Since 1988’s inaugural event in Paris, the Race Of Champions (ROC) has been travelling the globe, bringing some of the biggest names in motorsport together to compete for personal and national glory in equal equipment at various world-famous venues.
This year the ROC was held in London for the first time since the event took place at Wembley Stadium back in 2008. Tt this time, it was run at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Stadium situated in the Olympic Park in Stratford after ROC president Fredrik Johnsson, who had been openly keen about running there for a while, struck a deal.
Then came the process of organising it, and as usual, it was quite a task. It’s safe to say that in every facet the RCs has come along way since the first event, but that’s not made it any easier to put together. In fact, it requires more time and effort than ever.
Months before a horde of workers set foot in the stadium to build the circuit, there were all sorts of hurdles to jump for the event organisers. Every aspect has to be meticulously planned to ensure it’s an enjoyable time for both the drivers and fans.
All together now
One of the toughest parts of making the ROC happen is getting the drivers together, in one place, on one weekend; and with a seemingly ever-expanding/never-ending global motorsport calendar, finding the right weekend at the end of the season – when the ROC is traditionally held – has become quite a challenge.
Drivers, media, organisers, team members and fans alike complain each year about the sheer number of event clashes. Take a look at the weekend the World Endurance Championhsip is held at Silverstone as an example, as it has run parallel with the opening rounds of the British GT and Blancpain Endurance Series in recent years.
“If available, most drivers lap up the opportunity to compete”
For those at the top of the ROC, it’s even more of a headache, as for one weekend, they try to get drivers from every corner of the motorsport world to attend.
“Because we are very limited on what weekends we can run at each stadium, ROC usually takes place after the racing season has ended, during December. But this time round it was even more dictated by the stadium’s availability so we had to organise it before the end of the Formula One season,” explained operations director Dominic Olliff.
Then there’s selecting the drivers themselves. With a limited amount able to compete, and so many series to consider, creating an all-star-cast is no easy task. Thankfully, if available, most drivers lap up the opportunity to compete in what has become a United Nations-type selection.
Olliff said: “We try to avoid clashes, especially with the big series, but the stadium’s very limited availability meant we had little choice but to run it the weekend we did. That was great for F1 drivers but disappointing for the likes of WEC, GP2 [which added their Bahrain round after ROC’s event was announced] and F3.
“But I think we did a great job to still secure such a diverse line-up, and one of the best in recent memory actually. F1 is the most well known form of motorsport so it’s important to have those established, household names like Vettel and Button for casual fans.
“They all come along for the pleasure of doing it, because they get back to the essence of why they love racing”
“But ROC is also about bringing the best of the best together, and the likes of Tom Kristensen, Alex Buncombe and Andy Priaulx provide credibility from the wider spectrum of motorsport. That Priaulx and Jason Plato beat Vettel and Nico Hulkenberg in the Nations Cup final proves how important diversity is.
“When it comes down to securing drivers, it’s a combination of things, as they want to drive at the event and they want to know who else will be there too.
“The drivers this year were so relaxed,” he said. “As it’s not like a race weekend, there’s not much pressure or media – it doesn’t exist at ROC. They all come along for the pleasure of doing it, because they get back to the essence of why they love racing, and thet get to socialise and test themselves against key names in their field in equal machinery.
“They have a good time, it’s refreshing. There’s a real camaraderie at the event, guys like Vettel are a real advocate for that, as he claims he ‘get’s to know the driver under the helmet’. It’s old school.”
While the drivers love it, trying to keep a consistent roster right up until the day can be difficult, however. Olympic track cycling gold medalist Sir Chris Hoy this year, for example, was drafted in to compete in place of MotoGP’s Jorge Lorenzo, who was busy celebrating his title success.
More than just racing
Outside of the drivers, there’s other forms of entertainment to think about. Over the years those looking at the target demographic of the ROC have realised that not only is it best to cater for every type of motorsport fan, but also for more of a casual audience who enjoy just seeing a different kind of sporting event in such a rare setting like the Olympic Stadium.
Therefore, other forms of entertainment have become part of the programme at the ROC, and rightly so.
“Of course it’s a motorsport event,” Olliff stated. “But you have to attract casual fans too, which is why there’s celebrities, Terry Grant, FMX, all those things going on too. You have to come up with something that works for everybody, and everybody can be impressed by Terry Grant, it doesn’t matter how many times he does a donut around someone’s leg, it’s amazing!
“Not only is it best to cater for every type of motorsport fan, but also for more of a casual audience.”
“Then with the celebrities there’s always going to be people there at ROC who will get something out of it, it’s all entertainment in the end. A lot of people come in groups, half will love these things, half may not be interested, but overall, everyone leaves feeling like they’ve had their money’s worth.
“It’s important, especially in a place like London. It’s more than just an event for hardcore motor racing fans.”
Before they know it, the set-up process then dawns on the team, which while quick, is by no means simple. An army of contractors comes in, sets it up and dismantles everything to suit both the stadium and ROC organisers’ needs.
The first time everyone from ROC got to take a look round the stadium was the end of June in the same year, which stresses how much of a challenge it is to get everything together so quickly at a place which they don’t have access to freely.
Later on in the year, two more recce’s happen as things come together, and before the big week arrives. This year in particular, a change had to be made to the Olympic Park circuit due to its size. Instead of a dual-lane layout, a single track, pursuit-style system had to be created.
It didn’t detract from the experience however.
“They were keen to try something different anyway,” Olliff revealed. “We didn’t have a great deal of time on our hands because of the Rugby World Cup finishing and England playing New Zealand in the Rugby League series. You can’t just build a track and hope it works, it has to be tested.
“The track itself was built in four days in the pursuit style, an awful lot goes into it. Michele Mouton, Audi’s Group B rally driver is still involved primarily and is responsible for the design and concept. When she’s happy with how it is after it’s in place it gets handed over to other departments.”
“An hour after the racing finished on Saturday night people were digging up the track.”
“The transition between the Olympic Stadium and what will become West Ham United’s stadium was still going on around us during planning, so we had to factor that in. It wasn’t until the Rugby World Cup that we could get a real feel for where everything was going to be. A lot of the areas like the media centre, mixed zone, press conference room, places like that were in action for us to see.
“We work with the stadium, but we take it over when the time comes, it’s our responsibility.
“We broke the record of de-rigging afterwards, the previous one was 40 hours and we did it in 27 this year! An hour after the racing finished on Saturday night people were digging up the track and everyone worked on their own areas. It’s difficult to get the stuff out, especially all the concrete metal work and tarmac from the track so we could hand the stadium back on time which was Monday morning this year.
“It’s like a building site,” Olliff concluded. “But on fast forward.”
And once the final piece of track leaves the stadium, the focus immediately shifts to the next year, when behind the scenes, the same process starts all over again.