Onboard cameras have given us the best view possible for some of the greatest moments in F1 History – Senna’s incredible pole lap at Monaco – Alonso driving around the outside of Schumacher and the ‘Is that Glock’ Moment.
And we have seen these cameras evolve from grainy and unreliable cameras to the multitude of angles on the current cars – with cameras placed on the car and in the helmets worn by the drivers.
But how have these camera angles evolved over the years? And how do they work now? All of that – coming up.
Welcome back to our new series, Track Evolution – where we uncover the incredible evolution of technology in motorsport.
The first camera put on a race car for broadcast was at Le Mans when Mike Hawthorn did a lap of Le Mans in 1956 and commentateded with a microphone clumsily attached to his chest. Also check out the simplicity of his helmet! They fitted a large camera to the rear bumper of the car that gave a phenomenally good quality image of the circuit.
It was groundbreaking. Before this, only the drivers had seen the track from this perspective, and now technology could mean that viewers could be taken around for a lap.
Onboard cameras made their F1 debut on Manuel Fangios car in 1957. He was testing his Maserati 250F at the Modena Autodrome and gave us a great view of him wrestling the car around the circuit.
During the 60s we saw Jim Clark drive his Lotus 33
In 1967 the onboard camera moved to colour – for one of my favourite shots. Nurburgring Nordschliefe in a 60s F1 car. It was one of the most dangerous races ever and is incredible to see onboard.
All of these clips shown so far were recorded and broadcast later, as the filming was done on film cameras and so couldn’t be broadcast live from the cars.
You may think Driver’s Eye cameras are a new thing, however in the 1966 Monaco Grand Prix, Jackie Stewart wore this stills-only Nikon camera for a Practice session.
During the 70s the cameras got much smaller but were still only used in Testing and Practice sessions. In 1970 Graham Hill commented whilst driving a lap of Monaco. You can see all of the H-Pattern gear shifts and the suspension working – look at just how softly sprung the cars were back then.
The first onboard cameras to be broadcast live was actually during the Bathurst 1000 touring car race – where they changed the game with the ‘Race Cam’ system. For the 1979 race, Channel 7 Sport trialled an onboard camera in the Toyota Celica of Peter Williamson and Mike Quinn.
They had several angles, showing the drivers and the view out from the car. This was no easy feat – broadcasting live video and audio, from the car to the broadcast centre. This isn’t helped by the fact that Mount Panorama is far from flat, so the signal was often very low.
This was actually remedied by broadcasting the onboard video to a helicopter, which then forwarded this to the Broadcast Centre.
This technology soon made its way to NASCAR, IndyCar and finally Formula 1 in the 1980s.
It was Nurburgring 1985 where an F1 race was broadcast live with on-board cameras, a single camera was fitted to the Renault of François Hesnault, who qualified 23rd and retired on Lap 8 with clutch problems. They had issues with the camera getting dirty so they placed cling film over the camera so they could remove it quickly in the pit stop – if the car made it that far.
They again used a helicopter as a relay for the signal, improving the reliability of the connection as much as possible.
In 1986 the cameras began using optical stabilisation to keep the picture clear and free from vibrations – you can see just how physical it was driving an 80s F1 car around Adelaide. Controlling over 900 horsepower, whilst heel and toeing through the gears.
The quality was tricky with the various buildings and trees in Adelaide, however, this can be easily forgiven as it gave a remarkable perspective of the race.
In the 1990s they stopped using the helicopter as a relay for the onboard video as it didn’t work reliably all the time, for instance in Monaco there was poor signal around the track and no signal at all through the tunnel – meaning they had to cut to an outboard shot.
Instead, they moved to essentially the system that is in place today. Around the track they fitted many radio receivers with a wired connection to the Broadcast centre – meaning signal was vastly improved and dropouts were rare.
Stabilisation mounts were improved through the 1990s and you can see the vast improvement in quality and stability in this clip of Jean Alesi at Silverstone in 1985.
However, the most impressive thing about this era was the automatic cleaning system on the cameras. As Alesi goes through the first corner, the car in front sprays oil over his car. You can see Jean wipe his visor clean.
The camera actually had a small length of clear film that was fitted to a motor, meaning the film could be moved to clear the dirt from the camera’s view – you can actually see it working here.
Since 1998, it was mandatory for every car to use at least three cameras. With the FIA specifying the camera to be used and the location for every race.
This was when the T-mount placement was brought in and is the standard onboard view to this day – whilst also becoming a staple for the F1 games.
Over the years, they have added more and more views. Nose cams, 360 cameras and even cameras in the halo and wing mirrors giving us a good view of the drivers.
The cameras are all at least 1080p in resolution and many are shot at 60 fps or higher.
The design has changed vastly too, with each variation getting lighter and more aerodynamic. The total weight of the cameras on today’s cars is just under 1.8kg. Transponders and aerials are fitted all over the car, but the most noticeable is the ones that are fitted on the nose of the car.
The video is broadcast along with all of the cars GPS data, telemetry and radio comms via the radio receivers around the track. This is then sent to both the teams and the broadcast centre to be shown in live coverage.