Since the very beginning the World Rally Championship (and, honestly, rally as a whole) has been a sport isolated from it's fans. While forms of motorsport like NASCAR and Formula 1 takes place in arenas built near major population centers, with comfy elevated seats that allow for good visibility and relaxed viewing (and food vendors just a short waddle away), rally relies on it's fans traveling out of their big cities into the remote countryside, then hiking through the woods to lay claim to the most exciting corner they can find, their seats and day's ration of food and beer slung across their back or carried in large coolers that need multiple people to transport. Spectating a rally requires passion, planning, commitment, and a taste for adventure (because the journey to a rally stage inevitably will become one).
Attempting to broadcast rally requires the same traits, and as such it's been a sticking point for years. Getting good footage requires multiple camera crews (since each car will only pass each camera once) and expensive helicopters, all of them out in the field all day long, as a day of rallying can last a full twelve hours or more. This footage would be compacted into an hour long review show, because no TV network was going to broadcast a day of rally, but fans demanded live action. In recent years the WRC began making attempts to give it to them, first with live broadcasts of short spectator stages, then with live airings of the final stage of the rally, known as the "Power Stage." These were a big step in the right direction, but if you didn't live in one of the select countries they were broadcasting in or didn't have the right channel in your cable package you were S.O.L. For years fans screamed "internet" as a solution, and now, just in time for Rally Finland, the WRC has shown they were actually listening.
The new package is called WRC+, and while it isn't free (4.99€ per month, about $6.70 U.S.) it does come with a range of features and content that could make subscription worthwhile for the hardcore rally fan. The website offers live vehicle tracking via stage maps, an archive of side-by-side rally onboards (every stage and nearly every WRC-level car), review shows, and, most importantly, three hours of live video per rally. Three hours over the course of a weekend may not sound like much, but keep in mind what I said about requiring helicopters and numerous camera crews (not to mention on-air talent and a full production team), hour-for-hour rally is one of the most expensive forms of motorsport to broadcast live. I do expect that if enough people subscribe the amount of live video will go up, since more revenue means more money available to spend on production. Today I got to use all the features of WRC+ while following the first day of Rally Finland, here's what I thought of the content:
The video archive is an extensive catalog that ensures you will never again need to go torrent hunting for WRC content (not that I'd ever suggest hunting for torrents). Every program the WRC has aired this year is saved in the archive, from daily reviews to stages that were originally aired live in certain markets, all available in full HD. Already this year has produced, by my calculations, over 24 hours of programming for the archive, and that's not bad at all.
Onboard Video (Not Live)
The onboard video is particularly impressive, as you can choose two cars to watch simultaneously, with speed displays, constantly updating split times between the two, and a map showing their progress through the stage. If you want to see how much of a difference in time a big slide makes, why your boy Latvala lost time to Evans, or just how much time that barrel roll of Kubica really cost then the onboards are pretty much the greatest thing ever.
It's LIVE VIDEO! With commentary, timing, post-stage interviews, and everything else you'd get if you were in one of those places that gets the live stages on TV. In actuality the live stage package on WRC+ is exactly what they're also sending to cable networks like BT Sport for live airing, and anyone who's ever tracked down a back alley stream or torrent of one of those live stages (which I would never endorse) knows how good that coverage is. To now be able to get that live coverage in full HD without risking a maelstrom of spyware and invasive pop-up ads is better than drowning in fluffy kittens. Hopefully, as I said, with enough subscriptions to WRC+ they'll add even more live stages and my productivity on rally weekends will surpass zero and go into negative figures.
For those stages that don't have live video (or when the camera isn't on the driver you're interested in) there's the tracking map. The map allows you to follow a particular driver through the course, with live updating speeds, or just park yourself on the map and watch the cars travel along the stage (position and speed updates every few seconds). There's also a sidebar on the right that tracks stage times, so tracking one driver doesn't mean losing info on the status of the others. The sidebar is color-coded to let you know the status of a competitor: semi-transparent means the driver hasn't started the stage, red means the driver is in the stage, and green for drivers who have completed the stage. I do have a few small issues with the map, which hopefully will be fixed as WRC+ continues to grow. The cars in the sidebar on the right aren't sorted by running order or position in the rally, as you'd expect, but by car number (quick, who can tell me the car number of any WRC driver aside from Ogier). As a result it can be a bit confusing in regards to who should be where, whether a driver has been delayed and passed, and who is next in the stage. Also, when a driver finishes the stage his timer keeps counting and it takes 30-60 seconds for it to be updated with his correct stage time. I'm sure this will be improved in time.
What I'd Like To See
Good though it is, I do feel WRC+ is missing a few things, with timing and scoring being at the forefront. There's a link to WRC.com at the top of each "+" page, which, with a few additional clicks once on the WRC site, will lead you to scoring, but I feel like you shouldn't have to leave WRC+ to know who's leading the rally. Similarly a stage itinerary and stage schedule would be of great benefit (especially one that adjusts the times to the time zone of the user), so a WRC+ user can know when the next stage starts and when the service breaks are. Speaking of service, how about including the service park live video stream among the available content. The current mindset regarding the layout of WRC+ seems to be "exclusive content only, nothing that's available elsewhere," while I'd personally prefer everything, the exclusive stuff and the available-to-all material, all held in a single location. We'll see what direction they ultimately decide to go with this.
WRC+ certainly won't be for everyone, but for those passionate about rally (or those who have wanted to become passionate about rally but didn't have access) this is a big step in the right direction. If enough interest is shown in WRC+ we may see even more content added, and possibly a free "lite" version where ad revenue is substituted for subscription revenue (the current subscription site has no ads). For now this is a foray into a new era for the WRC, and I for one am glad for it.