Fresh from our foray into the WRC Rally of Portugal action in Lisboa, we managed to catch up with Simon de Banke, Stage 1 Technology boss (a huge thanks to him for agreeing to talk to us). 10 years have got behind Stage 1’s presence in the FIA Word Rally Championship and boy, they didn’t miss the starting gun!
Q: How has WRC changed since you joined the sport in 2001 and, most importantly, tell us about the development of Stage 1 Technology timing and tracking system during this period – challenges and victories…
Simon de Banke: Some parts of the sport have changed dramatically, and others remained the same. The S1T team’s involvement has helped to bring consistency to each event, in terms of live data for the teams, organisers and fans. But the sport remains what it’s always been: some the world’s greatest drivers competing against the clock on the world’s most challenging roads. We love being a part of that.
Over the last ten years, we’ve all woken up every day, and thought about how to improve the timing, safety tracking, and media data acquisition technology on the WRC. It’s an obsession!
The bad news, is that the unique combination of technological challenges posed by the WRC make it incredibly tough – but that’s the good news as well, as it keeps us all on our toes and keeps it interesting.
The overriding lesson we’ve learned is that just because it works in the Lab (or even at a national event, or even regional championship), doesn’t mean it’ll work on all rounds of the World Rally Championship. We spent over $15m on the original systems, and the majority of that money was spent on the enormous research and testing required to find out what works, is legal, reliable and safe, in ALL rounds of the WRC.
Q: How big is the team of people you have on the ground (and up in the air!) at each event?
SDB: Our team is split over four areas and changes from event to event, but typically we have two people at Rally HQ working alongside the Results teams, Safety officers, the Clerk of the Course in the Command Centre and of course the FIA / Stewards. We have a few people based at Service Park taking care of the aircraft comms, service park timing systems, in-car tracking equipment, and liaising with the teams. Then a team of Stage Technicians who get up at ridiculous-o’clock in the morning, while the drivers are still asleep, and go out ahead of the event to each timing point, making sure everything is set-up correctly and dealing with any problems.
These guys are coordinated by our Tech-Control station, which we now base at our R&D centre in the UK. He has a bank of monitors and is able to see every car tracking, every timing signal, the aircraft, etc. all on a moving map, and various technical monitoring screens.
For the first time last year, we introduced a new radio system which means that our Stage Technician, Hendy, can pick up his walkie talkie at the side of the road on Stage 3, and can talk directly to Rob in Tech-Control in the UK – no need for phone signals.. it’s just as though they were 50 meters apart.
Providing the technology services to the WRC is an expensive business, so cost-efficiencies like this are often as much of a priority to us as the latest technology. We’re always working on ways to keep the costs sustainable.
Q: We can now see the stage results in real time on WRC.COM and on Nokia’s WRC application thanks to your work. What’s your take on the new media in motorsport and ways of connecting with the fans in the 21st century?
SDB: Well, I have to say it isn’t all down to us. There is a large team of people involved in bringing results to the fans on WRC.com and Nokia’s superb WRC app. We simply collect the data, and make it available to through WRC.COM and Nokia through our APIs, in real time.
I’ve always said that WRC is ideal for the modern internet enabled world. Different to F1, you can’t watch a WRC event from begining to end in one sitting – it just goes on too long. And to be honest, not even the most hardened rally fan would watch the pictures alone, without any data to back it up – for an entire event.
In World Touring Cars, or MotoGP, you can see the results unfolding simply by watching the pictures – when someone overtakes someone else, the results change. In WRC you can’t do that, the output of the technology is what tells the story. I think this is why we’ve always had a great relationship with technology sponsors in WRC.
There are some very creative people out there, and I think WRC holds some outstanding opportunities for new media.
Q: Will Stage 1 Technology and WRC partnership continue into 2013 and beyond? What’s the role of the FIA in this process?
SDB: We’re working on it. Right now we have a deal with the FIA until the end of 2012, but we’re working on a deal beyond that. We have a world of experience, and the only proven technology which is 100% capable of timing and (probably more importantly) supporting the safety of the competitors and spectators, on the WRC. We have a great working relationship with everyone, and a lot of trust built up over the years. It takes a lot to trust a new team to have free access to Parc Ferme, or the Command Centre. But it’s a new WRC, and there are no guarantees, so we’ve turned our attention to some interesting discussions with other prominent motor sports, and are also in the final stages of development of a new timing system which will be by-far the most accurate and performant in the world – and we’re considering making it available for purchase.
Q: A hard one: who will be the world champion in 2012?
SDB: Haha. When a car crosses the finish line of a WRC Stage, it triggers our bespoke multi-beam system which differentiates a car from a bird, dust or a person walking through it. The timing signal is sent from the purpose built, ruggedised timing computer at the side of the road, through a satellite transciever up into space, and to an inmarsat satellite over the equator, which then relays that data down to London, into the internet, to our multi-redundancy electronic communications hub at our R&D centre in Warwickshire. The hub intercepts the data and performs a number of integrity checks, then relays it out to our timing communications processor at the Tech-Control station, which pushes the data onto the internet, and up to our state-of-the-art load-balanced cloud-based servers, which process the timing data, analyse it and turn it into results. It then checks whether this time creates a Jump Start, a Road Penalty, a Stage Time, Overall Classifiaction adjustment, etc, etc and makes all of these changes in our master (multiple fail-safe) results servers, which sends a trigger to our load-balanced web-servers to notify them that the results have changed. The web servers then make various changes to their databases, and through a cutting edge web process, this update is pushed live across the web to the hundreds of users watching their secure logins around the WRC event – such as officials, competitors, teams, FIA, organisers, etc.. At the same time, our APIs are updated allowing Nokia and WRC.COM to display the live results on their platforms.
This entire process takes less than two seconds.
So in answer to your question: Our systems are FAST, but they don’t yet see into the future! And if they did, I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise!