Fresh era for FIA WRC coverage after BT Sport snaps up live rights

Monica Heck writes… Who hasn’t seethed behind the wheel in bumper to bumper traffic, imagining the thrill of driving a powerful car at top speed through some of the roughest terrain on the planet? It’s good news for frustrated commuters this year, who can stop daydreaming of speed and actually watch the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) when they get home.

The transmission history of the WRC has been a little chequered in recent years, perhaps matching a declining interest in the sport since its British heyday of the 80s and 90s. British fans were even left without mainstream coverage for the first section of last year’s championship, until ITV4 announced it had secured highlights transmission rights.

This year, BT Sport has snapped up live coverage rights, allowing it to televise the 26 stages of the championship, which started in Monte Carlo on Jan 14. Motors TV and ITV4 have both signed highlights deals for the event.

The FIA World Rally Championship, which started in 1973, sees drivers and co-pilots in production-based cars taking on some of the toughest terrain on the planet.

Each rally features a number of timed stages run on closed roads, where drivers strive to complete each stage as quickly as possible. It’s often described as one of the most difficult motorsports championships in the world.

It’s also a tough nut to crack from a broadcast logistics point of view. The production team has just finished a stint on the snowy roads of ‘Rally Sweden’ and is now headed to the more clement climes of Mexico this March.

“The rally is not comparable to any other motorsport,” said Paul Borgetto, head of production at WRC Promoter GmbH, a joint venture company – set up by Red Bull Media House and the sportsman media group GmbH – which has owned all the rights to the championship since last year.

“Temperatures can range from -45 to +30 and on an average rally, the cars cover about 1000 km. 300+ km of those are special stages which can easily be 100 kms away from our TV compound. In Monte Carlo, we had to deal with landslides. Stadium or circuit racing is comparatively easy to produce, especially live.”

The company collects the action footage that gets distributed around the globe to media partners such as BT Sport, ITV but also Canal+ and France TV.

“At each stage of the rally, we come with a crew of around 50 people and set-up a TV compound. We bring an OB truck to all the rallies with 10 to 12 cameras, plus 8 mobile ENG camera tools. The truck heads to whichever stage we have decided to produce live.”

WRC Promoter GmbH also flies a plane above the races to relay radio, audio and video signals, as well as a helicopter for locations that are close enough to the TV compound.

A unique aspect of this sport is the amount of radio links that must be established over such long distances. Most feeds are radio transmitted, over UHF or satellite.

“The footprint of a helicopter is sufficient for an F1 race, but you need a plane to show stuff happening 200km away. In bad weather, the plane can fly as high as 5,000m above the race, so we need powerful equipment to handle the transmission.”

Camera crews must move quickly from one stage to the other. Getting footage back to the TV compound in the evening for the highlights programme, which airs a couple of hours after race-end, also involves between 8 and 12 motorcycle couriers that are constantly on the road.

Borgetto also said the company must run simultaneous live and recorded feeds to anticipate the higher risks of signal failure in the harsh environment of the races.

The races are recorded on full HD cameras by Sony or Grass Valley’s LDK and the on-board cameras are custom-made to handle G-forces and accidents. Super slo-mo is used for live coverage as well as highlights clips, and the company is also planning to test 4K this year.

“We find ourselves limited by the bandwidth requirement of 4K cameras.  We expect the footage to be used for between or end of rally highlights but there is no real market for it at the moment. We’ve had requests from display manufacturers for promo reels, for example.”

Since ‘Rallye Monte Carlo’ in 2013, Borgetto and his team have noticed a learning curve. “We are working with the organisers on how to make it more TV friendly and more spectator friendly without losing the DNA of the actual rally.”

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