Monday, March 22, 2010

Made for Television

After the disappointingly soporific opener to the F1 World Championship at Bahrain last weekend, there has been a lot of talk about what can or should be done to improve the show. And when people talk about the show, what they really mean is the television show. In the flesh, the sight and sound of F1 cars have such a dramatic impact that it doesn't really matter than the racing is processional and the result not in any doubt.

While F1 might be utterly reliant on TV viewing figures to maintain its income stream, the rules are not ultimately written by the sport's promoter, and FOM is not a television company. There are, however, two major world championships which are run by a television company. Both the Intercontinental Rally Challenge and the World Touring Car Championship are run by satellite television broadcaster Eurosport. But does being run by a television company actually improve the quality of the show?

Watching the opening round of the IRC at Monte Carlo at the beginning of the year, I have to say that the answer is, at the very least, a qualified positive. Eurosport, being a specialist sports channel (and a minority interest sports channel at that) can justify broadcasting rally stages live, and this gives much more of a real sense of what rallying is about than the edited highlights packages for the WRC which ITV and Dave have put out over the last few years (I don't have Motors TV, so I don't know if they are doing any better a job of the WRC coverage).

By contrast, their coverage of the latest round in Argentina last weekend was rather more pedestrian. I suppose it is inevitable that, while it may be possible to justify broadcasting the Monte Carlo rally in full, there is rather less appetite for watching an ordinary, common or garden gravel round of the IRC. And to be fair, I was at something of a loose end last weekend, and even then, I doubt I'd have sat through it if they had. Unfortunately, their coverage of the event wasn't even as good as what North One Television used to manage with the WRC. Yes, there were a few brief, quite watchable 'in car' clips, but there was no real attempt to tell the story of the rally. And, while I can perhaps sympathise with the difficulty of commentating from a small room somewhere in London on pre-edited TV footage beamed from the other side of the world, I simply cannot warm to Carlton Kirby. Can't help thinking (quite probably wrongly) that I could hardly do a worse job myself.

It's a shame, because the Argentinian rally, like the Brazilian event which preceded it, looked to have some really fantastic rally stages. It is not only the Monte Carlo rally which leaves me wondering quite how the IRC have pulled off the coup of stealing some of the best rallies from under the WRC's nose, while the premier series goes to such uninspired sounding locations as Jordan, Turkey and Bulgaria (it is of course entirely possible that the Bulgarian Rally will prove to be a classic - I know absolutely nothing about the place as a motorsporting country, though I can't believe there's a huge rallying fanbase waiting eagerly for the event).

What Eurosport and partners KSO have achieved with the IRC, though, is to create a second-tier rally series that has manufacturer support, and which, while it may lack absolute stars, has rather more depth of talent than, say, the old European Rally Championship used to have. In Juho Hanninen and Kris Meeke, winners of the last two rallies, it has two drivers who, if there was any justice, would be in the WRC by now. And it's just possible that, with three different winners from the first three rallies (even if one was a guest-appearance from WRC star Mikko Hirvonen) that will exceed the total for the WRC for the whole season, if as last year, it turns out once more to be a straight fight between Hirvonen and Loeb with nobody else getting so much as a look in. And if Guy Wilks or Jan Kopecky get their act together in their Skodas, or if Stephane Sarrazin or Nicolas Vouilloz reappear for the later European tarmac rounds, there could be more winners.

Certainly, there were far more serious contenders for victory in the field for the opening round of the IRC than there have been in the WRC for many years. A rule-set which allows a well-run privateer with an off-the-shelf car

It's a shame really that Ford aren't running a squad of Fiesta S2000s, and that Fiat abandoned their programme with the Punto Abarth after last year's lacklustre showing with Giandomenico Basso and Anton Alen, because it leaves the IRC with just two serious manufacturer outfits, which is the same problem which has afflicted the WRC in recent years.

Nonetheless, if KSO/Eurosport are really interested in creating a rally series which captures the imagination of television viewers, I can't help but think they've missed a trick. Why not insist on rear wheel drive cars? Inherently much more spectacular to watch than 4WD cars, think back to the early days of the old Group A formula when there were so few 4WD rally cars that a number of rear wheel drive cars were campaigned with some success on the world stage. To my mind, a BMW M3 or Sierra Cosworth rally car was inherently much more exciting to watch than a Lancia Delta or a Mazda 323. Why not do it again? Yes, Skoda, Peugeot and Ford do not market rear wheel drive 207s, Fabias and Fiestas, but chances are, you'd have difficulty getting your local car dealer to supply you with a 4 wheel drive one too. Yes, 4WD is inherently faster than rear wheel drive, but then an unrestricted 3.5 litre turbo rally car is inherently faster than a 2 litre turbo. Doesn't mean that you're allowed to run one in the IRC, or anywhere else in international rallying, for that matter. And besides, if Sebastien Loeb is perhaps getting a little bored of winning everything in sight in the World Rally Championship, the chance to show what he can do in a 280BHP rear wheel drive rally car just might be the thing to persuade him to hang around a while longer...

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