The annual Race of Champions, which was held at Wembley Stadium last year, is great for motorsport and provides the opportunity to see drivers from different disciplines competing against one another. However, the whole event is not as good as it potentially could be and it makes you wonder what the perfect Race of Champions would be like.
The inaugural ROC was in 1988 and was set up to celebrate ten years of the World Rally Drivers Championship. Organisers brought together the best rally talent in the world and gave them all a chance to shine in identical machinery. The competition proved so popular that it became an annual fixture.
The format of the event is unique in motorsport and has remained largely unchanged since its inception. Drivers compete in a series of head-to-head knockout heats around a Rally Super Special stage, until eventually there are only two of them left to contest the final. The winner is crowned ‘Champion of Champions’ and receives the Henri Toivonen Trophy in memory of the legendary Finnish driver.
The ROC started out as an end of season bash for rally drivers but as it grew in popularity a few circuit racers started having a go also. Over time the balance has swayed more and more towards circuit drivers, and that is probably why the event now takes place on tarmac. The event had always been held on a dirt rally stage in the Canary Islands, but in 2004 the Race of Champions moved onto a miniature circuit in the Stade de France. Last year this took place at Wembley, and the atmosphere of watching the world’s best drivers in a football stadium would have been sensational.
The event is fantastic. It isn’t often that you get to see Formula One stars competing against the best from other varieties of motorsport.
It is certainly much better than the now defunct American version.
In the 1970’s NASCAR bosses had the great idea of putting their drivers against the best Indycar men in the country. The International Race of Champions (IROC) was born and drivers contested a mini series of four races during the off season.
It was a valiant attempt to crown the best American oval racer, but since IROC used NASCAR vehicles it was a very one sided fight. Only two of the hundred-plus races have ever been won by a non NASCAR driver.
The series was found lacking credibility and went bankrupt in 2006.
The Race of Champions that we know from Wembley doesn’t have any such concerns.
However, you kind of get the feeling it could be a lot better.
For a start, it has become something of a gimmick. Most of the world’s top drivers are absent and the reigning F1 World Champion has only ever taken part once (Michael Schumacher in 2004). Just sixteen drivers competed last year and the only current ‘champion’ among them was Champcar winner Sebastien Bourdais. Even the reigning World Rally Champion failed to turn up.
The circuit also fails to demonstrate any serious driving skill. Moving the races inside a stadium might remove some of the rally bias, and sell more tickets, but it does little to show off driving talent. At least the dirt stages on the Canary Islands sorted the men from the boys (and meant the best rally drivers would actually be there!).
An ideal ‘Race of Champions’ would feature the world’s top drivers from a variety of different international categories in a real battle of skill.
In a perfect world you would have the top three men each from Formula One, GP2, Indycar, World Rally, Moto GP, Le Mans, and NASCAR racing against each other along with any other driver who has won a championship of some kind. There are hundreds of motoracing categories out there so you would have a very healthy field.
They would race in something exciting like a quick and grippy Formula Three car, and would do so at a large circuit like Silverstone where there is plenty of room for a huge field to go crazy.
For a bit of extra intrigue you could even determine the grid according to the fastest times set over a dirt rally stage.
You would be guaranteed plenty of great racing, and that is exactly what a genuine Race of Champions should be.
Sadly, such a scenario is impossible.
Most drivers simply wouldn’t be able to get involved. Sponsorship clashes and insurance problems would prevent the best Formula One men from taking part, and the same would apply to many top-flight international drivers.
Along with the contractual barriers, there is also the problem of motivation. Do you honestly think that Kimi Raikkonen would go out of his way during the off season for something he didn’t care about? Hardly. He certainly doesn’t need the appearance money, and besides, someone like Raikkonen would actually have more to lose than gain in an unfamiliar car against a field of lesser known drivers.
He wouldn’t be the only big name star to feel that way.
You would need to have the very best drivers from the most competitive international championships for the concept to really work, and unfortunately that will never happen.
However a compromise is not unrealistic. A genuine Race of Champions is still very possible.
What if you took the best touring car drivers from around the world and put them in a monster race at the old Nurburgring?
You could gather the top five drivers from the DTM, BTCC, WTCC, Australian V8 Supercar, Italian Superturismo, Brazilian Stock Car, and even NASCAR series, and place them in identical machinery at the world’s most challenging circuit.
There are a number of reasons why it could work.
The first is that many of the drivers won’t find themselves bound by the same restrictive contracts as their international counterparts. Neither do they have as much to lose in terms of pride.
If you produced one million dollars for the winner, you would also have a very lucrative race. Kimi Raikkonen might not care much for an extra million but almost any Touring Car driver in the world certainly would. If you could organise a deal with each of the individual series you could almost guarantee a strong field of the best tin top racers in the world.
So where would the money come from?
A huge global TV audience would certainly help. Fans who tune in to watch the British Touring Car Championship would do so again to see their favourite drivers against the world’s best. Supporters in Brazil, Germany and Australia would follow suit. Sponsorship could potentially be worth quite a fair bit.
Perhaps the best sponsor of all would be a company like Skoda who could provide cars for the race. Supplying the machinery for a one-off spec series is a cheap alternative to running an actual motorsport team, and would give someone like Skoda huge publicity. They could even sell the cars afterwards!
The location is also important, and that is why the Nurburgring Nordschleife would be the perfect venue. Most touring car drivers would jump at the chance to race there and it would also be a real test of driving skill, not like some tiny circuit in the middle of a stadium.
Wouldn’t that be an awesome event! The best drivers in some quick machinery around the greatest circuit in the world.
It would be a real Race of Champions.
The current annual event is great, but it doesn’t hurt to dream.