Every round. Every stage. Live.
That was the promise made to World Rally Championship fans at the start of 2018, and this past weekend saw the launch of their new service with the Monte Carlo Rally, the first round of the 2018 season.
The term ‘new era’ is bandied around for many different reasons, but for rallying, WRC’s ‘All Live’ offering is a revolution not just for fans, but for the sport as a whole, especially considering the state it was in just ten years ago. As commentator Becs Williams pointed out during coverage, teams have previously “just seen a tracking map and split times.”
Priced at around £8.00 a month, the premium tier is available to fans worldwide, with no geo-blocking in place. £8.00 for the first month would get you access to the opening two rounds of the season, an excellent deal. Outside usual circles, it does feel like the offering has yet to make a buzz in the wider motor sport community, something I hope changes as the year progresses.
Producing a rally across four days is a major logistical and technical challenge that is difficult to put into words, on a much larger geographical scale than many other motor racing events. Bearing that in mind, the idea of a ‘All Live’ offering is beyond anything that has happened before.
Presentation team strong, but lacks depth
Kiri Bloore presented the four days of coverage from Thursday through to Sunday, with Williams leading the commentary line-up. Jon Desborough, Julian Porter and Paul King rotated in and out of the makeshift studio at the Gap service park, and commentary booth during the weekend. Molly Pettit provided reports from the start of each stage as well as interviewing the key drivers.
The team was on-air for around 30 hours across the four days, from dawn to dusk including mid-day intervals, helping fans get closer to the action. If the number of hours remains similar at each rally, WRC should consider adding two or three on-air personnel to keep the coverage fresh, and to avoid the existing crew becoming exhausted (some of the personnel also are part of WRC’s radio output, hence Williams’ absence from the visual output on Sunday).
A second presenter and reporter, who could double up as a commentator would do the trick nicely. Additional bodies would allow the schedule to be split into ‘blocks’, with someone new presenting in the afternoon as an example. The sharing of resources between visual (TV) and radio was noticeable on Sunday morning, as fans heard no commentary or could see any footage for half of stage 14 whilst personnel moved between bases.
Pettit was the highlight of the weekend, with her interviews and reporting style, the segments at Gap following Friday’s running helped bring fans closer to the action, and into an area not previously seen. Bloore was fine as presenter, whilst Williams up in commentary was engaging throughout. What I really like is that all three are genuinely passionate about rallying, and that comes through on-screen.
The location of the studio left a lot to be desired. Instead of showing off the mountainous Alps, Bloore and her analyst were against a generic WRC backdrop for most of the studio segments, not the most atmospheric position they could be in.
Stunning imagery, but haphazard timing
One of the beauties of rallying is the images it provides, and the Monte Carlo Rally is no different. Of course, every stage live means that we were treated to all angles, from the night stages on Thursday night, through to the treacherous, snowy conditions on Saturday morning. The on-board camera angles throughout the weekend showed various drivers fighting their machinery, trying to survive and live for another day. Importantly, the imagery makes you appreciate just how difficult rallying is, and how much effort goes into putting the show on the road.
The on-screen graphics were slick, passing the keep it simple test with ease. The graphics, showing key details such as elevation change and speed, are easy to understand, and thankfully do not overload the screen. However, as one might expect with a new service of this nature, Thursday’s coverage suffered teething problems, some of which continued throughout the weekend, making the rally confusing to follow at times.
In normal circuit racing, you know when someone is heading towards the Bus Stop at Spa, or around the final bend at Melbourne. However, you do not have a visual of when Sebastien Ogier is close to finishing his stage, which is why a constant timer on-screen is vital. Unfortunately, timing graphics during each stage were at a premium for the first half of the weekend, making stages difficult to follow without anything to reference, and the commentators appeared to be in the same position.
I liked the GPS virtual map that was on display throughout the weekend, although it may serve better within a picture-in-picture type format, to help show how far away drivers are to finishing their stage. At times, the map felt like a holding screen whilst the director looked for the next car to focus upon.
Telling the story
An important aspect of motor sport is to decipher the various on-track stories throughout the weekend, and even with every stage covered, it felt like something was missing from the package. I did wonder if the production team had access to every on-board in the gallery, the impression I had watching the rally was that they only had access to a limited number of cars to play out live, restricting what fans could see. Williams mentioned several incidents in commentary, but clips never aired until later in the day.
From an early stage, it became clear that Ogier was battling against Ott Tanak for victory, yet the direction did not reflect this fact. Split-screen was one technique WRC could have utilised to show the two cars, and to show how far Tanak was behind Ogier at each split (or vice versa), therefore showing why Ogier has the upper hand. If not possible during the stage, it is something that could take place during one of the service breaks to help viewers understand why the rally is following the way it is. To try new things like this though, you need the right number of people in front of the camera…
Frustratingly, Ogier called the first stage on Saturday morning the worst of his career in the snow, yet viewers saw very little of it. Split-screen could have helped demonstrate this, as well as showing conditions improve with every passing driver. The direction felt repetitive during some phases of the rally: instead of focussing on emerging battles, the director focussed on cars one-by-one during their final two minutes.
The best round-up of events that I watched was during the Power Stage on Sunday afternoon, possibly because the segment was packaged as a standalone TV show for those broadcasters airing that stage. There was no sign of the studio during the 90-minute Power Stage, nor were any references made to All Live. Desborough presented this part, disappointingly no sign of either Bloore or Williams.
An aspect of rallying I like returned on Saturday, with fans hearing pace notes from Dan Barratt towards Elfyn Evans. Evans was one of the many drivers’ door stepped at the end of stage by Pettit and Porter, showing the immediate raw emotion, whether it was satisfaction or disappointment. As the action played out, the pecking order from 4th to 7th turned on its head significantly in the Power Stage with Esapekka Lappi falling down the order due to an off-track excursion, all of this caught by the live cameras (Lappi’s reaction as you can imagine over the line was a little more than disappointment).
The online service and app
The video player provided by WRC is basic, but does the job on both laptop and through their Android app. Impressively, every stage is immediately available after its initial broadcast, with no delay whatsoever.
Like MotoGP’s Video Pass, I do think WRC should consider adding ‘markers’ in their live programme for people arriving late, or for those who want to relieve a key moment. Ogier’s spin during stage seven was a key moment on Friday, but to find this in the live offering you had to manually trawl back through the various clips to find it.
Following the conclusion of each stage, fans have access to every on-board camera, allowing you to compare two drivers with one another, very similar to what I think would be useful to see in the live stream. Until I clicked on the ‘Onboard Action’ section did I realise that you could access every on-board through here. Again, the user interface feels slightly rough round the edges, but is usable.
Many things above I am acutely aware are a result of this being WRC’s first ‘All Live’ weekend, and will improve over time. Live broadcasting is difficult at the best of times, and considering this is the first time WRC have transmitted every stage live to fans, they have started fantastically.
As I mentioned at the start of this piece, rallying is one of the most difficult forms of motor sport to cover from a broadcasting perspective, yet the team covered the full weekend without any major breakdowns. Yes, there are areas to improve, but that will happen as the season progresses. If Monte Carlo was a minimum viable product, then for rallying fans, the broadcasting revolution has only just started…