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F1 Tales: All in the Timing

By Mav | 9 Aug 2012 | 6 Comments | 5,399 views

At the heart of Formula One is time. A world were a thousandth of a second equates to around seven centimetres at the end of an entire flat-out qualifying lap and, potentially, the difference between pole and second on the grid. Time keeping in Formula One has come a long way from the humble stopwatch in an interesting history all of it own: A story of heroines and villains, technological advances and problems, and a few seemingly improbable twists…
Red Bull Racing/Mark Thompson/Getty Images
At the first Grand Prix of the new Formula One World Championships at Silverstone, timing was still done to the nearest tenth of a second – an accuracy that was regularly insufficient to separate pairs of drivers as may be expected. That soon progressed to the nearest hundredth. Yet even that occasionally wasn’t enough to divide drivers, most notably at the 1954 British Grand Prix where no less than seven drivers shared the fastest lap and the point awarded for it in that era. Indeed, Jean Behra finished the season with just that one seventh of a point to his name.

Inside the teams, meanwhile, timing was often left in the hands of the drivers’ wives and girlfriends (Nicole Scherzinger and Jessica Michibata, take note.) However, the first ever professional time keeper in Grand Prix Racing was Michéle Dubosc.

Hired by Matra in 1965, Dubosc worked initially with the F2 team, then later with the F1 and sports car teams, famously timing and lap-charting the entire Le Mans 24 Hours without pause on several occasions. Her career highpoint, however came with Ligier at the 1978 United States Grand Prix West at Long Beach were organisers had appointed no less than 20 local timekeepers. The result was confusion as none of them could agree on the same result. So respected was Dubosc that the organisers turned to her for the ‘official’ timings, and thus a grid was declared.

And it was well that the teams took pains to time their cars. Not only was the information useful in itself but there were occasions when the official timing was wrong, often simply due to a calculation error, and the grid was subsequently adjusted. Dubosc was involved in one example of this at the 1971 Italian Grand Prix, where it was announced that Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari was fastest much to the delight of the local press. According to Dubosc’s timing, however, Matra’s Chris Amon had gone 0.42 seconds quicker and such was her reputation that the organisers could not ignore Matra’s claim. It’s hard to imagine today but when the times were rechecked, Amon was indeed quickest – his pole time exactly as Dubosc had recorded.

In the 1960’s, Tag Heuer developed a keyboard system which involved a timekeeper pressing a key every time a car passed the line. The time was recorded and printed on a printer. Meanwhile, a second timekeeper kept track of the order of the cars passing the line. By putting the two together, the lap times of each driver could be calculated. It was the first serious move to improve timing multiple cars at once but it still relied on judgement as to when the car passed the line.

“The organisers were timing the cars with a light beam and when one saw this, it occurred to one that if one could station one’s pits by the start line it opened up all kinds of possibilities for lateral thought…”

Robin Herd, co-founder of March Engineering

That changed with the use of light beams across the track. Not prone to the variation in the timekeepers angle of view, when a car crossed the beam the time was recorded. It’s a system that’s still employed in many series today but it isn’t perfect – legend has it that Vittorio Brambilla secured pole position for the 1975 Swedish Grand Prix because March’s Robin Herd realised that the team’s pit area was level with the timing beam. As Vittorio powered past the pits to set a time, the story goes that Herd swung a pitboard over the wall, “co-incidentally” breaking the beam shortly before his driver arrived…

Nowadays, we’re used to timing down to the thousandth of a second although actually it even goes beyond that, down to one ten-thousandth. Still, there are occasions when even that isn’t enough to split drivers, indeed it’s happened twice this season alone*. The most memorable example, though, came at the 1997 European Grand Prix. The season finale had come down to a title battle between Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher and neither looked like giving an inch when minutes after Villeneuve set the fastest lap of qualifying, Schumacher remarkably matched it. To the one thousandth of a second. When shortly afterwards Heinz-Harald Frentzen also posted the exact same mark, the time of 1 minute 21.072 seconds became the stuff of legend. The back-up system failed to separate them and so, as per the rules, they lined-up in the order that the times were set.

The back-up systems are important. For starters, each car carries a second transponder – the key component of the modern timing system. The transponder interacts with timing loops set into the track and with each car having a unique code, the instantaneous timing information we’re used to is generated. Meanwhile at the start-finish line there is also an infra-red photo-cell to identify and record each car and it’s this which the control-centre turns to in the event that the transponder system fails. The final resort is a timer-linked video camera which does nothing but record cars passing the start-finish line.

“My team said ‘we don’t know what position you are because our system is completely off, we cannot see any timed laps.’ So I jumped out of the car and they didn’t know if I was ninth, seventh, third…”

Fernando Alonso

And failures do occur. In the closing minutes of qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, all the timing disappeared due to a damaged cable in the finish line sensor. The organisers turned to the back-up system and, once verified, Fernando Alonso was declared the somewhat surprising pole-sitter. Then there was the previous year’s German Grand Prix, during which Heikki Kovalainen suddenly appeared to be dropping down the order. Was there a problem with his car? Sort of – it was actually a transponder failure and the Finn was still running fine. Once again, they turned to the back-up systems but it was haphazard, with the McLaren driver’s track position seemingly changing lap-by-lap.

Of course, timing now covers much more than absolute lap time. We have access to sector times and pit lane times while systems watch to make sure that drivers do not jump the start or speed in the pit lane. Last year, the intervals between drivers took on a whole new significance with the introduction of the Drag Reduction System and the all important one second gap.

Yes, in a sport obsessed with finding yet one more tenth of a second, timing is everything and the timekeeper is king.

Related Links:
F1 Tales: I Hope Nobody Saw That

Image credit: Red Bull Racing/Mark Thompson/Getty Images
*Mark Webber/Kimi Raikkonen in Malaysia and Nico Rosberg/Sergio Perez in Hungary

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