The co-op Rally challenge: one driver, one navigator and a wild safari

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Experienced racing gamer Craig Lager teams up with Tom Hatfield, a man who's only Rally experience involves driving around the streets of Birmingham UK. Together, they take on the extreme course of Elephant River in rFactor. Craig takes the wheel, while Tom plays navigator, calling upcoming turns from a map of the course. Will they make it to the end? How many elephants will they hit first? Will they learn anything about rally racing, and the stressful joy of co-op gaming?

Craig: We're going to crash into that crowd of people, and those elephants, maybe those gazelles. The car glides along the dirt on its side, my continued pushing of the brake pedal futile. "Err, slow over crest" Tom says, 3 hours too late. I can feel the now upside-down animals staring at us as we settle into the dirt of "Elephant River". The engine flaccidly buzzes, somehow not stalled. I should remember this corner by now.

The mission should be simple, really. Me and Tom have formed a rally team. Driver and co-driver mashed together through rFactor and skype. I'm driving, Tom is navigating, and we're going to do this ridiculous "Africa rally" track in the only car appropriate, or rather, the only car Tom actually recognises.

Tom: It’s a mini. I used to drive a mini. They also used to race them on rally tracks, I know this because I saw it on TV once. This makes it the perfect car for our race around this mildly offensive series of Savannah stereotypes.

I don’t really know much about cars or and the racing thereof. My real world driving is limited to taking friends to Nandos, and my video game driving experience mostly consists of bouncing off walls repeatedly and missing with the red shell.

But I can write things down and say them out loud! At least, that’s the theory. By the magic of rFactor’s multiplayer system, I’m going to park myself down in the ‘passenger seat’ of Craig’s car like a co-driver, then write down directions and pace notes in a real-life notebook. Without the pressure to memorise the course, he can concentrate on pure speed. At least that’s the theory.

Craig: For gods sake, Tom. The car isn't just "a mini"—it's a 205bhp rear wheel drive Z-Car mini. These things are tuned to hell and back, and are very very fast. Before Tom "gets in" said car though, I take one out for a spin on the course. A couple of things become apparent quickly.

First, the car has no suspension. Or, at least, it has suspension for super smooth tarmac. Africa is really bumpy. Sometimes the car just slams itself into bumps and is completely uncontrollable for a second. I ‘fix’ this by pushing the ride height as high as it can go, but now the car has a bit of a tendency to roll over. Hmm.

The second problem is that the mini only has options for slick tyres. If you don't know, slick tyres don't have any grooves - they're perfect for road tracks, but for dirt they are literally the worst tyre choice you could make.

A few proper rally cars are available for rFactor. We both agree that we're going to keep the mini because it has a union jack on the top and Tom has already downloaded it.

Tom: As we drive around the course Craig rattles off descriptions for each corner: Easy left, slight right, kink left over crest. I am not sure exactly what the difference between an easy left and a slight left is, and I’m pretty sure Kink Left is some kind of progressive BDSM website, but I jot them down anyway. I assume he knows what he’s talking about.

The problem is that Craig is having to try to take these corners at full speed to assess them, so I’m struggling to keep up. Also he crashes. A lot. Sometimes this leads to panicky descriptions like: “Hard long right over crest! Also bumpy! And tightens! With a bridge!”

I cross everything for that bend out and replace it with the words “balls corner.”

Craig: I have no idea how to take pace notes, I know how to receive them, but I have no idea how to dictate them. I jump through styles, sometimes giving Tom gear numbers, sometimes using "easy", sometimes using "slight". I'm making it up. This isn't my area, I'm a track guy. I learn tracks. I’m a driver, not a navigator.

I'm trying to drive at pace to get the best idea of what Tom needs to write down, but it's a mess. And it doesn't help when Tom ends up two corners behind or has stopped to look at a butterfly or whatever the hell he's doing. Fortunately, there's bits of scenery that help us keep synced up.

"Brake at the giraffe" is one of the most accurate, helpful notes we have. "Watch out, Elephant River" is another one, though our notes leading up to Elephant River are so confused that we always crash into Elephant River. By our 10th attempt to get an under 5:30 minutes time, I fucking hate Elephant River.

Tom: Look Craig, it’s really hard to write this down and pay attention to the screen at the same time. Do you know how long it’s been since I actually wrote things down with pen and paper? I feel like some kind of primitive neanderthal daubing stick figures on a cave wall.

Actually that’s not a bad idea. Doodling a small picture of a giraffe takes up less space than writing the whole word. I also draw pictures of elephants and rocks around the borders. I’m helping!

We crash into an elephant. Hard. So hard that we ricochet off its impossibly solid trunk and flip upside down in the middle of Elephant River. I really do have to remember to tell him to slow down on the crest.

Craig: It's all very well drawing pretty pictures, Tom, but when this happens (and this did happen!) it's pretty hard to keep my cool, calm, Kimi Raikonnen driver composure:

"Tom: hard left, easy right"
*crash*
"Craig: I don't think your notes are right"
"Tom: oh, yeah, I just have a drawing of some rocks here"
"Craig: ……."
"Tom: or maybe it's a hill."

At least we're getting somewhere. Even if "somewhere" is Elephant Fucking River again.

Tom: This is way more stressful than I bargained for. I’m supposed to have the easy job, but you’d be surprised how hard it is to match up where I am in the notes with where Craig is in the course while keeping one eye on the next few turns for danger. There are moments when my voice suddenly rises in panic as I realise we have to brake right now because we’re about to enter ‘That Incredibly Bumpy Bit’ where even driving too fast in a straight line can flip the car over.

Also being in the ‘passenger seat’ with absolutely no control over the vehicle as scary as hell. It must be even worse for Craig, who has to drive blind, gunning the engine as much as possible, acting as if my incompetent directions could ever be reliable enough to drive by.

Craig: If this were a buddy movie, at this point we're in the inevitable "I'm never speaking to you again" phase. I'm trying to gun this stupid Mini (why did we choose this mini?!) and Toms directions are, well, idiosyncratic.

Tom: We’re nearing the finish and we’ve somehow stayed on the track. All that’s left is the final section. Unfortunately because we keep having to start from the beginning again, this is the part I know the least about. For instance I know there are a lot of crests in a row, but I’m not exactly confident on the number.

Still it’s just a few hills, easy enough to navigate. I’ll just have to break it to Craig gently.

“Hill, hill, hill. Another hill. Possible one more hill? Or maybe two? It could be three actually. Basically there’s an indeterminate number of hills ahead, but then we’re finished.”

Craig: After a couple of hours we've started to get our notes pretty much right. Either me or Tom is making a mistake on every outing though and we're still dragging ourselves in with times of over 5 minutes, no consistency and some significantly broken car parts.

It's as we start to give up hope of ever getting anything tidy, though, that we finally pull it out of the bag. We’re actually doing well! Far from perfect. It's messy. Very messy. With the "indeterminate number of hills" taken at speed, we gather some quite scary air time, planting the bulk of the mini firmly into the African dirt, which it doesn't really like. I'm actually sweaty at the point, fighting the severe force feedback over this amount of time is tiring.

Tom: Since we’ve never made it to the end of the course before, we have no idea what is awaiting us. It turns out to be nothing, the course stops abruptly a few metres beyond the finish line. It’s nowhere near enough time to slow down, and we slam into the barriers, flipping the car upside down one last time, as the poorly animated crowd cheer us on at three frames a second. “Slow over crest” I remark.

But we've made it! And in under fives minutes! We do a virtual high five. Upside down.

What we learned

Craig: At this point I have a whole new level of respect for rally drivers. On a circuit you need to memorize—at most—20 corners. This is a whole different thing with bumps and changing conditions and so many corners and elephants. It's really really hard, and from what I gather doing the co-driver stuff isn't much easier.

Also having a good co-driver is necessity. Without being able to learn the corners and so many of them being blind, you really need to know if you're approaching an open, smooth road or, well, Balls Corner.

Tom: Honestly I’d always wondered how much a co-driver helped, considering how much dead weight they were, but now we have the answer. We cut around a minute off Craig’s "recon" time, which is bloody impressive for a five minute course.

More surprising was just how fun and stressful the whole thing was. There’s almost a whole game here, in between jotting stuff down and keeping pace with the bends. Perhaps future racing games will support our shenanigans, one man on the wheel and the other clutching a map, desperately trying to figure out the way to Elephant River. I’d play it.