Acting as a route note crew in the World Rally Championship certainly isn’t for the faint hearted.
Long days, extremely short nights and maximum concentration aren’t just expected but demanded. It’s exhausting, it’s testing, but it’s also massively rewarding. Get the job right and it can make the difference between the competing crew winning and losing.
Route note crews are part and parcel of all asphalt rounds of the WRC, but never do they play a more vital role than on the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally given the mixed and treacherous conditions the mixed-surface event regularly throws up.
But what exactly does this job entail? With thanks to American WRC2 pairing Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani and their route note crew ‘Crazy’ Leo Urlichich and Cameron Fair, we’re about to find out.
In simple terms, the job of the route note crew is to go through the rally’s special stages over an hour before the stage goes live to provide the competing crew with the latest information on the condition of the road.
Typically the route note crew will comprise former or active rally drivers and co-drivers, and the best teams will stick with the same crew from event to event and year to year as that way everybody is in-tune with each other and the particular working habits.
But what does all of that look like in practice? Let’s start off with something we can all relate to: the alarm clock.
“I think the earliest we woke up was maybe 20 past 3, quarter past 3 and that was the Friday morning because we had a fair drive out,” Fair, the 2022 Scottish Rally champion co-driver, tells DirtFish.
“You get up quite early and then drive towards the stage, and when we arrive we get a weather sheet that we need to fill out from Saintéloc and basically we use that to describe the road surface throughout the stage and the air temperature and ground temperature.
“This year it was fairly easy to fill it out because it was mostly dry, maybe two or three damp corners per stage.
“On the first pass in the morning we were going into the stages pretty early because we wanted to have completed the stage or two stages before Sean and Alex had left service.”
But it’s not as simple as just driving in whenever you like to review the road. No route note crew can enter a stage less than 70 minutes before the first car starts it – and so this is where tactics come into play, as Leo explains.
On a snowy Monte in particular we don't have any information about ice, snow, gravel, slippery corners or anything like that so we rely on Leo and Cam to put those inAlex Kihurani
“There’s three things to it,” he says. “The most important is ideally you want to go onto the stages as close to the rally cars as possible because if conditions change you want to be seeing the latest conditions.
“And conditions can change even from other RNC crews driving the stage, cleaning it up a little bit, using the cuts – so you can’t think ‘oh it’s a dry day it’ll just be the same.’ Plus the first pass is always super dark as it’s super early in the morning, be it 4am or 6am it’s still dark and cold so it’s still worth it to go as late as possible.
“The second thing is if you provide a weather report to the driver or engineer for tire choice or setup, then you have to go earlier maybe up to even a couple of hours before the competing car leaves service.
“And then there’s a third trick which is if you make friends – and hey, life’s all about making friends – let’s say there’s strategic thinking as to whether you want to go behind certain drivers as well.”
Just like rallying, there’s a dark art to this.
“On the stage you have the most updated copy of the pacenotes,” Leo continues, “and you have a certain agreement with the driver, like you might just be changing road conditions or you can be checking other things in the pacenotes too, which I think is a big advantage.
“Top teams, not at our level, maybe have that advantage as they’ve been working with RNC for years and can get them to do more, delegate more stuff.”
Let’s throw to Kihurani now to understand what it is he needs from the route note crew as the competing co-driver.
“On a snowy Monte in particular we don’t have any information about ice, snow, gravel, slippery corners or anything like that so we rely on Leo and Cam to put those in, but other than that the second thing we ask them to check is cuts,” he explains.
“We’ll write in particular places where we want Leo to have a really close look at the cut and maybe take pictures and send them to us or he’ll drive over it twice or something.
“By default Leo checks all of our cuts and will adjust them, but that’s the next biggest thing because on Tarmac if you don’t go into the cut enough you miss the line and you slide off the road on the outside, and if you go in too deep then that’s an obvious game ender as well.
“So we use them for that and I guess the third thing we sometimes use Leo for is if there’s something that stands out to him as being particularly wrong in our pacenotes he will let us know.
“Sean and I do a pass on the video after we finish recce so we know, already, what questions we have and there’s usually not too much that still needs to be revised when we check the notes in the morning before we go.
“At that point we’re just trying to get the feeling of the stage at the forefront of our minds so that we can run it as quickly as possible on the day.”
The process of delivering the amended pacenotes differs from team to team. Some will physically hand over new books, others do it digitally. Kihurani prefers the digital method.
“Some teams use a runner and use the pacenote exchange points that are throughout the route to actually get the pacenote book with all the changes inserted in to the co-driver.
“We don’t have an extra person to do that, running around, and also I like to write in the changes myself.
“We mostly have more asynchronous communication because Sean and I are busy with lots of things, especially in the morning talking to the team about tire choice, setup, me just doing my timing and my basic co-driver job, so generally Cam makes a nice, neat PDF of all of my pacenotes with all of his changes in them and then he sends them to me, and during the road section I add them to my pacenote book and I can also then send him messages if I ever want clarification on something.
I'm just very, very grateful for the job that they do and for their incredible enthusiasm and motivation to do the best job they canSean Johnston
“And then Leo’s very nice about leaving us voice notes for every single stage, and often they’re a stage ahead of the stage we’re going to so we’ll leave them until we’ve finished a stage and then we’ll listen to all of Leo’s information about the stage that’s then coming up.
“It’s a nice description and understanding of what you’re about to get into and gives some context of some of the changes that have come through.
“And also Leo when he writes the notes he puts precisely where the dirt or the stones or the ice is but occasionally that can be too much information, so I take a little bit of liberty just to put things in a place where I know I can get everything out on time and I’ll get it out on time in a way that Sean can actually process.
“Because that’s the hard part. We already have very busy notes and then you’re adding in all the extra information to make sure that all the timing and comprehension still can come through.”
Johnston is arguably the biggest beneficiary of this intricate process, but he’s the one with the least involvement. He’ll be front and center of a pre-rally meeting between competing crew and route note crew, but once the competition is underway his mind is solely focused on his driving.
“Once the rally is going I’m just there at the end to just listen to the notes, and I trust everybody to do their job and they did an amazing job this year,” Johnston says.
“I’m not so involved. The RNC guys will talk to the engineer to see when they need to be making the phone call to give us the latest information to make our tire choice for the first pass.
“I’m just very, very grateful for the job that they do and for their incredible enthusiasm and motivation to do the best job they can. They’re great, I love my gravel crew.”
But what is it that a rally crew actually looks for in a good route note crew?
“From my side it’s the motivation and the commitment to doing the job well, and that’s something that you just see so clearly with both Leo and Cam,” Johnston explains.
“They’re two dudes with great attitudes. There’s no request that’s unreasonable to them, they don’t bat an eye to wake up early, go get out and give their everything so for me it’s just great to work with them in that sense.
“But then on top of that it’s the good energy they bring; there’s such a good relationship with both guys that creates this really enjoyable feeling of working all together which I think helps keep me relaxed and focused on the rally.
“It’s always great when we see them during the rally back in service at the end of the day.”
“For me it’s all about enthusiasm and attention-to-detail which I think comes from the enthusiasm,” Kihurani adds.
“It’s a hard job being a route note crew because you do need to leave so early, you’re doing a lot of the job in the dark and you really have to pay close attention to the manusia of every single cut or surface change, every aspect of every corner.
“And if you’re not really passionate about rallying and not really passionate about doing the job then you’re going to miss things, so that’s especially why the first time we wanted to do Rally Monte Carlo and needed a gravel crew I recommended Leo because I knew there would be no-one more excited to wake up at three in the morning and drive over all these roads and look at every cut in great detail than him.
“For me it’s important to have a good relationship particularly with the co-driver in the RNC because we’re relying on each other and going back and forth a lot, and I have to feel as though I can trust what they’re going to say, that they’re going to understand my pacenotes well and that they’re not going to be offended if I ask questions or follow-ups without really having the time for all the normal politeness you’d usually try to use in those situations, just because you don’t have the time.
“And then of course all the things that Sean said as well!”
There's no request that's unreasonable to them, they don't bat an eye to wake up early, go get out and give their everything so for me - it's just great to work with them in that senseSean Johnston
Clearly, only a certain kind of individual will have the aptitude and desire to do this job. Why does it appeal?
“As well as also doing the job it’s giving you experience of the stages and experience of how the road develops through cutting,” says Fair, currently a national-level co-driver with aspirations to climb into the WRC.
“This year for me was a huge opener to how much the road changes through cutting. The early mornings are part of the job, it’s the bit you’d rather not talk about but for me I love working in a team and working towards the goal of giving as much information, or the most precise information as possible, to Alex and Sean.”
Leo, a driver with six WRC starts, adds: “What wouldn’t you give for an opportunity to drive on a closed World Rally Championship stage? It’s amazing.
“Short of competing you’d never get a chance [to do it], and especially Monte Carlo and especially some of the night stages, it’s just awesome.
“When I competed back in the day in an R2 car a lot of fans would leave by then so here you see more fans than you would see if you’re racing – just the atmosphere is phenomenal from the passion point of view.
“But the feeling of driving on any closed World Rally Championship stages is worth any early starts or any hard work.”
Particularly if, like Leo and Fair, you’re doing so in an ex Sébastien Ogier Subaru recce car.
Conducting this interview certainly opened my eyes to the nuances of this very important role. Frequently we’ll hear drivers praise their route note crew, and as rally fans we have an awareness of the work that they do, but hopefully (if you’ve not done the job yourself of course) it’s helped you better understand and appreciate the process.
My biggest takeaway is how important it is for all four members of the quartet to understand one another. The personal bonds they form must be spot on otherwise it is so hard to get the job done efficiently.
“At the end of the day, the word is trust,” says Johnston. “We have to have complete and total trust in what it is that they’re doing and that trust comes from knowing the person but also having the clarity in language to communicate effectively.”
“Everybody’s got to be on the same page,” adds Fair. “Everybody’s got to be working towards the same goal and working in the same direction, because as somebody’s not on the same page then it takes too much time.
“You’ve not got enough time to be questioning things, everything’s got to be sharp and everybody has to know the right word to describe a certain type of corner or condition.
“At the end of the day it’s almost as if we are doing the rally ourselves. I’m mimicking what Alex will be doing in two hours time and Leo is mimicking what Sean will be doing.”
There’s no better feeling than shared success, and if it goes well then the route note crew feels just as rewarded as the competing one. But, unfortunately as it did this year, when things go wrong the losses are just as raw.
“Let me put it this way: it’s all cool and fun to tell your non-rally friends I’m in Monte Carlo and this professional driver arrives to a braking point at sometimes 200kph and fully trusts my s***, that’s cool to tell your friends but then when your driver goes off and there’s a small chance that it’s your fault, even partially, trust me those 20 minutes were one of the least fun in my rally career for sure,” says Leo.
“I was in the car driving at 50kph and I pulled over and was like we’re not moving, we’re not doing anything until we hear back. I couldn’t even drive 50kph that’s how stressed I was.
“Like anything in rally the highs are crazy high and the lows can be crazy low.”
When your driver goes off and there's a small chance that it's your fault, even partially, trust me those 20 minutes were one of the least fun in my rally career for sureLeo Urlichich
Johnston of course lost the rear of his Citroën C3 Rally2 at the top of the famous Col de Turini in incredibly salty conditions. But he’s keen to stress the fault lay with him, not the route note crew.
“I want to make sure that people know that the accident that happened on the last stage was completely on my shoulders – it was just me being too aggressive, trying too hard,” he explains.
“The corner’s not new to me and I knew the conditions, I knew what to expect there I had all the information I needed.
“It’s not an easy job that the RNC guys have and there’s a lot of responsibility with it as if they do get it wrong there can be consequences of us going off, but that certainly wasn’t the case here.”
As we said, acting as route note crew certainly isn’t for the faint hearted. Perhaps, logically, it doesn’t make any sense why somebody would choose to put themselves through it.
But we could say the same about rallying in general, couldn’t we? We don’t do it because it makes sense, we do it because we love it.