Ralio's Emyr Penlan, Hana Medi and Howard Davies.

Cars, Cameras, Satellites – And Chelsea Buns! How S4C’s Ralio Brings The Wales Rally GB To Our TV Screens

Dai Sport’s Rally man, Paul Evans, spent the weekend of the Wales Rally GB with the men and women of Ralio, S4C’s motorsport programme, as they filmed, interviewed and then edited,  at speeds Elfyn Evans would have been proud of, the high octane sport – and all from an industrial unit in Deeside! Paul also spoke to many of the drivers who made it such a thrilling rally, including eventual winner Sebastien Ogier. Here is his behind-the-scenes report. 

“Two minutes to tx,” said the man at the satellite operations desk. That’s good I thought. I’m just in time to watch the first of eight Wales Rally GB programmes in five days from the temporary Ralio editing studio, set up in an industrial unit in Deeside. Zone 3, if you really want to know.

“Seventy-five per cent done, over to you in forty-five seconds,” came the cool matter-of-fact reply from Ralio Producer Emyr Penlan.

The calmness appears to contradict reality. Has anyone else noticed how close this is to not happening on time? Suddenly, a fifteen second countdown begins. With the opening credits rolling, a switch is flicked and Ralio bursts onto air. Thank goodness for that, they’ve done it. But not quite. During the ad break, the first seven minutes of the second half will be sent to Cardiff by satellite, with the remaining segment following whilst that’s going out on television. Yes, part two is still being worked on!

S4C was the first station to broadcast edited daily Rali Cymru GB 2018 highlights on free-to-view terrestrial UK television, and the success of that first transmission was thanks to 15 years of Ralio broadcast expertise. Pre-event driver interviews, presenter links from the service park, expert analysis and action from the opening Tir Prince stage – the first 30-minute programme had been delivered bang on time. Just. “One down, seven to go,” said Penlan, at the end of a non-stop 16-hour shift. 

Paul Evans interviewing Sebastien Ogier for Ralio.

Ralio’s Rally GB schedule consisted of three live and five recorded highlights programmes – totalling over seven hours of broadcast time in five days. The popular S4C show was of course following Elfyn Evans and the rest of the FIA World Rally Championship, but it was also covering British Rally Champion elect Matt Edwards and the rest of the main and Junior BRC crews, as well as the WRGB National Rally. That’s keeping an eye on around 140 crews, tackling 23 stages over an 870 miles route that lasts four days. But of course rallying is far more complex than that – the WRC crews do the entire event, the BRC crews divide Thursday/Friday and Saturday/Sunday into two separate points-scoring rounds and the National Rally is a 10 stage event that finishes on the Saturday. No wonder the Ralio team movement schedule is 18 pages long.

Friday is the first full day of the rally and there is another edited highlights programme in the evening to produce. Camera crews are in position, expert analysts Gwyndaf Evans, Howard Davies and Osian Pryce are out spectating and the editing team are watching the live feed on monitors.

Let’s be honest, we all want Elfyn to win. And he starts well. In fact, over the morning’s loop of stages he’s the only driver anywhere near the pace of leader Ott Tänak. It’s brilliant to watch, and even better watching with Ralio presenter Hana Medi. She’s emotionally in the back of Elfyn’s car, riding through every dip, bump, corner and crest. Hana’s shouting, screaming and cheering – she’s her very own high-voltage cinematic 4DX experience in a little red coat.

A camera crew returns after filming midday service and driver interviews, but none of us are expecting what happens next. Elfyn’s M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC has conked out on the road section between the Deeside service park and Clocaenog 2, the first stage of the afternoon loop. Our hopes of a home win are over. Hana’s gone quiet.

In the afternoon I continue to write my stage-by-stage script notes, but with editing and voice-overs in full swing, Penlan asks if I can head over to the media zone and interview some of the National competitors. Of course! However, there has been a glitch in the National Rally results and none of the drivers know what position they’re in at the end of day one, let alone me. The situation requires an initial off camera exploratory probe. ‘We’ve been pushing quite hard,’ says a Scottish chap in a Focus. Right, I’ll interview you. ‘It’s my first rally for five years and we’re taking it easy,’ says a guy with a grey beard in a Subaru. I’ll give him a miss. I’m impressed with my self-directing debut.

Analysing all the rally action from Deeside.

Data cards come in on schedule, editing and voice-overs are done and the next highlights package goes out as planned. We wonder if the hotel still serves food after 10pm. It’s been a very long and emotional day.

It’s Saturday and Howard’s uncharacteristically grumpy. He can’t go out to watch today, because him and Rhys ap William are commentating on the first live stage at midday. And immediately after, work begins on the highlights programme. The sense of anticipation has risen in the Ralio room with the impending live broadcast, and everything has moved up a gear. The playful banter and leg-pulling has stopped. Everyone knows that they have to be at their best today. 

Howard’s mood doesn’t improve when I’m sent off to the regroup in Newtown to interview some of the top WRC drivers. “Stealing my job now are you?” he jokes. He’s a cheeky fella.

We arrive nice and early in Newtown and head to the Evans Café on Broad Street for a cuppa and 20 of its famous Chelsea Buns to take back to base. I bump into a friend who tells me that Tom Cave has just gone off and lost 11 minutes – ironically on the stage closest to his home. World Championship leader Thierry Neuville has also been off and is down in ninth. There’s a lot going on.

We let the WRC camera crew go in first and then it’s my turn with the Ralio microphone. After the chap with a grey beard, my next interview is with five time World Champion Sébastien Ogier. I haven’t really worked out what to ask him until I start to speak. But I throw three nice gentle underarm questions towards him about being back in second place and the world title race still very much on and he hits them right out of the stadium. I don’t want to let the Ralio team down, and I’m pretty sure that interview went well. Likewise, three questions to Neuville are met with great answers too. Maybe Howard should be worried.

We can’t find third-placed Jari-Matti Latvala; maybe he’s gone for a Chelsea Bun. Elfyn is tucking into a healthy plate of salmon and pasta, but I’m leaving him to the Ralio pros anyway. I interview his co-driver Dan Barritt about how he picks his driver up from the disappointment of yesterday. I get an approving thumbs up from the sound man.

We need to interview Tänak, has he’s extended his lead to 48 seconds. He’s ignoring every journalist and cleaning his Toyota’s windows with a paper towel. I ask if it’s okay to ask him a few questions, and I presume the grunt back means yes. Ninety-five per cent of his attention has moved onto cleaning the windscreen, and holding the microphone near to his mouth whilst trying to avoid his waving arms and the Yaris’ crazy front bodywork isn’t easy. I say something about multi-tasking, which obviously doesn’t translate well into Estonian, and he looks at me and grunts something else. It might make a funny three-second clip, so my slight embarrassment might be worth it. I’m ninety-five per cent sorry for Tänak when he retires from the rally shortly afterwards.

Ralio_WRGB winner Sebastien Ogier

Back in Deeside, the production team are all busy and I’m despatched to interview the National Rally drivers at the finish of their event. Juha Kankkunen and Nicky Grist are giving out the awards, so I interview them as well as the top three drivers. The guy with the grey beard isn’t one of them. My new-found interviewing instinct had served me well. 

I go over and watch Ralio record links at M-Sport. Penlan gives his famous wave goodbye to camera. There is only a bit of final editing to do, so my work for the day is done. The highlights programme is packaged and broadcast and work starts on Sunday’s very big final day. We wonder if the hotel still serves food after 10.30pm.

It might be a relatively short day for competitors, with three forest and two asphalt stages, but it’s a massive day for Ralio, with two live stages and a highlights programme. It’s the fourth pre-dawn start in a row and we’re back in the production office at 06.30 to get ready for the live Power Stage at 08.00.

The live broadcast goes like clockwork. The production is so slick, I don’t even noticed a camera went down. There is no time for fist-pumps or high-fives, it’s straight to Llandudno for the live finish. I’m asked to go to interview the crews at the end of the BRC event. I’m on the A55 before anyone changes their mind.

The final stage is delayed, owning to an accident involving two motorcycle stunt riders who were entertaining the crowds. It’s serious. The Wales Air Ambulance is called. The welfare of those involved is the most important. We can’t help, so we concentrate on what we’re there to do – and keep out of the way of the emergency services. 

There is a 90 minute live broadcast starting in two minutes, and we don’t know if the final stage of the event will run at all, and if it does when, or how many cars will do it, or when it will finish. Together, Penlan (at the WRGB finish ramp in Llandudno) and the programme’s Executive Producer Dafydd Rhys (in Deeside) hatch a plan. I suspect the phrase ‘go to VT’ might have been used, as the programme starts on schedule. Ralio is broadcasting the highlights again, whilst waiting for news from the event organisers. 

The tricky conditions made for a thrilling three days in the Welsh forests.

In the meantime, I go over to the start of the Great Orme Llandudno 2 stage, where all the cars are parked in a holding area. The drivers and co-drivers are on standby, waiting for news too. It seems like only the top 14 cars will do the final stage of the event at speed, with the rest finishing there, so I interview the BRC crews at the end of a tough event and an even tougher series. 

It’s been confirmed, the top WRC crews will blast back into action at 2pm – 50 minutes after the scheduled live Ralio programme has finished. Yes, it is the finale to one of Wales’ biggest sporting events, but it’s still mightily impressive that a major television network can slot in an extra live programme at such short notice to cover it – and that Ralio can deliver it with very little warning. It’s another slick and seamless production. Everyone has been at their best today. And so has Ogier, who wins the rally for a record fifth time.

Monday, and all the rally teams have gone home. Ralio has one more day on location. There is one more 30-minute highlights programme to produce, and it’s better to remain in Deeside than waste most of the day packing up and driving back to HQ in Llanelli. Monday night’s programme features a review of the WRC event and a detailed report on the BRC and National. I recognise my thumb, holding the Ralio microphone, several times. The fact that some of my interviews were good enough to be broadcast is one of the proudest moments of my career. I couldn’t be happier, although Howard’s job is safe. Rally driver interviewing isn’t as easy as he, or Emyr and Hana, make it look.

As the Ralio team study their motorsport diaries and discuss who is going to what event next, my magical one-off time behind-the-scenes with them has came to an end. It’s been an enormous privilege to be a part of the magnificent Ralio crew at a dramatic, emotional, long, tiring and thrilling Wales Rally GB. It’s all to easy to overlook the many years of Ralio experience that goes into making each programme, but when rallying throws you a curve ball minutes before a long live show is about to go on air, that experience is invaluable. Cool, calm, professional, inspiring, fun, entertaining – and 100% made in Wales.

Ralio really is a production we can all be very proud to say is ours.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.