F1's version of VAR: remote ops centre that's a 'sanity check' for stewards


Set up after last year's Abu Dhabi debacle, F1's remote operations centre brings extra sets of eyes to race control. Adam Cooper gets a glimpse of how it helps stewards during grands prix and plans to use it for training officials

Officials in F1 remote operations centre during 2022 Belgian GP

Officials monitor the Belgian GP feeds from Spa at the remote operations centre in Geneva


Big decisions made by Formula 1’s referees very often trigger controversy among both participants and fans, but nothing has set the world alight quite like the closing stages of last year’s Abu Dhabi GP, where the World Championship was at stake.

Along with the departure of erstwhile F1 race director Michael Masi another outcome of that ill-fated weekend will hopefully have positive consequences for the decision-making process for decades to come.

At the personal request of new FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem a remote operations centre, or ROC, has been established at the governing body’s facility in Geneva to work alongside the established race control at the track.

Ben Sulayem admits that the inspiration came from football’s VAR process, as well as the “mission controls” operated by F1 teams in their factories, from where engineers and strategists provide support to those working on the pitwall.

However, there is one crucial difference compared with football – unlike with VAR those working at the ROC do not make definitive rulings, and instead are providing extra information and working as spare pairs of eyes.

F1 remote operations centre at 2022 Azerbaijan GP

The ‘mission control’ on the Azerbaijan GP weekend

FIA via Twitter

“We just can’t be reactive, we have to be proactive,” says Ben Sulayem of his brainchild. “So I gathered our people, all of them. You can see the VAR in football and when I spoke to Gianni [Infantino, FIFA president], he said we now have fewer complaints.

“I said why can’t we complement the people here? Not a lot of people know how much the FIA does, the whole sporting organisation comes to the FIA, and the team is doing so well.

“You cannot run F1 like F4 or something. What we did is use the technology, which is user friendly, and make it active from Geneva, and here [at the track].”

Setting up F1’s remote operations centre

The ROC was put together at the start of this year. Handily the FIA was able to take a massive shortcut by utilising an old F1 race control desk that had been used for years by the late Charlie Whiting before it was put in storage when a newer model was introduced.

Related article

The big job was connecting it to the data systems at the track to allow those in Geneva to have access to everything that their colleagues have at the track.

“When we got the challenge of trying to provide this externally, we had to look in different interesting ways,” says FIA’s F1 head of information strategy Chris Bentley. “For a while, we’ve had remote access to our systems, where we’ve had software engineers, and external people, connecting and accessing data.

“During Covid times, we had to expand that technology to have the concept of remote stewards, so that if we had someone that was affected by Covid, we had to replace them.

“We took all this in consideration and looked at how we could develop a starting point for remote operations based on the technology that was known and proven, because we had a tight deadline to get this working for Bahrain, which we did.

“When we were tasked with trying to produce something that was similar to a race control environment for a starting point, we took Charlie’s old desk, including a cup holder for his Red Bull!”

F1 remote operation centre screen at 2022 Azerbaijan GP

The desk derives from the Charlie Whiting era

FIA via Twitter

There’s a massive amount of data involved, with some 130-180 video and audio streams available. Giving Geneva full access has not been straightforward.

“To be able to get hold of all this video and audio which we send to them — we can’t stream it to them because it’s so much, and it would cost a fortune to do,” says Bentley. “What we’ve done is connected them to a virtual infrastructure we have here, where they can operate a machine as if it’s there, and access all the feeds that are available.”

The man tasked with putting together and overseeing the ROC is FIA safety director and former Red Bull and Sauber F1 engineer Tim Malyon.

Related article

“He’s had a bit of experience with a certain number of F1 teams working with remote operations,” says Bentley. “The first thing that Tim brought along was the structure and the understanding of how things work. They’re in uniform, they are on operations, they follow the same rules we do. They’re probably working worse hours, to be fair!”

Getting the ROC ready for the opening race of the season in Bahrain was a huge task.

“To summarise it we really have a working environment here in Geneva which allows us access to all the data which is being used by FIA operations at the track,” says Malyon. “And what that allows us to do is to support across those different operations on a variety of different topics.

F1 remote operation centre during 2022 Belgian GP“We have key touch points within race control, so we have the ability to communicate with race control during sessions. We also have key touch points within the technical team and other parts of the regulatory team at the track.

“We’re a multidisciplinary team. We have a core team, that is in for all sessions, starting from the high-speed [safety and medical car] track tests at the beginning of the weekend, when we make sure everything is up and running, and communications are working well, and all our systems are set up.

“And then we’re here throughout the sessions, covering all categories and then also available as a resource on demand for additional analysis, should a particularly complicated set of circumstances arise where analysis is needed. We’re here to support on that.”

ROC’s expanding remit

The ROC’s work already extends well beyond analysing incidents.

“We’re also here outside of sessions,” says Malyon. “We try to use that time valuably, supporting other areas of FIA operations, be that the technical team, for example, with analysis.

“As an organisation, and with the teams, everyone’s been working collectively well on understanding porpoising. We’ve been able to support with topics like that, linking with the work that’s been going on with the technical team, compiling dossiers, videos, etc.

“We also have the ability to call on additional experts within the organisation here at Geneva. And it’s a very efficient way for us to do that. And it gives them a central location also to connect directly to the track via the ROC.”

The ROC is still in its infancy, and there’s been a lot of progress since its debut over the Bahrain GP weekend. There’s much more to come.

Related article

“We’re on a journey here,” says Malyon. “We started with the vision of the President of wanting to put a facility like this in place. And I think we reacted on that very quickly. And we got that up and running at the start of the season.

“We’re on an aggressive development path, and an aggressive evolution of the facility and the support that the facility can offer to the track.

“Is this all we want to achieve? The answer is no, in the same way that the teams have used these tools and have developed them and expanded them in the past, we’re on that journey as well. On a weekly basis, I will speak with different areas of the organisation and the work that’s going on at the track.

“I was actually speaking to a colleague about financial regulation topics earlier today, and about how we can support and do more and improve the governance on that side using this facility. I think we’re on a very strong development curve.”

“I think we are event-by-event taking on more of the standard job list, we’re able to support more. But we’re doing it in a measured way.”

Officials in F1 remote operations centre during 2022 Azerbaijan GP

Officials see everything but limit communication with race control

FIA via Twitter

During live track action the ROC guys have to judge when to intervene with messages about what they have spotted – they don’t want to bombard race control with information.

“Particularly in sessions, it’s a very time pressured environment,” says Malyon. “We really do aspire to be extremely accurate, extremely timely, and really adding value every time we step in. We certainly want to do this in a cautious way so that we are sure that we do add the value progressively.

“It’s been a measured expansion, I think, from a technical side. Credit to Chris, and the guys that have put that together. I think we made a very quick evolution there. We’re still ramping up, and I think we will continue to do so.

Virtual race weekends to train stewards

Aside from the contribution on race weekends, another area that is yet to be fully explored is the use of the ROC as a training tool for race directors, stewards and other officials. The general idea is to simulate a race weekend, and throw tricky scenarios at them.

“What we’re looking at trying to do with our technical partners, some of these work with the teams as well, is to build a race control simulator, which we’re working on at the moment,” says Bentley.

“We can actually design a particular set of circumstances that are quite challenging. Like an aborted start, a car out of position, slow recovery of a car where we can have a slider to make that recovery more and more difficult and time consuming, and lots of different things that add to the complexity of what they’re doing.

Screens in F1 remote operation centre for 2022 Belgian Grand Prix“And we’re going to use the audio system to fire 10 sets of horrible questions and demands of the race director at the same time, and build all this together and then work with a way to simulate the video side of things to create these incidents.

“So there’s a particular combination of events to put them under similar pressures, and when they’re in that environment, it seems to them that they are at the track. And then the same goes for stewards who also work in different ways.”

However, the main job of the ROC will continue to be on race weekends, and having those extra pairs of eyes examining incidents away from the pressure cooker environment of the actual race control.

“These guys are a supplementary resource for us,” says Bentley. “The decision-making process here is the stewards, they are the panel that make the decisions.

“This does not replace the stewarding. This gives us the ability to provide extra information and assistance and sanity checking, I suppose you could say, and to be able to identify things to make sure the processes we follow are correct.

“But the ultimate authority is still the race director, what we’re trying to do is enhance the capabilities that he’s got available to him to have more information around him.”