What’s happening to FOM’s infrastructure?

One of the more minor talking points of the German Grand Prix was the failure of the live timing system provided by FOM. This is not the first time FOM’s timing systems have failed. In fact, a failure is a relatively common occurrence, and the odd glitch is to be expected in any system as complex as this which has to be hauled around the world.

However, the problems of the German Grand Prix were much more major than usual. And it represents what I consider to be the second large failure of FOM’s infrastructure in the past twelve months.

What happened in Germany

Problems with the live timing system became apparent when commentators across the world exclaimed to their viewers that Heikki Kovalainen was dropping down the order, but they couldn’t explain why. Soon enough commentators realised that this was an error, as Kovalainen was still running in third position with no problems whatsoever.

Each Formula 1 car carries a transponder which uniquely identifies each car. At various points on the circuit there is a beam which receives a signal from the transponder as the car passes through. This is the equipment that enables FOM to measure lap times to a thousandth of a second as well as car speeds. This equipment also records when cars enter the pitlane and how much time they spend in the pitlane.

What apparently happened is that the transponder on Kovalainen’s car failed. This is not the first time that has happened. Seemingly (and this is speculation on my part) once the people at FOM realised what was going on, Kovalainen was manually re-inserted into his actual race position — not before the legend ‘STOPPED’ (meaning “stopped on the circuit”) was displayed. This process seemed to continue for the rest of the race. A few times I spotted him slipping down the order a couple of places before magically re-appearing in his original position.

Apart from the initial scare of watching Kovalainen tumble down the order for the first time, this was a bearable issue. However, it was not the only problem to afflict live timing that day.

During the first round of pitstops, only three drivers were recorded as having entered the pitlane when in fact almost every driver had made a stop. This wreaked havoc as it was impossible to tell who had taken a pitstop and who had not. To make matters worse, the pitstops were subsequently manually added over a period of several laps. Cars were shown in the red text with the words ‘IN PIT’ which normally signify that a driver is taking a pitstop. However, they were not in the pitlane.

At this stage of the race Radio 5 Live’s pitlane reporter Holly Samos said that the teams were finding the failure of the live timing system very frustrating. It was very possible that the failure of this extremely important source of information could potentially have affected the race itself.

Captions on the television also went a bit awry for a short while at this stage, with the classification being displayed without the time or pitstop strategy information that normally accompanies it. For a few laps every driver except for Hamilton was shown as a being a lap down until this too was (seemingly) manually rectified.

The lap chart — which can still be accessed by clicking on the live timing link on this page — is a bit of a mess. Here, not only was Kovalainen largely missing from the chart, so too was Kimi Räikkönen.

2008 German GP live timing

The positions of the two Finnish drivers were not updated lap-by-lap as they should be. Instead, they jump about with their position updated at seemingly arbitrary points of the race. Gaps are left in the chart where they were supposed to be.

All-in-all, it was a bit of a shambles on the timing front during the German Grand Prix.

The other major failure

This comes off the back of the problems experienced in the 2007 Brazilian Grand Prix. Here, the timing systems were fine (as far as I am aware at least), but the weather equipment was playing up.

I and others had pointed out that the temperature was extraordinarily high at Interlagos. At its peak, the track temperature was recorded at 65 °C. Looking back, it seemed a bit fishy. Ted Kravitz pointed out, “That would’ve melted even my trusty Dr Martens boots.”

The track temperature is often of interest, but it is not usually a vital aspect of FOM’s offering. However, this time the temperature measurements were later to have a pivotal bearing on the race result in this, the final race of the championship. The Drivers Championship was almost decided by FOM’s temperature gauge.

In what became known as the ‘cool fuel’ saga, the BMW and Williams teams were deemed to have breached article 6.5.5 of the technical regulations which states that “no fuel on board the car may be more than 10 degrees centigrade below ambient temperature”.

A cooler temperature in the fuel would allow teams to refuel cars more quickly — and, indeed, fit more fuel into the car. The BMW and Williams teams were both accused (by FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer) of filling their cars with fuel which was more than 10 degrees cooler than the ambient temperature which was recorded at 35 °C.

There then followed the revelation that the rules do not state how the ambient temperature should be recorded. Should the fuel temperature be measured against the ambient temperature recorded by FOM’s equipment? Or should it be measured against the information supplied by the FIA’s meteorologists, Météo-France?

Météo-France recorded the ambient temperature as being “a few degrees lower” than FOM’s measurement. Meanwhile, Bridgestone recorded the track temperature as being 48 °C as opposed to FOM’s 65 °C.

Clearly, FOM’s temperatures were way off. Ted Kravitz speculated that their temperature sensor may have been placed in the sun — a mega no-no in meteorology. Williams technical director Sam Michael furthermore pointed out that the equipment had not been calibrated for a full seven years and that it had been clear to all the teams that FOM’s weather information was not to be trusted as early as 2005!

That just strikes me as complete laziness on FOM’s part. Coupled with the woes we saw in Germany which frustrated the teams, it is clear that, unless things change, FOM’s faulty equipment could one day alter the direction of a race or even a championship in a big way. Here’s hoping FOM look into the technical issues and try to avoid a repeat of what happened at Hockenheim and Interlagos.

5 comments

  1. Faulty FOM equipment has already effected a race in a big way once – the Brazil 2003 kerfuffle was caused because the critical phase of the race coincided with a reboot of the timing system, which had failed in a way that still hasn’t been explained yet. A more reliable computer system would have made a considerable difference to the result to the race.

  2. Well well well. I didn’t know that. I always wondered how they got something seemingly so simple wrong. Now I know. Thanks for that Alianora!

  3. Excellent article DV. Given the amount of money the Gnome has sloshing around his account, you’d think that there would be full contingency for both the timing and temp systems. Was watching the timings as usual during the German GP and as you say was indeed a fiasco. Given the feedback that the timing provides the pitwall, can rightly understand their consternation.