In today’s world, more than ever, communication is key. But it’s not always high-tech and constantly involving devices that prove the most useful, sometimes it’s a simple as a radio system to save crucial fractions of a second in this fast-paced environment.
During any MotoGP session you can see Team Suzuki Ecstar’s staff busily working in the pit box with a pair of blue headphones emblazoned with the ‘S’ logo. Far from these being used solely as noise-cancelling devices in an area where the roar of the engines can reach 115 decibels, they are a crucial ally in sharing information and linking team members spread far and wide.
“The range and coverage of this system is quite far reaching” explains Data Engineer, Claudio Rainato “this is because the technology comes from a military background and it’s a radio system, it doesn’t rely on WiFi or high frequency. This means it works well within a few kilometres and we can communicate all around the circuit without any problems.”
So, what use would a radio and microphone link with someone several kilometres away have on a circuit that is covered from all angles by cameras?
“You’d be surprised, but having a team member reporting to us can save precious seconds or even minutes and it’s vital. They can let us know quickly if there’s a crash or a problem, or even rain arriving. Otherwise, we have to wait for the rain to arrive in pitlane or we have to see it on the TV, so this type of communication in the right moment could save a lap, which could help you win or lose a race.”
There’s even the possibility for engineers in the factory to listen into the radio feed, although this is something tech-wizard Rainato describes as ‘the magic behind the scenes’ with a wry smile and a secretive twinkle in his eye.
Although there are some technical aspects the Italian is willing to go into:
“The basics are the headsets we wear, the radio and specific networks, software and hardware. There are some ‘critical’ messages that we need to ensure arrive as quickly as possible to the correct person, so within the system we need several channels; one channel for each side of the garage, and one main channel that the management can listen to which contains both sides. For example, for each rider the main crew for the comms. will be; the mechanics, the Crew Chief, and the Electronics Engineer. They are the ones who are basically speaking and listening to each other all the time. But Joan’s side cannot hear Alex’s side and vice versa. Then the Management - Team Manager and Project Leader – have another channel which allows them to listen to every communication on the network, but it’s very rare that they will speak unless really necessary. And the same goes for the people working in the back of the garage with the data, who only communicate if they notice something important changing on the bike parameters. Inside the garage we can also use an internal network to amplify and give a better separation of the channel that we need, so it’s a mixed system.”
No matter how good the technology though, human error is always a danger!
“The system works really well…when I actually remember to put the headset on!” laughs Mir’s Crew Chief, Frankie Carchedi. “I’d like to say that it always runs smoothly, but no matter how impressive the headsets are, sometimes I’ll leave the microphone sticking up or down, or forget to press the button to activate the mic., and my crew are asking me to repeat myself. The other thing that can go wrong is when I ask for information just as the bikes go blasting down the straight, and then I can’t hear a thing!”
But it turns out that, even if they’re not fool proof, these high-tech headsets can even save the team members from themselves…
“Having to press the button to speak does have its advantages…” Frankie says coyly “I can’t accidentally swear or shout in my team-mates’ ears or say something stupid when watching the TV monitors!”
The Brit and his side of the garage have found a great balance with their communication during the sessions, keeping it easy for everybody – “the majority of us speak several languages but we use English to make sure everybody understands clearly” – and communicating only the most crucial messages to cut out any unnecessary distractions.
“Each team has their own system, some people are constantly using the headsets and mics but we prefer to work in quiet. One team I worked for was the opposite, you could always hear them cheering through the headset, and it was pretty distracting! So we limit to essential messages only during sessions and the race, and then we might chat afterwards for anything extra. And whenever I’m speaking with Joan I tend to take the headset off completely – nothing worse than trying to have a conversation and having someone speaking in your ear at the same time. I can’t multitask like that!”
So what are the key messages shared between Crew Chief, crew, and rider? We asked Carchedi to divulge a few more details…
“We’re quite meticulous” he states with the sort of calm yet stern demeanour expected from a leader “We try to plan everything in advance, we’ll print a sheet of how many exits, how many laps, we’re pretty accurate and we try and stick to it. Then before the engines start we share info such as track temperature and which tyres are going in. We generally all know the plan beforehand, so that eliminates the need to talk a lot. There might be an occasion when you’ve seen something on the data when the rider’s gone out so you want to bring him in early, so I’ll ask the guys on pit wall to put BOX on the pitboard. Or if he’s doing really well and the plan was four laps, but you think ‘OK, we’ll add a few more laps because it’s going well.’ So it’s if the plan changes you use it, rather than telling people stuff constantly. Everyone knows their role and what to do.”
How much of this information is then shared with the rider, who usually only enters the pit box for very short stops during sessions and has many things to focus on?
“I actually don’t relay much of what I get told by the mechanics to Joan. For example, I might get information from the guys about the tyre temperatures and pressures – if it’s a bit high or low they’ll inform me over the radio and just confirm that they want to add air in or take air out. But I wouldn’t necessarily need to share that info with the rider. And I’m also less reliant on the headset as soon as the rider enters the box because when the bike comes in and gets hooked up to the computer, the data sharing is pretty instantaneous, so I just need a quick glance at the screen and then I’ll turn to Joan and fill him in.”
With technology constantly evolving and advancing, does a radio system almost seem outdated? And do the team see new ways to communicate amongst themselves and with the rider on track?
“Nowadays we have extra information that we can give to the rider even when he’s on track via the dashboard system, but just as we as a team prefer not to talk constantly with our headsets, we also prefer not to bombard the rider with stats or instructions on the dashboard.” Rainato states. “The main things we will tell him via the computer and dashboard display are whether he’s being followed by another rider during qualifying, if he has a problem with the bike, a reminder for an engine mapping change, or sometimes a ‘box call’ to bring him in. We’ll confirm this amongst ourselves on the headsets and then send the message out, it works well so we don’t feel the need for something more advanced.”
This is something that Carchedi feels strongly about: “The current technology is great, and something more advanced like ‘ship to shore’ radio where we speak directly with the rider simply wouldn’t work – this isn’t Formula 1, if you give a rider an audio message when he’s leaned over at 60 degrees it’s probably not going to end well! He knows what to do and we don’t feel the need to talk to him. The current headset system works and is crucial to the slick running of a session and I have no complaints…I can speak to someone on pitwall without running the gauntlet across pitlane!”