold you need to prime the oil pump and oil pressure which is a case of cranking over the engine without any ignition. Once you get the oil pressure up and the oil circulating then you can crank it – all of this is normally only in parc fermé in the morning.

Before the stage, you’ll be trying to get a bit of heat into the tires. This is good, it gives you a feel for the grip on the road – it helps you understand a bit of what’s coming in the first couple of hundred meters of the stage.

When we’re using the hard tire on asphalt, that can be difficult to get the proper temperature in. Now we have these tire-warming zones, which are closed roads before the start, that’s much better. It can be difficult to warm the tires if you’re still on the public road and respecting the rules of the road.

In Croatia (for WRC’s Croatia Rally earlier this year) we were going through towns and villages before the start and trying to get the hard compound to switch on, which was quite tricky.

When you actually get to the start of a stage and you’re looking to launch the car off the line, there’s a bit you have to do. You need to make sure the turbo, the water temperature and oil temperature are up to the proper values.

If you do it while it’s still cold, you’ll be in bother. So, you keep those values in range and make sure the fresh air intake’s not too high. If the temperature of the air coming in is too high it doesn’t go into a safe mode, but you won’t get the proper response.


Photo: Toyota Gazoo Racing

All of those values are on the dash in front of you and while you’re on the road section and getting to the arrival control, you’re really monitoring all of those temperatures and making sure they’re where they need to be.

Obviously, you want the temperatures and everything in precisely the right place when you get to the line and the countdown starts – but sometimes you’ll get a delay and you have to knock the car off to avoid it getting too hot.

Getting the temperatures too high is much more of a concern than arriving there with them too low.

Assuming there’s no delay, you’ll be into the countdown from one minute and then you just follow a procedure. The first thing is to check the center diff maps are in the correct position. We have a rotary switch on the wheel which allows us to change the map and I like to double check those are in the right place with the right maps.

Launching in first tends to send you straight to the limiter on the loose, so starting in second means one fewer gear change on the way up the box Craig Breen

These maps are all linked to the engine response and things like that. A good example of when you’re really going to be aware of these is on an event like Monte Carlo – if you’re going from a stage full of ice into a stage that is much drier. But, don’t forget, these center diff maps will only be with us until the end of the 2021 season as the center diff is outlawed for 2022.

You also need to monitor the engine mode (again, this is on a rotary switch) and make sure it’s in the aggressive mode – this is something that you don’t really change much.

Once the countdown gets to 15 seconds then you’re preparing the launch procedure. With 10s to go, you put the car into gear. On asphalt you’ll always start the car in first gear, but on gravel or snow you go off the line in second gear 90% of the time. It can be quite tricky to get the car into second gear on the line, sometimes you have to let the clutch out a little bit, let the barrel turn and then she’ll click into second.

The thinking behind this is that the upshift from first to second can sometimes take a little bit more time when you’ve got so much wheelspin. Launching in first tends to send you straight to the limiter on the loose, so starting in second means one fewer gear change on the way up the box.

With the car in gear, it’s on with the handbrake and pushing the button to enter ‘stage’ mode – this is at seven seconds to go. At five seconds, we have a separate ‘launch’ button. When you push that you get a warning on the dash to tell you you’ve entered that mode.

Then you’re going to give the car full throttle – which brings all the lights up on the dash to show you’re in the correct procedure. Then you begin to feed out the clutch until you find the bite point, just leave it resting on the bite point and let the handbrake pick up the slack. I do this when I’ve about three seconds left in the countdown. Then you’re just waiting.


Before the ‘one’ has gone off the timing display, you’re already launching and letting the clutch out. For sure you’ve always got a bit of slip and the car never rests completely on the start beam. Let go of the handbrake and away you go – you want to be crossing that beam at ‘zero’ on the countdown.

It’s not just a case of side-stepping the clutch in the World Rally Car. Especially on asphalt, you need to have the car well loaded before you go off the line.

That’s the mechanical side of things. Obviously there are more personal things that me and Paul (Nagle, co-driver) do as well. We always shake hands before the start of the first stage of every rally.

I always put my gloves on the same way: right-hand first. The belts are always done up in the same order: left on, right on; right one, left one. If I make a mistake halfway through, I’ll stop and do it all again. And I’m always nipping the belts up a little bit more, just pulling them tighter and tighter, all the way up to 10s.


I always like Paul to count me down in the same way. Even though I don’t need him to say it – I can see it on the lights – I like to hear the voice. He’ll tell me at 30s, 15, 10 and then the countdown from five.

Sometimes, maybe in the World Rally Car on asphalt (where the car’s running a lower set-up) or in the Rally2 car, Paul can’t see the clock outside and it’s up to me then to look at the lights. But Paul has the clock inside the car which runs off the same GPS timing, so he can use that.

It’s a routine thing. I’m not sure how much I’m even focused on what he’s saying, it’s just normality and maybe the silence before we launch would be a bit unnerving. And he’d tell you, he would jump the start for us sometimes – he’ll be calling ‘go’ when the clock’s still on ‘one’!

Then we’re up and away and living the dream again.

Photography:Hyundai Motorsport, Toyota Gazoo Racing

Words:Craig Breen