Australian Grand Prix 2017 – Under the Bonnet with Riedel
Nothing in the world of motor sport comes close to the FIA Formula One World Championship. Commonly known as the Grand Prix (French, of course, for ‘grand prizes’), the championship tours the world racing across 20 purpose-built circuits and public roads. The FIA, or Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, is the governing body behind the Formula, strictly overseeing how the fastest race vehicles in the world are structured and appointed. Currently the cars are restricted to a mere 15000rpm, but this hardly stops them reaching speeds of up to 375km/h. Yeah, it’s dangerous, and where there’s danger you’ll find the best of the best. Behind the drivers are a multitude of heavily sponsored car manufacturers, again, all vying for the position of fastest car manufacturer. That’s an enviable position, and one which can translate into sales of urban variety domestic vehicles. Then there’s the sponsors tagging along for the ride – a logo on a winning car sells product. With a global audience of around 500 million viewers it’s not difficult to understand the budgets and complexity involved.
As you’d imagine, the logistics behind Formula One events are immense. Not only are there requirements for global broadcasting, there’s also oodles of communications requirements. Comms are the life-blood throughout each and every F1 circuit. From Jean Todt, the current FIA president, through to the teams responsible for getting the cars on the track and keeping them there. Since 1993, this formidable undertaking has been expertly orchestrated by Riedel.
Riedel’s expertise is indeed intercommunications. The company, founded by Thomas Riedel, began as a hire business providing intercom equipment. From its inception in 1987 the company has grown to become the go-to provider of comms systems for events such as the Olympic Games, Winter Games, Eurovision Song Contests, Super Bowls, Academy Awards, and of course, the Formula One. the media industries also utilise Riedel systems, big players like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. We’ll hear from Thomas later, but for the moment we’ll take a tour of the machinations behind keeping an entire Formula One switched on and in touch. Taking me behind the scenes is General Manager of Riedel Communications Australia, John Bell – a veteran of the media and entertainment industry.
Brad Watts: So, John, how much does Riedel cater to the comms for an event like the Formula One?
John Bell: “Riedel do comms to all the vehicles, from the vehicles, and then from there to race control as they have to be able to listen to everything that’s going on at a team level. Race Control is the regulatory body. They literally oversee everything, so they want to hear anything and everything that’s going on.”
BW: Okay, so what are Race Control listening for?
JB: “If there’s an incident they certainly have to hear that – but it’s also about keeping everything equal and sticking to the F1 rules. This year, each driver can hear the other drivers, but only one way, they can only hear what the drivers are saying, not what the teams are saying to the drivers. Race Control need to hear what’s going on with those conversations, too. So, every team member has a Riedel intercom panel, what you call a multifunctional smart panel, Then they’ve got the guys out on the pit wall all with the same thing, so they’re all communicating with each other and the team manager. It’s as complex as an Olympics and in many ways more complex because all this stuff moving at very high speeds.”
BW: So, obviously, the team members themselves are using comms units also?
JB: “The teams all communicate among themselves, and between teams, then there’s members in the pits. Every team member has a Riedel intercom panel with what is a multifunctional smart panel, then there’s the guys out on the pit wall with the same thing.”
BW: So how many people are in each team, and how many intercoms and radios are in use?
JB: “There can be up to 50 on a track team, but they have up to 2-300 people providing support from overseas. We’ve got our own international pipe, they’re all getting that same feed in real time so they can conference with each other, do the analysis and feed it back here. We’re also handling telemetry from the car, so all the vital signs, engine temperature, track humidity, how the driver is, all that stuff is through our network. We’re picking up about five to 8,000 telemetry sensors per team.
“On the pure radio side, we’ve got 2,000 radios deployed. It’s a TETRA network, which is Motorola, technology – we’re running that through our system as well. We’re handling video, audio and data, plus we’ve got the CCTV cameras in the pit for Race Control purposes. We also do some switching of video signals for the broadcasters through our network.
BW: So, the infrastructure. Can that be the venue’s own system?
JB: “No. We bring our own network to every race. We have two kits of fibre cables, with approximately 10 kilometres that we’re laying across every racetrack. We know we can fully rely on it. So, we prefer to take everything with us and set it up, usually one and a half weeks before the race. We’re using two different types of cables and Neutric connectors. In general, we use two different types of cables and connectors. On one hand, we have Neutric opticalCON QUAD which is a four core fibre with a Neutric connector on it and a real ruggedised cable, and also MTP which contains 12 cores of fibre with a single connector.”
Riedel also provides an entire IT hub to each race. The hub is a transportable air-freight container brimming with technology. Air-conditioned and very slight on space, the IT hub provides a command centre and central hub to the kilometres of fibre traversing the race track. John took me through some of what the control centre is monitoring.
“What we have here is the heart of our fibre network. We have data connections to all the teams. Here we’re able to catch the connections from the garages, for example, to the pit wall, or to our network for Race Control. The teams are using our MPLS to get to get back to their relevant factories. They have engineers back at their factories worldwide – those engineers support the engineers on track. So, they get live data, live communications back in the factory – the engineers in the factory see the same data as those on track.
“Everything is of course covered by UPS systems. We’ve got about 12,000 watts in here, up to 15,000 watts at times, so that has to be compensated for in the case of power loss. Everything has redundancy failsafes, if one module or section dies we can quickly revert to the backup systems.
“We’ve also got about 100 cameras around the track, and they’re sent to this drive array which has about 200 terabytes in total space. All footage is then used mainly for FIA purposes. So in the steward’s office, for instance, you can playback and review incidents and examine them in slow motion. Last season we were able to hold the whole season onsite, so you could quickly go back to Abu Dhabi for example and review some situations from that race. But we also have storage here for the FIA, so the most critical scenes are stored here and also transported to Geneva or Paris.”
Out in the pit lane and alongside the pit wall are control centres for each team. Here a team manager can connect anyone in the pit crew to anywhere else using Riedel’s Artist Digital Matrix Intercom systems. This constantly feeds the team managers and chief engineers updates on race time, weather, along with telemetry from both car and driver. Dedicated Artist nodes address alternate feeds to groups such as the pit crew, managers, Race Control, factory support engineers, and to the FIA. This is also where I’m introduced to Thomas Riedel himself – proudly the 100% owner of Riedel, and exuberant about his company’s role in the Formula One roadshow. Thomas gave me his slant on Riedel’s F1 network:
Thomas Riedel: “It’s a number of different layers we put on top of each other. Basically, one layer is the fibre optic infrastructure which is used for various applications, but we also piggyback an IT network on top of that, then we piggyback a media network on top of that along with an intercom network with the Artist systems.
“The usage of these different systems, as you have seen, is not one client but many. The FIA, each of the teams, and Formula 1 management. We are kind of a service provider, like a telco. The teams are clients and the broadcasters as well. So with the radios it’s about 2,000 of these terminals all encrypted, so one team cannot eavesdrop on the other. But in race control we can listen to all the teams and we record all that information.”
Brad Watts: So, Thomas, please tell me about the birth of Riedel the company?
Thomas Riedel: “I was always interested in show business. I started out with my hobby to be a magician. I did that pretty intensively between 10 years old and 20. I realised I wasn’t good enough for a professional life on stage, so I decided I’d work behind stage. I was interested in light and sound equipment – also as a hobby. By the time I was 18, it turned into a business.”
BW: And what were you doing, hiring out gear?
TR: “Hiring out gear, yeah – light and sound equipment. After a couple of years, I made that officially a business. I bought a few radios for an event, and I realised people wanted to rent radios mostly. So, basically, the communications part of the business was founded then. So, then people started asking strange questions, like, ‘well, can you connect your radios with intercom two-wire and four-wire?’, and I said, ‘What is that?’ I didn’t know intercom. I didn’t know what two-wire and four-wire was. But, I learned and so I connected those devices and the first product was born. The RiFace – a mixture of ‘Riedel’ and ‘interface’.”
BW: So, how did you go about building it?
TR: “Well, basically I just looked at what is a four-wire and two-wire circuit. I knew the radios and thought how can I make that work together – to connect the two worlds of wire intercom and wireless. I asked some friends to help me on the electronic design and while the renting out of radios was the foundation of our service division, building that radio interface was the foundation of the manufacturing division. Today it’s about a 50/50 split, and five radios have grown to the 40,000 we have now.
“Then, one day I got a call from the Olympic organisation in Norway. At that time, we had Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, and they needed an intercom solution for the opening and closing ceremonies. And guess what? They realised this in December for an Olympics in January. I was crazy enough to say I could do it. It was a much smaller scale than Olympic ceremonies today, but still a big job, and I got it because I was the one who said it’s possible.”
BW: So, you just put your hand up and got it done?
TR: “Yeah. Then I was in Norway onsite and did a radio interview with the local radio station, just saying how proud I am to be at the Olympics. And someone involved in this circus [F1] drove down the autobahn past Lillehammer exactly at that time and listened to the radio and said, ‘who the heck is Thomas Riedel?’ That’s how I ended up here [F1]. So over the years we’ve added products, we’ve added services.”
BW: How did the manufacturing kick off with Riedel?
TR: “Well, it’s a 30-year timeframe, but the next thing I did was working on an intercom, a small intercom system with up to 32 users. I saw that as mainly for theatres and I sold a lot of them. Then I wanted to do something bigger and felt that probably I can’t do that on my own – intercom for broadcasts. Then RTS asked me to become the RTS sales manager. So I started selling RTS and within two years I became the largest RTS distributor globally. I learned a lot about the business I have to admit.
“Then in ’98 I had a new client that I couldn’t service without a new system. I told the client they needed to give me a little bit of time but would get what they wanted and they agreed. So, I left RTS and went my own way. The system was for a nationwide intercom system for Austrian television. Crazy of the Austrians to give a contract to a small company, for a system which doesn’t exist based on some drawings and my nice face. But they did. So, that was the first generation of the Artist Intercom which I introduced in 2000.
“Then in 2007 I got the opportunity to acquire a start-up company called Medianet. So, I invested another couple of million to upgrade that to HD and relaunched that in 2009 and today it’s one third of our product business.
“So, you can call it coincidence, you can call it just hard work – I would just say it’s probably a combination of everything. You could say it has all started with magic – and there’s very much still an element of magic involved.”
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