Involving maintaining high speeds over long stretches of dirt road, it demands tough machinery, sublime driving skills, impeccable communication between driver and navigator, plus lots of old-fashioned courage.
It stands to reason that the rally arena would be exclusive to heavily muscled, testosterone-dribbling males with no fear or pity in their eyes, right? Not exactly.
Meet the double and reigning South African Rally Navigators’ Champion. Her name is Elvene Coetzee. She is petite, pretty, highly intelligent and multi-talented. Not to mention brave. We chat in the Phakisa Raceway paddock, shortly after the finish of the Goldfields Rally, the opening round of this year’s South African Championship.
Half-an-hour earlier, Coetzee and her driver, Leeroy Poulter, had won the event overall in their factory-entered Gazoo Racing Toyota Yaris S2000. It was the pairing’s 10th rally victory since they teamed up at Toyota Motorsport in 2011. Experts peg them for more victories, and this year’s overall title.
So how did this young lady end up as the country’s top co-driver? Her father, Kassie Coetzee, used to fling brutish three-litre Nissan Skylines over mountain passes in the ’70s, and won many off-road races with Toyota bakkies in the ’80s. “I guess that is where the speed bug bit me – motorsport was just a part of life, and I went to events when my dad competed. However, it never occurred to me that I would take part at any stage,” Elvene says.
Instead, she rode horses, and a relentlessly competitive streak saw her earning national colours in 2001 for her Equestrian Tent-Rigging Gymkhana talents. She studied at the then Potchefstroom University, emerged as a teacher, and taught high school kids about mathematics, arts, culture and technology for a few years.
That was not fulfilling, and she joined the Zwartkops Raceway near Pretoria as events manager until last year, when she became a salesperson at Volvo Bryanston. Meanwhile, she started rallying in 2006, acting as navigator for Tjaart Conradie, Etienne Lourens and Evan Hutchinson over the years. The offer to join Toyota with Poulter came at the end of 2010, and the pairing clicked at once.
“By that time I could tell a good driver, and Leeroy is amazingly talented. I immediately knew that he would win rallies, given reliable equipment and, of course, the correct information from his navigator. It was up to me to raise my game to his level.”
The results firmly suggest that she did exactly that. So, just what does a rally navigator do? Professionals like Elvene prefer the term “co-driver”, since the person in the passenger seat does not merely point out the way. It works like this: Rally organisers these days drive through and videotape an event’s special stages. The information is put on disc and supplied to the entered teams, who spend many hours in the week before the rally, poring through the information.
They make “pace notes”, telling them at what speeds every part of the route could be tackled. On the day before the event, they get to drive through the route in convoy, at 60km/h, to confirm or change the pace notes.
The next time they see the route, it is at high speed through the rally car’s windscreen. The typical instructions for a kilometre of a stage would sound like: “250 max left sweep – into hairpin right don’t cut – over crest max – 250 – keep right – into max left seven – see 650 – brake at tree on right for hairpin left in on exit”. All of which the driver has to memorise – imagine having to visualise and remember that kind of stuff while sliding a car sideways at some 140km/h, and you get the idea.
Making a mistake could result in very solid contact with a tree, a donga or substantial rocks – rallies do not feature nice run-off areas, like racetracks do.
“That is why winning a rally will always be special – it is very, very difficult,” says Elvene. Her biggest hero is nine-time rally World Champion Sebastian Loeb, and her biggest ambition to do the Dakar Rally