The Race of Champions has been a roaming ‘Disneyland for drivers’ in its modern era. Its latest stop was uncharted territory even by a nomadic competition’s standards, but it may have just found a medium-term home on the shore of the Baltic Sea.
A snow-and-ice Race of Champions has been in the offing for some time. Venues in Canada and Austria have held discussions with event chief Fredrik Johnsson, but the chance to take his beloved exhibition to his native Sweden was the opportunity that was eventually grasped.
Thus, the likes of Formula 1 drivers Sebastian Vettel and Mick Schumacher, World Rally Championship legend Sebastien Loeb and a host of past-and-present champions from a range of disciplines descended last week upon a hotel and campsite a little over 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
The off-season competition has always been unique in its nature and the drivers love it for many reasons.
“For us it’s a bit…I don’t know, maybe to give you an example it’s a bit like you come to Disneyland and normally you have to queue and wait and there’s a lot of people,” says Vettel.
“Fredrik and his team, they invite us to Disneyland and there’s nobody else but us to enjoy it.
“So, it’s great. It’s a real privilege. And really special to just be part of this.”
Even more special, it became clear last weekend, with the new location.
“I think when you see the smile on the drivers’ face, it says it all,” reckons Johnsson.
“The excitement of being out here, driving on snow and ice, sliding around, and I think the entire environment – nature is so powerful.
“It’s cool to be in Wembley Stadium. It’s cool to be in the Olympic Stadium and so on.
“But here we can make a nicer track. It’s much more a driver’s track. I think it was definitely the right move.”
The Sweden event blended the usual plus points of the Race of Champions – an all-star cast, unusual competitions and off-camera camaraderie – with a completely different setting. Where else can you see Vettel playing shuffleboard with seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson in the evening?
There was also a dinner at which now-IndyCar driver Johnson said the Race of Champions’ notorious, unofficial chief of socialising David Coulthard shared anecdotes that brought up “topics and conversations I didn’t think you could have at the dinner table”.
But making all this happen in this new destination came with some unique complications, although none of the problematic weather conditions were related to the worst of the cold, like when temperatures fell to -21C on Thursday evening. That was a good thing, it’s what the event needed. What happened before and after was more troublesome.
Temperatures had been unseasonably high in January, and there was little snow. That prompted concern but there were alternatives if there was not enough snow to race on the planned circuit: to either move further inland – to find the snow – or to rebuild the entire track further out on the sea itself, entirely on the ice.
Closer to the event, in the days before a Porsche-sponsored challenge the weekend before the Race of Champions itself, the ice looked good – 80cm thick. And it was going to get seriously cold in the coming days. Plan B, moving out onto the ocean, looked like a goer if there was an issue with the snow after all.
Then the outer part of the ice, which had the practice track and skills challenge area on it, broke off and floated out to sea.
“We wake up on Tuesday morning, look out the window and our practice track and our second Race of Champions track are gone,” says Johnsson.
“The ice has just cracked open right by the pier where the shallow part ends and the deep water starts. Open ocean. Took out the outside corner on the main Race of Champions track.”
That prompted a late redesign as what was meant to be the ‘inside’ lane of the real RoC track had to become the ‘outside’ lane, and a new ‘inside’ lane was created, to re-establish a buffer to the water.
It also meant the biting cold in the days after was actually welcome, although conditions escalated on Friday when a snowstorm prompted an early end to practice.
And there would be a surprise knock-on effect the following morning when organisers realised the storm had prompted the highest tide the area has recorded “in modern times”.
That meant water from the sea breached the circuit perimeter and flooded part of the track. With warm-up sessions due to start for the day’s Nations Cup action, large sections were covered with 30cm of standing water.
“With the snowstorm, the wind was in the wrong direction,” says Johnsson.
“The water level was rising to like over one metre. They’ve never seen it before. The second highest they have had in modern times was 65 centimetres.
“At first we tried to clear it out, but it doesn’t work because until the ocean level goes down, the ocean just pushes in more and more water.
“We realised very quickly that this is not going down quickly enough. And we have to find a new option.”
With half the track still usable, the solution was to cut out half the track that was closest to the sea – and had been breached – and abandon running parallel lanes in favour of a single lap that could be run pursuit-style, as has been adopted at past Race of Champions in London and Mexico.
The lap was, obviously, a lot shorter as a result. But it worked. And it was a hit – while the intention was to return to the full track for Sunday’s Champion of Champions contest if the water could be removed, several drivers pushed Johnsson and his team hard to keep the shorter track instead.
Unsurprisingly this came primarily from the racing driver side of the pool – the theory was that the short track had nullified a big part of the rally/rallycross drivers’ advantage. Even the Disneyland of motorsport isn’t safe from racing driver excuses…
Sunday’s action did indeed go ahead with the full track. If anything, it was an improvement on Saturday. That was perhaps helped by the individual contests being more interesting than the team element, as that’s when it feels it gets the most serious. But it also triggered excellent competition: one race between Loeb and Oliver Solberg ended in a dead heat, another between Johan Kristoffersson and Mattias Ekstrom was decided by just 0.010s.
By the end of the weekend, the drivers were full of praise for the event but also the way the organisers had responded to the unexpected logistical challenges.
Johnsson summed it up well when he said of the Saturday solution: “Before the weekend we had a plan A, we had a plan B, we had a plan C – but that was Plan D.”
Despite the challenges, many drivers, eventual winner Loeb included, indicated this was an upgrade. Past Race of Champions have been fine events in their own right and appealing for the reasons outlined by Vettel earlier, but this had a little extra about it.
This writer has followed the Race of Champions for years, primarily out of curiosity. Being on-site for the first time in 2022 will have undoubtedly had an impact on the ability to follow the event closely, but it was also much easier to buy into the format.
For some intangible reason, it felt like a more serious competition. Something about it seemed less contrived.
Perhaps it was because it resembled an old WRC superspecial on snow, and therefore had a more familiar ‘real motorsport’ feel rather than being so obviously an exhibition in a makeshift set-up.
Maybe it’s the fact being out in the open meant a much better track could be designed.
Maybe it’s that it simply looked that bit more spectacular, with cars being thrown sideways and drivers making more mistakes.
Whatever it was (probably a combination of those factors, among others) the consensus at the end of the weekend seemed to be that the supposed multi-year agreement to host the event at the same venue could be a stroke of genius.
Of course, the Race of Champions would need to break with recent tradition to achieve that. Not since Paris (2004-2006) has it stayed at the same venue more than two years in a row.
But simply moving to snow and ice in the first place shows Johnsson and his team have no issue with shunning conventions if it’s in the event’s best interest.
The first step is for the event to simply return for a second year. Will it?
“That is the plan for the moment,” says Johnsson. “So, yes. Absolutely.”