This weekend I watched the online feed of the Race of Champions. On the whole I enjoyed it, unfortunately there were a great many problems with it this year – and they are fairly similar to problems with past events.
My RoC History
I’ve been disappointed by the Race of Champions in the past. I went to Wembley in 2007 to sit in expensive seats (they were very much over-priced, in hindsight) watching slow cars on a twisty track. Don’t get me wrong, it was a really good event and we had a superb view, it was just that the track was just too tight and too cold so the cars didn’t have any speed at all, so the costs didn’t justify it at all. I heard they became more realistic for 2008.
For the 2010 event I was really pleased to see they had been able to use the different dimensions of the ESPRIT Arena in Düsseldorf to create a faster, wider, more open race track. I’m also pleased they moved it a few weeks earlier and into a venue with heating, which I hope the crowd enjoyed!
The other problem in 2007 was that not enough information was given to the crowd. Stadium commentary from Martin Haven was good when describing the on-track action, not so good at explaining to the fans just who these people in the cars actually were. I swear most of the crowd were not dedicated motorsport fans so had no idea who half the drivers were, yet the whole organisation seemed geared around assumed knowledge among fans. I mean.. no video of their achievements on the big screen- surely this is a fairly basic requirement. To this day my Dad who came with me thinks ’07 RoC winner Mattias Ekstrom is a champion rally driver, I keep telling him he’s DTM but it doesn’t go in. What I’m saying is, the 2007 RoC was a good event with flaws, not the great event I’d expected and hoped for.
I’d not seen the RoC before or since because I didn’t have access to Sky Sports or Eurosport during this period and there was no web streaming. In 2009 there was web streaming but I was at work, for some inexplicable reason they’d held it midweek – all reports from those trying to watch it were that it was diabolical and the worst streaming experience they’d ever encountered.
This year there was web streaming for a fee, and coverage on MotorsTV which I don’t have. I wasn’t going to watch this year because of all the above problems and to start with I objected to paying for something other championships provide for free these days. But as the day approached I grew more excited for the event, the photos and videos being posted on Twitter by the likes of Heikki Kovalainen, Martin Haven and Neil Cole were really getting me into it. With less than hour before it started I’d decided, I was in. There were other reasons I relented:
- I wanted to see this excellent match up of names;
- This is an annual event unable to spread the investment costs of web coverage over a full season, on that basis a small charge is justified;
- The circuit has been improved considerably, it is faster and more exciting;
- I didn’t want to miss out on the excitement everyone else was getting caught up in;
Largely I am glad I did.
- The actual racing itself was superb, there were some fantastic battles particularly in the VW Sciroccos with push-to-pass. When I first saw them I was convinced they would be the most boring vehicles of the lot, yet they really were the best as it seemed almost all the close finishes came with these cars. I wonder if it was the added bonus of the P2P tactics that brought me in? Not sure. Anyway, overall there were many close finishes and even some photo finishes, brilliant, this is why I got excited about it originally a few years ago. Loved both the Nations Cup and Race of Champions aspects. I have no complaints about the racing whatsoever, it was fantastic.
- As I said above, the track was far better than in 2007 and 2008, which I think was an improvement again over the Stade de France layout. I can’t speak for 2009 as like most people in Europe I was at work during that event and the streaming apparently didn’t work anyway.
- I liked the inclusion of the VW Sciroccos and the Audi R8s.
- Moving Martin Haven to join John Hindhaugh in the TV/online booth was a good decision, it didn’t always work (indeed for Saturday’s round-robin action they were thoroughly confused) but I thought when it did work it was really good (with the caveat of the criticisms below). Neil Cole and David Croft were top notch pit/paddock reporters and didn’t put a foot wrong all weekend.
- A big positive this year was the use of social media, @RaceofChampions was tweeting furiously throughout (including retweets of commentators, pit reporters and even some of the competing drivers – many of whom were posting photos/videos). Don’t underestimate how useful this was for catching things missed elsewhere and I relayed many messages on to my followers in case they weren’t following the account.
- Holding an event in Germany. Excellent choice.
- Despite what I’m about to say below I really did enjoy the event, the competition and cameradarie is everything it should be and more.
The… Less Than Positive
While the racing was good that’s not to say the weekend went smoothly. There were many problems, both major and minor. Several of them were fixed for the second day, some will need a bit more of a rethink on the part of the organisers.
- We have to start with the major problem first: the paid-for web feed was abysmal during Saturday’s Nations Cup. It stuttered, stopped and looped so many times it drove everyone to distraction and made the event unwatchable for a while. It started really well with a good quality feed so I wonder if the problems were caused by demand? I forget how long it was down for, it kept requiring a reset of the page (simple F5 and press Play again did the trick) which didn’t always work. Several of us missed a chunk of the Nations Cup because of it. Sidepodcast even gave up watching and demanded a refund, both actions I disagreed with vehemently because I had every expectation it would improve and it did, but the fact remains the stream should have worked well enough not to cause that reaction. It did eventually get going again without cutting out, but it was still scratchy with buffering and small amounts of looping and jumping. It wasn’t until Sunday’s running that the problems were truly cured, Sunday’s running suffered no problems whatsoever, it was flawless. It left me wondering if perhaps in 2011 they ought to offer Friday’s free practices live in order to shake out all these bugs, get them fixed for the real competition.
The stream was more than a little irritating and unprofessional. Had it been a free stream I’d have abandoned it just as early as others did without hesitation. Because I’d paid for it I was determined to keep trying until I absolutely knew it wouldn’t work, because frankly I’ve sat through enough web feeds of live sporting events to know they are incredibly tempermental and you just have to wait it out. This isn’t like some press conference in a hall somewhere, it is far more complicated, and equally these people don’t have BBC-levels of resources to provide their level of streaming. It means patience is required. Of course, if Sunday had been just as bad I’d have been queueing up for my money back.
There were two really bad instances and after that it got better, relatively. I did have to refresh some more times which was annoying, later that turned to buffering, frozen picture then replaying itself for 2-3 seconds as it sorted itself out which left me a minute or so behind. This kind of behaviour is what I expect from a web feed in my experience. For me it is is rare to expect a live web stream to work 100% flawlessly so I expect buffering and stuttering to some degree – then when it does work seamlessly I’m left impressed. The earlier stuff with the cut-outs and the dropping back 5 minutes were totally unacceptable though, more so since we paid for it.
- I am not sure what happened during the Nations Cup, it was one of two things: Either 1) the commentary team had been given the wrong information beforehand, or 2) the organisers of the event changed the format at the last second. The opening rounds were set up like the World Cup, a round-robin competition with the drivers finishing 1st and 2nd in the group progressing to the next round, based on number of wins and with a tiebreak on time. Unfortunately Haven & Hindy seemed to think it was still the best-of-3 knockout competition of previous years. When they figured out it was a group format, they didn’t know what the ‘Time’ column meant on the on-screen captions. They knew it was a tiebreak but didn’t know if it was cumulative time, best times, or something else. All this stuff should have been prepped and learned beforehand, if it was their error I’d be quite surprised (but not impossible) because they are experienced guys so I’m willing to believe it was either a late change or someone had given them the wrong details. Haven and Hindy were left holding the baby, trying to work with it but really ought to have given up at one stage and went with the flow. I like to think I know enough about these guys by now that they’d do the proper research before the event to know what the format was supposed to be – surely? – so for the time being I’ll blame the RoC organisers. I might be wrong, it could be the guys’ fault. Sunday was pretty much flawless, there were a few calls of a driver leading when I was sure it was the other one.. but that could’ve been me.
- The TV coverage was on MotorsTV only, which was a shame. I quite like Motors and they do reasonably well on a tiny budget but their audience share is negligible. The Race of Champions should be on Eurosport, ESPN or Sky Sports. I don’t want MotorsTV to go out of business but ‘champions’ ought to be represented somewhere with a higher profile.
- Organising an event in Germany was brilliant. Doing so when their main domestic championship was out of the country was not. I’ve no idea who fixed a date first, it could be DTM’s fault – either way it was a disappointment. I have to assume RoC and ITR/DTM consulted each other and couldn’t reach agreement on a date. Shame. DTM champ Mattias Ekstrom is a past RoC champion and he demonstrated his Audi at Wembley.
- The driver line-ups are still curious and there are some strange choices, many seemingly flouting the ‘Champions’ name. I still don’t know how Albuquerque, Pastrana and Foust qualify even though they are great personalities and great talents – indeed the first named won Sunday’s RoC so he’s no slouch and I think this event could be the making of the man. But.. if this is a true Race of Champions, what had they won before this weekend? It might be that some of them actually have won things – we weren’t told. Even with people as good as Kovalainen, people maybe ought to have been told he qualifies as winner of the 2004 Renault World Series (or Nissan, as was). And while the BTCC champion in my eyes is a perfectly valid addition, do many people outside the UK know who Jason Plato is? Do many in Europe know who Carl Edwards is, for that matter? I’m not talking dedicated racing freaks like us, I mean normal people! I do completely understand that not all invitees might be there, due to contractual obligations and such like.
It goes back to what I said before about telling the audience who people are. Haven/Hindy did a fair job but you have to wonder if it should be left to the commentary to do it. There were some great little segments introducing each vehicle before each round and these began to be repeated a little too often – could it hurt to have something similar for drivers in that space in the coverage?
- The failing of the circuit timing (apparently a new system) would not normally be forgiveable. As an end-of-year knockaround I’m not quite so bothered as I would be for a major championship event, and I wouldn’t be at all if it had remained a knockout format start to finish as the timing would be irrelevant. Since the tiebreaker for progressing to the semi-finals was based on time (though we’re still not sure how – it seemed to be the two best times added together) and the system was broken, you do have to wonder if any of the drivers or teams were promoted incorrectly.
- Tell the drivers what is happening, the pit reporters shouldn’t be the ones to tell them they are in the final.
Despite many flaws I really thoroughly enjoyed the Race of Champions. It may not seem like it but I’m trying to provide constructive feedback! Once again it was a good event with flaws, not a truly great event, and the reason I’m being critical is because the potential is there for everyone to see, it is so tantalisingly close. I don’t know many that don’t like the RoC as a concept, the execution could be a little better that’s all. If they are able to address even half of these issues – web streaming is a must – then it will be even better.
I have every intention of watching next year and I expect to see improvements.