Drive to go live: how an F1 race goes from the track to your screen

F1
Image: Jacob Niblett, Shutterstock Studios

Technology powers so much of modern sports, with no better example than Formula 1 racing. From the high-octane vehicles to the complex broadcast setup, just as much happens off the track as it does on the tarmac come race weekend.

Lenovo, an Official Technology Partner of F1, recently invited local tech media for an exclusive behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Australian Grand Prix. As a huge F1 fan, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see firsthand the technology that drives (pun fully intended) the competition.

With the F1’s dramatic rise in popularity over the past few years, it’s no wonder they are leading the way in tech and broadcasting innovation. So much on-track action and excitement happens over the multi-day event, making it easy to forget that a huge amount of preparation, technology and skills are needed to keep everything running smoothly.

F1 mission control in Australia

In the modern age, everything that happens on track around race weekend relies heavily on data. This means the F1 has to be sure that the tech they use to manage and transfer this data is bulletproof.

At the beating heart of this is the Track-side Event Technical Centre (ETC) which is where the F1 broadcast is crafted. It’s the largest, most complex transportable facility of its type in the world, measuring 25m by 15m and housing 750 pieces of equipment running over 40 bespoke software systems. As it takes three days to assemble and far longer to ship, there are two setups that alternate race weekends. While one is being set up or used, the other is on its way to the location of the next Grand Prix.

Inside the ETC, the setup can only be described as that of a space mission. Separate stations are assigned for key personnel to manage their individual task. Each position is strategically aligned within a team and everything has a failsafe.

Beyond everything else, the director’s station fascinated me the most. How this team can pull together what we all see on Fox Sports or Kayo in such a short amount of time is nothing short of miraculous. Accompanied by the Assistant Director, the Director has a towering cluster of screens in front of him. Each screen displays a feed of live or replay footage to consider as he constructs his narrative of the race in real-time. A marvel to behold.

I was blown away by the sheer volume of cameras, sensors and microphones used, all tracked and managed from within the ETC. To dive a little deeper into just the cameras: there are up to 9 on each car, 25 cameras around the track, a bunch of pit lane and pit wall cameras plus a few additional unmanned cameras mounted on bridges and in kerbs. Some specialty cameras like the heli-cam and cable camera are also used for more dynamic footage.

Although there has been some testing and experimentation with drones recently, there remains an issue with reliability and legality when flying over packed crowds like the record-breaking attendance we had in Melbourne.

Interestingly, not all of the broadcast work is done at the venue. At every Grand Prix, the ETC is working in conjunction with the headquarters back in the UK. This brand-new state-of-the-art Media & Technology Centre (M&TC) is located in Biggin Hill, England and handles things like colour correction of all broadcast cameras. The ETC and the M&CT transfer around 500 terabytes of data per event weekend which is no mean feat.

AI-powered broadcast

AI also plays a role in the tech-filled hybrid era of Formula 1 race broadcasting. When broadcasters need a super slow-motion shot but the camera that picks up the footage isn’t equipped with that capability, they use AI to generate 3-times slower replays from that standard speed camera.

This is all managed at a dedicated slow-motion footage bay with an expert at the controls. Details like this help F1 stand apart from all other sporting events around the world and deliver coverage that we as viewers love to see.

Much of the technological prowess behind the F1 comes from Lenovo, with its sponsorship clearly more than just a branding exercise. Throughout the behind-the-scenes tour, countless Lenovo monitors, storage drives, and computers took pole position on most workstations.

Next time I tune into an F1 broadcast, I’ll certainly be looking at more than just the drivers.

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