Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe
Special feature

Inside Hyundai's rally-meets-Nurburgring challenge

It’s not often the world of rallying and circuit racing collide but, when it does, it creates a memorable scenario. Hyundai Motorsport invited Autosport to witness a unique test as it tasked World Rally Championship crew Thierry Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe to approach the Nurburgring Nordschleife like a rally stage

'Three left minus, long, bumpy', may resemble an ordinary rally pacenote. But this is how a World Rally Championship driver sees one of motorsport’s most famous corners – the Karussell at the Nurburgring Nordschleife.

Yes, you have read that correctly. You could be forgiven to question 'what kind of fever dream am I about to read?' That’s a totally valid response, but this was by no means a dream. To test its WRC title-leading crew Thierry Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai Motorsport set a unique rally-meets-race circuit challenge.

The pair were tasked to drive the 73-turn Nurburgring Nordschleife but to pacenotes, as if it were a rally stage, behind the wheel of a TCR-spec race-prepared touring car. Autosport was invited to follow the crews and witness the art of pacenote making first-hand for an insight into how a rally crew operates outside their comfort zone.

The undulating and relentless 20.8-kilometre ribbon of asphalt nestled in Germany’s Eifel mountains is perhaps the only renowned permanent circuit that can mimic a rally stage, barring Australia’s Mount Panorama or even Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps.

The latter has even featured as part of a WRC event - the 2021 Ypres Rally - which marked the first of seven rally wins to date since Neuville and Wydaeghe joined forces. But Spa and Monza - the latter appearing on the calendar during the WRC’s 2020 and 2021 COVID-19-affected seasons - are the only world-famous circuits to have graced the WRC calendar in recent years. Taking on the Nurburgring as a rally stage is therefore an unusual task.

“[The Nordschleife] is one of the most challenging circuits, a bit like Rally Finland but on Tarmac,” Neuville tells Autosport. “That is what I can compare it to. There are similarities in the pacenotes too!”

Two days after finishing third on Croatia’s WRC asphalt stages, Neuville and Wydaeghe swapped the narrow roads for the expanses of the Nurburgring and traded their Hyundai i20 N Rally1 car for a Hyundai i30 N TCR. For Neuville, the Nordscheife is a venue that holds childhood trackside memories watching the Nurburgring 24 Hours. But tackling the Green Hell as if it’s a WRC rally stage was an altogether new experience.

Hyundai's rally crew treated their Nurburgring pacenotes as they would for any rally stage

Hyundai's rally crew treated their Nurburgring pacenotes as they would for any rally stage

Photo by: Hyundai Motorsport

How do you make pacenotes for the Nordschleife?

While navigating the Nordschleife's 73 turns is quite removed from belting through a Finnish forest, Neuville and Wydaeghe treated it exactly as they would a WRC rally stage. As a result, the first task is to undergo a recce.

For those unaware of the process driver and co-driver undertake before any rally, a recce features the crews piloting a road car through the stage at road speed. It is here where pacenotes are made; these determine the speed and angle of a corner, as well as any additional information the co-driver can alert to the driver to help the pair pass through a stage at the fastest speed possible.

PLUS: Behind the scenes on the WRC's 80km/h rodeo

“The recce is one of the most important parts of our job,” says Neuville. “We are allowed to run a stage twice during the recce to make our pacenotes, which is basically our description of the road we are going to drive. This is very important information that the drivers trust from the co-driver that is giving the pacenotes. As you can imagine, if the pacenotes are too slow or too fast, it is very hard to find confidence and it is very hard to go fast.

“At asphalt rallies we are driving to tenths so the pacenotes are the key factor to go fast”
Thierry Neuville

“Rallies like Finland where we are limited to 70km/h [on the recce] and in the rally itself, you are driving close to 200km/h for most of the time, it makes it very difficult to judge the speed you can go; depending on the angle of the corner and the variation of grip, or if it is over a crest or through a dip, or the corner is hanging a bit to the outside or the inside.

“All those parameters have a big influence on the actual speed you can go. This is only possible [to achieve] with a lot of training, and you have to know your car really.”

For this recce, Autosport joined Neuville and Wydaeghe perched on the back seat of a road-going Hyundai i30 N to see how they go about the task of making pacenotes. The first aspect that is made abundantly clear is the level of teamwork required.

The onus is on Neuville to instantly read the road and communicate that to Wydaeghe, who scribbles down the information, in pencil, into a pacenote book. The use of pencil is important as it allows changes to be made if required when all of this information is analysed and compared against onboard videos of the stage – a process that is usually conducted in the evenings before the stage is run.

Neuville's memory proves a key element in his pacenotes

Neuville's memory proves a key element in his pacenotes

Photo by: Hyundai Motorsport

To add an extra level of complexity, the pair were using English pacenotes instead of their usual French as Wydaeghe explains while Neuville sweeps through Flugplatz: “Normally we are using a system in the French language, but that is hard for everyone to understand, so today we are making pacenotes in English. It is a basic system that everyone knows from the rally computer games. We are using a 1-6 system where six is the fastest, so we have the number of the corner, the direction left or right and the length of the corner.

“We normally have a very specific system, and we are the only ones using this system in the WRC. It is a system of 10-170 based on speed actually. We also have the length of the corner built into the pacenotes, so for example this [corner we are approaching] could be left 130, tightens 80 for example. So it is a left that goes more or less at 130kph over 30 metres and tightens to 80kph.”

Neuville interjects: “[The system] was something I developed in 2013; basically I came up with a different system. Going from slower to faster cars, I needed something simpler. Talking about speed is the easiest for everyone to understand.”

Wydaeghe continues the explanation: “He [Thierry] has a good memory by the way. Thierry tries to imagine at what speed he can pass. It is really important to write everything down as quick as possible, so Thierry can carry on his speed during the recce. If I cannot follow and we need to slow down all the time, we are breaking our own recce speed. It is then difficult for him to continue to imagine the speed of the next corners.”

Witnessing this process in action, it's quite clear that this is a science that takes years to perfect. If a recce doesn’t go to plan, it can quite easily have an adverse effect on a crew’s performance at a rally.

If you want find out more about Thierry and Martijn, listen to a special edition of the Gravel Notes podcast where the duo discuss their first rally memories, how they work together as driver and co-driver and how they unwind away from the stages.

 

“If the recce is done wrong and I come to a corner where it is a three and I have put a one, then I could drive the corner much faster,” Neuville confirms. “After that, my stage time would be bad. At asphalt rallies, we are driving to tenths, so the pacenotes are the key factor to go fast.”

As we reach the end of the lap, the iconic banked Karussell is navigated. Neuville definitively calls one of motor racing’s most famous corners as a three left minus, long, bumpy. As the final straight comes into view, Wydaeghe puts his pencil down. The lap is complete. However, this is only the start of the process to prepare for a rally stage. But first, what is it like for a co-driver to make pacenotes around the Nordschleife?

Autosport got a first-hand view of how pacenotes are constructed

Autosport got a first-hand view of how pacenotes are constructed

Photo by: Hyundai Motorsport

“The road is very smooth and very wide, so it is very comfortable for me to sit in this recce car to write pacenotes,” explains Wydaeghe. “For example, in Kenya, it is very bumpy and my pacenote book is hard to read as you are moving around a lot. Today was an easy game!

“But still, you have some nice profiles going up and down and sometimes you have some more twisty parts where there is a corner into another corner, and then another corner. It is quite wide, but this is something you could have in Rally de Catalunya for example.”

Pacenotes written, the crew now has to analyse them alongside the onboard video recorded from GoPro cameras attached to the car. This process is normally conducted in a hotel room, but today it’s a swift trip to Nurburgring’s Devil’s Diner that overlooks the circuit, where a laptop is whipped out and analysis begins. This is where any changes to the notes can be made in the pursuit of perfection that can result in valuable tenths of seconds.

“After recce we watch the videos, and we try to optimise [the pacenotes],” confirms Neuville. “Sometimes we will take out some information we don’t need, or if it is too much information, we simplify the notes. Sometimes we change the angle and the speed of the corner.

“I realised when I stepped into the WRC and the speed is so high and on bumpy roads, it is easy to get lost in the notes. So, I write big”
Martijn Wydaeghe

“With only two recce passes sometimes, it is hard to make the perfect note and it is important to do the fine-tuning to find the little adjustments, which helps you to go faster.”

Wydaeghe continues: “We analyse our first pass on the video to get it to perfection for the second pass to find some extra speed here and there. The second pass through stages can be completely different, with stones coming through the road and so on, so we need to add this into the pacenotes as well. If you don’t write them with pencil, it would be a mess to read everything.

“Before I was with Thierry, I was doing rallies in slower cars and I was writing much smaller. But then I realised when I stepped into the WRC and the speed is so high and on bumpy roads, it is easy to get lost in the notes. So, I write big - but it is still a challenge to get it right all the time.”

Time to tackle the Nordschleife at speed

Now it's time for Neuville and Wydaeghe to put all their work into action as they climb aboard the race-prepared 350 horsepower i30 N TCR, a vehicle Neuville raced in TCR Germany in 2019.

Neuville and Wydaeghe tackle the Nurburgring aboard a 350hp Hyundai TCR car

Neuville and Wydaeghe tackle the Nurburgring aboard a 350hp Hyundai TCR car

Photo by: Hyundai Motorsport

While this is a downgrade in terms of power compared to their more familiar 500 horsepower i20 N WRC Rally1 car, driving to pacenotes at ten-tenths around the Nordschleife’s 73 turns can never be underestimated. A day’s work ultimately boils down to approximately eight minutes as Neuville and Wydaeghe don their open-face helmets, plug in their intercom and complete a flying lap of the Nurburgring in the style of a rally.

“It’s been a beautiful experience,” says Neuville. “I was trusting my memory and relying on the pacenotes in the places I was not 100% sure, and it works. I’m sure it is going to help me remember the track even better because I’m not a specialist here. It was a great experience to be back in the TCR car even if it was only for a few laps here is something special. I will do more once I retire from rallying.”

From the co-driver seat, Wydaeghe says: “It was much more comfortable than being in a gravel stage in the WRC, it was really smooth and you have a lot of long corners and a lot of distance in between the corners as well compared to the normal rally stages. If you compare with the Tarmac rallies on the WRC like Monte Carlo and Japan, there it is corner into corner, it was a bit more relaxed for me let’s say. It was just magic to do something like this on this circuit.”

While Neuville and Wydaeghe took this challenge in their stride, the pair impressed Nurburgring 24 Hours veteran Marcus Willhardt. He's conducted thousands of laps around the revered asphalt as a driving instructor, but never to pacenotes and admits he found himself “wondering if they can trust in it”.

“I would not be comfortable after two recce laps, that is very strange for me,” Willhardt tells Autosport. “I think they have the hardest job. I love racing but I would never go on a rally stage, I would be too afraid. These guys are totally crazy. The confidence they have and the trust they have in their car and themselves is amazing.”

The Nordschleife is unlikely to join a round of the WRC as a stage anytime soon, but this experiment once again outlines the enormity of work undertaken by rally crews before any stage can be tackled at pace. It’s a meticulous, albeit incredibly important process to unlock the vital tenths of seconds that ultimately decide rallies.

Thousands of petrolheads make the pilgrimage to the Nordschleife to test their mettle around its famous curves and no doubt they would most definitely benefit from pacenotes. Perhaps Wydaeghe could have inadvertently stumbled upon a business opportunity?

“That’s a good idea actually [selling the notes], you [Autosport] can take a 5% cut,” Wydaeghe jokes.

Being able to see much more of the road ahead of him than normal was a welcome change for Wydaeghe

Being able to see much more of the road ahead of him than normal was a welcome change for Wydaeghe

Photo by: Hyundai Motorsport

Be part of the Autosport community

Join the conversation
Previous article Hyundai’s plan to help Tanak unlock potential from WRC car
Next article Lancia announces return to rallying

Top Comments

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe