RALLY co-drivers are a breed apart. To the outside world they are people of seemingly dubious judgment. They volunteer to share the often uncivilised and spartan interior of a rally car; a noisy, dusty, overheated environment alongside someone hell-bent on driving as fast as possible between two given points along rugged terrain that would despatch a family hatchback to the garage in the sky within miles or minutes.

Robert Reid is one of these motorised masochists and recently spent a competitive 11 hours, 36 minutes and four seconds in close proximity to English redhead Richard Burns, tackling and beating, or not being beaten by, the toughest terrain in modern rallying, on the East African Safari Rally.

Their Mitsubishi Carisma, with jacked-up suspension, requisite bull bars and roof-mounted air snorkel to help its occupants breathe in the stifling heat, finished second by a shade over seven minutes to Colin McRae's Subaru, completing an unprecedented British one-two on a world championship rally.

Burns, 26, and Reid, 31, have been together for seven years and their performance in Kenya proved that they are genuinely world-class. McRae was just a random puncture out of reach.

In normal rallying terms, seven minutes equates with 15 seconds. The Safari has 115 kilometre, 71-mile special stages as the norm.

Co-drivers, navigators, map holders or those who rise shotgun are, claims Burns, not naive captives who abandon themselves to manic drivers. It is a sporting partnership requiring intrinsic trust and mutual respect for each other's judgment. Consistently good rally drivers need consistently good co-drivers.

From vantage points along the routes of this year's 14 world rally championship rounds, hundreds of thousands of spectators will marvel at the car control of their multinational heroes making an art form out of going sideways. However, inside the sliding and writhing cars, co-drivers will play a pivotal role.

He or she shouts advanced route instructions through the intercom, transcribed specialist shorthand heralding the lie of the land, the way the road dips or climbs, the severity of corners, the hazards ahead, whether corners or blind or open.

It is high-speed risk management. Get it right and the driver is more than likely to derive greatest benefit and acclaim. Get it wrong and the consequences can be disastrous. Unsung heroes or publicised villains.

Reid has got it wrong only once since he first shared a cramped Vauxhall Nova with countryman Robbie Head in 1988. However, it was an uncharacteristic and candidly admitted error that put him into hospital and threatened to end a previously unblemished career last year.

Burns and Reid had been pushing Mitsu- bishi team-mate, Tommi Makinen hard in the Catalunya Rally when their car pitched off the Tarmac at 100mph into trackside trees, wrecking the re-inforced car.

Reid's helmet split as his head slammed against Burns' seat. Once the headache cleared, a sharpened perception of mortality came into focus.

''It brought a realisation of just what we were doing and how important each of our jobs is and how much fundamental trust there needs to be,'' said Reid. ''Basically, if I told him to turn 90 degrees left over a cliff then he would do it.''

On their first Tarmac surface rally for several years, Burns had done what he was told in northern Spain as he gunned the Mitsubishi into a third-gear corner, in sixth gear. ''We had just come out of a mountain section and I called it as flat out when it should have been a medium speed corner,'' recalled Reid.

''Afterwards, I was completely depressed and thought 'that's it. I'm stopping.' My immediate reaction was that this was beyond me, and I couldn't get my head round it any more.

Within three days, against medical advice, Reid was sitting in the team's test car, and believes that, if he had not got back into rallying harness, he would have returned to the tranquility of hill farming and being a potato merchant.

''I did not like the first 100k, but then after that the phobia went away. Richard was great and pointed out that he had been responsible for a few crashes in his time,'' said Reid.

Likening rallying rapport, and lack of it, to a marriage, Reid said the duo had earlier emerged from a mid-season rocky patch. The intensity of a fortnight working together in longer-distance events like the Safari or the Hong Kong to Beijing Rally takes its toll.

''You can see each other far enough. It is the silly little things which aggravate, the close proximity. But we share a sense of humour and a general outlook on life,'' reveals Reid.

Reid first became infected with the rallying virus as a schoolboy at Strathallan after watching midfield runners thrash through Craigvinean forest. He briefly drove a 1600cc Ford Escort but realised his talents lay on the other side of the car.

The partnership with Head promised much with success in 1988 and most of the following year, but they parted on the 1989 Tour of Britain when Reid was replaced by veteran Terry Harriman after one day's rallying.

Freelancing led to a unique double with brothers Colin and Alister McRae, winning the Hackle Rally in an under-powered Escort with the former and contesting the Galloway Hills with the latter in the same car six weeks later.

A chance meeting on the Audi Rally in 1990 led to Burns and Reid tackling the 1991 Peugeot Challenge and the combination had the audacity to sew up the series,winning the first eight out of the 13 rounds.

With backing and advice from mentor David Williams, they graduated to a production Subaru Legacy and became the first crew to win the UK championship in a showroom-class machine. A Group A equivalent, with sponsorship made up by Prodrive's founder Dave Richards, dominated the 1993 British Open series, the Anglo-Scottish pair eclipsing Alister McRae, in a similar car, en route.

The sustained success won a three-year contract, with Richards, who had been bold enough to launch Colin McRae's world championship career. A shallow learning curve climbed vertically and, while finishing third in the 1994 Asia Pacific challenge for Subaru, there were crashes in New Zealand and on the RAC Rally.

Reid remembers wryly: ''All of a sudden, within Prodrive, there was no room for learners.''

In 1995, another difficult and educational year gleaned third on the RAC Rally in a Subaru 1-2-3, second on the Hong Kong-Beijing Rally and third in Malaysia. Long gaps between events did not boost confidence.

Richards waived his 1996 option, but three other teams made approaches, and Andrew Cowan's Ralliart Mitsubishi organisation signed Burns and Reid as No.2 to Makinen for a programme of five rallies.

They crashed on the opening stage in Indonesia, but redemption followed with a second on the Malaysian Rally, and a fourth in Argentina. However, the final tonic came in the New Zealand event, which they won against top-flight opposition.

Before the Spanish trauma, team orders dictated playing back-up to Ari Vatanen between Hong Kong and Beijing, although the Finn was less than charitable about their support.

Tomorrow in Portugal, Reid and Burns embark on the second of a limited, eight-round world-series campaign with No.2 seeding. Perhaps the man with the maps will at last guide his partner out of the shadow of Colin McRae.