Rallying is a unique discipline of motorsport in that it requires not just one, but two, competitors to be working in perfect harmony inside the car.
While the driver has the obvious job of steering the car and getting it down a designated stretch of road as quickly as possible, they would be lost without their co-driver who calls the pacenotes to describe exactly what lies ahead, allowing the driver to fully commit to the stage.
But what happens when that harmony is interrupted?
Well after times rolled in from SS4 Beaver Pond on Friday at the recent New England Forest Rally, I had just one question on my mind: what happened to Block?
Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino of Hoonigan had already started to show the same dangerously fast pace in their Hyundai i20 they had on Oregon Trail Rally and Southern Ohio Forest Rally, and led the rally after three stages in relative comfort. They even set a new stage record on the famous Concord Pond test.
SS4 was different though. Block had lost about 18 seconds to American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National championship rival Brandon Semenuk. Obviously there’s room for drivers times to fluctuate from stage to stage, but an 18s deficit after the pace Block was showing meant something was amiss.
On top of that, the time lost was pretty evenly divided between splits, indicating it more likely to be something mechanical than an off. Maybe an early puncture? Maybe loss of power?
At the start of SS5 none of the other competitors who arrived before Block seemed to know what had happened either.
“Maybe a puncture?”
“I think they hit something, they were looking at the front left of the car.”
“I don’t know, they were stopped about halfway through transit.”
When the Hyundai finally showed up, however, Gelsomino was the first to set it straight.
“The intercom went out,” he said, while rapidly checking tire pressures.
It turned out to be an issue with one of the helmets, which meant changing to the spare intercom lead made no difference for SS5 either – not ideal.
Of course this is far from the first time a team has had to improvise due to lack of in-car communication, and we all know how difficult it is for a driver to commit to the road ahead without the vital calls from their co-driver. But how tricky is it for the co-driver without the ability to speak to their driver?
“You don’t plan [for it], you know, Ken and I, we have such a good communication that even if we have to improvise we’ll make it work somehow,” Gelsomino told DirtFish.
“Sure we lost quite a bit of time, but funnily enough, we had the same issue happen here in 2013 on the Sturtevant stage. We had an intercom failure on the stage, halfway through the stage, and I had to use the hand signals. So it’s only happened twice in my career, both times with Ken, both times a disadvantage, so that’s pretty interesting.”
It becomes more complicated, when you have to describe things like don't cut, or stay in,Alex Gelsomino on calling pacenotes without an intercom
Some of the hand signals are easy to imagine (and to think through) and if you only think about calling numbers and directions, it doesn’t seem like too hard of a task. But pacenotes today are ultra precise and as specific as possible, so the drivers know in the greatest detail possible what’s coming.
Different drivers include differnt words, but trying to demonstrate using your just hand that a corner opens wide or that it shouldn’t be cut is when things get really complex.
Gelsomino explained: “Well, obviously because our system is a one to six system, you have to use your fingers to call the corner degrees. So a six becomes the thumbs up, you know, five, four, three, two, one,” he said counting down with his fingers.
“It becomes more complicated, when you have to describe things like don’t cut, or stay in,” this time pointing to the side and moving his hand in an arc.
“By the end I asked Ken, ‘did I do a good job calling notes with my hands?’ and he said, ‘yeah, you did the best you could!’
“So we minimized our loss of time, but still we lost 18 seconds on Beaver Pond and a handful of seconds on Icicle Brook.
“[Ken] understood that there was a situation where he couldn’t get the delivery of the notes as precise and normal communication between driver and co-driver. So, in that case he had to back off. That’s the only way.
“Going off because we don’t have the intercom and we’re using hand signals would have been a silly mistake. So we’ll take the loss of time.”
Despite the handicap, Block and Gelsomino were able to stay ahead of the other Subaru of Travis Pastrana, but fell to 21.3s behind Semenuk at the conclusion of the first day.
Those seconds would prove crucial too given the controversial ending to the rally where Block lost out by just 0.9s – exasperated by starting the powerstage just one minute behind Semenuk, who grabbed the win, given the thick plumes of dust he would ultimately leave behind.
It was a massively frustrating end to the rally, but Block and Gelsomino can retrospectively be proud to have kept themselves in the race at all given their improvisation on SS4 and SS5.