How All Live is changing the face of rallying: foundations

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.

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M-Sport Ford mechanics repair Sebastien Ogier’s car following the first stages on Friday morning during the Wales Rally GB.

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.”

Monte Miracle
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.

2018 Wales Rally GB - production truck
Inside the World Rally Championship production truck at their Deeside base during the Wales Rally GB, with Kevin Piper and Marko Viitanen (centre left and centre right respectively) in full flow.

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.

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Behind the scenes with BT Sport’s MotoGP production team: evolution

From Qatar to Valencia, from Friday morning to Sunday evening, BT Sport cover every session of the MotoGP season exclusively live. Their coverage encompasses both the main championship as well as the feeder Moto2 and Moto3 championships.

North One Television produce BT Sport’s coverage, and in the second and final part of this series, I went behind the scenes with them during the British Grand Prix weekend last month to find out how their programming has evolved.

If you have yet to read part one, head over here

When BT’s MotoGP coverage started in 2014, North One did not cover every race on-site, with BT’s Olympic Park studio in regular use. Fast forward four years, and North One now take the same size team to every race, with all the action presented on-site.

“What we want to do is make sure we offer the same service to fans, whether it is on in the middle of the night for the fly away races, or in prime time viewing hours,” explains Kevin Brown, who is MotoGP series editor for North One. “We want to serve the people who care and want to switch on in the middle of the night, they should get the same service as they would do if the race was on at 1 on a Sunday afternoon.”

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The BT Sport commentary booth. Note that BT do not commentate from the main grandstand, or in Silverstone’s case from Woodcote. Instead, they commentate from one of their TV compound buildings, allowing them to easily rotate the commentary duo throughout the day.

26 people make up the MotoGP production team for North One, a number that includes on-air talent as well. Removing the seven on-air talent means that there are 19 people behind the lens that work on BT’s MotoGP programming race in, race out, including floor managers, researchers, producers, a sound assistant, and so on.  For Silverstone, the number is slightly higher to accommodate the additional material that BT puts out on-air.

Brown is happy with how the team currently operates with one another. “We’re very lucky that we do have a team that gets on exceptionally well with each other, and works exceptionally hard to make it happen.”

“When we get here, we have to hit the ground running, they need to know what their jobs are, what they are doing. As an example, you land in Japan, you are as jet-lagged as you can be. But you still get in a car, drive to the circuit, and have to perform as you would have done in Europe.”

“‘I’ll tell you what, let’s have a day off because we need to!’ is not an option in live sports broadcasting. Generally, everyone working for us are bike fans, we have a group of people who in some cases also work on other bike sports, and that is because they love it.”

Viewers watching at home may not realise that, but some of the production crew working on BT Sport’s MotoGP coverage also work on other aspects of motor racing. For example, Charlie Hiscott, who is a reporter for Eurosport’s World Superbikes coverage, works with North One during MotoGP weekends as a floor manager.

After an unsettled start, BT’s MotoGP coverage started to find its gear as their second season in 2015 progressed, something that Gavin Emmett acknowledges. “The first year or two we were just trying to work out what was going on, and since then we have only got better as we’ve become familiar with each other,” says Emmett.

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The glamarous life of broadcasting. Neil Hodgson, furthest from the camera, analyses action on BT’s touch-screen device. The black tarpaulin is around the outside to prevent shadows from appearing on the screen.

“We have had changes over the years, whether it has been the presenters or Julian [Ryder] leaving at the end of last year. Like anything, as people become more familiar with it, and as fans become more familiar with us, hopefully they see the little things we throw in there.”

Suzi Perry presents BT’s output, with a six-man band led by Keith Huewen on commentary. Emmett, James Toseland, Colin Edwards, Neil Hodgson, and Michael Laverty provide analysis, Laverty the latest addition to their team for 2018. All of them bring a wealth of motorcycling knowledge from their years in the paddock and out on the race track.

The departure of Ryder from their coverage at the end of 2017 left a hole in the show, but the strength of BT’s team has allowed them to cover for Ryder’s absence. Instead of a single commentary team throughout the day, North One opted to rotate the commentary line-up. Emmett joins Huewen for Moto3, with Toseland on Moto2 duty and Hodgson giving his opinion on the MotoGP action.

“We all love Jules, but he wanted a break from all the travelling,” Emmett tells me. “The change has meant that we can experiment with commentary pairings, and I quite like that, it keeps it all fresh.”

“You keep the familiarity with each series, but you also get different voices throughout the day which keeps it interesting. When you have the same two people all through the day, it’s hard to then get ‘up’ for MotoGP at the end of it, but if you’re changing it up, the co-commentator then has energy for that race. I like it.”

For Emmett, 2018 is a return to the commentary box, having done commentary work for Dorna prior to joining BT’s coverage. His long-standing paddock reputation means that he is the ‘go-to’ man for stories, as well as his multilingual background.

“Gavin is the best-connected man in the paddock, he knows everyone,” says Brown. “Gavin finds the stories that you can see, but also those that you can’t see, that people will tell him because of who you are.”

“I’ve been lucky because I’ve been in this paddock since 2001. I’ve seen most of these riders grow up. I remember giving Jorge his first interview I remember on his birthday in Jerez. I speak Spanish, French and Italian, so I’ve got to know them in their own language, you get to know them on a different level which helps.

“We all have different ways of getting information as well, mine are through getting to know people, everyone feeds in their own little bit and that comes together over a weekend.” – Gavin Emmett

Brown is confident that North One have plugged the gap left by Ryder, thanks to the strength and depth of their team. “Our audience are people who know and care about bikes, and we can’t pull the wool over their eyes, we have to make sure we are providing the right information. That comes from a great on-screen talent team.”

“We have these people who know it so deeply, and that then feeds back into the production team,” Brown tells me. “Editorially we’re joining up as well as we have ever been. I would say that story-telling is our strongest aspect at the moment. We have story-tellers, we have the access to the people in the paddock to tell the stories properly.”

“The teams help us out an awful lot, and when we ask, we tend to get the right people even though they know we’re going to ask a difficult question. They know we’re not trying to mess around with them, we’re just asking a genuine question and we’d like a genuine answer. We’re not trying to misrepresent anything, we’re always trying to tell the right story.”

What does the future hold for BT’s coverage of MotoGP? Earlier this year, BT retained the rights to the championship, keeping the series until the end of 2021. A new aspect for 2018 has been the touch-screen. Like the Sky Pad seen in Sky’s coverage of Formula 1, it allows BT to give viewers a perspective they have not seen before.

“With the touch-screen, we can show people things that they wouldn’t otherwise have seen. We can have a feed of the helicopter to show different lines, or for example the sheer power of the Ducati compared to the Honda, just things that help people’s understanding. It’s easy to tell them ‘what’ but it’s harder to tell them ‘why’,” says Brown.

And Brown is keen to continue using the touch-screen moving forward. “I think that’s what our guys are very good at, and if we can give them the tools to do that better then that’s good. BT are a technology company, and they want us to be using technology, and we are happy to use it, to help people’s understanding of what is a brilliant sport.”

You can argue about BT’s pricing structure, and whether the service is too expensive. But one thing is for certain. Neither BT or North One leave MotoGP fans short-changed. And long may that continue.

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Behind the scenes with BT Sport’s MotoGP production team: planning

From Qatar to Valencia, from Friday morning to Sunday evening, BT Sport cover every session of the MotoGP season exclusively live. Their coverage encompasses both the main championship as well as the feeder Moto2 and Moto3 championships.

North One Television have produced BT Sport’s coverage since it started in 2014, and in this two-part series, I went behind the scenes with them at last weekend’s British Grand Prix to find out how their programming has evolved…

Kevin Brown has been involved in BT’s MotoGP coverage since its inception, and moved into the Series Editor role following the 2017 season. In his role, Brown has the final say on what goes out on-screen.

“My role is to develop the programmes and to make the coverage as good as it can be,” says Brown, who sat down with me on the Thursday of the Silverstone weekend. “It involves working with our on-screen talent to get the best out of them. BT own the rights, it’s their coverage, and I do it for them. If they have feedback then they certainly give it to me.”

Whilst North One are not responsible for MotoGP’s World Feed, that being in the hands of commercial rights holder Dorna, they are responsible for all of BT Sport’s pre-race build-up and post-race analysis, as well as providing their own commentary over the top of the MotoGP feed.

Planning
BT’s coverage of a race weekend consists of around eight hours per day, totalling 25 hours. Although the broadcaster does not go on-air until 15 minutes before Friday practice, planning for the weekend starts the moment the previous race ends.

“You can’t turn up at a live outside sports broadcast event unprepared otherwise you’ll get caught out,” explains Brown. “Immediately following the previous race, you start to think about what the upcoming stories are. There’s a lot of contact between myself, the on-screen guys, and the producers. We spend a lot of time talking between races, it must drive our families mad!”

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During the Friday lunch break at Silverstone, the BT Sport team of Gavin Emmett, Michael Laverty and James Toseland interview British GP2 rider Josh Owens, a series that runs alongside the British Superbikes championship.

The team starts to arrive to a race weekend on the Wednesday, but it is Thursday when the action steps up a gear. A production meeting on Thursday morning sets the scene for the weekend ahead, before all the key interviews take place in the afternoon.

That sounds easy enough, except the interviews take place in a very short period at the respective motor homes. Broadcasters cannot attend every media scrum, they pick which ones to attend depending on where the stories are within the paddock. It also depends on what questions the broadcaster may want to ask the rider.

The key topic prior to the Silverstone weekend was the new surface that could cause riders issues (little did we know at the time, the poor condition of the track led to the cancellation of all three races on Sunday). For North One as the production company for a UK broadcaster, the priority is the British riders, Cal Crutchlow leading the way. Thursday morning threw a curve ball, a positive one, as Crutchlow signed with LCR Honda for an additional year until the end of 2020.

“We usually have an extended sit-down interview set up with Cal before the British round, but his news changes the emphasis of the interview as it would have been slightly different otherwise,” explains Brown. “We have to be able to respond and adapt quickly to emerging stories.” Thursday is also an opportunity to film any features with riders, typically a track guide, and to ensure all the systems are working as expected, ironing out any loose ends that crop up.

Gavin Emmett leads the ship on Fridays, presenting BT’s coverage of practice, encompassing Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP. However, whilst the race track is silent during the lunch break, BT Sport remains live on-air during the 75-minute gap, using the break to their advantage.

2018 British MotoGP - Emmett and Rossi
Gavin Emmett interviews Valentino Rossi in the Silverstone media centre following Thursday’s press conference.

“Not many people know about it, but for those that do, it is something we’ve built on this year, by staying live during the break,” notes Emmett. “We take our time over that break, bringing everyone up to speed with what’s been happening and what’s going on.” Here at Silverstone, Emmett and Neil Hodgson used the gap to analyse Marc Marquez and Jorge Lorenzo’s last-lap battle during the Austrian Grand Prix, an excellent use of the down-time over the lunch break.

Suzi Perry takes over hosting duties for Saturday and Sunday, whilst Emmett juggles different roles depending on the series that is on-track. “For Moto3, I am up here in the commentary box, and in parc ferme for MotoGP grabbing those interviews.”

“What people don’t realise is when you’re not on-air, while Moto2 is on, I’m doing interviews with the MotoGP riders as they’ve just finished their session. It’s pretty much the same on Sunday. You are non-stop, but that’s what it takes.”

But Emmett is happy to be covering multiple classes is his BT role. “At the end of the day Moto2 and Moto3 are World Championships. The names may have changed, but they are the pinnacle of the light weight and middle weight classes.” Of course, what the above does not consider is rain delays, which the MotoGP pit lane encountered frequently during the Silverstone weekend.

“The on-screen chemistry that our team have is as good as any time that I have worked with. What you see on-screen is genuine, and it continues off-screen as well. We get in the car to go home, and if there has been a debate on TV about a nudge on-track, that continues afterwards into dinner!

“It’s not just about the sport, it’s about our personal lives, we all care about each other and I think that is really important, and that applies for the whole crew. We’ve got cameramen who are ex-speedway riders, their opinion is relevant. There’s no one who feels that another person’s opinion is not good enough. We all listen to each other. It’s an important dynamic, but it’s one that I think we have perfected.” – Kevin Brown

In between delivering the core elements of the weekend, Brown emphasises that the team is continuously striving to improve.

“I spend most of the time between races on the phone or in the WhatsApp group, where we’re all chucking in thoughts and ideas. Some of them make it, some of them don’t, but it’s nice that we all have the ideas. We all care about the product we’re putting on-air.”

As part of an ongoing effort to bring the sport closer to the fans, an additional hour of MotoGP programming aired on BT Sport during last weekend’s British Grand Prix as a trial. New for this season, ‘In Case You Missed It’ has been BT’s Friday evening wrap-up show, but for Silverstone, BT aired the show live for the first-time directly from the Woodlands campsite.

“For me, it is all about taking people to an event they can’t go to, that’s always the important thing,” says Brown, who was also part of the North One team who produced ITV’s Formula 1 coverage.

“It’s easy to get a bit blasé about going to another race track, and another, and another, but there are thousands of people out there who would give their right arm to go to Brno or the Sachsenring. It’s really important to capture the flavour of the event.”

“Here at Silverstone, one of the things we can do is get them in the campsite and see that there’s 10,000 people in there, who are giving up their time, spending their money to be a part of what the British Grand Prix is.”

In part two, we take a look at how BT’s coverage of MotoGP has evolved since 2014, and what the future may hold…

Video: What would Coventry MotoFest look like if it aired live on TV?

First held in 2014, Coventry’s annual MotoFest event has grown with each passing year, now a firm fixture on the calendar for those that live in the city, including myself.

From 2014 to 2017, organisers held parade laps using a portion of the city’s Ring Road. With a change in law last year bringing motor sport back to the UK’s towns and cities, organisers took advantage of this, adding a sprint time trial event to the Moto Fest bill.

But, what would the city, which is also UK City of Culture for 2021, look like from a broadcasting point of view if it ever aired on television? Where would you place the cameras? I had a bit of fun across the two-day event, filming the machinery from various vantage points around the Ring Road based course.

I should note that the organisers did not ask me to write this, I have had no contact with them, just thought that this would make for an interesting piece of the site, and it falls into the broadcasting bracket very nicely.

So, how did I get on? Pleasingly, the result is a 90 second ‘directors cut’ lap of the 2018 Coventry MotoFest course! 30 minutes of footage from 18 different angles cut into a short edit. It is not intended to be perfect.

A few years ago, during University, I did gain an Adobe Premiere Pro certificate, but for this I jumped into DaVinci Resolve, which in terms of look and feel in my view is easier to use than Premiere Pro.

I filmed this on my Nexus 6P, no specialist camera, just me and my (un)steady hands. Resolve’s stabiliser function was my best friend for most of the clips! I had a good idea of where to get the best angles, but sometimes I used my instinct if an opportunity presented itself.

Some areas were restricted, such as the tunnel, whilst viewing areas down at the far end of the circuit were also limited, preventing me from poking my Nexus through the railings! Maybe I should have done my own recce

Once I had narrowed the clips down to the chosen ones, it was a matter of making sure they cut in and out at the right moment, road markings as well as my own knowledge guiding the process.

The cars in each clip were different, which resulted in different tones, so it was vital to correct that and attempt to equalise the audio in the editing process. Some of the sound is also taken from the preceding or following clip, as portions of it turned out to be unusable.

Being an event on public roads in a city centre, some cars were not taking break neck speeds around the course, so one or two clipsp may look slightly slower than those around them, but that is the luck of the draw.

Whilst I have corrected the key things in the first version, one thing caught me out and that was the sun, which eagle-eyed watchers will notice suddenly re-appear at around 28 seconds in. I want to do colour correction, across the whole film but that is a longer task for the future.

Currently, Coventry MotoFest does not look like UK’s version of Monte Carlo, but a bit of colour enhancements will change that. Maybe

60 years of British Touring Cars: the broadcasting story

This year sees the British Touring Car Championship celebrate sixty years of high-octane, bumper to bumper racing. Currently, the championship, and its support package, enjoys up to eight hours for every race day live and free on ITV4. But, coverage in yesteryear was not quite as extensive as that…

For its first thirty years, under the banner of British Saloon Car Championship, the series had sporadic coverage on the BBC’s radio stations, but there was no formal arrangement, largely in part because deals back then were between broadcasters and circuits, making it impossible for a complete series to air on television.

The arrangement ended in 1987, allowing BBC television to cover every race in highlights form starting in 1988, with Steve Rider and Murray Walker fronting the coverage. BHP, otherwise known as Barrie Hinchcliffe Productions, were responsible for producing the BBC’s output.

Writing in his autobiography My Chequered Career, Rider goes into detail about the hurdles faced by the BHP. These include (but not limited to) funding, the placing of sponsors on the on-board camera angles, and a feature in the Sunday Times accusing the BBC of a “corrupt commissioning system.” Suffice to say that there were many different reasons why the BHP production deal may have fallen through.

Thankfully, the BHP production deal continued, and the series was a mainstay on Grandstand in the mid-1990s on BBC Two, becoming the starting point for many of today’s stars getting involved in touring cars. Television audiences increased, as did attendance figures at the circuit.

ITV pundit Paul O’Neill was one person introduced to touring cars thanks to Grandstand. “The first race I remember seeing was James Thompson winning in 1995 on Grandstand, at Thruxton in an old Cavalier,” explained O’Neil. “The thing that stuck out for me was the action that it has now, it’s part of its DNA, the other thing I remember was just how well it was broadcast especially by Steve Rider back then, but also with the music and everything they used just made it stand out massively.”

For the veteran racers that have watched the championship grow over the decades, things were slightly different back then, outside and inside the car from a broadcasting perspective. Triple BTCC champion Matt Neal fits in that category, having raced touring cars since the late 1980s. “I remember there being a VHS tape in the bottom of the foot well in the passenger seat!” recited Neal. Walker would voice over the races, which aired on a week delay in a highlights package.

“The production guys used to get the tapes, cut them all together, Murray watched it once, and voiced it in the week. Some of the mistakes off Murray were deliberate, he was a genius at commentary. It made for very exciting viewing, because they could pick and choose the action. We did have some boring races back then, but BHP were very good at finding gems over the weekend, piecing it all together for Murray to commentate on,” Neal continued.

“I used to go through the whole thing meticulously, making a shot list with brief notes on what was coming up next, then go into the sound booth and commentate on the tape pictures that were pumped into a monitor in front of me.

“I knew what was coming, of course, because I had practically learnt the vision by heart and also had my notes to remind me but, because I was making the words up as I went along instead of reading from a carefully crafted script, the effect was that the race was live and continuous rather than recorded and edited.

“It was long-winded and labour-intensive, but it worked well.” – Murray Walker, Unless I’m Very Much Mistaken (pages 174 and 175)

Rider believed the notion of delayed highlights was on “borrowed time”, and that the package produced by BHP was a “misrepresentation of the narrative and pace of the actual race,” even if it was “terrific television.”

With a Formula 1 shaped hole in the BBC’s schedules though for 1997, the corporation opted to increase their commitment to touring cars, with races airing live for the first time. Charlie Cox joined Walker in the commentary box, before Walker himself stepped aside at the end of 1997, John Watson filling the void.

Neal’s first race win in 1999 at Donington Park was one of the races that aired live, thanks to its Bank Holiday slot. It was a remarkable feat for Neal, the first win for an Independent driver in the modern era.

“Back then, you couldn’t compete on engines, tyres, and we ran with year old cars,” Neal recalled. “The first race of 1999, we ran with the same tyres as the manufactures, and won. That race was actually live! It’s one of the few times, I’ve heard the roar of the crowd from inside the car. It was surreal, almost like it wasn’t happening.”

“The next day I woke up, went into the office and my PR guy was on the phone to Australia doing interviews, and I thought ‘so what?’ It doesn’t change me as a person, so you’ve just got to roll with it, and try to do it again, which I’ve been doing ever since. It was a crazy time.”

After Formula 1 moved to ITV, BTCC was one of the remaining four-wheel motor sport left on the BBC, and stayed with the BBC until the end of 2001. Speaking to Autosport at the time, BTCC’s boss Richard West said that the BBC “admitted that certain things had not been to the benefit of the series, such as the inability to provide regular slots and, by their own admittance could not meet the exacting standards that we had put to them.” In other words, the championship could not grow further with the Beeb, partially due to no other motor racing complimenting its coverage.

Led by West, BTCC headed in a different direction, moving towards a deal with ITV and Motors TV. Briefly, a stint on the ill-fated ITV Sport Channel also ensued. Neal believes the move did damage to the health of the series. “The Head of ITV at the time wanted to move everything onto ITV Sport, and we were one of the first things to get drafted across. The viewing figures fell through the floor, people just didn’t know where to find it,” Neal said.

Following a rut on and off the circuit for touring cars domestically in the early to mid 2000s, the championship found its place on ITV, where it has remained ever since. Ben Edwards led the commentary line-up from 2002 to 2011, with Tim Harvey alongside him, before David Addison controlled the reigns from 2013 onwards. As in the BBC days, Steve Rider continues to host ITV4’s race day output.

In terms of television coverage, ITV4 has for the past decade provided extensive coverage of the championship, with a peak audience of up to half a million viewers watching each round. Although BTCC does not attract the audience it once did during the Super Touring era on the BBC, current ITV reporter Louise Goodman, who has been involved with covering the series since 2009, believes the championship is in a healthy position.

“The more exposure the championship can get the better, but it’s a very different media age to what it was like in the Super Touring era. You have to think about the amount of sports out there vying to get coverage. The level of coverage on terrestrial channels has become quite limited in many ways, so the fact that BTCC has six, seven, sometimes eight hours of free-to-air coverage on ITV4, is still a fantastic amount of exposure,” Goodman told this site.

“If we only offered half an hour of programming per weekend, the guys in the support races wouldn’t get any exposure,” Goodman added. “Those are the guys in two or three years’ time that may be racing in the BTCC, so the exposure has enabled them to make that progress through the ladder from a sponsorship and marketing perspective. I think we’re in a healthy position, it’s a proper career option for young and upcoming drivers.”

“You’ve still got the Plato’s and Neal’s of this world, we hope they’ll never go away because they’re entertaining, its great viewing and they still have what it takes behind the wheel. You need the next young talent coming through the ranks and there’s been an increase in that in recent years.”

And this weekend at Brands Hatch, the championship heads into its next sixty years hoping for more of the same action that has helped its popularity over the course of the last six decades.