Race of Champions preview and video

Published: 13 December 2007

The Race of Champions is the annual end-of-season jamboree. Two drivers from eight nations all go head-to-head, on two parallel 1km tracks, in a series of identical cars, to be eliminated via group stages to determine, in two hours, an overall winner. The fastest of the fast. All before your very eyes.

So where is it being held?

Where else, but a football stadium. For the past few years it’s been the Stade de France, but this year it’s coming to Britain for the first time. To Wembley, one of the biggest stadiums in Europe. And on Sunday 16 December, the world’s media, 75,000 fans – oh, and the fastest drivers there is – will all follow. RoC on.

I still can’t believe it, though. Is it really a race circuit?

Sure is, constructed from 1800 tonnes of asphalt, laid atop 2200 tonnes of steel underlay plates. It took 50 people five days to do it, too (we’ll pass their names onto the contractors widening the M1). They’ll have it up in three days as well – fortunately, new grass for Wembley is being grown as we speak.

With advertising hoardings, marshal posts and a start-finish line, it’s unnervingly real, and an incredible spectacle as you emerge into the massive Wembley arena for the first time. The view you have is like no view you’ve ever had before. No conventional track beats it. Noise? Wembley acoustics means it will be to die for.

Who’s going to be there?

For England, Jensen Button and Andy Priaulx. Scotland, David Coulthard and Alistair McRae. Germany, Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel. USA, Jimmie Johnson and Travis Pastrana. France, Sebastian Bourdais and Yvan Muller. Scandinavia, Tom Kristensen and Mattias Ekstrom. Finland, Heikki Kovalainen and Marcus Gronholm. And Norway, Henning Solberg and Petter Solberg.

Key to watch, apart from the obvious ones, will be Yvan Muller, who is an ice-driving God. Such talents could be handy here. Ekstrom won it last year and Kovalainen won it in 2004, while we also reckon Gronholm may fancy going out on a high, particularly as he’s so familiar with the WRC car. Oh, and if Alistair McRae, deputising for his late brother, Colin, wins, he’ll bring the house down.

What cars will be used?

This year’s WRC Ford Focus, a 270bhp Grande Punto S2000 Abarth, an Aston V8 Vantage N24, a 310bhp rear-drive ‘Solution f’ Vauxhall Astra-look racer and the official ‘Roc Car’ – 1.1-litre, 170bhp, 475kg. And if that doesn’t sound like a group of cars that could remorselessly bite drivers unfamiliar with them on the tricky, treacherous circuit, we don’t know what would.

Indeed, it’s the two four-wheel-drive rally cars that are potentially the least intimidating: all the others are pure rear driven performance machines, with high power, low weight, or both. Which could be significant on the Wembley circuit: expect a delicious oversteer fest in them, on the scale of Gilles Villeneuve in a Ferrari 126C…

What’s the track like?

CAR has been lucky enough to drive the track. And even in a 60mph kart, it felt narrow. And hugely slippery. I went out after a rain shower; mixed with oil still oozing from the ‘green’ asphalt, it was all I could do not to spin at the first corner. I did so at the second, instead. Apparently, the dew falls at Wembley around 4pm, too, adding yet another film onto the circuit. About the time of the final, then. Oh, and we all know how wintry it’s been lately… a ‘dry’ line did form as my run went on, with surprising grip, but all it takes is a quick shower…

The narrowness, meanwhile, is boggling, and I can’t imagine how a full-bore V8 Vantage with a red-misted driver will get round. It’s going to be a dazzling array of talent, believe me. Of course, for me the atmosphere was just like a well-lit indoor kart circuit – an empty stadium has that effect – but when full, it’s going to feel incredible for the drivers. Particularly as they enter it by exploding from the player’s tunnel…

What are the corners like?

They’re beautiful. Seriously, every one is just so nice to drive; you can set up your lines, work with your car – it feels like huge thought has been put into the line of each, rather than just marked out on the back of a fag packet like your local kart track. It’s here, you imagine, where people such as Hermann Tilke really earn their salt. Anyone can draw a circuit. Drawing a flowing race circuit, where you can really showcase your talent, is something else. 

Take me round, then.

I ran on a mix of both sections. The first section of the ‘flyover’ half is fiddly and demands a rhythm for best speed – but it’s faster than it first seems, so expect drivers to improve through the event here. Karts can’t fly, though, so I then crossed to the ‘ground’ circuit, taking me hard left under the bridge. Here, it was extremely treacherous, and there’s even a surface change beneath the bridge. Puddles still remained after a two-hour endurance race – even in the day, this bit doesn’t get the sun. The 100-tonne bridge may conceal the inevitable incidents for spectators low on the other side, alas (otherwise, spectator visibility is world-class).

The long, long, tight right-left infield corners are frustrating and it’s easy to see speed understeer away. It’ll be an exciting contrast to the flyover right next to it, though: one of the organisers later told us the ‘flying’ driver will be on the brakes as they leave the ground. Otherwise, the ‘90-left’ may be a ‘crunch’ instead. Both cars shoot round a left-hander to either start another lap or take the chequered flag.

Did you see anything that might spice things up?

Well, a lot of those concrete-looking barriers are actually grey plastic. And thus quite soft. The circuit is marked out by red and yellow barriers, which are also plastic. And, courtesy of heavy rain, filled with water. Which, when one spinning kart hit them, punctured and laid a river across the circuit. Believe me, it was even more treacherous after that.

There’s barely any run-off on the infield bits before you’re on the sand and grass, either. Even relative to the slippery asphalt, that’s like ice, and it’s really easy to tip a wheel off the track and onto it. Oh, and the first bend of the ‘ground’ section is gloriously wide, open, fast and driftable, as I discovered when I ‘forgot’ the temporary kart pit speed limit. Watch the driver in this lane first…

Take me round, then.

I ran on a mix of both sections. The first section of the ‘flyover’ half is fiddly and demands a rhythm for best speed – but it’s faster than it first seems, so expect drivers to improve through the event here. Karts can’t fly, though, so I then crossed to the ‘ground’ circuit, taking me hard left under the bridge. Here, it was extremely treacherous, and there’s even a surface change beneath the bridge. Puddles still remained after a two-hour endurance race – even in the day, this bit doesn’t get the sun. The 100-tonne bridge may conceal the inevitable incidents for spectators low on the other side, alas (otherwise, spectator visibility is world-class).

The long, long, tight right-left infield corners are frustrating and it’s easy to see speed understeer away. It’ll be an exciting contrast to the flyover right next to it, though: one of the organisers later told us the ‘flying’ driver will be on the brakes as they leave the ground. Otherwise, the ‘90-left’ may be a ‘crunch’ instead. Both cars shoot round a left-hander to either start another lap or take the chequered flag.

Did you see anything that might spice things up?

Well, a lot of those concrete-looking barriers are actually grey plastic. And thus quite soft. The circuit is marked out by red and yellow barriers, which are also plastic. And, courtesy of heavy rain, filled with water. Which, when one spinning kart hit them, punctured and laid a river across the circuit. Believe me, it was even more treacherous after that.

There’s barely any run-off on the infield bits before you’re on the sand and grass, either. Even relative to the slippery asphalt, that’s like ice, and it’s really easy to tip a wheel off the track and onto it. Oh, and the first bend of the ‘ground’ section is gloriously wide, open, fast and driftable, as I discovered when I ‘forgot’ the temporary kart pit speed limit. Watch the driver in this lane first…

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