QUITE often, the general perspective of rallying focuses on the driver rather than the driver/co-driver combination.
The term navigator was universally used in the beginning but is now more apt in navigation events. Co-drivers are a vitally important element of the sport, it’s a team effort and indeed that “team” also incorporates the service crew and other support elements.
Dromtarriffe’s James O’Brien is, akin to a famous television advertisement, “Probably” one the best-known co-drivers in Irish motorsport.
He remains the only person to have won national titles in all four Irish championships – the National Navigation Trial Championship, the Irish Forest Rally Championship, the National Rally Championship and the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship.
In August of 2016 he guided Clonmel’s Roy White (Ford Fiesta WRC) to the Triton Showers National Rally Championship as O’Brien himself completed the quadruple. It’s a record that is likely to stand for a long time to come — it may never be equalled.
A chartered accountant by profession, he doesn’t hesitate when asked what are the major attributes of a good co-driver. “Dedication and interest and to try and get inside the head of your driver, which is always a difficulty. You have to think the way they (drivers) think but you must be two seconds ahead of them the whole time.”
Rally championships have evolved and at one point navigation and stage rallying were all part of the national championship, but not anymore. O’Brien places great emphasis on the navigation aspect.
“It provides phenomenal training and hopefully that spectrum of the sport will be there for a long time to come. It gives you map reading skills, timing and so forth. It is where the sport has come from and it gives you an understanding of controls.”
Typical of his profession, O’Brien keeps a record of all his outings and is pragmatic in selecting a favourite victory. “We are back to the scenario of which of your children you love the most.”
When pressed, the answer imbued some nostalgia and rivalry.
“I suppose the first International win, that was with Andrew Nesbitt in the Donegal International Rally in 1998. After that it’s always lovely to win at home — in Cork and Kerry, I went to school in Killarney.”
He jokingly added, “It’s nice to rub their nose in it.” Glounthaune’s Luke McCarthy gave O’Brien his victory in the National Navigation series, the first of his Fab Four.
“Luke and myself won that series, we went in as semi-experts (at the time, one of three classes), we were unknown so that was fantastic too.”
The introduction of in-car cameras into rallying has provided viewers with a great insight into the role of a co-driver. A situation that up to then was just between driver and co-driver was opened to all and sundry and is now analysed accordingly.
It brought some interesting situations, particularly when O’Brien partnered Armagh’s Andrew Nesbitt and some terminology was not part of the norm of other co-drivers.
Regularly and at high speeds O’Brien would raise his voice and call “back off” several times. He explained the reason.
“That was particular to Andrew, we needed trigger words. With Andrew everything was flat (driving as quick as possible) and my job was to pull him back. Basically, he would take a hairpin flat if he thought he could get away with it.”
When asked has the sport become too expensive, his accountancy background provided the appropriate answer. “It was never cheap but it has evolved.
“Yes, we are lacking the characters we had in the past. The speeds are phenomenal. I have been lucky to be part of it for so long. I enjoy it, absolutely, but it is a shame that we lose friends (like Manus Kelly) along the way.”
O’Brien has close on four hundred events under his belt. It all began in 1983 when O’Brien and John O’Shea attended night navigation classes in Blarney. At that time, navigation rallies were very popular and were run by all the clubs in Cork and Kerry. In 1986, they won the Munster Night Navigation Championship.
A hiccup with Luke McCarthy’s entry for the 1988 Rally of the Lakes saw O’Brien and McCarthy team up for the 1000 Shakes Navigation Rally at the last minute in Luke’s Ford Escort XR3.
Victory provided the catalyst for more success and O’Brien’s first national title came when he partnered McCarthy to the National Navigation Championship in 1990. A Tarmac Championship title followed in 2000 and again in 2002‘— both with Armagh’s Andrew Nesbitt.
O’Brien added the Irish Forest Championship title with Ovens driver Owen Murphy in 2011 and again in 2013. O’Brien has co-driven for so many different drivers, the list is endless and ranks from the very top stars to some of the virtual unknowns.
One of James’ two daughters — Grace, is also a rally co-driver. So does he impart advice or encouragement?
“It is really one of those sports you have to want to do, you can’t force anybody into a car, particularly in this sport. Yes, I give her advice, but then she grew up with it.”
Married to Anna, the O’Brien’s have another daughter too, Aishling, who has chosen a different sport, she plays GAA and is a referee in Australia and is unlikely to intervene and call time on James’ glorious career that shows no sign of decline but instead continues with great pace.