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Watching the watch: Formula 1 timing systems


"What was the gap between Senna and Prost on the last lap?" asked a frantic French radio journalist, running his fingers through his hair aggressively. His job on the Sunday afternoon at a Grand Prix is to scream down an intercontinental telephone line to his studio in Paris. His reports go every five minutes. He needs constantly updated and instantaneous information.

"What was the gap between Senna and Prost on the last lap?" asked a frantic French radio journalist, running his fingers through his hair aggressively. His job on the Sunday afternoon at a Grand Prix is to scream down an intercontinental telephone line to his studio in Paris. His reports go every five minutes. He needs constantly updated and instantaneous information.

The French guy standing next to him was doing the same and a Canadian behind them. He is wearing earplugs. The radio screamers make a hell of a noise but it is a impressive spectacle. At the end of the race in Montreal they received a round of applause from the assembled international press. A local man rushed up to shake the hand of one, "That was an incredible job," he said.

The screamers go to every race and have an extraordinary appetite for information, yet they cannot leave their positions.

They glare out of the windows at the track, watching the cars go by, but their chief sources of information are the two screens in front of them. One is a television showing the live race footage, the other is a television showing computer information from the Olivetti/Longines timing box. Anything else is picked up from people passing by.

Motor racing has hundreds of unsung heroes, from the screamers to the mechanics, the technical scrutineers, the marshals, the firemen, the doctors, the caterers, the tyre men, the sponsors and -- perhaps more important than anyone -- the timing men.

In human terms it is staggering what these men achieved, but then their art is not one based on human beings. The humns control and monitor, but it computers which supply the vital information.

Finding the Olivetti/Longines team is not hard. You think of the place which gets the best view of the grid and there they will be.

"Yes, we get a good view of the race," says Luigi Sartoris, the Olivetti/Longines coordinator, "but we need it, you know!"

Despite all the computer hardware, the team tries to check that each and every car passing the startline is visually identified.

The computers are unlikely to be wrong, but it's always useful to check. In the course of a Grand Prix weekend the Olivetti/Longines team will take something in the region of 5000 individual lap times, from the F1 cars alone -- often they time the supporting events as well.

The entire operation is controlled by very few men, usually less than 10, who work from their own control room. They record each lap of each car, its speed at the finish line and at a secondary intermediate point. They produce a lap chart and the gaps between the cars in the races. Their job is to inform everyone.

The timing is vital to the smooth running of a meeting, everyone counts of the Olivetti/Longines men from the drivers, to the organisers, the television people and the press.

They cannot afford to make mistakes. And since the team was adopted by FISA and FOCA in 1982, they haven't made any. There have been momentray glitches, which drop the readouts from real time (ie as it happens) to a slight time-delay, but checking is quickly done and the computers are able to catch up.

This produces what the team calls the 'film' of the race, a collection of shees of paper from which you could write an accurate report of the race without having been near the track!

And it is all done to 10,000th of a second accuracy.

There are three separate high-technology timing systems. Each F1 car carries onboard a small transmitter which gives a different identification signal as the cars cross the line. Beneath the tarmac is a signal reception line which, through a decoder, registers the car, its speed over the line and its lap time. This is fed to the control tower where it is cross checked with two other computers, one triggered by a photo-electric beam across the track at the finish line. There is also a video camera which records the cars passing at 100 frames per second, with timing data superimposed on the film.

All this information is cross-checked by the computers and then sent on, instantaneously, to the many timing monitors that can be found dotted around the track.

There are four different transmission channels from the control box. These supply times to the race administration, the pits (where drivers can read them), the race commentary box, the radio and television commentary boxes, the press rooms and any other monitors capable of picking up the signal.

The times are also superimposed onto a television screen, over pictures of the race, so that worldwide television viewers can be kept informed when the director choses to flash up the positions.

At the edn of the year the timing service issues a book of the year, which is a similar size to a telephone directory. Real time. Rio in 1988 tornado flood, separate battery systems Personnal change all the time

everything is checked by the operators to make sure the times are correct in reinforced steel crates anything up to 100 if them. Very few malfunctions

"I don't know, but it is a lot of cable,"

The computers also provide the video maps of the track with the moving colour blips to indicate the leading cars. This enables television viewers to see where the cars are on the track in relation to those chasing.

Being used to it, you tend to take the timing for granted, but the more you see of the intircacies, the more impressive it seems.

There are literally miles of cables yo be sorted out. "It takes us about a day, to a day and a half to set it all up," says Sartoris, "and the same to take it all down again. That can be a problem if there are two races on consecutive weekends."

Transporting the delicate equipment from place to place is also difficult. There is a lot of it (up to 100 different metal boxes) and occasionally, despite the car taken, things do get broken.

"The good thing about international companies like Olivetti is that we can always find replacements in the countries we visit."

But are there never any problems?

"There are problems sometimes with pieces of paper and things crossing the beams," says Satoris, "but everything is checked by the computers, so if we have a problem we can figure it out."

The full 'film' of a race weekend is a massive bundle of paperwork. There are the six timed practices (pre-qualifying, two unofficials, two officials and the warm-up) and, in each of these, the television monitors have four channels: the list of the 20 fastest runners (this is updated with the newest fastest lap being indicated by an asterisk); a second screen with the 20th-30th runners and the length of time the session has been running; the car-by-car readout, which indicates with an asterisk if a lap is the best time a driver has set and with two asterisks if it is the fastest time overall and lists the speed over the start/finish line and a fourth screen giving the speed at the intermediate timing point somewhere out the back of the track.

At the end of the sessions the list of fastest times is printed out (a hard copy) and is then photocopied and faxed countless times. This shows the fastest time and the lap on which it was achieved. This followed by readouts of the maximum speeds at both the timing points and a breakdown of the individual laps by each driver. By Saturday night at a Grand Prix you have a telephone book-sized wedge of papers. On race day the pile gets bigger with the grid, warm-up times, race standings every 10 laps, a lap chart, individual breakdowns of the drivers and championship standings.

In the rush of producing copy after the races very few journalists have the opportunity to study these. There is literally too much information available!

It all seems too easy, but the Olivetti/Longines men have untold troubles. The radio traffic at a GP circuit is formidable. There are car-to-pit radios, engine and chassis data-channels which feed vital technical information from the cars to the pits; high-energy engine management systems, in-car camera microwaves, hundreds of television and radio stations, organisers' walkie talkies, helicopters, and even local laundries. Little wonder there is sometimes interference on the pitlane monitors!

But what happens if the electricity supply crashes?

"Everything is battery-powered," says Sartoris, "so far we haven't ever run out of power."

And what about rain? "That can be a problem," he smiles. "One time in Rio there was a storm on the night of the race. We came in and found the computer room with water everywhere. We managed to get it cleaned up in time!"

It is a remarkable record, in nine years in F1, the system has never yet failed.

"We cannot afford to fail," says Sartoris. It does not bear thinking about what might happen if the system did fail -- as unlikely as that is.

The screamers in the press room would certainly be screaming...