What Does It Take to Broadcast a Formula 1 Race? Drones, Cameras and a Helicopter.
Formula 1 teams are renowned for innovation, pushing the boundaries of technology in the bid to make their cars go faster.
The same mentality exists off-track too. Capturing one of the fastest sports in the world on camera is not easy, yet the series is continuing to find new ways to advance its broadcast technology.
“I’m fiercely proud of what we do and how we deliver it in F1,” Dean Locke, director of broadcast and media, said in an interview. “Week on week, we’ve got a new element.”
The series installs 23 to 28 trackside cameras at each race, another 10 in the pit lane, and has a camera in a helicopter to capture aerial shots. These are complemented by small cameras on every car, facing forward, backward and looking at the face of the driver in the cockpit. The footage is broadcast live from each car along with information, such as speed and G-force, gathered from about 300 sensors.
But Formula 1 has been eager to bring fans even closer to the drivers during its broadcasts. The success of the Netflix series “Drive to Survive” has proved the popularity of the human side of the sport. The challenge for Formula 1 has been to maintain the personal drama once the race begins.
One of Formula 1’s biggest broadcast advances this year has been helmet cameras. Following trials last year, a 10 mm-by-10 mm, or less than a half inch, camera has been installed in most drivers’ helmets in line with their eyes, giving fans the chance to also look through the visor from the driver’s position.
That means producers can switch to the driver’s view in real time. At the opening race of the season in Bahrain, the helmet camera of Charles Leclerc of Ferrari was activated during his fight for the lead with Max Verstappen of Red Bull. Fans got to see Leclerc’s actions in the cockpit, shifting gears and making steering wheel adjustments while looking in his mirrors when he made the race-winning pass of Verstappen.
“It’s showing what the driver has to do while going 200 m.p.h., they think about strategy, talk on the radio, remember to drink and also [operate] all the systems on the steering wheel,” Locke said. “When they’ve got one hand on the steering wheel when they’re doing other things, it is quite incredible.”
The basic premise of the helmet camera was to convey the viewpoint of the drivers, but Kevin Magnussen of Haas said his position in the car was even lower than what is broadcast. “On that camera, you can see the arch of the car nose, and we can’t see that,” he said. “You basically almost can’t see the tarmac in front of you, you can only see from the sides.”
Magnussen still thought it was “a cool view” for fans and the closest view to being in the car, but admitted it’s hard for drivers to rewatch and assess their driving.
It is also difficult for Zhou Guanyu of Alfa Romeo.
“It’s a nightmare for me to analyze my driving line compared to others,” he said. “But it’s very cool footage for the teams, especially for the fans to see. It’s more for the audience. For the team, they can see what you are changing on the switches as well, which makes it less private.”
When a similar camera angle was used in Formula E, the electric racing series, teams asked for their steering wheel screens to be blurred to avoid giving away secrets. But Formula 1 was more open and doesn’t blur, so the constant changes being made by drivers via the steering wheel, for things such as brake bias or engine settings, are shown to fans.
Another way Formula 1 has taken fans inside the cockpit is by fitting a camera behind the foot pedals. The viewpoint last appeared in 2000, but was revived earlier this year when cameras were fitted inside the footwells of the cars for Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo of McLaren to show the footwork on the accelerator and brake. The team helped racing officials find a way to mount the camera and install a small light in the sealed-off footwell without adding noticeable weight to the car.
“My feet look amazing!” Norris said, joking. “What you can see well now is the displacement of the pedals because they are at a slight angle. You can see how much you push them and so on.”
Formula 1 has also experimented with drones that used cameras in a live broadcast for the first time in Spain, in what Locke called a “testing on air” approach. It allowed fans to get a closer aerial view from a number of corners, compared with the traditional helicopter shot.
Locke conceded that the drones did not get the shots “that we want” and, it was unlikely the drones would replace the helicopter for aerial footage.
“But maybe it will in the future,” he said. “It is good for our sustainability, even though we’re doing a lot of things with our helicopter use.”
Formula 1 makes its camera footage available for “Drive to Survive,” but has also taken feedback from the show’s producers to improve its own broadcasts.
“It was really interesting when they first came along, just looking at it through a different lens,” Locke said. “There are some elements that we looked at and went, ‘That’s a really nice way to tell that story, can we do that in a live capacity rather than months later?’”
But the biggest lesson from the success of the Netflix show has been the need to get closer to the drivers, who Locke called the “heroes of our sport.”
“We look at anything we can do to get behind the car, open up the car and humanize it,” he said. “We get this amazing thing through team radio, hearing our drivers at stress, and we get to interview them while they’re hot and sweaty getting out of the car.
“We’re very lucky with our access. But trying to get access when they’re in the car is the big goal.”