Sunday, December 14, 2008

Race of Champions

It seemed to me nothing so much as a cross between an end-of-term party and a giant scalextric tournament. With real cars. That said, it was quite some line-up for an end-of-term party. A seven-times F1 world champion, a five-times World Rally champion, a three times World Touring Car Champion and a double World Superbikes Champion. Oh, and a couple more Grand Prix winners, another touring car champion, the youngest ever F3 champion and an eight times Le Mans winner. Michael Schumacher, Sebastien Loeb, Andy Priaulx, Troy Bayliss and Tom Kristensen, as well as double Race of Champions winner Matthias Ekstrom were all at Wembley to go up against each other last weekend. Quite a line-up for any racing event really - it's just a shame that Lewis Hamilton wasn't going up against Michael Schumacher - rumour has it that Mclaren put the kybosh on that one.

The Race of Champions, the brainchild of former World Rally front-runner Michele Mouton, started out life in the late 80s as an end of season party for the world's leading rally drivers. Over the last few years, though, it has moved first to the Stade de France and latterly to the new Wembley Stadium, with the the world's leading circuit racers joining the rally boys. For all that it is effectively a rally super-special stage, the circuit racers haven't done badly over the years. Heikki Kovalainen first came to our attention by beating Michael Schumacher around the temporary course at the Stade de France in 2004 and all-rounder Mattias Ekstrom (first and foremost a touring car driver, but not without a fair amount of rally experience) winning in 2006 and 2007.

This year saw the revenge of the rally boys, with Sebastien Loeb triumphing over David Coulthard in the final (the Scot seemingly still unable to stay out of trouble this year, twice hitting the barriers in his ROC buggy (only narrowly scraping through into the final after wiping out his front wheel at the very last corner in his battle with NASCAR front-runner Carl Edwards in the semi, and getting himself tangled in the temporary barriers while demonstrating his Red Bull in the break!). The whole thing was broadcast live over the internet thanks to . The idea of webcasting race series currently only available on obscure satellite channels, incidentally, is one I seriously think race series organisers should consider. I'd be far more inclined to pay a subscription to watch a race series via a good quality internet service than to pay for Rupert Murdoch's satellite TV service.

All in all, it sounds like a great idea. Sadly, I must say I found the actual event a little underwhelming, and if I hadn't been rather at a loose end that Sunday afternoon (the weather really isn't up to much here) I probably wouldn't have stuck with it - despite John Hindhaugh and Bruce Jones' very enjoyable commentary. The fundamental problem is that watching drivers battling only against the clock, without any 'wheel to wheel' action isn't all that exciting. The rally world gets away with it because a 300BHP WRC car being hustled down a muddy forest track is spectacular in a way that a Fiat 500 Abarth being driven against the clock round a ludicrously tight track within the confines of a football stadium just isn't. To steal a line first used by Nelson Piquet to describe the Monaco Grand Prix, it's like trying to ride a bicycle in your living room.

Nonetheless, I do think there is mileage in the idea of gathering together the top performers from across the racing world to put on a show in a major European city come December. Despite my reservations about the event itself as a spectacle, I was quite tempted to go to Race of Champions myself. For a start, while there's little to do in the environs of Silverstone, Brands Hatch or Donington, a visit to RoC can be combined with a long weekend in London - a rather appealing idea at this time of year. As it happened, work intervened and I couldn't get away for long enough to make the trip. It strikes me that a football stadium, once given the tarmac treatment, would be an absolutely ideal venue for a karting tournament. Such an event would enable more drivers on track at any one time, and, providing the karts were quick enough, would almost certainly make for a better spectacle than the current rally super-special derived format does. OK, so it might tip the balance away from the rally drivers and towards the circuit racers, but Sebastien Loeb aside, the rallying world is rather short of real stars these days, and I can't help but think that - after his impressive showings in a Red Bull F1 car last month, the Frenchman would hardly be intimidated by the thought of going up against Schumacher et al in karts!



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