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Fast masters: Broadcasting the sound of F1

We talk to the noise boys bringing the sound of Formula 1 to the small screen

Even since man could drive, man has raced. Motor racing in all its myriad forms has long held a mysterious allure to all but the most hardened motor-phobe, and nowhere is that pull stronger than at the undisputed ‘pinnacle of motorsport’, Formula 1. Even George Harrison, the ‘quiet one’ – he of Transcendental Meditation, Radha Krishna Temple and spending-the-last-30-years-of-his-life-quietly-gardening fame – was a longtime devotee of the sport, writing it a slightly bizarre paean dedicated to “Niki [Lauda], Jody [Scheckter], Emerson [Fittipaldi] and the gang”, Faster, in 1976 (sample lyric: “Faster than a bullet from a gun/ he is faster than everyone”).

Times have changed since the late-seventies heydays of Harrison’s idols – the 1976 season, won by playboy extraordinaire James Hunt, comprised 16 races, with just six (the Brazilian, South African, Canadian, United States, United States West and Japanese grands prix) taking place outside of the sport’s traditional European heartland – meaning the sound engineers involved with broadcasting the worldwide, multimillion-pound behemoth the Formula 1 circus has become face a rather more daunting task than their luxuriantly moustachioed forebears.

“Reliability is absolutely key, and global support can be critical,” says Alan Bright, director of operations for Presteigne Broadcast Hire, which is currently in its first year of a four-year F1 outside broadcast contract with BBC Sport. “We also need to be flexible throughout the technical process, from the frequencies we might be allocated to adapting our operation for additional guests or extended coverage.”

Presteigne also supplies technical facilities for the BBC’s USP Content-produced F1 radio coverage and “some equipment and staff” to Tata Communications to support its broadcast operations.

“As all our presenters have to be able to interact with each other, delay can be an issue,” Bright continues, “so low latency is important too. We thoroughly tested several competing products before making our [equipment] choice.” As reported on in April, Presteigne has supplied the BBC with a Wisycom wireless audio and IEM solution (comprising MRK960 two-channel receivers, MTH400 handheld microphones, MTB40 plug-ins and MTP40 beltpack transmitters, with in-ear monitoring via MTK952 dual transmitters and MPR30 true-diversity receivers) for pit lane walkabouts, pieces to camera and paddock interviews ¬– but which other manufacturers does it rely on on a day-to-day basis?

“In addition to the Wisycom kit, we use a Lawo mc²56 sound desk, Riedel Artist talkback system [and] a Riedel MediorNet fibre distribution system, which we use for routing most of our signals between distribution points,” Bright says. “We use a combination of Hytera and Motorola radios with Hytera and Tait base stations. In the production and sound control rooms we have Genelec speakers, and there is Wohler monitoring in the edit suites.”

Presteigne and the BBC are not alone when it comes to their use of Riedel equipment. Quite the opposite: Riedel Communications, which entered Formula 1 in 1993 as a humble local supplier of radios for German grands prix, is now the sport’s undisputed king of communications. Today, all 11 teams – from Mercedes at the sharp end of the grid to perpetual backmarkers Caterham – plus governing body the FIA, commercial rights-holder Formula One Management (FOM) and “most broadcasters” use its Artist intercom systems, and the company sends at least 15 engineers to every race on the 19-date Formula 1 calendar.

“Riedel’s unique combination of being a manufacturer but also having a rental and service division makes our offering very interesting for the players in F1,” comments Riedel marketing manager Christian Bockskopf. “Many of them also use MediorNet for signal distribution [and] radio solutions, as well as RiLink, [our] premium data line service, which broadcasters use to transmit their main TV programme feeds to their home stations and teams to connect their racetrack operations to their factories.”

A major challenge for Presteigne on race day is achieving consistent coverage throughout the paddock, pitlane and grid using an increasingly congested RF spectrum. “There are around 20 other broadcasters from around the world, plus the host broadcaster, all wanting a slice of the available RF spectrum,” explains Bright (pictured right), “and of course they all want to get to the teams and drivers.” He also highlights the necessity of choosing reliable kit that will withstand the pressures of the punishing F1 schedule: “The equipment has to function perfectly for what is often in excess of eight hours of live television over a race weekend.

“We have five presenters and a commentary operation, and everybody has to be able to hear and preferably see what is going on and contribute as required. Then it all has to be packed up and flown to the next destination, where it is all rigged ready for the next race.”

The BBC is this season covering nine races live and 10 as extended highlights. Although Presteigne sends a larger technical team to ‘live’ races (13 people, as opposed to 11 for ‘highlights’ grands prix), Bright says the highlights programmes “are treated almost identically to the live transmissions”, as “we very rarely get a second chance at a driver interview, for example”. The same equipment is also flown to each grand prix, ‘live’ or otherwise.

Concluded tomorrow.