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. If you missed the first part, head over here…
So, the World Rally Championship has laid its production foundations for the future of the series. WRC gives fans 24/7 access to the championship, broadcasting every stage live on their All Live over-the-top service to fans worldwide. It is a herculean operation that requires a significant amount of planning.
Planning for a rally event, as is true for most forms of motor racing, starts years before the event takes place, sourcing out potential new locations for the rally to conquer. “Normally we get sent a provisional itinerary from the promoter, which we comment on,” says Steve Turvey, who is WRC’s Location Director.
“They already know what we want, sometimes that isn’t possible, sometimes it is a compromise, sometimes it is a negotiation, but there is a common goal to make it work for TV. Some organisers will say ‘there you are, take it or leave it’, others come to us with an open book and say ‘tell me what you want’, and that’s part of the job.”
The operational angle
The planning phase ramps up in the months leading into the rally, with a reconnaissance mission taking place beforehand. Commonly known as a ‘reccee’, the purpose of it is for the production team to source out the best shots for television.
“We drive all the stages during the reccee, choosing the action shots for the highlight packages,” Turvey tells me. “We sometimes trim the live stages to get the best section for the last part of the stage. There’s a few things we look out for, as an example, we don’t want anything that is tree covered, we want the good vantage points.”
Although the team now covers every rally stage live, there is still an element of ‘the old’ and ‘the new’ on the production side.
As in previous years, television networks around the world, such as BT Sport, cover several stages live, meaning that the production team still produces a World Feed for these stages. The remainder are exclusive to the new over-the-top platform, which brings with it a new requirement for the team to consider during planning.
“As a minimum, we want to see every WRC car through each stage for All Live, so we’ve got to consider the timings carefully. We need to make sure there’s enough time between the first WRC car starting and the final WRC car finishing, before the next stage starts to avoid any overlap.”
Turvey’s planning in the weeks before each rally must take this into account. A spreadsheet created by him builds up a timeline for all four days, broken into five-minute intervals, covering on and off-air times, sunrise and sunset, the talent involved with each stage (both on and off-air), the studio guests and so on.
The production team meticulously plans everything to the finest detail, down to the helicopter route! The helicopter might seem trivial, but no plane, no on-board cameras. The spreadsheet is not simply X + Y for calculating the gap between stages, but Turvey uses historical information, such as the average speed to calculate the stage gaps. Turvey describes it as “military operation”, everything reviewed with a fine-tooth comb.
“There’s absolutely nothing left to chance, everything is planned to the second. We know exactly the second the first car starts and the last car finishes. We’re trying to cover the rally, but we’re not trying to change it. The organisers have got ideas of their own, they start at 07:56 [here in Wales] for example because that is the first minute that they will get full daylight for everybody, and then they will be running until they start to get darkness.”
With rallying covering a large terrain, it means that WRC’s personnel are constantly on the move, which they monitors through a own tracking system to ensure that elements outside out of their control do not hold them up, such as marshals, closed roads, “or even if we’re snowed in during Sweden” as Turvey puts it!
“We appreciate it is live TV, so that is very much plan A, sometimes we end up with plan C,” Turvey continues. “If you have an event like Turkey, when the entry list was decimated due to the conditions, what we ended up broadcasting was nothing like the original plan, and that’s the great thing about the people we’ve got. We’ve got multi-skilled, multi-talented reporters out there.”
The editorial stance
On an editorial level, it is critical that the team is singing off the same hymn sheet. At their Deeside base for the Wales Rally GB, there are multiple production offices on the go, which Kevin Piper, WRC’s Editor in Chief, describes as a “multi-layered operation.”
There are at least four layers to the WRC production operation: highlights (both 26-minute and 52-minute), the bite-size news segments, All Live, and the World Feed; and that is ignoring all the invisible layers that are in between.
As stories unfolded during the Wales event, you could hear the production team chatting to one another, ensuring that the outlook was consistent across all of WRC’s products. “I take overall responsibility for the editorial content which is an ongoing process throughout the year,” Piper tells me.
“I take on-board ideas and proactively get suggestions from the rest of the team. We talk to each other between each event so that we know where we want to go moving forward.”
As part of the planning phase, Piper’s team are also in regular dialogue with WRC’s manufacturers and drivers, so that they can get the best on-screen product and interviews on-air. The 52-minute highlights programme contains a mixture of on-stage action, as well as feature segments, which requires co-operation from the teams involved.
“We know what the features for the highlights show are before we arrive at an event, and we’ll shoot these in advance of the event on the Wednesday and Thursday, ready for our editors to edit them during the weekend,” says James Parnis, who leads the 52-minute highlights strand of programming.
“For the Wales show, we’re doing a three-minute feature with Craig Breen and Scott Martin, who are having drone flying lessons from the guys at DJI Pilots. Because of what happened in Turkey, we’re also doing a technical feature, which we shot before the event on drivers and co-drivers having to repair their own cars out on the road section.”
“By pre-planning, shooting stuff and editing stuff before the event even begins, that gets us ahead of the game. That’s the plan anyway, it doesn’t always pan out like that, sometimes we have to be reactive and come up with feature ideas during the event,” Parnis continues.
The features, which WRC also plays out on All Live, help the 52-minute programme breathe although Parnis is keen to emphasise that the on-stage action takes priority. “Look at the Saturday in Turkey, so much happened! Whilst we have our own ideas, if the action out there on the stages is incredible, then that takes precedence. That’s what people want to watch, they want to see the best action.”
Quickly as the weekend ends, Piper is looking ahead to future events. “Once the event is established, you follow the storylines on top of the features as with any live event. Afterwards we have a debrief as we look ahead straight away to at least the next rally, if not a little bit further than that.”
The television feeds
Calling the job of a television director ‘easy’ is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, however the introduction of All Live has helped WRC’s television director Marko Viitanen this year.
“From a director’s point of view, making that one live television stage needed a lot of prep, because you needed to know what happened on the previous stages,” Viitanen says. “Now, when you’re directing All Live, you live the rally from start to finish. You know the order of the cars by heart, you know your shots, because you’re seeing all the on-board shots. You have the information burning through your brains, it is kind of easier!”
“I always compare directing rallying to cross-country skiing. In the best possible scenario, you have several cars on stage, and we can balance and bounce cars between the splits. We can actually put pictures to the stuff you, me, rally fans sitting at home have been watching on the timing screens for years.”
The set-up for the live World Feed stages is different to that for the over-the-top All Live stages. “We have a range of materials on offer for the World Feed,” Turvey notes. “There is a long action section at the end of the stage, covering the last couple of kilometres. We call this a line-cut section consisting of typically seven cameras, with an OB (outside broadcast) van.”
“We have a set team both on and off-air, with Jon Desborough leading commentary. In addition, there is a full graphics package, start camera, finish camera with interviews.”
All the work that Turvey is doing is on-top of his existing role from 2017, and as the team leaves Deeside, Turvey is already planning further ahead. “We’ll do the initial planning for [the next round in] Spain before we leave here, which is the on-air and off-air times. By the end of this weekend I’ll have this information ready for Spain.”
Beyond Spain, discussions are already beginning about next year’s rally, with the possibility of the opening stage moving to Liverpool and Manchester. And with that, the cycle for the 2019 Wales Rally GB begins already, it is the show that never stops…
Coming in the third and final part, we continue our look behind the scenes at the breadth and depth of WRC’s production suite.