One of the craziest things about rally racing is the amount of time the cars spend not actually touching the ground. The iconic jumps are a big part of what separates rallying from other forms of motorsport.
Fans love watching the cars launch through the air just feet from trees (or themselves). Despite the excitement around the jumps, they can present one of the biggest challenges to drivers. Cars are not planes (believe it or not). They don’t have wings and control surfaces to manipulate their flight once airborne. Thus, it takes careful set up before the jump and proper pace notes to ensure a safe landing. I’ve gathered a few tips from rally drivers in the community on how to properly jump a rally car.
Since cars don’t have ways to control their attitude once in the air, it’s crucial to get the weight balance correct before the moment of takeoff. The number one rule is to not lift from the throttle during takeoff from the jump. This keeps the weight of the car in the rear which helps the car fly more level and mitigates front-heavy cars from nosediving too much on landing.
Sam Albert, the 2018 third place finisher in the American Rally Association National Championship, said that he often uses left-foot braking along with the throttle as he approaches the jump.
With a quick application and release of the brakes before the moment of takeoff, the front end of the car rebounds upward transferring more weight to the rear. This technique can help keep the car more level during flight. Ensuring the car flies and lands properly reduces the chances of breaking the car (or the driver/co-driver).
The impact of landing from a jump shocks the whole system. Being too aggressive with the car over the jump can lead to broken components. Both Mitch Williams, the 2011 US Rally Championship winner, and Travis Nease, a former DirtFish instructor, recommend not landing with wide open throttle.
This is one way to reduce the shock from landing. It’s common to break an axle when landing since the tires go from no friction in the air to max friction upon landing. It’s ideal to land with the wheels spinning at relatively the same speed as they were going when they left the ground. Just a little bit of throttle helps the tires match ground speed, minimizing stress to the vehicle while also helping the car regain stability more quickly as the tires attempt to regain traction.
All three of these drivers emphasized the importance of recce and good pace notes in the success of a perfect jump. Travis Nease noted the big challenge in correctly differentiating between “crests” and “jumps” when doing recce. Recce has an enforced max speed of about 35mph which makes it hard to determine whether a crest will actually be a jump at race speed.
On bigger crests, he likes to use “jump maybe” as a pace note. This prompts him to take the crest like a jump where he moves the weight of the car to the rear for smoother flight. It’s better to be prepared than surprised when your car suddenly achieves flight over a crest.
Additionally, you don’t have a way to slow or turn the car once you are in the air, so it is incredibly important that your pace notes tell you what comes after the jump. Are you jumping over a corner? Are you jumping into a straightaway or a corner? Does the road kink in the landing zone? What other hazards are on the other side of the jump?
Typically, you won’t be able to see over the jump when approaching it. You’ll have to rely solely on the pace notes you have given yourself. Practice good recce and pace notes writing. This will make sure your speed and line are correct for the jump helping you to land on the road and not suddenly off the road chasing birds through the tree branches.
As with many other aspects of rally, jumping is much more nuanced than it might look in videos. The key to perfecting the jump will be a combination of your understanding of your car’s characteristics and having good pace notes. Jumping comes with big risks but not always a big reward. Remember that what looks good in a video isn’t always fast. If speed is your goal, the “Just gonna send it!” mentality rarely works out.