From fan to co-driver: Can a beginner use YouTube and rally games for training? We tested it and here’s what happened

The second part of the "From fan to co-driver" feature details how versatile pace note training can be done without jumping into a rally car. Our journalist Eemeli Aho started his co-driving career at the Rantaralli on Saturday and now reveals the various methods he used for training over the spring.
From fan to co-driver
From fan to the Co-Driver feature journalist has utilised video games in his pace note training. Photo: Eemeli Aho
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Can YouTube and rally games be used to support traditional pace note training?

Is it difficult to keep up with the pace notes? This is surely the biggest question for anyone dreaming of becoming a co-driver and planning to start. The final and foolproof answer to this question only becomes clear in real situations, but with good and versatile training, you can significantly ease your journey.

I have enjoyed watching different drivers’ in-car videos since I was young. As a child, I was impressed by Jarmo Lehtinen and Timo Rautiainen’s pace note reading, and inspired by those videos, I have watched hundreds of clips from various drivers over the years – both at the world top level and the national level. When you add up all the rally driving seen and heard in WRC live broadcasts, my viewing hours are quite substantial.

Watching videos and broadcasts provides a good foundation for learning pace notes. You learn terminology, the different note scales used by drivers, and many other things efficiently. When we started pace note training in the last days of winter, I didn’t need to spend time practicing the language and terminology of the notes. We could get straight to work.

When I finally decided to start my co-driver journey in early spring, I had to solve one essential issue. I needed to find out who would take a beginner alongside as an apprentice and pull me onto the rally roads.

Eventually, I gathered the courage to post a message in the Finnish co-driver / Co-driver group on Facebook, asking if anyone was willing to take a first-timer along. Soon, I received a message from Jarmo Vesterinen, who drives in the F-Cup, and after a few phone calls, we agreed to start our journey together. It would begin with thorough pace note training.

Preliminary preparation for learning pace notes

We agreed with Vesterinen to practice making notes for a few days, after which we would assess my level of performance. Although I was well aware of the rally note side as an active rally follower, I wanted to be as ready as possible when going to the pace note training.

My biggest doubt was whether I could write down all the dictated notes on paper. I came up with a great method to practice this on my couch. I played Vesterinen’s previous rally in-car videos on YouTube at a slower speed and started writing down in a notebook what I heard from the co-driver. This exercise gave me a good grasp of Vesterinen’s note language and scale, and at the same time, my own co-driver “handwriting” began to take shape.

I also used videos from a few other drivers to broaden my practice and write down various notes. This training was worthwhile, and when we went to the pace note training, I had no major questions about writing the notes.

At the same time, I tried reading the notes at race speed through the videos. With my current experience, this was a mistake because you don’t feel the car’s movements through the video. In this exercise, keeping up with the notes was very difficult, which raised some doubts about my confidence.

Pace note training is effective and cheap

Ordinary pace note training is undoubtedly the most effective method of rally practice. Especially when you consider the benefits of the training method relative to its costs, it’s worth spending time driving along Finland’s gravel roads in a road car.

Pace note training is simple. The crew agrees on a “special stage” to be noted, and then they set off. The first run involves writing down the notes, and on the second pass, the co-driver reads them back to check. It’s exactly like the note-making done in a competition.

Vesterinen did me a great service for which I am very grateful. He brought along his friend, veteran co-driver Matti Hämäläinen, to my first pace note training, who taught me everything I needed to know hands-on. I also owe Hämäläinen a great deal of gratitude for his volunteer work.

Eemeli Aho ja Matti Hämäläinen
Eemeli Aho and Matti Hämäläinen. Photo Eemeli Aho

Before moving to the first special stage to be noted, Hämäläinen gave about an hour of theoretical training, which helped us understand my actual skill level. It also clarified my understanding of the basic note scale, i.e., the severity of the corners and the terms describing them. Thanks to Hämäläinen, the pace note exam a couple of weeks later did not present anything new; it just reinforced what I had already learned.

I chose the first two special stages of this winter’s Riihimäki Rally, part of the Finnish Rally Championship, for note-making. They provided a good challenge because the nature of the roads differed appropriately, even though the stages were relatively close in location.

We did pace note training with Hämäläinen for two days. The first day in Riihimäki, and the second day in the Askola area. We covered a good number of kilometers, and according to Hämäläinen, my start was promising, although the reading rhythm was still finding its correct path.

“You had good preparation. It worked very well. You were able to write down what was dictated and could read it yourself. Everyone understands that rhythm is a skill that takes time to grasp. Very good performance, a promising start,” Hämäläinen said at the end of the training days.

Can rally games be useful?

After the first real pace note training, I was even more motivated and wanted to learn quickly. I couldn’t wait for the next note training, so my imagination came up with a new way to practice. I have played a lot of rally games over the years and wanted to see if they could be used to practice reading pace notes.

So, I set up my racing seat and opened the EA Sports WRC game. I chose a few kilometers of the Saakoski special stage from the Rally Finland and started making notes. I drove the special stage slowly and wrote it down in my notebook. Then I drove it “full speed,” played the replay, and started reading my notes.

Although, like with YouTube videos, you don’t get the “seat of the pants” feel, this already felt much easier. I think it’s due to the note training we did on real roads and the familiarity of the road I had driven many times in the game.

This training method is something I can genuinely recommend to others! However, it left one funny question: what do the neighbours think?

The first rally turned into pace note training

Initially, Vesterinen and I planned to start our competition journey on May 18th at the Kouvola Rally. In the F-Cup competition in Imatra the previous weekend, the car’s gearbox broke, so the first race turned into pace note training. From my perspective, this was partly a good thing because it gave me more note-making kilometers with Vesterinen before our first competition.

The Kouvola route provided yet another different experience. The nature of the roads was different from the previous note training, and we covered a good number of kilometers again. I consider the kilometers from that day to be the most important for my development up to that point because it had been a while since the previous training days, and my mind had already been craving new stimuli. On the other hand, race speed is what truly develops you, so the experience of that weekend was missed.

At that point, I had never been in a rally car on a real forest stage. In the third part of the series, I’ll tell you how the first kilometers with the pace note book felt on the test road in the bucket seat and how I handled the challenge. I’ll also detail the practical preparations I made for my first competition weekend, which took place on Saturday in Mynämäki.

You can read all the articles in the “From the Couch to the Co-Driver’s Seat” series here!

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