Whilst many motor racing publications tend to focus on Formula 1 or MotoGP’s broadcasting exploits, elsewhere in the motor sport spectrum, a quiet revolution has been taking place that deserves far more attention than what it has received.
To discover more, this writer took a trip up to Deeside to see what the fuss was about for a three-part series…
Unless you know your geography very well, Deeside probably does not register on the Richter scale. But, for one week each year, the world of rallying descends onto Deeside’s Industrial Estate, as it plays host to the service park for the Wales Rally GB. This year, the event signals round 11 of the 2018 World Rally Championship.
So why rallying, and why now? In January, organisers of the championship announced that they would be launching a new over-the-top platform, airing every stage of every rally live via said platform. It is easy to see why such a move could be a revolution for a sport that usually aired as highlights in a late evening time slot.
2018 is not the first time WRC’s promoter has attempted to broadcast every stage live to fans. Back in 2011, then promoter North One Sport experimented with an ‘all live’ approach, but the experiment lasted just one season.
Now with the commercial rights in the hands of WRC Promoter GmbH (a collaboration between Red Bull Media House and sportradar), 2018 marks take two at trying to transform rallying.
“We did have a little go at it in 2011, but the resources and technology were not ready for ‘it’,” Kevin Piper tells me. Piper is currently Editor in Chief for WRC’s television output, and has worked on the championship for the past decade. “Everything has come together now; the promoter has taken a calculated gamble and hopefully it is paying off.”
Marko Viitanen, who is WRC’s television director, was involved in the 2011 test and could see the potential from the outset. “At that point I kind of knew as a director ‘this is the way’ to do rallying live, but it took some time. I must say that the promoter today had a really good vision.”
Up until 2018, rally fans had access to selected stages live, along with the traditional 26- and 52- minute highlight programmes. Arguably, in a 21st century media age where fans are viewing live sport on a variety of devices, rallying was some way behind the curve.
In his previous role, Piper worked on the 52-minute highlights package, a task that became trickier as time progressed. “Sport is best delivered live, whatever the sport, especially in this day and age when the technology is there to enable you to do that,” Piper says.
“Everyone knew what had happened already, so we always had that battle of ‘what should the editorial slant be’ on the highlights, when it’s going out a few days after the event had finished.”
“We were forever reinventing that programme, to not lose too much of the credibility and respect for the sport and the fact that there was an event at a world championship level that had happened, but this holy grail of trying to appeal to a wider audience, that proves to be really difficult.”
After a successful internal test in Portugal last year, series organisers ploughed ahead with the new product, dubbed ‘All Live‘ ready for launch in 2018, starting with the traditional curtain raiser, the Monte Carlo rally. At just £7.97 per month, the pricing is a steal for hardcore and casual rallying fans alike.
The first stages from Monte Carlo take place on a Thursday night, up in the mountains at the service park in Gap in less than ideal conditions. Series bosses wanted to launch All Live on the Thursday night, which they followed through successfully on, but Piper expressed some early reservations.
“I would think very carefully about Thursday nights in Monte Carlo, which will probably go down as one of the most testing, challenging productions I’ve been involved with ever. We knew that Thursday night, up there among the mountains, would be challenging to say the least, hell, it’s a big enough challenge as it is when the landscape is on your side!”
“But that night, to launch this All Live product, I said ‘don’t do it.’ Play safe, launch on Friday morning, okay you’ve still got the terrain to contend with, but the conditions will be a lot more user friendly,” Piper says. “The decision was taken and, to be fair from a logical point of view, we’ve called it All Live therefore it has to do what it says on the tin and cover all the stages.”
“People were understandably frustrated and criticised us on the night as there were technical problems, but they could have also quite rightly criticised us for not living up to the billing and not being on the start-line on Thursday night.”
“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.” – reviewing All Live post Monte Carlo
Viitanen was under no illusions about the challenges that lay ahead. “People in our crew come from circuit racing, and they’re stunned about the fact how difficult rallying is. Rallying, All Live, is probably the most difficult production from a technical perspective. The tech setup spreads wide.”
“You can imagine Monte Carlo, the distance between Gap and the last stage is 170km in birds eye view, and then you have obstacles like mountains to contend with.”
Nevertheless, Viitanen was extremely happy with the work that his team put in that weekend under testing circumstances. “To be that good in Monte, we were not even close to perfect there, we did pull out a miracle,” he tells me.
Beyond the stage
Whilst the main attraction of All Live is having every stage live, the cherry on top of the cake comes in the form of action between the stages, as All Live gives fans access to the rally from dusk to dawn.
Helped by a dynamic on-air team, All Live features studio interviews from stars past and present, including the rich and famous. Nicky Grist (formerly Colin McRae’s co-driver), Sami Hyypia (football manager and player) and Gary Mitchell (led the team involved in the Thailand cave rescue) were some of the names to pop by the studio for a chat during the Wales weekend.
Grist also joined All Live’s lead commentator Becs Williams in the commentary box on Friday morning in Wales to chat through the action.
Elsewhere, the platform focuses on the service park part of the rally, with roving reporters on stand-by, which has for many been one of the revelations this season. “For me, and I knew this right from the word go, what really brings a lot of added value to All Live is the insight you get from when the cars are not running, when they are in service, when there is a roadside repair,” says Piper.
Speaking to me on the Friday in Wales, Piper continued “Today was a great example in the service park, a battle against the clock to get a full gearbox change done on [Sebastien] Ogier’s car. You could have logged in, wherever you are in the world, just as that started, I defy anybody to turn that off.”
Piper hopes that, by exposing previously unseen parts of rallying via All Live, rallying can attract a new demographic of fans moving forward. “There are so many facets to this sport, different terrain, different drivers, different characters, different elements on any one given day.”
“I love my football and I love my Formula 1, but you kind of know what you’re going to get with that. Here, from one hour to the next, the storylines and characters can change, different drivers enjoying different fortunes, car rebuilds,” Piper added.
“I’ve always thought of All Live as not only for the core fans but it’s actually for the younger generation, bringing the sport to the people and WRC to their mobile devices,” Viitanen adds. “€89.99 for the whole year, it is a treat for that price. I’m really happy with the way that people have taken to the product. I was talking to some of the drivers the other day, and I think this is the best thing media wise that has happened since TV came to WRC. This has great potential.”
WRC officials tell me that they are “very happy” with the take-up of All Live worldwide, outperforming expectations in a variety of territories, which bodes well for the future of the product, as they look to evolve All Live heading into 2019.
For Viitanen, 2018 is a mix of the old and the new. “This first year is a hybrid one for us, every event is a learning curve. We’ve brought in a lot of new developments during the year, both technically and on the content front,” comments Viitanen, who is also the managing director of production company NEP Finland.
“We’ve come a hell of a long way since Monte,” Piper adds. “What the technology guys here have done is quite extraordinary, and no one at home ever sees that. We never stop learning and reinventing the wheel.”
Saturday in Turkey
Roaming around the service park in Deeside, three words cropped up repeatedly: Saturday in Turkey. Labelled as one of the most dramatic rallying days in years, title contenders Thierry Neuville and Sebastien Ogier retired from the Turkish rally, with difficulties also for Andreas Mikkelsen and Craig Breen, decimating the running order.
Toyota Yaris driver Ott Tanak took full advantage of the problems that befell the others, heading to the top of the leader board. All of that in the space of a few hours. And, for the first time, broadcast live for rally fans to watch as it unfolded in front of their very eyes, showing the capability that All Live brings to the table. No longer did rally fans have to wait until the evening highlights package to witness the action.
“If you enjoy motor sport, I defy anybody to tune into All Live for five or ten minutes and not think ‘wow, this is great, I’m part of the journey, I’m in there now!'” Piper tells me. “And that’s just the actual stages.”
Although All Live is a live product, the benefits of it stretches far beyond All Live and into the highlights output. “When I worked on the ITV’s F1 coverage, the highlights basically cut themselves, there were no surprises,” says Piper.
“Whereas here, before All Live, because of the incredible footprint of WRC, if a car had gone off 100km from here, it’s not until we get it back and see the on-board, you realise ‘jeez, what happened there!’ That then becomes an important part of that day’s highlights. Now we see pretty much all of it and more.”
For the team working on the 26- and 52- minute highlights programming, the difference between 2017 and 2018 is night and day. James Parnis is the producer for the 52-minute highlights programme.
“Right now, as we sit here, we’re watching it all unfold!” says Parnis, talking to me during the Wales Rally GB weekend. “We know the shots already that we want to use, and we’re able to keep across the story much better than before.”
“In Turkey, when Neuville had his incident and limped into service, we had live shots of him standing there watching Ogier’s roadside problems! In terms of how All Live and the highlights work, they work very much in tandem.”
Inevitably there is a resourcing challenge with All Live – a similar budget and level of expertise compared to previous years, but a much bigger operation, meaning that everyone both on and off-air has had to rise to the challenge presented.
“It is more challenging with the long hours,” Viitanen says. “It feels like work when you’ve sat there 25 hours in front of the screen, but on the other hand, it’s fascinating. You’re telling the story for the whole weekend, and in the end, TV is about telling stories to millions of fans worldwide.”
Coming up in part two, we take a deep-dive into the World Rally Championship production area, looking at the effort that goes into the planning phase, including the pre-event recce.