Archive: Intercontinental Rally Challenge

Last weekend my brother and I headed along to Scone Palace to witness the finish of this year’s Rally of Scotland, the penultimate round of this year’s Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Scone Palace is only about half an hour from where I live, and five minutes from where my brother lives. So it seemed silly not to go.

Neuville takes out a hay bale

I have a bit of an on–off relationship with rallying. I used to enjoy watching the World Rally Championship a decade ago, when Channel 4 had some excellent coverage. But even then, it was never as satisfying a television spectacle as watching circuit racing.

Often there is no footage of the major incidents in a rally, and you just have to take people’s word for what happened. Sometimes there is footage, but taken by a spectator at the quality of a You’ve Been Framed camcorder calamity.

This sketchy experience must be amplified if you are standing in the middle of a stage, somewhere remote, in the freezing cold, Thermos in hand, bobblehat on head. A car whizzes past, then you wait for a minute or so until the next one comes. All part of the experience I guess, and something I want to do in the future.

Another slight issue is the fact that the stage you attend is only a small fraction of the overall rally. If you attend a later stage, chances are that the rally has pretty much already been decided. Prior to Scone Palace, Andreas Mikkelsen had a 30 second lead. That is difficult to overcome in a couple of two minute long stages!

Andreas Mikkelsen drives to the podium

But Mikkelsen, driving for the Škoda UK team, was the chosen man for the win. So much was this the case that when we entered the area around Scone Palace we were approached by a girl handing out Škoda flags that said “Go Andreas!” She said that the flags were “for when he wins”.

I raised my eyebrows as there were still two stages to go, and anything can happen in rallying! But it must be said that as a PR exercise it worked out pretty well. Most people had these Skoda flags and were planting them in the grass. Couple this with the several representatives from Škoda staff, and you would be forgiven for thinking that Scone Palace is in the Czech Republic. Škoda had conquered Scone.

Thierry Neuville Supporters' Club

Having said that, the Thierry Neuville Supporters’ Club were also there to show their support for the Belgian Peugeot driver.

Škoda’s nice flags could have backfired. Guy Wilks was the perfect demonstration of the fact that anything can happen in rallying. He has had a pretty rotten season, and a pretty rotten Rally of Scotland. He hit a gatepost on the final stage and failed to finish.

As rally stages go, Scone Palace is compact and spectator-friendly. This stage was just two minutes long, and was repeated in quick succession. It also doubled up as the finish. So there was a reasonably large crowd, and commentary from Rally Radio on the loudspeakers.

Aside from the relatively sanitised main spectator area, there was a bit of scope to wander around and see further along the stage from a neighbouring field.

Guy Wilks blasts along the stage

Overall, I really enjoyed my trip to the rally. It was quite a different experience to the World Series by Renault, which I attended a couple of months ago.

The really striking thing was the sound of the cars, which is totally different to the TV. Something else, that I didn’t get so much at World Series by Renault, was the smell of the fuel wafting slowly up after a car has gone by. Worryingly, I felt myself starting to crave it!

After the rally had finished as the front-running drivers were preparing for the podium ceremony, the access was amazing. Top-class international rally drivers were just standing around chatting, and their cars were right there for all to see up close.

The top three at the finish

It is the first rally we have ever been to, and we certainly enjoyed ourselves. We plan on attending next year, perhaps even going to a stage further afield if we can plan ahead.

And congratulations to Andreas Mikkelsen. It may not have been clear from what I wrote above, but you cannot begrudge him this victory. He has come so close twice this year, only to be denied his first IRC victory. Then he came to Scotland and this time it was his rally.

Andreas and Ola, arms aloft

All my photos from the Rally of Scotland

This week Ferrari caused a ripple when it published a provocative article on its blog, The Horse Whisperer. The final paragraph is worth quoting in full, not only because it makes an interesting point, but because it elegantly quotes Adam Smith. (Motorsport, economics and my home town of Kirkcaldy all in one little paragraph!)

This is the legacy of the holy war waged by the former FIA president. The cause in question was to allow smaller teams to get into Formula 1. This is the outcome: two teams will limp into the start of the championship, a third is being pushed into the ring by an invisible hand – you can be sure it is not the hand of Adam Smith – and, as for the fourth, well, you would do better to call on Missing Persons to locate it. In the meantime, we have lost two constructors along the way, in the shape of BMW and Toyota, while at Renault, there’s not much left other than the name. Was it all worth it?

As fans have watched the progress (and non-progress) of the new teams over winter, many will have been wondering just how much of a success the FIA’s initiative to introduce new teams have been. A lot of political turmoil was caused last year when the FIA all of a sudden decided that ten teams on the grid is not enough.

Never mind the fact that there were just ten teams on the grid for the majority of the past decade, and it was never viewed as a problem before. And never mind that it was Max Mosley who originally said that the existence of teams like Williams was not how he envisaged the future of Formula 1.

Just like that — to prove some kind of political point, or maybe just for a bit of a scrap — he changed his mind. New privateers were now essential for the future of the sport. Manufacturers were driven out, to the point where basically only Mercedes are left (and Ferrari remain, but clearly unhappy with the way the sport is run).

Quantity over quality?

Formula 1 2010 brings yet another radical new look to the sport. There is no doubt that the greatly shaken-up grid has generated a large amount of interest. But there is a distinctly different style to the grid. This brings us to ask: is the new way better than the old way?

In recent years, the emphasis has been on the quality of the participants. Yes, there were relatively few entrants. Costs were sky-high. But viewers were guaranteed to be watching the best of the best.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that the 20 drivers in F1 were among the 25-or-so most capable people for the job. Pay drivers, who have been a fixture of motorsport since its earliest days, had all but vanished. Even the very worst of recent F1 drivers — the likes of Romain Grosjean or Nelsinho Piquet — would put drivers like Jean-Denis Délétraz or Ricardo Rosset in the shade.

I am all for new and privateer teams coming into F1. But it should be a proper process, and not rushed and contrived like the situation this year.

Although the history of the F1 Rejects — the remarkable drivers who ploughed on with their F1 careers despite not ever having a hope of achieving anything — is long and proud, the pinnacle of motorsport ought to be the pinnacle of motorsport. Right now, F1 is going through a process of artificial watering down. This is thanks to the FIA.

The FIA’s fundamental misunderstanding of motorsport

I have been genuinely worried by the FIA in recent years. They seem to have genuinely no idea what makes motorsport great. Witness the continued decline of the World Rally Championship. While it is currently undergoing a slight boost thanks to Kimi Räikkönen, it is otherwise a shadow of its former self. Meanwhile, the relatively new Intercontinental Rally Challenge, just a few years old and more or less invented by a television company, continues to gain admirers.

IRC is attracting attention because it gives the fans what they want. Meanwhile, the FIA continue to do mad things with the WRC, such as messing around with the calendar unnecessarily.

Up until recently, the idea that the FIA were totally clueless was just a hunch of mine. Sure, it has appeared that way for a long time. But maybe they saw the bigger picture. Perhaps the crazy “world engine” concept — whereby Formula 1, World Rally and World Touring cars would all share the same engine — really was needed in order to save the environment.

Well, no. It simply derives from a fundamental misunderstanding about what makes motorsport exciting to so many people.

The January edition of the excellent Motor Sport magazine podcast contained a truly shocking revelation that I’m surprised more hasn’t been made of. I urge you to listen to it. The relevant section is 35 minutes and 50 seconds in.

Motorsport journalist Nigel Roebuck recounts a meeting with Max Mosley:

He did actually say at one point — and he meant it, he wasn’t being facetious — we were talking about the spectators and he said, “Would they miss the noise, Nigel, do you think?”

I couldn’t believe he was asking the question. I said, “Max, the noise is half of it.”

And then he said, “I always find when I’m watching the race on television, the engine noise is such a distraction. I can’t hear what the commentator’s saying sometimes.”

And he wasn’t being facetious. It did strike me then — it does worry me. You know, “you and Bernie are the most powerful people in motor racing, and you’re not actually sure of the answer to that question. In which case, you’ve missed the point entirely.”

Thanks to the FIA’s recent moves, we are now in a situation where Formula 1 is no longer the elite sport that it was. I have recently been asked if the 107% rule — whereby excessively slow cars are weeded out during qualifying — is still in force. It hasn’t been for years, but it’s telling that some people haven’t even noticed that the rule was ditched long ago, but are now interested to find out if it still exists.

For the past few years, it didn’t matter whether the 107% rule existed or not. Every team was capable of producing a competitive car. Not this year.

Incidentally, the quotes from Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone about the introduction of the 107% rule are very interesting in relation to their recent policy of encouraging more small teams, regardless of their quality:

Max Mosley: “Any small team which is properly organised will be able to get within the the 107 per cent margin.”

Bernie Ecclestone: “Formula 1 is the best. And we don’t need anything in it that isn’t the best.”

A deal has been struck between Max Mosley, Fota and Bernie Ecclestone, and the threat of a breakaway series has been averted. I think there were a lot of people out there who quite liked the idea of a breakaway series. Indeed, given the choice between Max Mosley’s rotten vision and a Fota-run series, I would have gone for the Fota series every time.

But a split would have been a calamitous situation. The new series, despite having all the big names and probably some decent circuits, would still have taken some time to find its feet. Plus, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Fota series would have got good television coverage. Don’t forget that for the vast majority of fans, television is the only way we can consume the sport that we love, so this is an essential element.

In a lot of ways, the roots of the current problem in Formula 1 lie with Bernie Ecclestone. Or, to be more precise, CVC. They are the ones who suck the money out of the sport in order to pay the interest on their debts. That is why F1 ends up visiting sterile circuits with minuscule crowds — because those governments will pay huge sums of money for the privilege of holding an F1 race. That is probably also the reason for the fervour over cost cutting. If the teams spend less, Bernie can get away with giving the teams less of the sport’s revenues, and giving CVC more of them.

But despite that problem with CVC, I can’t find it in myself to be too angry with Bernie Ecclestone. In truth, he has done a great job of promoting the sport, and F1 may never have appealed to me were it not for Bernie’s efforts. Sure, there are a lot of areas where he can improve, particularly on the dire online offering.

But under Bernie Ecclestone, the television coverage of Formula 1 has been revolutionised. He got his fingers burnt with the adventurous F1 Digital+ endeavour. But while those innovatory days may be no more (and it is notable that F1 is still not broadcast in HD), today’s FOM-produced World Feed (used for all races except Monaco and Japan) is based on many of those innovations and television coverage has improved immeasurably over the past fifteen or so years.

We seldom have to deal with relatively amateurish efforts from the host broadcasters. Just compare these two videos of the same incident as it unfolded live. One is from the FOM F1 Digital+ World Feed, and the other was from the host broadcaster. (To view them side-by-side ‘as live’, start the second video when the first video reaches 17 seconds.)

The difference in quality is massive. F1 Digital+ caught the accident live so viewers knew immediately what happened. This was no coincidence. It happened because a system of sensors around the circuit could detect when cars were running close together, and coverage automatically switched to those cars in the expectation of some kind of incident unfolding. Later, replays from multiple angles enhanced the viewer’s understanding of the incident.

Meanwhile, the host broadcaster cut to Ralf Schumacher climbing out of his car ten seconds after the incident originally started. And it was a long time until viewers found out that the accident also involved Jacques Villeneuve — and there was only one angle of the incident. Note also how Martin Brundle had to rely on the superior coverage which he could see outside his commentary box window to tell viewers that Villeneuve was unhurt.

The Australian host broadcasters were not dummies. They just did the best job they could with the resources they had at their disposal. “Bernievision” was only good because of heavy investment and years of experimentation.

Bernie’s television operation was pretty impressive even in 2001, though not all of the innovations remain in today’s coverage. But it is thanks to Bernie Ecclestone that today’s coverage is more like the first video than the second one. A Fota-run championship would not have had such a slick operation going from day one, and the fans would have been worse off for it.

(For more on the amazing “Bernievision”, check out these decade-old articles on GrandPrix.com: Inside Bakersville and Inside the F1 digital television centre.)

Then there is the question of whether it would have had any coverage at all. The BBC would have been scared off, and television executives would have been confused. They want the World Championship, whether or not an alternative series is better in the eyes of the fans. Take, for instance, the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, which I hear is better than the FIA’s World Rally Championship. Not that I’d know, because the former is ghettoised on Eurosport while the FIA’s weak WRC gets terrestrial coverage.

No matter if it has all the current teams and good circuits — signing up to show a new series is a risk which television executives wouldn’t want to take. The prospect of the best F1 series being on some pay channel and having no terrestrial coverage was a real one. That aspect of the breakaway scared me.

On the other hand, the proposed breakaway presented the opportunity to create a great new version of Formula 1, unshackled from the financial needs of CVC or the warped politics of Max Mosley. Fota had some crazy ideas, but they carried out market research and were far more receptive to the views of fans than the FIA have ever been.

I particularly liked the idea that the new series could have been particularly focussed on attracting an American audience. The FIA Formula 1 Championship has dumped on US fans time and again, and today there is no race in North America even though it is a major market for the manufacturers.

There would also have been a careful look at ticket prices and the fees circuits have to pay to hold an F1 race. No-one (apart from Bernie apparently) likes to arrive at sterile circuits with a dozen people in the grandstand. It comes across on television too, whether or not FOM’s cameramen are instructed to avoid shots of empty grandstands.

I could feel the atmosphere of the passionate British crowd on the television. The difference could hardly be more stark from the previous race at Turkey, where the crowd was around 10% of the size. And Silverstone is a circuit that Bernie wants to move away from.

Even the little things that are wrong with F1 could have had the magnifying glass applied to them. Such as, why can’t a driver keep the same number for his whole career. In other categories such as Nascar or MotoGP, a driver’s number becomes part of his legend, every bit as important as, say, his helmet design. Even in the history of Formula 1, the number 27 car is almost synonymous with Gilles Villeneuve. Imagine the marketing potential too. But in the clinical world of Formula 1, driver numbers are determined by the positions of last year’s Constructors’ Championship.

In short, the breakaway could have been a great opportunity to fix everything that is broken with F1. I doubt the breakaway would have been a true ‘split’, and it probably wouldn’t have had the same consequences as the Cart / IRL split. It was pretty clear from the fact that the FIA never released a finalised 2010 entry list that the FIA didn’t have a 2010 F1 Championship to speak of, and Fota’s would have been the only show in town.

That, I think, is why the deal must be seen as a victory for Fota. It has turned out to be a powerful organisation that did after all have the ability to at last stand up to Max Mosley’s dictatorial authority.

There is a part of me that suspects that the FIA as an organisation simply isn’t fit for the purpose of overseeing motorsports. We will eventually see how things develop with Max Mosley’s successor. I think today is just the starting point though, and we will see some more loose ends being tied up in the coming months. There will be power struggles there too, I am sure.

It looks like these negotiations will in fact be handled by Michel Boeri. That in itself is interesting because he is the promoter of the Monaco Grand Prix. It was reported that he would take the Monaco GP with him to the Fota camp if the breakaway went ahead.

What we need now, most of all, is someone in charge of the FIA who is not a glorified politician, constantly interfering. I remember Maurice Hamilton making the point once that everyone knows who Max Mosley is, and many people can tell you that Jean-Marie Balestre was his predecessor. But not many can tell you who Balestre’s predecessor was (for you history buffs, on the Fisa side it was Pierre Ugeux, and in the FIA it was Paul Metternich). Yet the sport still ran.

It sounds like from now on there will be more checks and balances in place, with the F1 Commission being given more of a say from now on. No doubt Fota will continue to play its role too, and I think it would be best for everyone if Williams and Force India re-joined and USF1, Campos and Manor all joined too. That way the teams, who create the sport, can have a say in its governance too.

Speaking of the new teams, I think as we sit here today, with much of the damage repaired, the biggest shame of this episode is that two capable teams have been denied a place on the entry list as a result of Max Mosley’s petty politicking. I think many of us can’t wait to see Prodrive finally get a chance to enter F1, and Lola were a promising prospect too.

No doubt the FIA actually had a tough choice to make, as according to Joe Saward at least the Manor Grand Prix team is actually a seriously strong prospect. With costs set to be cut and a more stable future for F1 promised, and with that troublesome Max fellow out of the way, at least we know there are capable teams that are ready to fill any potential gaps that appear.