Behind the Grand Prix Scene

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Longines Timing

IT may have been noticed in recent Grand Prix reports that the words Longines Timing have appeared at the top of the practice-times tables, and occasionally last year it said Tissot Timing. At one time the method of timing the cars during practice and the race was left to the local club, and how accurate it all was depended on what system they used. Over the past few years both Longines and Tissot have been working on time-keeping systems that could be taken from race to race and finally the Longines system has been accepted. In this the car itself operates the time-keeping mechanism and a computer analyses the results which are then fed to a print-out or closed-circuit television screen. It would certainly seem to be a foolproof system with which no-one argues, even though its accuracy is not finite enough to justify quoting to a thousandth of a second. With no-one disputing their technology the Longines people give times to three places of decimals and everyone seems happy to accept the results without question.

Each of the cars in Formula One is fitted with a small box, not much bigger than a packet of cigarettes, and in this is an electronic system powered by a small battery that sends out a radio signal. A wire from this box forms the antenna and this wire is taped under a front suspension member to get it as near to the ground as possible. At the start / finish line a metal strip loop is laid across the track which picks up the signal from the “sender” as the car passes over it and this signal is fed into the timing apparatus and the result goes into the computer. Each car number is on a different wavelength and at the moment the system can deal with 40 different wavelengths. The computer is programmed with the car number identity against its wavelength so that as each car crosses the timing wire it automatically records its passage and the timing element extracts the lap time from the signals it receives. The computer holds each lap time for each car number and offers to the time auditors each car’s best time. If a car improves its lap time the computer will announce it, if not it merely records it and stores it. As a back-up system there is a light beam across the track above the timing wire and car numbers are identified individually by a visual observer. The radio signal system and the computer are programmed with the nominal lap time for each circuit they are used on, with a plus and minus leeway. If a car appears to have taken far too short a time or far too long, a signal is given for a cross-check to be made on the beam-timing system and the visual observation.

As the computer analyses the lap times and feeds them to the time-auditor he then transmits them by keyboard to a read-out that can either be printed on paper or displayed on a screen. A number of television sets are installed at key points in the pit lane, such as in the commentators’ box, the administration offices and in the pits themselves for most of the teams. The information supplied by time-auditors displays the order from fastest at the top to slowest at the bottom, giving car number, driver’s name, the best lap time and the average speed. The usual thing is to utilise two TV channels, one for the first half of the field and one for the second half, so which channel they are switched on to depends on whether Frank Williams wants to read it or Enzo Osella. This is vital information for the teams during qualifying, for it is the official word that they can check against their own hand-timing apparatus. It is also incredibly useful to everyone else in the pit plane. At the moment the commentator has to transmit the information to the spectator, via the loudspeaker system, but one day it might be possible to provide the spectator enclosures with large TV screens on which they can see this information.

The system is programmed to supply each practice session, information separately and also to combine the two qualifying sessions and come up with the best overall time of each car and thus give the positions on the starting grid. During the race it records every lap of every car that passes and whenever it is needed the time-auditor can display the race order. He usually does this every five or ten laps. At the end of the race the results are printed out giving total race time, number of laps, average speed, each driver’s best race lap and the lap on which he did it.

The installation and maintenance of the equipment is the responsibility of the Longines engineers and before the race, during the interval between the Sunday morning warm-up and the start they check the functioning of each “sender” and fit it with a new battery, for though the batteries last eight hours or more they take no chances. The little electrical box is attached to each car in a position that suits each team, preferably as far away from interference from the engine, though its position is not critical. For instance the Talbot and the Renault have it fixed to the left-side of the monocoque by the cockpit, Ferrari have it mounted on top of the fuel cell behind the driver’s head, Williams have it in the right-hand side-pod and McLaren and ATS have it in the nose of the car. From wherever it is mounted the antenna wire is run to a lower front wishbone, as low as possible.

All the equipment to operate this timing system weighs about one and a half tons and is carried to meetings in Europe by a van. If it is possible to station the van near the time-keeping building the computer and TV controls and so on can be operated from the van, if not it all has to be unloaded. Whatever happens, the Longines people reckon to arrive at a circuit on the Monday before practice begins to give themselves time to set everything up, and when the race is over it all has to be dismantled and packed up, though naturally the installations on the cars themselves are left.

Everyone in Formula One accepts this time-keeping system and at the moment it is limited to Formula One, due to, the limited number of frequences available, but there are electrical and radio engineers not connected with Formula One, who question the use of three places of decimals, or thousanths of a second, due to the radio signal having a span of about half a metre across the timing strip and this limit of accuracy on a car travelling at 140 m.p.h. for example, is not good enough to quote to thousandths of a second. Nobody questions the accuracy to hundredths of a second, so when three places of decimals are quoted, as they always are by Longines, the third place should really be ignored, at least until the radio signal can be contained in a smaller span.

It is very seldom that a grid position is affected by the third place of decimals on a lap time, though there was an example at Monaco on the first day of practice when de Cesaris recorded his best of 1 min. 24.928 sec. and Patrese recorded 1 min. 24.929 secs. To be correct from a scientific time-measurement point of view you could only allow 1 min. 24.92 sec. for each driver and you would have to give the advantage to the one who did it first. As none of the F1 teams questions the time-keeping they accept, in such a case, that de Cesaris should be ahead of Patrese, whereas scientifically-speaking it might be the other way round.

One good thing about Longines taking over the time-keeping is that in all World Championship events the cars are timed to the same system and there is total uniforrnity over the layout of the printed results. As an example the first three places in the Monaco GP were printed out as follows:

POS. – N – DRIVER – NAT. – CAR – TOTAL TIME – K.M./H – INT – B. TIME – LAP
1 – 2 – R. PATRESE – ITA – Brabham BT49D – 1:54’ 11.259 – 132.3 – – 1,26.354 – 69
2 – 28 – D. PIRONI – FRA – Ferrari 126/C2 – 1:51’ 16.563 – 133.9 – 1 Lap – 1’26.664 – 67
3 – 22 – A. DE CESARIS – ITA – Marlboro A.R. 182 – 1:51’43.939 – 133.4 – 1 Lap – 1’27.138 – 12

The rest of the competitors follow in the order they finished, or retired as the case may be. The columns are (left to right) Race Position, Race Number, Driver’s Name, Nationality, Car, Race Time, Average Speed Kph, Interval From Previous Finisher, Best Lap Time in Race and which Lap it was on. Thus, for example, Pironi whose race number is 28 finished 2nd in a Ferrari 126/C2 and covered one lap less than the winner in a time of 1 hr. 51 min. 16.563 sec. which gave him an average speed of 133.9 k.p.h. for 75 laps (against Patrese’s average of 132.3 k.p.h. for 76 laps) and his best lap was done on lap 67 in 1 min. 26.664 sec.

If a car retires on the first lap of a race it will not figure on the result sheet, for until its radio beam has activated the timer at the end of the first lap it will not feature on the computer. However, once on the computer the number of times it crosses the timing strip are counted and if at the end of the race a car is recorded as being 21 laps behind you can rest assured that is correct. In the days of hand-timing and visual lap charting by observers there were often disputes between team time-keepers and the official time-keepers and invariably the team’s were right, for they never muddled their car with another, whereas there were many occasions when official time-keepers confused car 16 with car 18, for example when they were identical colours.

As far as the Formula One teams are concerned the Longines timing system is totally acceptable and virtually foolproof and beyond question, so it is nice to be able to record one point on which there is total agreement. D.S.J.