How Do F1 Onboard Cameras Work?

How Do F1 Onboard Cameras Work?
How Do F1 Onboard Cameras Work?

Just how do F1 onboard cameras work? One of the best moves Formula 1 racing has made in recent history was the introduction of the onboard camera to the race car cockpit, allowing television viewers to get right on top of the action. It gives the viewer a bird’s eye view of the drama taking place inside the cockpit by letting them see what the driver is up to.

There are a lot of trackside cameras along the route that do a fantastic job bringing the excitement of the race to the viewer in the stands and those watching at home. The viewer can see every car on the track as well as their position and what the weather is like. But trackside cameras tend to make the slopes look less severe than they are while distorting speed, not doing justice to what the speed and conditions on the track are really like.

How Do F1 Onboard Cameras Work?

Onboard cameras, on the other hand, provide fans with the same look and feel that the driver experiences as he flies around the track, but from many more vantage points than the driver.

These small cameras can be placed almost anywhere and at any level – above the driver, facing backward, forwards, and even swivel to provide the viewer with a panoramic view of the proceedings.

The viewer can almost feel the bumps on the track whenever the driver encounters a rough patch of the roadway, and just how close the driver comes to the barriers on a street circuit, like what you have with Monaco or Singapore, and how terrifying the entry to some of the blind corners can be for the driver.

Before the advent of the automatic gearbox, cameras mounted directly over the driver’s right shoulder allowed the viewer to see every time the driver shifted gears as he motored around the track.

The broadcast director would try to show as many onboard camera angles as possible during a Grand Prix broadcast so the audience can see exactly what the driver is experiencing, how hard he’s working at keeping the vehicle under control, when he changes any of the controls on the steering wheel and, the battle of wits he is going through as he tries to outsmart and pass his competitors.

Earlier Versions Of The Onboard Camera In F1

Onboard cameras have been around for a long time. They made their debut way back in 1956 when Mike Halliward’s team outfitted his Jaguar D-type car with an onboard camera at Le Mans to record his laps of the circuit while communicating with him via a microphone pinned to his lapel.

In 1957, onboard cameras made their debut on the Formula 1 circuit when the camera captured Juan Manuel Fangio as he powered around the Modena Autodrome. The onboard camera was placed high above his Maserati 250F. Not to be outdone, Stirling Moss treated viewers for a tour around the Nurburgring Nordschleife in a 1961 race, providing his fans with a smorgasbord of its seemingly endless twists and turns.

In 1966, full-size cameras were used in the filming of John Frankenheimer’s widely popular film, Grand Prix. Ten years later, Jakie Stewart organized and outfitted race cars still in competition with onboard cameras to record their circuits long after his racing career was over. However, these were huge cameras that had to be mounted on tripods on the back of the vehicle. In contrast, today’s advanced cameras are so small they can be fitted into slim, aerodynamic sheaths around the vehicle.

The onboard camera revolution began outside of Formula 1 racing, however, having been promoted by Australia’s Channel 7, specifically with their decision to cover the Bathurst 100 touring car circuit. Their cameras were pointed directly at the driver’s faces as they sped through the many twists and turns of the mountainous course, giving viewers a firsthand look into the effort the drivers had to put into controlling the vehicle. A point that was vividly bright home when one of the drivers had to tell a visiting dignitary that he was too busy to talk to him at the moment.

When Were Onboard Cameras First Used In Formula 1

Live onboard cameras first appeared in a race car at a Grand Prix race in 1985 when Francois Hesnault’s team outfitted his Renault with an onboard camera for the German Grand Prix. Before that, all onboard footage had to be recorded and edited into snippets to be broadcast later on.

Today, things have changed dramatically. As the technology evolved, onboard cameras were made mandatory in 1998 and their use has become an integral part of live racing coverage. Video footage is beamed via micro to the Formula One Management (FOM) center where it is then disseminated.

Not surprisingly, onboard cameras in Formula 1 race cars have become smaller and more powerful to reduce weight. Today’s onboard cameras weigh about 1.8 kg and the video produced by them is far sharper than that of the output from 1980s era cameras. This is due in part because of the advanced stabilization and anti-vibration mounting mechanisms.

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F1 Onboard Camera Positioning

Early on, onboard camera signals had to be beamed up to a helicopter and then relayed to the broadcast center. Then, FOM came up with the idea of placing land-based receivers around the venue to relay the signals. There are typically eight such sites dotted around each Grand Prix circuit. This advancement in technology allowed for the transmission of video from inside tunnels like those in Monaco, something that wasn’t possible with helicopters.

The onboard cameras’ housing has to be aerodynamically shaped. Typically, there are five such housings situated at strategic points around the vehicle. One such point has been made mandatory – the one behind the driver’s head on top of the airbox – by Formula 1 racing. This camera has since evolved into one that can face backward and forward. In conjunction with FOM, race tracks have designated the other four camera positions to be: on either side of the front of the car; in front of the front axle; on either side of the engine covering; and on top of the hood, just ahead of the windshield.

Any cameras located on the rear of the vehicle must be attached to the forward end of teardrop-shaped, aerodynamic housing. This is done because the tapered shape of the rear end is not conducive to accommodate the camera housing.

So, the next time you watch a Formula 1 race car picking its way through a crowded field of competitors, or speeding down a straightaway, or engaged in heavy braking manoeuvre in a hairpin turn, all from ground-level, know that it was all made possible by the ingenuity of the onboard camera.


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