James O’Brien: ‘Very often when I’m calling the notes, I’m calling them blind’

James O’Brien, from Dromtarriffe in north-west Cork, was named Clubman of the Year at the 2016 Motorsport Ireland Awards. He won the National Rally Championship as co-driver to Roy White this year and has over three decades of navigating experience.
James O’Brien: ‘Very often when I’m calling the notes, I’m calling them blind’

Q: I was watching some of your in-car videos on YouTube. Is there one thing people don’t understand about being a co-driver?

A: When you’re looking at that video, you’re looking out the front window the whole time. What they’ve done with the cars is tried to get the centre of gravity down, so the navigator is pushed lower into the car and further back.

Now, when I’m sitting in the car and the car is standing still, I can’t see out the front window. So, very often when I’m calling the notes, I’m calling them blind. I only look up to see the road on average twice every kilometre.

The rest of the time my head is down reading the notes and my body is reading the road by feeling the car going around the bends or over the bumps and dips. To call it so fast at that speed is the art of the navigator.

Q: So, it’s all about preparation…

A: We get to travel the route three times and the driver calls the notes. But we’re travelling at 30mph and we’ve got to imagine what they’re like at anything from 60 to 120mph.

Q: Have you a certain style of co-driving?

A: The notes pretty much belong to the driver. It’s how he sees the road and I just deliver it back to him. There would be quite an amount of comment on the in-car videos about the notes with Andrew Nesbitt. His were like nothing else anywhere. He had a unique way of doing it and I had a unique method of calling them back to him. It worked for us.

Q: Was it unique because of the phrases used?

A: We had trigger words to emphasise dangerous places. They were words like ‘back-off’ and ‘stop’, which don’t literally mean stop. It’s just a trigger to try to get one’s attention because the adrenaline is flowing and one is attempting to get down that piece of road as quick as you can.

Q: You’re the first competitor to win all four Irish Rally Championships — the National Rally Series, Tarmac, Forestry and Navigation. Is it a big challenge to switch between the classes?

A: Well, that was achieved over 30-odd years (laughs). The navigation one is different as that’s almost pure map-reading. There are a series of events around the country, usually all in the darkness, and you get 30 or 40 points to plot onto a map and travel that route. It’s tricky… The roads may or may not be there so that isn’t out-and-out speed, it’s about accuracy of reading a map.

Q: To go back to the start for a moment, when and how did you get into navigating?

A: As a kid the Circuit of Ireland used pass us at home on its way to Killarney in the late 60s. A local man called Billy Coleman would’ve been involved so he’s responsible for a hell of a lot of people in our part of the world developing an interest.

That’s where it sprung from. After that, I came up to UCC to do a BComm and went out to the motor club in Blarney. I didn’t even have a car at the time and without a car you can hardly go rallying, so I decided I’d try the navigating. It took off from there to doing some competitions in the early 80s and I’ve never stopped.

Q: What changes have you noticed in the sport over that time?

A: There’s been a huge increase in the emphasis on safety, and the costs have escalated too. I’d have been fortunate enough to have done a four-day Circuit of Ireland and a five-day RAC Rally in England. We’re now down to a two-day Circuit of Ireland and two days of what’s now the British round of the World Championship.

The old circuit used come to Killarney and go to Waterford, and travel all around, but now it’s confined to an area in the north of Ireland. That long-distance adventure aspect has disappeared. It’s more of a sprint, concentrating on a shorter route and getting the maximum out of every bend.

Q: Have you been in many crashes?

A: Yes, I’ve had some very big accidents but I’ve been very fortunate to walk away from every one of them. Like anything, when you push it to the max, sometimes you lose control.

Q: And the cars must be pushed to the max as well…

A: They are. The current car that myself and Roy White have is a Fiesta WRC. She’ll do 0-to-60 in about three seconds, so you’re not far off of Formula 1 territory with these machines. These aren’t toys. Our car started off with the Ford team, who use them for a number of rallies and then pass them on to satellite teams and they’d eventually find their way down to club competitors like ourselves.

The car we have started out in Portugal, went from there to Sardinia, Monte Carlo, Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Greece, Poland, Lebanon, Cyprus, Finland, Norway, where it won the Norwegian championship, and then back to Ireland. The cars themselves could tell a hell of a tale!

Q: Is there a certain race you found toughest to compete in?

A: Andrew and myself did a rally in Sweden years ago, and we had white snow and white fog. It was very difficult to determine exactly where terra firma was, never mind how quick or slow the road was. You’re very weather dependent really. If you’re caught in a downpour in the middle of summer with the wrong tyres, that’s where true skill comes in.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge for the sport to get more of an audience?

A: Of the 12 full-time, professional drivers with the big works teams — Toyota, Citroën, Ford and Hyundai — at the top level of the sport, two are Irish, and one of the navigators is from Killarney. We’re very fortunate that we’ve got people who are competing at the pinnacle of the sport and the hope is that one of those would be world champion, if not in 2017, certainly in 2018. Hopefully the sport can benefit from the additional exposure they would bring.

Q: And is your own job related to cars or rallying?

A: Chartered accountant... In college, we were called DBAs — dull, boring accountants — so I suppose a DBA shouldn’t be in a rally car! We don’t take chances as per our training. Other people take the chances and we count either the profit or the loss. But in the car, I’m a navigator, timekeeper and general office manager in a very unique environment.

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