FHM’s motor-phobic Elizabeth Atkin travels to Sweden and finds out what the other bloke in a rally car is actually doing...
I’m about to make my car-fanatic stepdad cry. Tears are forming in the corners of his eyes. Words are trying to come out of his mouth. I’ve just told him that I’m going to be co-driving for Kris Meeke at Rally Sweden.
“Oh my God,” he gushes. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And it’ll be on ice, too. It’ll be incredible. I’d kill for this,” he adds, a little too convincingly. “Whatever you do, don’t eat or drink anything before the drive.” “Why?” I ask. “They won’t be very happy if you vomit all over their car.”
Honestly, I don’t even really know what a co-driver is, but now I’m nervous. There’s going to be vomit? How fast do these rally things actually go?
Pretty fast is the answer. A quick YouTube search shows cars speeding faster than my eyes can keep up with, the muffled sound of unintelligible car-talk. Like Web MD-ing yourself from mild headache to life-crushing brain tumour, I’ve put the fear of God into myself.
I arrive in Karlstad for Rally Sweden in the middle of February, when the country is nothing but a pile of snow, broken up by the occasional ice-covered road. There, I meet Citroën driver Kris the night before the five-day World Rally Championship begins. I also meet Paul Nagle, the one man who can actually say he co-drives for Kris Meeke. They’re both Irish and they’re both… smaller than I expected. Later, I realise this is essential if you have any hope of fitting into the rally car.
“So,” I ask, “what does a co-driver actually do?”
“My job is to guide the driver from A to B, as fast and safely as possible,” says Paul. His prep starts weeks before the rally, obtaining maps and videos of old rallies, learning the rules and regulations. He’s also in charge of the admin – he holds on to the vital paperwork without which the team could be thrown out of the event.
“We relax for a day and then the recce [the ‘reconnaissance’, where the co-driver takes down notes detailing the turns on the track, fuel information and speeds needed for the competition] starts," he explains. "I relay the information back to Kris on the second pass. I calculate the fuel, tyre pressures and everything else around the car, bar the driving.”
It sounds simple on the surface, but it’s exactly the opposite. The driver’s two main objectives are to go as fast as you possibly can, and don’t drive the car into a tree. But the co-driver does much more. Kris’ job is to drive like a madman, while Paul’s job is everything else.
Kris and Paul are out on a recce when I arrive at the Citroën tent to go through the pacenotes, which calculate the fuel, brakes, turns and anything else the driver needs to know about the track during the rally. “Our descriptions are one to six, which is gear-related. Six is flat out, and one is slow corners,” Paul reels off, just as I’m rushed into the car and strapped in for the co-drive.
This is my first chance to talk to Kris about his co-driver without Paul being there. But he’s starting and stopping the car at such a quick pace that I can’t gather any of my thoughts. This is the process of warming up the brakes, to ensure they can handle the sharp turns. This is undoubtedly the worst bit.
The brakes are finally warm, we’re almost at the starting line and the car is being mobbed by fans. Grown men are clawing at the windows trying to get a selfie.
“It’s just part of the job,” says Kris, not overly thrilled by the attention. Paul doesn’t experience any of the adoration, and is almost irritatingly humble about it. By my account, he’s the guy propping the driver up, getting him from start to finish in one piece.
The drive itself is over in a few blinks. We’re flying across the ice – at 170mph. Gone are the feelings of impending doom and vomit, replaced by dizzying euphoria.
My view from the window is a blur of massive trees, glistening snow and people. People who are scarily close to the car. And then more trees. Trying to focus on just one thing is impossible, because it’s gone in a flash. The rumble of the engine is deafening. How can anyone read out instructions in these conditions?
I crawl out of the car, completely high but also shattered. Everyone around me nods knowingly, because this rush of pure adrenaline is nothing new to them.
Rally driving is the one sport where you're not allowed to fuck up. Not even a little bit. If you make a mistake, someone could die. If you’re not fully in sync with the person sitting next to you, the end result isn’t pretty. As Kris tells me, there’s no halfway line to go back to. Once you’re out on the ice, you’re on it until you reach the end.
“Any WRC driver will tell you that no other sport requires this intense a relationship with your teammate,” says Kris, and I believe him. The level of trust the driver needs to have with his co-driver is almost uncomfortable. In the middle of competition, driving at breakneck speed, Kris is hanging on Paul’s every word.
They also have to spend 16-hour days in the car together, for a week at a time, working non-stop until they go to sleep. So do they run out of things to say to each other? Far from it. “It’s comfortable silence. That’s how you know you’ve got it good.” Kris says. “After all, I spend more time with Paul than I do with my wife.”