Stadium rock

It’s pure motor sport entertainment – drivers from different disciplines tearing round Wembley stadium to find out who is the best.
And this year the Race of Champions celebrates its 20th anniversary
By Ed Foster

Was Senna better than Clark? How would Moss have stacked up against Schumacher? It can be fun to debate, but of course it’s ultimately futile. The best we can do is compare drivers from the same eras. But what about Formula 1 stars versus their contemporary rally and touring car aces, to discover who is motor sport’s ultimate champion? That’s possible – because it happens every winter.

The Race of Champions, not to be confused with the old Brands Hatch non-championship F1 race, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. There have been other concepts pitching drivers from different disciplines against each other – the International Race of Champions (IROC) stock car series and the Eaton Yale Rally Sprint, in which participants faced driving tests in fork-lift trucks, spring to mind. But none have been as ‘fan friendly’ as the stadium spectacle of the modern RoC.

It is the creation of former journalist Fredrik Johnsson and rallying great Michèle Mouton, and was first staged at Montlhéry, then at the Nürburgring, Barcelona and Madrid, before running in the Canary Islands between 1992 and 2003 (thanks to a 12-year contract with the tourist board and the government). RoC switched to Paris for 2004 and finally to the new Wembley Stadium last winter.

Back in 1988 Fredrik and Michèle were both motivated to offer rally spectators more than the occasional passing car on a lonely forest stage. “I was working as a journalist for a big Swedish daily following Formula 1 and world rallying,” Fredrik says. “I was out on rallies at that time and there was really only one manufacturer with the best car. So you knew before the season was starting who would be World Champion.

“I said that we’d have to invite all the world’s best drivers and make them compete in identical cars to see who is really the fastest of all. I said, you know, we have to make it more spectator friendly, so the spectators can see the majority of the track and also TV can follow it, because at the time TV didn’t have the resources to film the way it does today.

“So that’s the way it came up with Michèle. We sat down and realised it was the 10th anniversary of the world rally drivers’ championship in 1988, so we invited all the official World Rally Champions and they all accepted. We included the six cars that had been dominating the last 10 years (the BMW M3, Audi Quattro S1, Lancia Delta Integrale, Ford Sierra Cosworth, Opel Manta and Peugeot 205 Turbo 16) and it was really successful.”

With names such as Björn Waldegård, Walter Röhrl, Hannu Mikkola, Timo Salonen, Ari Vatanen, Stig Blomqvist, Juha Kankkunen and Miki Biasion on the entry list, it comes as no surprise that despite driving rain 15,000 spectators turned out to see who was the ‘fastest of all’. Kankkunen was crowned Champion of Champions after defeating Salonen in the final, and went on to win again in 1991.

But sometimes even the best recipes need a little extra spice. Look at IROC: it was a simple idea that worked well, but in March this year its assets were liquidated. It was a series well known for nail-biting finishes featuring racing so exciting that it had the hot-dog eating crowd’s heart rates up to breaking point. Try visiting YouTube and typing in ‘1999 IROC, Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr’ to see just how close a finish oval racing can offer, not to mention just how serious father-son competitiveness can get.

Keeping it fresh is imperative, as Fredrik and Michèle understand so well. They introduced a parallel circuit to the RoC in 1989, so two cars could run together on separate yet identical-length tracks which offered, as Fredrik says, “a winner and a loser every few minutes”. Then in 1999 they started the Nations Cup. This was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to the rally-dominated event, as now the entry was open to any type of racing driver.

Michèle admits that this was partly the result of Tommi Mäkinen dominating the WRC, but also thanks to Michelin. The tyre company sponsored the RoC and brought racing drivers from all aspects of the sport to come and watch. Fredrik says: “They all got so excited. ‘I want to drive! Can I get in the car? Can you invite me next year?’ They all wanted to come, so we said ‘if they’re all so excited, why don’t we create a Nations Cup?’ And we opened up to other drivers.” Since then they have had the likes of Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa, David Coulthard, Jenson Button, Jean Alesi, NASCAR ace Jimmie Johnson and MotoGP superstar Valentino Rossi making their stand to become the individual Champion of Champions.

As well as bringing a selection of cars from various manufacturers each year, RoC has also introduced its own machine, the RoC buggy, which is used to decide the Champion of Champions, a title that a certain Michael Schumacher missed out on last year with a final corner slip-up. The ‘normal’ cars are used for the Nations Cup, which this year is represented (so far) by Sebastian Vettel and Schumacher for Team Germany, Mark Webber and Troy Bayliss for Team Australia, Sébastien Loeb for Team France, Jenson Button and Andy Priaulx for Team Britain and Tom Kristensen and Mattias Ekström (the Champion of Champions in 2006 and ’07) for Team Scandinavia.

As one can imagine, there is some pretty serious rivalry, especially since they have only a short time in the cars and on the circuit. With such talent on track any small mistake means your race is over. “For them it’s fun, they have no pressure at all,” Michèle tries to assure me. “But once you are in the car you have equal material, and you know that then you have to really concentrate because a little mistake and, BANG. You lose. So it’s serious.

“For us the most important thing is that the drivers enjoy it. Because if they don’t, they don’t come back. They have no obligation, but they really want to be here. If you tell Tom Kristensen that he is not coming to the Race of Champions, then he will be mad! He just loves it.”

Last year was the first time the event was held at Wembley, but Fredrik is keen to point out that it was the move from the Canary Islands to the Stade de France in Paris that gave the event a real boost.

“We felt we needed to be in a more central location. And being in a modern sports stadium in a big city really changed the dynamics of the event and opened it up to a larger audience. We went to Wembley because it is probably the most mythical and famous stadium in the world, and when they re-opened it last year they approached us. They are one of many stadiums who approached us but we just felt that was the best place to go. Also the fans in England are so passionate about motor sport.

“It takes us about five days to transform the stadium into a Tarmac racing track. We’ve managed to really nail down the operations and make it very efficient, so five days to build it and two to three days to clear it up. It’s thousands of tonnes of Tarmac; it’s a huge, huge operation.”

A huge operation it may be, but it’s an even bigger spectacle. This year’s event on December 14 promises to be as loud, fast and competitive as ever. And as for who will win? Well, it usually comes down to a thousandth of a second gap, so be careful where you place your bets...

*****

Insight

A lap with Michèle and a ‘spin’ in a buggy are all part of the fun

The Race of Champions cars may be called ‘buggies’, but I can assure you they have very little in common with what you see on Halfords’ shelves. The 475kg cars are equipped with a 1100cc, four-cylinder Blackbird motorcycle engine, which produces a punchy 170bhp at 9500rpm. When you put the power and weight together you’re looking at a particularly enjoyable driving experience with a fairly excessive 358bhp per tonne.

When the editor offered me the opportunity to go and drive one of these machines at an RoC launch event, I jumped at the chance. Off to Düsseldorf in Germany I went (the cars are kept there in storage ready for their ‘big day’), where Michèle Mouton was waiting to give me a guided tour of a specially set-up car park course in an Audi Quattro. After that I was shown to one of the buggies, which was fitted with rather thin tyres considering it was very wet. “It eez OK, you steer with zee throttle,” said one of the mechanics as I tried to squeeze my 6ft 7in frame into the machine. “It is sequential, sort of. I mean, you pull the lever towards you and then it changes when you let go.” What could go wrong?

On track it is very slippery, but after a few tentative laps the confidence builds and the car becomes an absolute delight to drive. It’s easy to see why the Race of Champions drivers emerge from the cockpit with such huge smiles on their faces. These buggies are so utterly predictable and well set up that even someone as ham-fisted as me can steer them on “zee throttle” for a limited period. And then I spun it. Twice.
I suspect my invitation to take part in the event has been put on hold…