On Timekeeping

During practice for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone there was a bit of a needle match going on for the front row of the starting grid, and of the half-dozen or so contestants only three were going to get on the front row. Consequently every fraction of a second gained was vital to the drivers concerned and when the timekeepers issued lap times only to the nearest tenth of a second, I commented on the RAC timekeeping being “primitive”, which my dictionary interprets as “ancient”. After practice the grid positions were given as Peterson on pole position with 1 min. 16.3 sec., Hulme second and Revson third, the two McLaren drivers being given the equal time of 1 min. 16.5 sec. In the second row were Stewart and Fittipaldi E., with the equal time of 1 min. 16.7 sec. Had the lap times been given to two places of decimals, or hundredths of a second the grid rows would have been unchanged, but Hulme might have been on the left instead of in the middle, and the reverse might have applied to Revson. In the second row Stewart and Fittipaldi might have reversed positions, but none of the first five would have suffered. Since the new CSI/GPDA rule that all grids will be 2 x 2, thus outlawing the Silverstone layout, it puts a different complexion on things. Timing to hundredths of a second would have relegated Hulme or Revson to the second row and Stewart or Fittipaldi to the third row. This insistence on rows of two cars only (for safety reasons) puts a much higher premium on accurate lap times in practice.

My accusations of “primitive” evoked a friendly but firm letter from George Hall, one of the timekeepers concerned, and later there was an opportunity to have a long discussion with Mr. Hall about timekeeping. He has perfectly adequate equipment to time laps to thousandths of a second, but points out that you can only be justified in doing that if there is only one car on the track. If two cars are in close company, as they often are, even in practice and you are using beam-timing, with a photo-electric cell across the timing line, then you are liable to get the cars “overlapping” one another so that the electric eye sends only one impulse into the clocks for the passage of two cars. Also the length of impulse for a two-car train is equivalent to more than a hundredth of a second, or the second place of decimals. Now some timekeepers are “butchers, bakers, or candlestick makers” and are not adverse to fudging the odd occasion of an “overlap” beam-impulse, but George Hall is a scientist at RAE Malvern and has a scientifically trained mind that will not allow fudging. Quite logically he says that unless every practice lap can be guaranteed accurate to two decimal places, then none should be timed to that accuracy. The n****r-in-the-woodpile for George Hall is when two cars come round so close together that the beam only makes one impulse, and that one is longer than it should be.

Many Grand Prix races give practice times to thousandths, or three decimal places, and for 90% of the time this is probably correct, but how do the timekeepers adjust for “overlapping”. George Hall says there’s no way you can “adjust”, and anyone who does so is not being honest and certainly not meticulous, and in his book that is not “on”. When we went into the alternatives to the rather ruthless “lowest common denominator” system he employs, there was no real answer. The only compromise, and it would have to be a compromise, he would accept, was to time everyone to hundredths, or thousandths, of a second providing the car was circulating far enough away from other competitors to be certain there was no “overlap”. If anyone crossed the timing beam in close company with another car, so that there was a risk of “overlap” then the lap time would not be recorded. If the drivers, team-managers, car owners and so on would agree to this then lap times could be recorded more accurately. But it would not be a complete answer, for during three hours of practice the chances of Peterson completing a really fast lap just as he overtook Ganley or Stommelen, were too high to be ignored. The decision really rests with the teams, though I doubt if any of them have considered the matter, but now that only the fastest two are on the front row it becomes much more important. If this system was adopted, George Hall would insist that the time impulse recorded when two cars “overlapped” was erased instantly so that there would be no question of discussion. There are timekeepers, with untrained minds scientifically speaking, who would record the impulse but not issue it, and that could lead to dissension and discussion, which has no place in accurate timekeeping.

The only alternative to the George Hall compromise would be to have two hours of untimed practice and then individual attempts, like Indianapolis, to get really accurate lap times for the starting grid. With races getting faster and shorter a second place of decimals on a practice lap deciding whether you are in row one or row three could make all the difference between winning and losing.—D.S.J.