Feature: How comms has changed F1
Feature: How comms has changed F1
Riedel’s consistent drive towards remote production solutions has been a godsend for the 2020 season with limited travel
Arguably, no company has been more instrumental in the world of high-profile sporting events than German intercom manufacturer Riedel Communications, at least from an audiovisual perspective. The company is the brand of choice for many of the world’s most important events, ranging from the Olympics to Formula One, the Red Bull Air Races and even the German Bundesliga.
But its work in Formula One has been a reoccurring fixture for more than 28 years. For a few avid Pro AVL MEA readers, it’s quite literally a lifetime and, for the majority of that period, the manufacturer’s team of engineers supporting communications during Grand Prix races has been steered by the head of Riedel’s Motorsports division, Dario Rossi. Having himself worked in motorsport for more than 30 years and for Riedel for eight years, Rossi has witnessed a lot of change throughout that time.
What did the first F1 communications solutions comprise and what capabilities did it offer?
Riedel first started working with Formula One 28 years ago, but at that time all we provided was a basic intercom around the pit wall. Radio in those days was mainly analogue. There was a lot of noise, distortion and interference that meant the teams would struggle to hear each other and, furthermore, the radios were only half-duplex. That meant that you actually had to push a button to talk, the famous PTT – not something a driver would want to be operating while concentrating on the race – and each party would have to say “over” at the end of each message.
When we started to build intercoms for F1, while it was quite a simple system compared to today, everything was already full-duplex. This meant you could have two people connect just like a regular telephone call, but more importantly the quality of our system was much better because of the codecs that we had developed. The best radios that we have today in 2020 are 48kB, and yet our intercom solutions are 1MB. This is a huge difference and is one of the main reasons why so many teams are using our Bolero wireless intercom products. It is full-duplex with six channels, so you can talk and listen to different people and the quality is crystal clear.
How have these solutions evolved into what you deploy today?
In recent years, the need for advanced technological solutions has been driven by the desire to limit the increasing amount of people located trackside. In recent seasons, we’ve been limited to only around 60 people across all teams, and so the majority of each team’s engineers are now located offsite back at their factories.
The communications we do now is mainly to connect these offsite people with the guys at the track. In order to do this, we have a subsidiary in Frankfurt called Riedel Networks providing MPLS, a high-performance telecoms switching network, which is basically a really fast internet backbone. For the very away races, such as Australia, we’re able to provide a 260ms round trip, an up and down link which is literally real time. This is what makes everything that we do with F1 possible. It means that everyone, no matter where they are, can listen to the driver in real time during the session and that there is intrinsic communication between different locations.
It’s common that perhaps the engine was manufactured in England and the wing somewhere in Germany, yet we can make sure that everyone gets the same first-hand communications. More importantly, when engineers are part of the communications in real time, they feel like they are at the race and are fully involved. It’s beginning to become quite normal to have a greater number of people working off- rather than onsite.
What has been the biggest driver of change in recent years?
It’s natural really, but F1 is always looking to improve on absolutely everything by making things quicker and more efficient. Even if it’s just buying tennis shoe for one of their mechanics, they have to be lighter and better than the previous ones. Speed, light weight and performance – it’s in their DNA and this of course extends to our system as well.
The race itself has become very complicated for teams because they don’t test the cars nearly as much as they used to. Because of this, the fact that we are able to send the communications and telemetry to the teams offsite in real time, allows them to approach testing completely differently. They can run the data in simulations at the factory, tweak the models and then feed that information back to the engineers trackside to make adjustments to the car. This all has to be performed very quickly and is why it’s critical that the exchange of data provided via our systems is continually improving.
How do you create a communications system that remains simple and reliable alongside the introduction of new technology and features?
We are quite lucky in this respect, as most of our services are built around our own products. We’re out on the road for the majority of the year facing a variety of challenges, such as humidity, temperature and power supply issues. We work closely with our R&D department to ensure those lessons get incorporated back into our everyday products. But actually, it is through advancements in technology that we are able to make these systems better while still staying simple. For example, the innovation that we introduced in our new Artist ecosystem to improve its IP capabilities includes a host of low-level enhancements for auto configuration and discovery that is intended to make a lot of very complicated tasks very easy. We do also stress everything from time to time to make sure it can withstand some punishment. But I think the most important to be aware of is that there is a level of intelligence being incorporated into new technology that is intended to make all of our jobs even simpler.
Conversely, sometimes it is the simplest features that provide the most value. Our Bolero handsets have a function to repeat the last message. If something wasn’t heard or understood correctly, rather than asking the driver to keep repeating themselves, the receiver can push a button to keep playing back that same message. A very simple feature but something that is invaluable for the F1 teams.
How has the pandemic affected your operations during the 2020 season?
It hasn’t really any impact on us at Riedel. We have the same 18 people on track as we did last year and this is because we’ve engineered the communications to the point where it doesn’t matter if people are present in-person or not. With the drive to remove people from the track, we’ve essentially been under similar restrictions as the pandemic but for many years.
However, we have accelerated some of the processes recently. For example, this has allowed one of our partners, RTL, which produces the German broadcast feed, to substantially lower their numbers trackside by doing fully remote production. All of the show production is handed back in Germany and only the necessary people like presenters and cameramen are at the track. It’s has taken them from more than 60 people onsite down to just five.
Describe the setup you provided for the recent Turkey and Bahrain GPs?
Our setup remains virtually identical for each and every race of the season and sees us deploying more than 5,000 pieces of Riedel equipment overall to facilitate what I’ve been describing above. This includes approximately 50 MediorNet frames, 400 Artist frames, 1,200 control panels (including SmartPanel series), 2,000 radios, 1,500 headset and more than 250 Bolero beltpacks, as well as over 100 cameras, including on-board and CCTV cameras.