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How F1’s Timing Tech Works (And Why It’s Important)

  • by: Conor McKeon
  • On: 15, Nov 2018
2 min read

F1 is the fastest motorsport on the planet. Formula One cars move faster than 200 mph, accelerating to 60mph in under 2 seconds, generating around 1000 horsepower.

With the cars moving so fast, and the sound of Formula One so overpowering, no human could be expected to keep track of everything. That’s why Formula One has one of the most sophisticated tracking systems in the world, working to have precise knowledge of where every car is during every second of the race.

How Formula One Is Timed

Transponders on F1 cars allow them to be tracked to within a ten thousandth of a second by transmitting radio waves. Formula One transponders are vital to keeping the race as accurate as possible, with the cars moving at such high speed, no other timing system is up to the task of tracking them.

Timing loops are set about a centimetre into the F1 track, built out of lengths of wire that run across the width of the track and back, and encased in silicone for protection. They’re spaced out every 150 to 200 metres along the track, and every time a car passes over it registers with the car’s transponder, transmitting a unique ID to a decoder that logs the time of day, giving an accurate picture of where the car is any point along the track and at what time.

Every Formula One transponder transmits on a different frequency so there’s no interference. All this information is fed back to the broadcast centre, where the technical teams can review it.

Formula One Race Testing

Every morning before a Formula One race, a test F1 car is sent around the track to calibrate all the systems and ensure everything is working correctly. Multiple back ups ensure that even if loops are damaged there will still be enough data to say who won the race and by how much.

There is of course a loop on the finish line, with a second decoder system as a failsafe and a light beam that stretches across the track. When an F1 car drives past and breaks the beam, the time is recorded. It’s powered by a separate source, so even if the entire system lost power, the beam would still be operational. The final F1 failsafe is a camera at the finish line, so even the beam was broken somehow, the camera would be able to visually confirm the winner.

Cameras aren’t just at the finish line: every car must be fitted with at least five cameras: at the wing mirrors, the sides of the nose of the car, the side engine cover and the top of the air box. This allows for the constant transmission of video feeds to accurately gauge where the Formula One cars are in relation to one another.

All these systems are designed to provide the highest level of accuracy, meaning there can be no doubt or disputes about who has won a Formula One race, or by how much. In a sport where timing is everything, nothing can be left to uncertainty.

Read about the best moments in Formula One this season, or find out what it’s like to work as a Formula One engineer.

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