Sunday, June 14, 2009

Racing on the Radio

Sport isn't suited to radio coverage. It's all about the drama of the moment - the visual impact of moments of sublime skill. The inspired shot at goal, the intense squabble over a set point in tennis, the overtaking manouvre that leaves your heart in your mouth.

Its appeal is essentially visual. Hearing a man shouting "he shoots, he scores" is at best a poor substitute for seeing it happen and at worst, just plain irritating. Hearing Jonathan Legard or Maurice Hamilton, as was then, telling you that Fernando Alonso has just passed Schumacher round the outside at 130R is a poor substitute for seeing it happen.

There's an exception to every rule though. My stepfather enjoys listening to the test cricket coverage on Radio 4 as he works. It's not a sport I've ever really understood, but I can well understand why it might work as well over the radio as on the television. It's a long, drawn out battle that ebbs and flows. Occasionally, someone early in the batting order might go out for a duck, or an LBW might do for a key player, but the drama lies in the fact that it's happened, not, principally in the way its happened. There's long stretches where nothing in particular is happening, providing commentators with time to get diverted into the back story to the game, the characters involved, and reminiscences of past matches.

There's a certain similarity with long distance sportscar racing, something which was not lost on the Radio Le Mans team last weekend, as John Hindhaugh sought to explain to his American co-commentator what 'Leg Before Wicket' actually means. A 24 hour race isn't about wheel-to-wheel dicing and spectacular passing manoeuvres. It's about strategy. Finding a second or two a lap, every lap, for lap after lap. Going an extra lap between fuel stops. Most of all, it's about keeping out of trouble. In consequence, it works just as well, if not better, on the radio, as it does on the television.

From this, you will gather that, in spite of what I said here last year, I once again failed to make the trip to La Sarthe - something which has been on my 'to-do' list for getting on for a decade now. Real life, sadly, getting in the way once more - this time I found myself in Parliament on the day I should really have been on the Eurostar heading south. The Saturday evening, after a day's hillwalking, I stuck Radio Le Mans on in the background and while it isn't like being there (although I've always said that much of the thing about seeing motorsport in the flesh comes in the sound - so maybe I'm not missing much with those silent diesel Audis and Peugeots), it felt much more like being there than my usual experience of watching the racing on the television.

Perhaps it's because it was like listening to the radio commentary at the circuit (for English speakers, Radio Le Mans is the at-circuit commentary, but thanks to the internet, its possible to listen anywhere in the world. The unspoken truth of endurance racing is that relatively little happens on the track much of the time, so the time is not spent telling the listener who is passing who or who has run a touch wide out of Arnage, or whatever, but rather of trying to give the whole story of what is, after all, an immensely complex race - 52 cars, each with 3 drivers, in action for a whole 24 hours.

So we had the diversion of a lengthy debate between Jim Roller and John Hindhaugh regarding whether quick F1 drivers made good endurance drivers - interrupted, amusingly, by an interview with Aston Martin driver and former Super Aguri man Anthony Davidson. As an aside, the fact that the race was eventually won by former-F1 men Alex Wurz, Marc Gene and David Brabham, and that current F1 man - Sebastien Bourdais - seemed to be amongst the very quickest and most consistent drivers in the field and probably would have won the race had that car had an entirely trouble-free race. As it was, they found themselves a lap back and the team decided to instruct the two Peugeots not to race each other.

Aside from that, we had plenty interviews with both those competing in the race and with other characters from the racing world who were along for the weekend, including Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, whose brother was competing in the race for the first time. Speculation as to whether the two Franchittis might team up with cousin Paul Di Resta for a combined assault on the 24 hour race was quite intriguing. The Andrettis came close to winning the race with a family team, but so far as I can remember, nobody has actually gone the whole way and won teamed up with a brother or father.

Le Mans a race that is both one of the most intriguing events in motorsport and yet not one which, once the initial novelty of seeing prototype sportscars on the television has worn off, actually provides much in the way of visual spectacle. As such, it is absolutely ideally suited to radio coverage. OK, so I'm sure it's not quite like being there - certainly, the sight of an Audi or Peugeot through the Porsche curves must be quite something these days, even if the sound is decidedly uninspiring - but it left me feeling much closer to the action than I ever do when sat watching a Grand Prix of a Sunday afternoon. Next year maybe I'll finally get down to La Sarthe and see for myself.

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Blogger Nicebloke said...

You must get to LM next year!

3:03 PM  

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