Understanding F1 radio

The world of Formula 1 television is a closed one. Operations are housed inside a steel framed grey tent, known as the Formula One Broadcast Centre, where around 200 people work during a Grand Prix weekend. These people are a mix of engineers, technicians, production staff, riggers and administrative staff. It takes a couple of days to knit together all the equipment inside the facility, but it can all be ripped out in about three hours and different modules are then loaded on to trucks and sent on their way to the next event, whether that be by road or as air freight. There is about 130 tons of equipment, mainly broadcasting machinery and servers.

But this is no longer the only TV crew in action. Thanks to the high speed data networks of Tata Communications, since 2014 there has been a Remote Operations Centre, located in the Formula One group’s technical centre at Biggin Hill, an aerodrome to the south of London. This receives high-speed video data feeds from the circuits by way of Tata’s fibre optic networks, which mean that some of the work previously done at circuits is now being done in the permanent facility. This means that money can been saved in transporting people and equipment to each race. Among the services that have been migrated to Biggin Hill are team radio operations, daily news edits and control of the robotic pitlane camera. In the fullness of time, more of the operations can be migrated, meaning that the Broadcast Centre will become more of a data centre, with fewer staff required. In theory there is no reason why the World Feed could not be produced from Biggin  Hill and the only equipment required at the circuit would be cameras (perhaps even robotically-operated) and servers to move the data about.

Formula One today produces all the TV coverage of the sport and while this might seem to be efficient, there have sometimes been questions about whether or not that coverage has been fair, with claims that certain teams have not always been given the coverage they deserve. This is always denied, but there are no checks and balances in this system. However, it is probably a better solution than having inconsistent coverage as used to be the case, with local directors following local drivers and other such activities. Perhaps it would be better if the broadcast editing was managed by an independent sub-contractor, but for the moment this is what we have. The radio excerpts that fans can hear are similarly picked by the TV people. We do not hear all of the messages. The goal is to add drama to the broadcast, but as one does not hear all the conversations, one needs to be careful not to take things out of context.

Independent of this, the FIA does monitor and record all radio messages. There are seven or eight people, each listening to three drivers and they report anything of note to the Race Director. Drivers and teams know this and so they tend to slant their comments accordingly. You will hear drivers gripe and say things like “Please check with Charlie”, which is in fact a message to Race Control. Race Control cannot talk to the drivers directly. Other teams do not have access to the radio traffic although they will monitor the broadcasts to see if any useful information can be gleaned from the messages broadcast. This explains why you will sometimes hear an engineer inform his drivers that another driver is having trouble, that information having been picked up from the TV. In truth, however, drivers do not chatter on a great deal during a race, so monitoring what is said is not that difficult. One can watch TV and type out what is said on air, but there are no official transcripts and if comments are not broadcast they remain unheard, unless there is a later investigation which might be transcribed for an FIA hearing. The use of coded messages is still possible but it does become fairly obvious unless it is very subtle indeed. The key point, however, is that the radio messages are not meant for the public, they are meant for the team and thus editing them can create impressions that may not be correct. As an example, if a driver is told to drive faster by his team this can create the impression that he is not racing fast enough and that can create the impression that he cannot go faster, which may not be the case at all. Having said that, allowing fans to listen in to the radio does add to the story and is more engaging. Interacting with the drivers is being experimented with at the moment, with the first rater clumsy exchanges in recent months, notably in Mexico with Juan Pablo Montoya. This does notreally add to the show as not all the drivers are very demonstrative.