The Formula 1 circus descended on Bahrain last month for the Kingdom's fifth Grand Prix.
Event organisers employed a cutting-edge communications network to ensure the high-octane racing carnival remained on track. John Parnell reports from pit lane.
The high-tech, high-speed world of Formula 1 is characterised by an attitude of zero-failure-tolerance and the narrowest of margins separating success and failure.
Each Grand Prix event may be dominated by the big name teams and drivers, but in reality there is an army of support staff, safety crews, race officials, strategists and mechanics communicating with one another to ensure the racecars complete each lap as quickly and safely as possible.
"Modern radio communication technologies have changed the way the [F1] teams do their work. - Alexander Keck"
Add to this mix the sheer number of staff required to host an event for 40,000 specators and the logistics soon become mind-bending.
Voice communications between key parties is also a major factor, as the cars rocket over the five and half kilometre course at speeds of up to 340kph, creating an implausible amount of ambient noise.
Alexander Keck of Riedel Communications oversees the company's expanding roster of Formula One clients which now includes eight of the eleven teams, and the sport's governing body, the FIA, as well as a host of event staff from caterers to first aid crews, in addition to those working on the support races which fill the remainder of the race-day's itinerary.
"All in all, there are 500 Riedel radio handsets in use around the circuit at any given time. Bernie Ecclestone's company, Formula One Adminstration (FOA), which markets the sport, typically utilises around 170 radio receivers at any given race.
"The BMW Sauber team uses more than 100 as does the Force India team - soon Honda will be using our radios as well," says Keck, Riedel's Formula One rental manager.
Riedel provides its MAX headset designed specifically to cope with the explosive noise that characterises an F1 race. Keck is confident that these technologies, tailored specifically for motorsport, have been one of the contributing factors in the company's growing success in the sector.
"We have more and more people within F1 approaching us to use our radios because we are on site come race-day and they know we can provide the service and support as and when they might need it," claims Keck.
The main radio system that we use is our TETRA digital radio unit, which audio-wise is very good. Even the drivers can hear clearly despite their proximity to the source of all the noise. Previously, it was very easy for a rival F1 team to listen in on another team's tactics.
"You cannot do that with our system, it is fully digital and encrypted so no-one can eavesdrop.
The importance of ensuring everyone plays by the rules is underlined when you consider that the sport generates around US$4 billion a year and the average team is managing a budget of around $400 million. Obviously there is a lot more than fair play at stake.
In addition to the intercom and radio systems Riedel also supplys seven teams and German broadcaster RTL with direct point-to-point datalinks.
"The teams require communications links with their factories, most of which are located in the UK, France and Italy," explains Keck. "This is a secure WAN MPLS (multiprotocol label switching) connection for the team, direct from the circuit to their headquarters.
This is monitored 24/7. The service completely bypasses the mainstream internet so there is no fall time and no time waiting to reach a host because, this is a completely dedicated point-to-point connection.
"We also provide a video recording service for the FIA. We supply a custom-built carbon fibre race control desk which travels with us to all 18 F1 Grand Prix races.
Keck says the minimalist desk's expensive, carbon fibre chassis is designed to cope with the rigours of the hectic F1 touring schedule, which takes in race locations ranging from Brazil to Canada and Europe to Australia.
"It is very expensive to build the desk from this material but when you consider that every kilogram of weight costs $100 extra to freight then you can see that it is actually a good investment," he says.
In total, Riedel freights around four tonnes of communications equipment from venue to venue, so any measure that can lower the associated costs is clearly welcomed by the company.
The recorded material is taken from 41 camera positions around the track providing the race director with full visual coverage of the track. Footage from each camera as well as the audio from the radio links between teams and their drivers is recorded onto a 7TB hard drive system.
The race officials at the FIA can then re-visit all the events of the race as it happens, enabling them to award any necessary penalties for infringements of the rules as well as to ensure the safety of the drivers.
"I am situated in the control centre during a race," explains Keck. "If the race director needs to see something to make a judgement on a situation, he will ask me to pull up a certain incident from a certain angle.
We also record the audio from the race team to the driver so we always know what the guys are up to!"
Eight of the eleven F1 teams also use Riedel's wired intercom systems.
Typically employing between two and four of Riedel's Artist 128 matrix nodes, team managers, including those of McLaren and Ferrari, can maintain constant communication with support staff from their position on the pitwall, typically in front of a bank of displays.
"The wired intercoms employ a special ruggedised fibre cable made specifically for us. If you lay a cable for a permanent installation it is likely to continue working without any assistance.
But if you lay a cable, remove it, ship it and re-install it 18 times in a year, it really needs to be heavily ruggedised," says Keck.
In total, Keck estimates that there is around 3km of cable weaving around the garages, pit lane and the race official's control room in a fully redundant system, meeting the zero-failure standards expected by Riedel's high-profile clients.
"We are constantly monitoring our systems during a race so that if something fails we can react immediately," says Keck.
"So even if a cable breaks, the system will continue to work and we can exchange the damaged line without having to take any services offline.
Riedel provides on-site support to its team partners. It also provides each team's intercom operator with offsite training at the Riedel factory located in Germany.
"We have seven people working on location at each Grand Prix event," says Keck. "Three are posted to work with individual teams and another four, including myself, work with the FIA.
Riedel's network of radio and intercom communications also covers the vast army of media represented at each race.
"We provide broadcasters with access to each driver's audio link. Each team manager has a button which allows them to switch their team's audio between on-air and off-air. The broadcasters are given the peace of mind that if they are receiving the audio, then they are clear to put it on-air.
Keck believes that communications form an integral part of Formula 1's array of technologies and ensure each race on the calendar runs smoothly and safely.
"Teams can respond to incidents in the race and make decisions far more quickly than they could before. This is largely because they are made aware of what is happening sooner than they may have been in the past," he says.
"It used to be that a driver could only hear his radio on slow corners because when he would be racing down the straights with the car at maximum revs, the noise would be deafening.
"By improving the quality of the system components such as the receiver hardware, drivers can now maintain constant communications with their pit crew.
"The level of safety is also improved as a result of all these factors. To be honest, modern radio communication technologies have changed the way the race teams go about their work.
The safety car is called on to the track when an incident has occurred which endangers crew, spectators or the drivers themselves.
The F1 cars must remain behind the safety car and are not allowed to overtake during this period.
Once the incident has been resolved, the safety car returns to the pit lane and the race continues. Maintaining contact between the safety car and the race control is imperative, says Keck.
"If the race control has to send out the safety car or the medical car, we have to ensure nothing fails.
"We have three separate radio intercoms in the car to make sure they can reach it.
As well as the three separate intercoms, each driver also has a regular walkie-talkie handset located inside their car's cockpit. There are also two push-to-talk buttons on the dashboard, so in case one fails, the driver has access to another.