Part III – Sport timekeeping and technological developments since 1970
HEUER Centigraph had already greatly improved timekeeping, especially in motor racing with the Le Mans version; this electronic device represented a huge technological gap compared to the traditional manual mechanical chronographs. Performance requirements and constraints in formula 1 led HEUER to develop new time-measuring systems. Thanks to transponders, competitors could be tracked, time calculation was automated with computers, and monitors were introduced. From 1/10th of a second in the early 70s, results were displayed in 1/1000th at the dawn of the 80s.
These advances helped to change timing habits. The small, traditional stands at the side of the track, housing timekeepers with mechanical stopwatches and pads of paper, were replaced by monitors linked together by endless cables.
A. Overview of developed technologies
1. Photocells and speedmeter
Photocells were often combined with a speedmeter, developed by HEUER in the 1970s, to calculate vehicle speed.
What is a photocell (visual 1) ? In the early 70s, it was a kind of car headlight, embedding a small transistor and combined with a receiver. When the light beam was cut off by a car, it gave a timing impulse. That’s it for the first photocells.
Then came the first evolution with infrared. A transmitter sent a signal to a reflector, returning it. No return signal meant a car was passing. However this system was distance limited . The solution was to place the receiver and transmitter on opposite sides of the track. This installation was most widely used at the late 70s, in motor racing but also in skiing where track widths were huge (up to 50 metres).
Formula 1 international federation banned photocells on bends after an accident on the Paul Ricard circuit. A car went out at high speed in the Signes curve, located after the Mistral straight and were photocells were installed. A real but too dangerous skittle game.
HEUER also developed bidirectional photocells targeting well-defined points thanks to hight accurate optics. They were positioned inside bend toward the track and measured contrast and light change. Pulse could be triggered from the same side of the circuit (without a reflector or transmitter on the other side). It was a highly specialised product sold a little in Formula 1 and skiing. Their main drawback was the difficulty to handle it and set the sensitivity. Depending on the sun intensity or the car color, reaction changed (precision was not the same with red or white cars). A good expertise was needed to adjust them.
In the mid-70s, HEUER released the speedmeter, a car speed measuring device. Two photocells, separated by a known distance, were connected to the device, which calculated the speed.
The speedmeter (visual 2) has been an excellent product for HEUER. Lot of them were sold in Formula 1. Imagine the Paul Ricard circuit straight line… Without exaggeration, there was a forest of tripods mounted photocells because most of teams had bought an installation to get their car passing speeds. Teams jealously kept secret its measurements.
2. Car identification with transponders
a. Presentation and demonstration of a revolutionary timing system, the ACIT, at the Nivelles Grand Prix in 1974
The ACIT (Automatic Car Identification Timinig system) was a set of small transponders (transmitters enabling identification of a car crossing the finish line). These had to be fixed to the car roll bar (security piece behind the driver’s helmet). They emitted a highly directional vertical signal. The receiving antenna, fitted sensors, had to be installed above the track on the start/finish line. The signals received were sent to a computer, recording each car lap times and its number. Information was processed to calculate lap number, lap times, gaps and speeds, and to rank competitors . These informations could be transmitted directly to TV monitors, distributed to teams, to officials and to the press room. It could also be printed out or broadcast on television.
Moving this installation to Nivelles was an adventure. The huge wardrobe size computer weighed well weighed well over 100 kilos. It was loaded with essential accessories, screens and various instruments in a caravan towed by HEUER’s Volvo. On the motorway, this over weight was close to have dramatic consequences, destabilising the caravan which brushed the verges on several occasions ! Imagine rolling over with all that equipment! It wouldn’t have been good publicity!
This demonstration gave us the opportunity to introduce a revolutionary timing concept to Bernie Ecclestone and the FISA (Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile) [editor’s note: motorsport international federation]. HEUER was enthusiastically received and congratulated : “It’s fantastic HEUER what you do! It’s fantastic!”.
ACIT was a hight complex system needed large investment to finalise and organise it, and a large staff to run it. HEUER could not invest such a budget without external help. Marlboro could have help us (visual 3). They were making huge investments in Formula 1. Jack Heuer and I had good contacts with their directors. We explained to them we have not enought financial ressources for the manufacturing and the industrialisation. Unfortunately, this approach did not work
b. Data Speed transponders and 3M adhesive tape
Use of the ‘vertical’ transponders planned for the ACIT was finaly too complex. So the development of new transponders suited with a ground receiving antenna was necessary. A solution was found with the Dataspeed compagny, I discovered during a trip to Long Beach in the United States. At the time, they were carrying out tests on Formula Atlantic cars. Their transponders, small boxes with a side antenna, were placed at the car front. I explained to these people I was working for HEUER, a Swiss company specialising in motor sport timekeeping. We invited them to Switzerland to demonstrate their technology and find a solution for Formula 1.
Installation of a ground reception antenna (known as a loop) rose a problem. Owners did not want any modifications to their racetrack.
The solution came from the well-known sticker manufacturer 3M. We bought them white aluminium strips, originally designed for road safety, we used as a receiver loop. It took at least half a day to set up. Just imagine! Jean Campiche on all fours on the asphalt brushing the track, removing the dust, applying the glue, then stretching the tape ! And to make sure it was firmly in place, we tapped the tape along its entire length with rubber hammers.
This solution worked prerry well, but many problems appeared in use: antenna degradation during the race, partial tearing off during qualifying with the use of soft tyres, and influence of safety rails too close to the track, as in Monaco. But here again, solutions have been found.
At the late 70s, this timing system was adopted, adapting the Data Speed transponders; the box was in the cockpit and the antenna came out under the suspension triangle at the front
c. Ongoing developments with Longines
At the end of 1979, in a bad economical context (japanese business competition and beginning of the watchmaking crisis), HEUER had to give up its partnership with Ferrari and its timekeeping department. In 1980, Longines took over the contract with Ferrari, and Jean Campiche was part of this transfer. The equipment and developments carried out by HEUER were also transferred. Longines continued to use the Dataspeed transponders. Their engineers hardldy tryed to improve performance but without the excepted results. New transponders were developed but proved to be perfectible and unreliable for perfect timing. That was a big problem, especially as the company was the official formula 1 timekeeper .
In 1992, Tag HEUER assisted by Olivetti became the official formula 1 timekeeper. This association stopped at the end of 1993, following financial problems and conflicts with Bernie Ecclestone. In 1994, Bernie decided to continue with Tag HEUER as official timekeeper and develop an entire absolutely gigantic and incredible new IT structure to manage IT.
d. Tag HEUER come back and AMB transponders
For several years, I had been lobbying for director Christian Viros, director of Tag HEUER [in 1985, HEUER became Tag HEUER], for a return of the society to Formula 1. At first, he wasn’t really enthusiastic, finding the project too expensive. But it finally happened in autumn 1991. I planned a meeting with Olivetti and Bernie Ecclestone at Monza. After a long discussion, Tag HEUER returned to Formula 1 as official timekeeper. Bernie Ecclestone, who well knew HEUER’s (and Tag HEUER’s) involvement in motor sports, enjoyed it.
For transponders , formual 1 and Tag HEUER formed a partnership with the Dutch company AMB, Olivetti had begun to working with in the Longines days. AMB was a well-known manufacturer. It supplied its transponders to racing cars and motorbikes worldwide. Initially, we wanted Tag HEUER to be involved in the development of their equipments. AMB wanted to keep their technology exclusive but worked very well with Tag HEUER and formula 1. The transponders got the Tag HEUER name.
e.1995: the transponder becomes the king of timekeeping
Transponder times were compared to photocells to prove their accuracy. Depending on the circuit and the car speed, a 2 to 4 thousandths of a second time difference could be observed ! Not accurate enough ! I forbade formula 1 to use the transponder as the main timing system… That’s the Jean Campiche’s character ! I wanted to guarantee a precision between the photocell and the transponder times. Transponder were fixed as low as possible under the car and at the same position for all the teams.
It was only in 1995, after these improvements, the transponder became the main timing system, speeding up information processing and time display (visual 5). Until then, it was necessary to wait the computer got cell and transponder informations to compare and validate them with the car numbers. That’s why results were displayed with a delay when you watched a grand prix on television.
f. Jumpstart and transponders
This innovative system has been used by formula 1 and Tag HEUER since 1995. It detected false starts with transponders and sensors in tarmac drilled holes at the start of the race (visuals 4 and 5). As the car moved, transponder signal intensity , received by the sensor, varied. We were able to detect a car moving before the starting light turned green.
A yellow line on the track showed to the driver where to place his car to be correctly aligned with the receiver.
During the first Grand Prix with this novelty, few drivers, not yet used with it, were penalised for early starts or incorrect car position.
Then in 1996, pit stops were fitted with jumpstart sensors. The car at a standstill was detected and the pitstop timer was stopped when the car restarted. The time was not always 100% reliable, because the formula 1 car was not always well positioned to make the correct measurement. That’s why today we wait pitstop time validation before displaying it.
3. Use of images in timing
a. Video and control in formula 1
In Formula 1, three timing systems were used: transponders (the main one), photocells and finish line camera. If one failed, you could rely on the others. Some people claimed that two systems were enough! No ! There was never enough safety ! And the 1994 Hockenheim Grand Prix is an eloquent example!
At the start of this race, a huge crash happened, damaging a photocell and the finish line reception antenna. For three laps our timing was no longer functional… No more information on television! You can imagine how this kind of incident caused my first grey hairs! Fortunately, technicians quickly fixed it. Everything was working again, but times of three laps were missing. The video saved us ! Using images with times overlaid, three first lap times of all competitors were calculated.
The onboard cameras have also helped us to make checks. For example, shortly after the jumpstart setting up, a team contested a penalty for a false start detected by the system. I think it was at the British Grand Prix. Thanks to the onboard camera image of the car behind, we could prove that the false start had really happened. The video showed smoke around the tyres of the offending car, while the starting lights were still red. Their team manager was called in to see the footage. He should admit that it was correct.
b. 10,000th of a second camera
In indycar, cars often run an oval in less than a minute, at 350 or even 400 kilometres per hour. During the qualifying sessions, car could have the same 1,000th of a second timing. So a guaranteeing 10,000th of a second timing system was considered. Their equipment, was tested but it wasn’t precise enough. So we replaced it with our own tried and tested equipment.
To guarantee the 10,000th of a second, I asked to use cameras. They were already using Finish lynx models . A development was made to visualise a car every 10,000th of a second.
I aked the camera time to be used as a reference to check the transponder and photocell results. For disputed cases, with two competitors separated by few 10,000ths of a second, the camera image was the reference. In fact, photocells were not enought accurate for 360 kilometres per hour cars. For your information, 1/10,000th of a second between two cars at this speed represents just 1 CENTIMETRE.
After having timed in Indy, we could say: “Tag HEUER guarantees you a 10,000th of a second accuracy timekeeping”. We have used these technologies for other events, including the ‘Race of Champions’ at the Stade de France. Jean Christophe Babin [editor’s note: Tag HEUER CEO at the time] wanted this precision, which was useful for some very tight finishes.
B. Jean Campiche’s role in the developments
Although I was an electronics engineer, I didn’t design products. I was there to say, “This is what we could do… What application should work in what conditions”. My role was to get the needed informations to create a new product , or to improve an existing one. I was also monitoring main electronic innovations to incorporate them into our developments. I was more a guide than someone spending all his time in laboratories.
Nevertheless, I was actively involved in designing small timekeeping devices.
C. Changes in the timing industry
Over the last 20 years, timekeeping, especially in motor sport, has evolved from a manual way of working to automatic and ultra-accurate electronic systems. Technological innovations have been accompanied by major changes in main timekeeping player organisation.
1. From trackside stands to the computerisation of the profession
At the beginning of my career in timekeeping, working conditions were pretty spartan. I remember the Montreal grand prix (visual 6) where, with the Ferrari mechanics, we set up a stand at the side of the track to house our equipment.
We also had to deal with the weather conditions. When it rained, we had no choice but to open the umbrella. I remember two grand prix events where it was snowing and the temperature was close to zero degrees. It was freezing cold !
Some well-known photos show me sitting on crates at the Nürburgring. They were taken at a rather difficult time. I had recently taken up my position as Ferrari’s official timekeeper and was working alone. It wasn’t easy, mostly for the several hours endurance races. For one of my first races, the 6 Hours of Vallelunga, I had to set up everything and took care of the timekeeping. Technically, everything had to work and … the man had to be functionnal too ! When you had a 6 hours timing session, drinking 3 Cokes was a bad idea, because going to the toilet was impossible. So imagine the 1000 kilometres of the Nürburgring or the 24 hours of Le Mans.
Most of the time, you had to be ‘resourceful’. In formula 1, friends helped me to record speeds and times. They sat on crates to note down, on a paper pad, measurements we analysed at the end of the tests.
From 1978, the Olivetti P6040 (visual 7), the first Olivetti portable computer, was recording times and printing rankings, a task manually done until then. All I had to do was pressing a button when Mauro Forghieri [editor’s note: Scuderia Ferrari’s technical department director] said to me ‘Jean! Classifica! ‘. The needle printer slowly and noisily outputed the document which annoyed Forghieri who yelled “Più velocce! Più velocce! [editor’s note: faster faster in italian].
In 1986, fourteen years after the start of my adventure with Ferrari, I wasn’t really timing anymore, but dubbing. I was checking the official timekeeping was correct. I didn’t feel no longer very useful, maybe like these workers replaced by artificial intelligence today. So I said stop.
2. Formula 1 timing reorganisation
a. Formula 1 and national federations
For examples, car races was timed by timekeepers from the ‘ federazione dei cronometristi ‘ , in Italy, and from the ‘ fédération française du sport automobile’ (FFSA) [editor’s note: national federation of motor racing] in France. Each country had its own timekeeping system and it was a problem. They weren’t familiar with cars or the drivers’ helmets and weren’t used to timing them. As a result, there could have been identification errors, as well as calculation errors.
On several occasions, I went to the official timekeepers. I entered into the timing tower, ‘ knock, knock, knock ‘, and seeing my face, they exclaimed: ‘ Something’s wrong? Something is wrong? ‘. With my timing tape, I could explain there was a mistake or an incorrect time. Calculations were checked. It could be a decimal problem but most of time cars were simply reversed. At the beginning, people asked me who I was, but after two years, they knew me … very well!
By contesting some errors, I changed grand prix starting grid rankings. Ferrari was pretty happy to swap a third position for a front-row second-position, after one of my interventions. I also successfully proved Regazzoni had the best race lap time. The timing tape was really useful.
b. Arrival of an official timekeeper in Formula 1
In 1982, Longines became the first official timekeeper for Formula 1, bringing an end to the organization of national federations or groups of timekeepers. Longines had taken over HEUER’s concepts and improved the timing system, in particular the calculation speeds. Computer technology was developing and information was broadcasted on the first monitors.
Initially, there were problems with these installations. When it rained, short circuits occurred on the cables. Waves transmisting times could be disrupted by other communication systems, creating zigzags on monitors. It took time for these new systems to become really reliable. I remained Ferrari’s timekeeper with Longines until 1986 to ensure this transition. Longines was the official formula 1 timekeeper until 1991 and was replaced by Tag HEUER in 1992.
3. Swiss timing
In 1972, in an innovative but crisis and competitive environment, Longines, Omega and then HEUER joined forces to form the “Swiss timing” pool.
Swiss timing’s aim was to defend Swiss precision against foreign competition, primarily Japanese companies like Seiko, Citizen, etc.. These three companies remained independent. This association signed major timekeeping contracts, including for the Olympic Games. I remember we timed luge and bobsleigh for the winter games in Lake Placid in 1980, and military and jumping show for the summer games in Moscow the same year.
In 1986 Swiss timing was transformed. It stop being an association of independent companies and became, after a decision of Nicolas Hayek [Editor’s note: President of Swatch], a Swatch Group entity alongside Omega, Longines, Rado, Tissot… It focused exclusively on timekeeping.
D. Review and thoughts
1. Technological innovation for precision
I was lucky enough to have the skills and motivation to work in a demanding profession at the heart of the technological revolutions of the last decades ! Tag HEUER has always sought innovations to guarantee the greatest precision, particularly in high speeds sport disciplines (Formula 1, skiing and even sailing with 80 kilometres per hour catamarans !).
From my beginning, in mechanical chronograph era, to the official timekeeping of Formula 1, via the Centigraph Le Mans, precision has always been a must and a duty ! You couldn’t just sell anything to sportsmen who trained and performed, sometimes at the risk of their lives.
In formula 1, timekeeping went from 1/10th in the early 1970s to 1/100th in 1978. Only four years later, grand prix races were officially timed to 1/1000th. Then Tag HEUER brought 1/10,000th to indycars ! When I left the company in 2009, I had equipment measuring up to 1/100,000th of a second !
To conclude this point, I would like to read a text I wrote for a 2004 catalogue; it perfectly sums up my vision of timekeeping at HEUER and Tag HEUER : “Placed among the leaders of professional sports watches, Tag HEUER is also in direct contact with the greatest sporting events, because timekeeping requires excellent technical mastery. To translate human exploits into minutes, seconds and thousandths of a second, Tag HEUER has chosen to place all its knowledge at the service of all those who have to sanction these performances”.
2. Using innovations sparingly
a. Data display: more is not always better…
With progress in timing equipment and computer technology, a growing amount of data could be processed. But should all of them be used systematically just because they were available ? I think we needed to be measured…
In Formula 1, Bernie Ecclestone absolutely wanted to display as much information as possible on television screens, certainly to showcase his personal timing system. I had a lot of argues with him on this subject. In my opinion, the viewer wanted to see cars, the difficulty of driving them… not data listings everywhere. Video had to remain the central element, especially as the cameras offered magnificent picture shots, including the onboard cameras.
Information was there to create suspense, to help understanding the race and to evaluate the teams’ strategy… ‘. After a tyre change, is a driver faster per lap, does he make up the gap ? Is the time with his predecessor shorter with the team’s new strategy?
In skiing, some recent ‘chronometric performances’ have, in my opinion, killed all the suspense. At the Méribel 2023 world championships, Longines deployed a new system, tracking the skier all the way; antennaes along the piste located the skier, equipped with a transponder attached to the back of his shoe. You knew live whether the skier improved his time, slowed down, or if he was going to win, even before crossing the finish line ! What’s the point ? It kills the suspense ! Where are the emotions ? For me, it’s gone too far.
Usually, split times were displayed when the skier reached checkpoints. Spectators had to wait until the competitor passed one of them to find out whether he had taken first place at that stage of the race. This wait created tension and excitement!
b. Choose the most appropriate precision
i. Detection system
The right precision depends on the sport discipline. From 1/100th of a second, manual timing has no sense. It’s bullshit. Humans have a too long time reaction to have any use [editor’s note: human time reaction is around 1/10th of a second]. You need at least a photocell.
At 1/10,000th, the photocell is no longer sufficient. Higher accuracies are not realistic in sports timing.
ii. Sports disciplines and precision
The selected accuracy also depends on the sport and the facilities.
In Formula 1, cars are very fast. Timing to 1/1000th is judicious. Despite this high precision, there were rare occasions when drivers achieved the same times. The press had a field day. It was in 97, at the last grand prix of the season, in Jerez. Schumacher, Villeneuve and Frentzen set exactly the same time. Journalists thought it was impossible to have three times in the same 1/1000th of a second. Articles began to appear. For months, I had to respond and explain, with technical proofs, that 1/1000th was guaranteed (and that there was no timing error)! I remember the following year, when I was in the press room, two times with the same thousandth of a second were displayed on the monitors. I proudly said: “Hey guys ! Sorry ! Have a look ! Two times excatly in the 1/1000th of second. Maybe a third one is coming soon !”
In Indycar, cars are a little faster and run an oval in less than a minute. Having identical times within 1/1000th of a second happened quite often. That’s why it was decided to switch to 1/10,000th of a second timing.
However, the quest for high precision at any price can be pointless, even counter-productive. That’s what happened at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Swiss timing proudly announced swimming events would be timed at 1/1000th of a second. At the end of a race, two swimmers were only 1/1000th apart. This tiny difference caused quite a stir. Someone measured the pool and it turned out that its construction was not precise enough to guarantee a 1/1000th of second timing. As a result, the timing reverted to 1/100th of a second.
And for skiing, even though the times are measured and calculated to 1/1000th, it had been decided with the federation that the calculated results should be given to 1/100th os second. The starting procedure was not compatible with higher precision. The way the skier opens the gate can influence his time by several thousandths.