Race of Champions: the view from the couch


It may have something to do with Christmas being but one month away and all the Scrooge-like instincts it summons within me (until the day itself when, miraculously, I can be relied upon to conclude it’s easily the best day of the year), but I spent a sizeable chunk of the weekend watching motor sport and wondering why on earth I was doing it.

Usually such feelings only arise when Formula 1 is on television, most of which I now watch speeded up by a factor of 30, eyes glued to the top of the screen waiting for the word ‘replay’ to appear. And when it does I stop, rewind and watch whatever it was that was worthy of replaying. That way I can watch an entire grand prix and see every exciting moment in about 10 minutes flat. This time however, it was the Race of Champions.

Goodness it was dull. When I first tuned in I couldn’t understand why the grandstands were so sparsely populated, so I watched for a while and wondered no more. To call the course Mickey Mouse would be an insult to animated rodents, and despite all the organisers threw at it by way of different cars, indoor fireworks and providing a special area in which victorious drivers could do victory doughnuts, for me the spectacle just wasn’t interesting enough. So why didn’t I just turn off? Answer that and you’ll save me a couple of hours every Sunday of 2016’s 21-race strong calendar. I live in hope, I guess.

The problem was not the cars and certainly not the drivers, but the environment. The Olympic Stadium is a wonderful venue for staging track and field events and I’m sure West Ham will be very happy there, but as a place to host a competitive motor sport event for some of the finest drivers on earth, it had its limitations to say the least. I’m sure they all tried their hardest and that there were gritted teeth behind the smiles, but there was no avoiding the fact that the cars (and buggies) just weren’t travelling that fast, that the lap was too short with insufficient corner variety.

It was a place that rewarded smooth styles, considered inputs and carried speed – which is what we see on slicks and wings racing all the time – and not the blank canvas upon which these drivers’ colossal skills could be properly illustrated.

To be fair, I was interested by the competition, but not the racing. By which I mean I found it genuinely fascinating to note that, on that day at least, Jason Plato still had the legs on Romain Grosjean, an undisputed star of Formula 1 nearly 20 years his junior.

And who’d have bet on Al Buncombe reaching the semi-final, beating Andy Priaulx on the way, who only the day before had won the Nation’s Cup for England? Me that’s who. There have been two occasions in my recent racing life in historics that I’ve been not so much overtaken as all but blown off the track by someone driving at a different level to anyone else out there, and it was Buncombe both times.

Even so, too often I found my finger wandering toward the FF button as the same suite of cars went round and round the same very short and unremarkable track. Is mine a minority view? Probably; the ROC has been going on for years, so clearly it has something I’ve missed. But what I found most frustrating is that the concept of taking drivers from all walks of motor sport and pitching them against each other in a range of different products should provide as close to perfect a viewing spectacle as any fan could wish. But it didn’t.

Still it’s easy to carp and rather more difficult to suggest what should go in its place. I think the choice is between a dreary venue that is at least inside so can be filled with lots of spectators, or an utterly thrilling location that’s not too fussed about the gate money and raises all its revenue through increased sponsorship derived for the massive gains in viewing figures the spectacle will provide. And as the Olympic Park appeared not to do very well on the first score, I think option two is worth examining.

Where? A gravel rally stage would get my vote, somewhere drivers can go properly fast and where we actually get to see their extraordinary car control skills in action. There could still be a vast variety of cars, from an Ariel Nomad past a basic rally car to a full on WRC machine (with a Tuthill 911 thrown in to keep them on their toes), and I’m sure a course could be created that allowed the cars to finish side by side. And actually, I think the spectators would still come.

After all, Sebastian Vettel vs Tom Kristensen flat out on the loose in WRC cars is a sight even I’d travel a long way to see.

All images: IMP

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