Spatial Triad at 100mph, Whilst Sideways Through a Forest: Applying Henri Lefebvre to Rallying

7 time World Rally Champions Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia take off at Rally Finland

A year ago today I published my most read essay, where I explained the spatial triad of Henri Lefebvre through the battle between school authorities and skateboarders over the use of the famous El Toro stair set in Southern California. What I love about Lefebvre’s concept is that it can be applied to practically anything, and practically anything can be applied to it — for everything that we do takes place in a form of space. Be it in physical, three dimensional space, in our own head spaces or in ‘cyberspace’. The way we interpret our world is via spatially.

A clear representation of the importance of space is observable in any sport, as every sport has an element of traversing or transgressing spatial boundaries, in order to determine a winner or, indeed, a loser. Athletics is concerned with who can cross a distance in the fastest time possible; in football, hockey and Aussie rules you have to guide a ball through two points and across a line; to score in rugby and American football a player must cross a threshold with the ball in hand; to score big in cricket and baseball one has to hit the ball over a boundary (literally in cricket) and in golf, basketball and netball you have to guide a ball through a circular hole — admittedly in very different ways. In a host of sports there are also courts and pitches which demarcate no go zones, indicating whether the ball or player was in or out of play. The relationship between sport and space is inexorable.

One sport where the limitations of space is paramount is motorsport; my other great passion in life. The goal of most forms of motorsport is to complete a number of laps around a set circuit, or get from A to B, in the fastest time possible — often whilst directly competing with other cars. The essence of skill in motorsport is, therefore, maximising the amount of speed a driver can carry across a set distance, which will result in the time posted and, subsequently, your position after the finish. How you do this varies depending on the form of racing; drag racing is all about reaction time and brute force whereas Formula 1 races are often defined by a balance of raw speed and tire preservation, with Formula E — the world’s premier electric racing series — pairing speed with energy conservation.

Turn 5 at the Algarve International Circuit during the 2021 Portugese Grand Prix

The three examples I have provided all exist on closed circuits. Drag strips are dead straight ribbons of tarmac a quarter of a mile long, the majority of Formula 1 races take place on purpose built tracks, with some on closed off street circuits and all of Formula E races (excluding the two races in Valencia this year) take place on closed public roads in the middle of cities. All of these are held in common by the ability for the divers and teams to intimately study the venues where they will be racing and work out the fastest way around the track or down the strip.

Then there is rallying, which is rather different. The point of rallying is to drive your car as fast as possible from A to B, yet the challenge lies in the roads which are to be driven. Known as stages, a rally driver will endeavour to set their fastest time on closed public roads with a variety of surfaces, from normal everyday tarmac to loose gravel, mud, snow, ice, often over jumps and sometimes through shallow river crossings. Unlike the street circuits of Formula 1 and Formula E, the stages facing a rally driver are narrow and uncultivated, whilst also being long. The last F1 race took place at the Algarve International Circuit and is 4.653KM in length and was run over 306KM — resulting in 66 laps — whereas the last round of the World Rally Championship (WRC) which was held in Croatia for the first time, was also ran over 300KM, featured stages which were 25KM in length and was made up of 10 different routes. Whilst Lewis Hamilton and his competitors could — throughout the weekend — lap the track 100 times or so, and achieve near perfection when lapping the circuit, the divers of the WRC only get one slow reconnaissance (or recce) drive through the route before they race along it.

Compare the above Formula One track with the road here in Croatia. This is narrow, dusty and covered in gravel, wheras the Portugese circuit is wide, smooth and clean.

The sheer complexity of rally stages and the impossibility of accurately remembering 25KM of winding, contorting Croatian roads, coupled with the lack of visual preparation, inexorably de-couples rallying from most other forms of motorsport. All racing is a team sport, as in the cars are prepared and made competitive by a team of engineers and mechanics, but it is up to the driver to deliver the cars potential, and the same is the case for rallying; asides from one essential difference. Owing to the aforementioned complexity of a rally stage, and the event as a whole, a rally car has two occupants, a driver and a navigator who is known as the co-driver. It is the co-driver’s job to tell the driver what turns and features of the stage are coming up and how fast to take them. This is where the work of Henri Lefebvre comes in.

So, how does a co-driver tell a driver where to go and what to do? A co-driver many of us will be familiar with is the voice of a sat-nav or the lady from Google Maps, who lets us know which junctions to take and whether there are any speed cameras or traffic up ahead. In rallying, a co-driver does the same sort of thing, but at three times the speed, often on a gravel road where the boundary for going off course is a line of trees, a cliff or even a bank of spectators. Therefore, the information presented to the driver must be dead accurate. The voice of the WRC’s TV coverage for the past 20 years or so, Paul King, described a co-driver’s error as being similar to a goal keeper’s error in football; a mistake by either of those participants is often, in a sporting context, catastrophic.

Rallying at its most intense. A Lancia 0-37 on Rally Portugal in the early 1980's

A co-driver uses what are called pace notes to convey the road ahead. These are created during the recce run, where the driver will say the type of turn ahead of them and the co-driver will write it down, in big letters, in a notebook. What’s fascinating about this is the way in which a driver will convey the information which makes the pace notes. Many drivers use a system which ranks corners from 1–6 as a means of describing a road. A 1 corner is the slowest, usually a hairpin turn, which may need the use of a handbrake to flick the car around, whereas a 6 is absolutely flat out. So, during a stage taken at speed, the co-driver will say something like “4 left into 6 right” — which means there is a relatively fast left hand turn quickly followed by a really fast righthander. But, this is a simplification.

After all, rallying is a sport, a race against the clock and, ultimately, other drivers. Therefore any opportunity to cut a bit of a corner off and take a shortcut to save time, is likely to be taken. So the driver will say “cut” at that point and If there is an obstacle on the inside of the corner they will say “don’t cut”. A driver will also have to know the road rises or falls (or if there is a jump ahead), as a corner which is going over a crest will have to be taken differently from a flat one and whether it “opens” up on the exit or “tightens”. This is as well as how far ahead the next corner is, by saying the approximate number of meters between the car and the corner. Finally, a driver may refer to landmarks on the stage — such as “logs” if rallying in a forest, or “house” — and urge “caution” if a potential hazard or big slow down is up ahead. So, rather than saying “4 left into 6 right”, an accurate taking of pacenotes may read as “4 left, don’t cut, opens, into 6 right over crest, 100, caution 2 left, don’t cut, logs outside”.

My favourite car and rally. Audi Quattro Group B competing in the 1000 lakes rally (now known as Rally Finland) in 1985

Now, where does Lefebvre and his spatial triad come into play? Well, let’s think about the three elements of space which make up the triad. Simply put, there is perceived space — which is our perception of a space, conceived space — which is the physical reality of a space and lived space — which is what truly occurs within that space. These elements all coalesce and interact to form space; for example, the built environment influences what we do in a space or how we experience it first hand, which then influences our perception of it.

So, in rallying, the creation of pacenotes is the extraction of a perception of conceived space, through experiencing it first hand on the recce — i.e. through lived space. The driver gauges what the essence of a corner or a feature is and codifies it, reducing the feature into a series of numbers and instructions. Therefore, the driver is completely reliant on the pacenotes they created and on the calls from the co-driver. During a ‘live’ stage when it’s taken at full speed, it is the marrying up of perceived and conceived space which produces the lived experience — often whilst travelling at 110mph through the forests of Finland. When it all comes together, there is nothing more impressive, at least in the sporting realm, than a flat out world rally car gliding sideways over loose gravel through the trees, but, if the perceived space doesn’t match the conceived space (the physical reality of that stage) then the lived experience may well be the car sliding off the road and hitting a tree at speed.

Rallying is unique in sport. Not only is it one of the most exciting, and therefore dangerous, sports on the planet, it is one which the competitors do not fully understand the field of play upon which they compete. Other than ocean sailing (which is reactive to wind conditions) or cycling (which happens at a relatively slow speed, at least in comparison to a rally car), rallying is rooted in spatial uncertainty.

A footballer knows the position of the goal and where the lines are, as does a baseball player, who plays at different ballparks — which have different dimensions — knowing that if they hit the ball over the fence, they will get a home run. A rally driver does not categorically know for certain what is waiting for them around the bend — or over a jump. A Formula 1 driver will know every bump and feature of the track they race on, but a rally driver has to rely on their perception of the space, a space which is still open to the public and other potential intruders, let alone the impact of fluctuating weather conditions, and can therefore change in between the end of the recce and the start of the stage proper.

Rallying, like most sports is about maximising what you can do with the space allowed, but that space is changing and almost defined by its unknown quantities. Unlike a track, which is wide and made up of grippy tarmac, a rally stage conceals what is lurking around the next bend, or over the next jump, and offers little room to navigate around any obstacles. Therefore, the best drivers are those who are most willing to step into that unknown, to keep their foot down that fraction longer, to brake later, to be more sideways and carry more speed through the bends, to hit the jumps with full commitment and to take the largest cuts and run as close to the myriad of obstacles as possible. The best drivers are also those who can best align their perception of space with the space in reality, and have sheer courage in their convictions to guide their car through it in as little time as possible.

It is this challenge, this step into the unknown, which for me, makes rallying the most incredible sport on this planet.

By Will Brown

Doctoral Researcher — Loughborough University

All sources linked in text.

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I am a PhD researcher from Loughborough University and this is my page where I write about how we live within our urban world. I hope you enjoy reading it!