How a Rally Works- Rally Cast

Episode 3 in our series of how to get into Rallying.Rally Finish

We discuss in plain language how a rally works. There’s a lot to rallies and we cover it all.

Download here: RC_Get_into_rally_3  or right click and “Save As” (MP3, 30 minutes)


Show Notes

Topics for this episode

  • How a rally works

The Overview

  • Rally is not like a V8/F1/Moto GP race. How is it different then? Everyone doesn’t start together. Rally is a race against the clock. There is a time for everything on a rally. What you see on TV or watch in the forest is only part of a rally.
  • Does this go back to why you have 2 people in the car? Yes. The Navigator or Co-driver is as important if not more important than the driver and this is a team sport, we’ll cover that later on.


  • So for club level motorsport that we’ve already covered, you bring the car along and have it checked for safety etc, on the morning of the event before you race. Does the same thing happen in rally? Not quite. Generally a few days before the rally, all competitors are required to bring their rally cars, safety equipment and paperwork to a central location for scrutineering. Scrutineers will check all of the  personal safety equipment Like what? Race suit, helmets etc, check all the paperwork for the driver/navigator and the car (rego, log book etc) and also inspect the car for compliance to the rules, safety and road worthiness. Why is scrutineering done a few days before the event? If something is found and needs to be rectified, there is time to get it sorted out and have it re-checked before the rally starts.


  • The clock rules  supreme on a rally. Every competitor in a rally is given a start time and everything in their rally is calculated off of that time. More info?  EG: First car starts at 12:00PM, that is their time. No two competitors have the same start time. Generally in WA gravel rallies, there are 2 minute gaps for each car so if car 1 starts at 12:00PM, car 2 starts at 12:02PM and so on. There’ll always be a gap however other places (overseas etc) may have more or less time gap, depending on the event.
  • So once they have a time, do they just roar off and away they go? No. There are places you have to be at specific times, remember the whole rally runs on the clock. The places you have to be are called controls. What’s a control? A control is usually a place set up with a table, chairs, officials (called control officials) and the all important clock. Controls are defined by a yellow and then a red sign set up outside the control. There is usually an in and an out or start/finish control for every part of a rally. Do they have some sort of synchronisation system to make sure all the control clocks have the same time?  Yes.
  • OK, so you get to the control, then what? To enter or leave a control, the driver, co-driver and the car must be together. The car must be in the control on the exact minute. If you get it wrong, there is a time penalty. How do you know when to be in a control? First control is normally easy as it is at the start of the rally. Just make sure the car is at the start control at the right time.
  • So you get to the start on your correct time, then what?


  • A rally is comprised of stages? What do you mean by Stages?
  • There are two types of stages- Transport or Liaison stages and Special Stages. What’s the difference? Special stages are mostly what you see on TV. The speed, the sideways, jumping, the rally action. Liaison or transport are the sections required to get to and from special stages. So you leave the start and then transport to a special stage? Correct. During liaison you may have to drive on public roads and obey all normal road rules (that is why Rally cars have to be road legal). Each car is given a certain amount of time to reach a special stage, say 20 minutes. The navigator will calculate what time the car needs to be at the control for the special stage, based on the start time and how long is allotted to get to the control. So if the car has a start time of 12:00PM and liaison time of 20 minutes, the car needs to be at the control at 12:20PM? Correct . The next car would need to be there at 12:22PM etc? Yes.
  • What happens if you arrive early?  Early is good. You can just park outside the control and wait until the right minute then drive in. If you drive in or book in early to a control, you will be penalised minute for minute. So if you book in 2 minutes early, you will get a 2 minute penalty. What happens if you are late? Say you have a flat tyre, or get lost or have some drama, you are penalised 5 seconds for every minute you are late. This is called late time and we’ll talk more about this later.
  • OK, so we’ve left the start, driven along the public road safely to the first stage and arrived with a couple of minutes to spare, what happens now? In the short time you have before you enter the control for the special stage, you usually make sure they car is ready to compete, get your helmet and gloves on, get strapped in and plug in the intercom. The co-driver will also sort themselves out to be ready to give the driver instructions in the stage.
  • The pointy end. Ok, ready to go in the control then what happens? You are given a time to start the stage. Usually you are in a control for 3 minutes while the officials fill out your time card. You roll up to the start line of the control and have to wait for your time. So if you booked in on time at 12:20 and given 3 minutes in the control, your Special Stage start time is 12:23? Yes. There is usually an official and/or a clock at the start line to the special stage. With 5 to 10 seconds to go, the driver will get the car ready to go and as soon as the clock ticks over onto your time, you’re away into the special stage. The rally we see on TV? Yes, the rally you see on TV.
  • What happens in the Special Stage? This is where you get to drive fast and the clock is ticking. The co-driver will read pace notes or from a road book. What are pace notes and a road book? Brief explanation on both.
  • How long is a special stage? Depends on the rally. Usually they vary in distance. Some stages can be as short as 2km, Rally Australia used to have a 65km long stage.
  • What happens if you have a problem like a flat tyre or get stuck for a few minutes?We’ll cover rally safety in a later ep of Rallycast, however let’s say you lose a couple of minutes in a stage. Each car is given an amount of late time. It varys from rally to rally, so an example is 30 mins. You can be up to 30mins late after your due time to a control and still stay in the event. For each minute you are late, you get a 5 sec penalty added to your overall time.
  • So what happens at the end of a special stage? You go through a flying finish then stop a few hundred metres down the road at the stop control. The officials fill out the time card with the time you finished and how long the special stage took you. Then what? Well that depends on the event. You may repeat the process, transporting to another special stage or you may do something else.


  • So if each car has a 2 minute gap, what happens if a car in front drops of out of the rally or runs out of late time?Do you just go onto their time and automatically move up? No. You must stay on your time. There have been rallies where 2 or three cars in front have retired and we’ve had up to a 6 minute gap to the next car in front. Is there a way to bring the field back together if cars drop out?
  • Yes, it’s called re-group. The best way to explain re-group is it is like a dam in a river. All the competitors come into re-group on their normal time and if cars have dropped out, the amount of time remaining cars in the rally sit in re-group is shortened. This allows for gaps in the field to be closed up. So you could come into re-group with a 6 minute gap to the car in front and go out of re-group with a normal 2 minute gap? Correct.


  • What happens if something goes wrong with the car and you need to fix it or you need fuel, do you just pull in for a pit stop? Unlike circuit racing where each team has a pit and can drive to the pits straight away, rallies have service instead. So how does it work? There are only certain areas and so much time allowed for servicing in a rally. As competitors are also working to a time schedule, there is time allowed for servicing, usually on WA rallies it’s 20 minutes for each service and there may be 1 or more services during an event, depending on the length of the rally. 20 minutes doesn’t sound like much. It’s not. 20 minutes is usually enough time to check the car over, change tyres and perform any minor repairs. We have seen and done some fairly major repairs to keep cars in a rally during service and have managed to get the car out on time. This where the service crew comes in? You bet. Some teams don’t have a service crew and do the work on the car themselves. Usually it helps to have at least a couple of people to help out who know a bit about the car and can make repairs etc. During service is usually when competitors will have something to eat and drink, re-fill drink bottles etc. Cars are also re-fuelled during or straight after service. Some service crews have dedicated people that do certain tasks (like the food) and other teams do everything. Can you be late out of service? Yes, the late time rule applies. For every minute you are late out of service, is a 5 second penalty, until you run out of late time.  Same deal as the stages, there’s an in and an out control for service? Correct
  • So what happens if something goes wrong with the car on a special stage or during transport?Generally the only place that the service crew are allowed to touch the rally car is in service. If something goes wrong with the car away from service, the competitors are the only ones that can work on the car and they can only use tools and spares carried in the rally car. That’s why rally cars have to be built to be reliable and most teams carry some minor spares and tools in the car with them. If competitors cannot make temp repairs or limp the car back to service, they may have to withdraw from the event.

What next?

  • So you’ve done the first few stages, got through service, then what? Depending on the rally, you’ll usually go out and do it all over again, more than once. For some years now, it has been common practice to repeat one or more of the same special stages. This makes rallies easier logistically for both the organisers and competitors. Why? Number of officials, time schedule, pace noting (recce), travel distances etc.
  • How long is a rally? Depends on the event. When Rally Oz was in WA, it was several days of competition over several hundred km. These days, the largest WA rally is 2 days long and has about 220km comp, with an overnight break between days.

Results and finish

  • So we’ve got through the rally and we’ve finished the last special stage, transporting to the finish. What happens now? Normal practice is for all competing cars that finish the rally to head to the finish and enter parc ferme. What is Parc Ferme? It’s a French phrase and basically means secure holding area. All the cars that finish go into parc ferme and only competitors and key officials are allowed into the area. Scrutineers will usually pick the winning cars and maybe class winners and will check for compliance with the rules. All the cars are held in case something is found on one of the cars and the next car in the results or class is required to be scrutineered.Once the scrutineers/organisers are happy, all the cars are released.
  • How do the results work?Very simply, the team with the fastest cumulative time with the least amount of penalties for all the special stages wins the rally. WA rallies are timed to the 10th of a second. There have been instances where rallies (even at World level) have been won by 1 or 2 seconds. It is often that close.
  • Once the results are calculated and the scrutineers are happy, the stewards will have a meeting What do they meet for? Check compliance with the rules, see if there are any protests, review any safety items and agree on the results. Once the meeting is complete, the organisers will usually hold a presentation ceremony.

What’s our next topic for how to get into rallying?- I think we’ll pull out the big guns on this one mate. Buying or building a rally car.