Since 2001, the World Rally Championship has had the capability to monitor and track the competing cars on the road sections and special stages through the technology developed by ISC-T. Last weekend on Rally of Scotland I was able to sit in Rally Control watching the live coverage from Errochty and Loch Ard on the Eurosport Player.
Now, that is real live tracking. Okay, it's not for all the cars but it does give a completely different perspective to in-stage car monitoring.
Eurosport control room
The in-car images from Kris Meeke on Errochty 1 up until his puncture were just incredible. The commitment, speed and racing lines that were being taken looked completely on the edge. From Paul Nagle's comments over the intercom, "don't go mad" and "keep it tidy" I presume it was fairly edgy in the car as well.
From a Clerk of the Course perspective, and trying not to be cruel to Kris, it was very uncomfortable watching from over the driver's shoulder at the accident that may be about to happen, that we were going to have to deal with. I almost turned the monitor off; never has it been so true that if he goes off, we are going off with him from the comfort of our sofa.
So how do Eurosport get these images from the remotest parts of the Scottish Highlands to your living room in Edinburgh, Manchester, Orkney, Madrid, Helsinki or Singapore?
The operation starts many months before the event, when a team of Eurosport personnel and their technical partners come over to Scotland to carry out a recce of the stages. This year it was easier than in 2009 as they already knew the stages and the terrain they were coming to film, but it is still a day that has to be spent in the forests examining camera angles, satellite lines and access points.
Our live TV stages were Errochty, above Pitlochry, the gateway to the Highlands and Loch Ard, right in the middle of the Lomond National Park. Also our live stage on Day 2, Loch Ard is so remote at the start that there is not even the slightest bit of mobile phone signal.
The team from Eurosport and the Outside Broadcast trucks arrive on the Wednesday afternoon of the rally week. Thursday is spent with many production meetings and also capturing the atmospheric shots that will start each programme; highlighting the locality and Scottish heritage sites. Being the largest pure sporting television channel means that the programmes are broadcast in many different languages so specific script points have to be sent to each commentator.
There is also the liaison with the rally to ensure that our event partners receive the coverage they require from the pictures. The in-car camera team also start fitting the units to the cars that will feature during the TV stage; this operation alone can take a couple of hours per car.
Rally Scotland from the air
Lunchtime Friday the convoy of three, 19-tonne trucks, three VW Transporters and six cars make their way along the edges of Loch Tummel and up through the hairpins to the Stop Line of SS5 Errochty 1. The event has had to employ the services of Forestry Commission-Scotland to create a large enough lay-by for all of these trucks, then there are the cars that will arrive on the day of filming. Also the marshals who have to run the sporting event have to have somewhere to park also. Try thinking about parking this lot the next time you are looking at the Stop Line of a Special Stage.
Gilbert Roy, Director of Editorial & Production for Eurosport is the man responsible for all the images we see across the series. To get the pictures, a plane is taken over from France to circle high above the stages. This collects the signal from the helicopter and the ten on-board cameras in the rally cars. The images from the stage cameras at the start and finish go direct to the SNG unit at the Stop Line and into the Outside Broadcast unit for editing. The cost of the plane could be saved by getting the helicopter to do this job as well, but it would have to fly at such a high altitude that the fantastic shots we get of the stages just above the cars would be lost.
From the plane the pictures are sent to the OB unit to be mixed, edited, commentary, graphics and timing added before being sent back to the SNG unit, onto the BT Tower, London, to Eurosport HQ, Paris and out to the world, or your living room. And all of this happens as it happens on the stage.
This year Eurosport have a new supplier for the on-board cameras, Visual TV and the advantage of this is that they can now follow the cars through each stage using GPS tracking, they can also split the RF signal that comes from the helicopter and the on-board pictures allowing Gilbert to view three pictures at once.
Previously they could only access one RF signal at a time, meaning that it was difficult to cut from one car to another or from helicopter to car, for example. This means that he can switch from one view to another quickly, also with the split times he can change the planned broadcast images from one car to another if he sees someone is on a charge. An example of this is from Sardinia; the plan was to follow Andrucci right through the stage as he was leading the rally at that point, Roy saw that Hanninen and Meeke were going quicker and sent the helicopter to pick up Meeke mid stage. This the helicopter did and almost immediately caught Meeke going off.
Roy says: "We want to bring the unique challenge of rallying to people's living rooms. We want to create the impression that you are sitting in the car with the competitor, if they have an off, you need to feel that you are going off with them. This year we have captured Meeke going off three times now, twice live on television, we have had Hanninen and Kopecky having problems and Ogier retiring on the opening stage; that is drama that we can really get a cross through live broadcasting.
"The events that are chosen for the live stages are really done in conjunction with the commercial team at Eurosport and the individual event promoters. I prefer to show the gravel stages as the cars move around more and with the dust it is more dramatic. What makes a live stage good is the vista; we need the terrain to be as equally dramatic as action that takes place on it.
"That is what is special about Scotland; Errochty is very fast, taking lots of commitment, Loch Ard is a challenge with beautiful scenery and constant challenges to the driver. Once we know that the stages are great it is up to the commercial team to ensure that it is viable for us to do. We are constantly working on the technology that we use so that we can continue to move forward to getting more and more events and stages live."
Roy is very aware that when Meeke went off in Sardina, whilst there was a story to be told, that Meeke and Nagle's families were probably watching as well. He could see the on-board camera footage on his monitor, though this was not broadcast, but the camera was fitted to the front roll bar pointing out of the window and he couldn't see the crew so couldn't guarantee that they were OK.
So the helicopter was instructed to hover over the accident but from a higher altitude so that they could see the crew emerging but were not focusing closely on the car until it was known the crew were OK. This was the same at Rally of Scotland last year. Roy had on-board footage of Bogie's crash but would not show it until he had confirmation from the team that everyone was OK. Paul Nagle has now requested, jokingly, that the helicopter doesn't film them on the stages as it caught them going off in Monte Carlo and Sardinia on live TV and on recorded footage in Ypres!
Kris Meeke during Rally Scotland
Much of the success of the Intercontinental Rally Championship is down to the unique way it is broadcast and the live footage. From an event organiser's point of view, Eurosport very much leave it to the organisers to produce the sporting occasion; they are just there to film it. They do have demands on us in through the provision of office space at Rally HQ, around four rooms, six vehicles for their staff, as well as some input into the running order of the top 10 cars to ensure that the crews they want to capture will feature during the live show.
For the second running of Errochty we delayed the start of the stage by five minutes as there was a cycle race in Italy being broadcast live on Eurosport that afternoon. Due to the rain in Italy it was running a bit late so we held the start slightly to ensure that everyone got to see Hanninen and Mikkelson go through this stage. I don't think that excuse for a stage starting late has been used before.
Last year it was preferred that the LIVE TV stage, for the second running, would be the last stage of the day, or event. This means that the story was complete for the viewer at home. Whilst this is still the preferred option, it is now not as important as Gilbert Roy feels that sometimes on the last stage of an event there is nothing left to fight for. It is now felt that they can close the story of each day or event off with an end of day round-up programme.
The next live event for Eurosport is the FX Pro Cyprus Rally, where they will have two hours on each day of live action. Just consider the amount of work that has gone in advance to ensure that these pictures arrive in your living room, on time and with the right information. It is not as straight forward as it may seem.