Wembley’s pitched battle

Wembley Stadium laps up the power struggle of the motorsport world, Suzi Higton reports.

The Race of Champions to many is a relatively unknown concept in motorsport, outside of the wider known Formula One seasons and The World Rally Championship (WRC).

The event however was first held over twenty years ago in Paris to celebrate the tenth anniversary of  the WRC.

Initially the gathering was solely comprised of rally drivers racing in identical cars. Held in memory of late rally driver Henri Toivonen, who died whilst racing in 1986, the competition has since expanded to incorporate  wider disciplines of motorsports. Previous racers who have taken part have included MotoGP’s Valentino Rossi, eight times Le Mans 24 Hours Winner Tom Kristensen and a host of NASCAR and F1 stars.

The brain child of Fredrik Johnsson and the world’s most successful female rally driver, Michele Mouton, ROC’s concept is to find the world’s fastest driver based on talent alone and remains the only opportunity for this unique type of racing in the world. This year was only the second year that Wembley has hosted the event, the Canary Islands and the Stade de France in Paris having previously staged the one off showcase of the world’s most formidable driving talent.

The basic rules for the Race of Champions (the individual event) and the ROC Nations Cup are essentially the same and based on knock out tournament formats. For the individual event, drivers are split into two groups, the first consisting of racing drivers and the other with a mix of racing and off-road rally drivers. The tournament is run on the concept of heats, where there are subsequently quarter finals, semi finals, group finals and eventually the super final which is decided over the best of three heats.

The ROC Nations Cup has eight teams representing their countries and is also made up of heats. The final consists of a mixture of both rally and racing drivers. Teams competing this year included Ireland, the USA and Australia. The racing circuit which required 2000 tonnes of tarmac to be poured over the pitch at Wembley has two separate tracks that run to parallel to one another and are of exactly the same length.

Apart from the two major racing competitions, ROC also incorporates spectacular stunt motorbike displays from the Red Bull X-Fighters, and  showcases some of the most technically advanced and fastest concept cars in the world. This year the cars included WRC rally cars, a KTM X-bow, a small, lightweight concept car which weighs less 800kg and David Coulthard’s Red Bull F1 car to the delight of the crowd.

The event opened this year with a Celebrity Race which saw boxing stars Amir Kahn and Frank Bruno, as well as television personalities such as Patrick Kielty, chef James Martin and reality pop star Shane Ward get behind the wheel of Fiat 500s. Boxer Khan kept the thousands in the stands entertained by crashing on the first corner of his opening lap.

Amongst this year’s drivers were Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, David Coulthard, Jenson Button, Andy Priaulx, Troy Bayliss and Mattias Ekstrom.
Although the drivers are not paid to take part in the competition and all funds are donated to charity, the competitive element is still a major priority for those taking part.

David Coulthard, runner up in the individual event told Guardian how much he had enjoyed taking part: “I think that there was some very exciting and interesting racing and it was definitely an entertaining afternoon. It’s always a nice moment to come here and meet drivers from all parts of racing, the camaraderie is unique, it’s always a nice weekend.”

He added: “You’ve got to give it everything you can, I wanted to do well in the Race of Champions although I didn’t have the same experience as some of the other guys here and it took some confidence. You always just want to do your best.”

After Team Germany’s victory in the Nations Cup, Michael Schumacher echoed Coulthard’s enthusiasm for the event: “We go out there to have fun and that’s what we’ve had so far, I thought this year a lot of people watching would agree that we’ve succeeded in that. In the end, that’s what we’re all here for.”

If last year’s ROC is anything to go by with its unpredictability, 2009 promises to be another action packed outing for the event at Wembley.


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