Sport on TV: Armchair drivers are left in the dark

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The Independent Online
TWICE a day, Top Gear Rally Report (BBC 2) kept us up to speed with the annual RAC event. It was our chance to watch 'the world's best drivers tackle Britain's worst weather', as the presenter Steve Lee put it, rather gleefully, from the warmth of a studio in Birmingham.

At home, with the driving under way, it wasn't long before we were sharing his smugness. Occasionally, the camera cut away to the crowd - clusters of hooded figures with their hands in their pockets, breathing steam and hopping from one foot to another to keep warm. Here were people prepared to get up way before dawn, deliver themselves deep into the Welsh hills and perch on the icy edges of bleak clearings, only to get pebble-dashed by a passing Ford Cosworth. Never has armchair spectatorship seemed more attractive.

Rallying happens in all weathers on all terrains at all hours and, needless to say, the stages which took place in the woods under sleet at night proved hardest to turn into a televisual treat. Still, the Top Gear team gave it their best. On to your darkened screen would come a set of undipped headlights, followed by a split second of blinding white-out, and then two red dots retreating very fast. It was hard to know exactly what information these shots were meant to convey, though they did afford a fairly frank insight into what it must be like to be a hedgehog.

The conceit with all televised motor sport is that one tunes in to appreciate the smooth road-handling and the graceful cornering, when clearly what one is really hoping to see is someone over-cook badly going into a sharp turn and stick the thing in the woods. Top Gear sold us a little short here. If the cameras were on hand (and let's face it, it would be unreasonable to expect cameras everywhere on a 1600-mile course), the action invariably took place in a plume of water or under a blanket of fog. Basically, you knew something was going on when you couldn't see what was going on.

The most exciting footage came from the camera perched on the back seat, where you could hear the co-driver shouting out the upcoming terrain and the angles of the corners. ' . . . fast right over crest, 50 - flat right over crest, 50 - keep middle over jump, 30 - fast left opens into flat right over crest, 50 . . .' The contrast with one's own day-to-day practices behind the wheel was truly humbling: 'Pull out without indicating; change radio; ignore amber light; have a wine-gum' etc.

Then again, if these map readers are so clever, how come the route from Birmingham to Lancaster went via Gatheiniog, over near the Welsh coast? Most of us would have selected the M6, which goes direct and offers services and a general lack of trees in the road. But you can say one thing for rally drivers: they go out of their way to please you.

On Monday, Britain's worst weather conditions worsened - much to the irritation of the driver Malcolm Wilson. 'You turn the steering wheel and nothing happens; you brake and the car goes quicker.' There was one obvious conclusion to jump to here, but a hasty check on the sponsors' patches dotted across his fire-proof suit revealed that, no, amazingly enough, Wilson wasn't driving a Skoda.

For novice viewers, the first stages flashed by in a baffling blur of Japanese cars and Finnish drivers. Going along nicely was Juha Kankkunen in a Toyota Celica. Or was it Toyota Celica in a Juha Kankkunen? It was a tribute to the clarity of the BBC's presentation, that, as early as the second day, one could confidently identify 'a striken Subaru' on sight, while also knowing with equal certainty that car 25 was driven by Gwyndaff Evans, 'the ever popular garage proprietor from Wales', and that one should never, on any account, accept a lift from 'Mad' Mick Jones. (From the rear of Jones's hurtling vehicle, we heard his co- driver come off the map for a second and scream 'Steady, mate]'; Mad Mick appeared to be driving with one hand at this point.)

On Tuesday, with Britain's worst weather conditions now as worst as they had ever been, an inconveniently placed branch punctured Colin McCrae's radiator. But by way of compensation, back in the commentary box and apparently undismayed, Barrie Gill boldly put his foot down and clinched the Wild Simile of the Week Award. 'It's like watching an intense, tactical game of chess, played out on the most treacherous of boards,' he said, a comment which was splendidly descriptive of neither rallying nor chess.

It ended too soon, on Wednesday, in Birmingham, with a civic reception. The Top Gear crew must have thought they were home and dry at this point, finally given clear access to what was going on, and well- lit conditions in which to shoot it. But this was to reckon without the victor Kankkunen, who promptly turned his gushing champagne bottle on the camera so that all subsequent scenes appeared to be taking place behind a frosted-glass window. Steve Lee generously remarked, 'He's come through some appalling weather to get here, but now he's in Birmingham and a very happy man.' And how many people could you honestly say that about?

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