The voice of McLaren LIVE
Throughout the 2013 season, McLaren LIVE has brought you closer to the action with live commentary and radio chat relayed directly from inside the garage, complementing the live feed of race data and telemetry. We caught up with the man behind this unique application for an exclusive insight into how we tell the story amongst the intense environment of an F1 garage.
Where are you actually based during the sessions?
I’m of no fixed abode! I’ll be somewhere in the garage but tend to move about, depending on what’s going on. If there’s 20 mechanics swarming around one of the cars desperately trying to repair it in time for the session, then it’s generally a good idea to be somewhere else.
Where would I like to be? On my wishlist is a flat surface, an unrestricted view of both cars and eyeballs on a monitor showing a live TV feed and timing data. Often that means setting up next to Kari Lammenranta, Checo’s mechanic, and hogging his laptop. He’s usually too busy looking after the car need it himself but always has a set of windows open displaying the various feeds.
How easy is it to work in a busy pit garage?
That depends on the garage! They vary in size from racetrack to racetrack: cavernous at some, cosy at others. The smaller the garage, the harder it is to get things done. It calls for a certain level of situational awareness: keeping away from tyre trolleys, standing clear when the crew need to reel out an air gun or get to a tool drawer. Just generally staying out of the way!
Of course the garage isn’t busy on race day. With the cars on the grid the garage is empty and baring disaster, it stays that way all afternoon. Saturdays are more complicated; the cars are going out and coming in dozens of times. The easiest thing to do is to work wherever a car isn’t – so if Jenson’s on track, work on his side of the garage, when he’s coming in, move over to Checo’s side and vice versa.
Can you give us an insight into how you’re actually doing the job?
The kit is pretty simple: Laptop, headset, data feeds, eyeballs. The cans are set to the generic garage channel, picking up comms from the pitwall, the drivers, their engineers and crew. The other sources of information are the two big screens on the garage walls showing the live action, plus timing info from various places. Usually that’s McLaren’s bespoke feed.
The posts are about setting the scene, reporting the facts, passing along what the engineers and drivers are saying and maybe clarifying that with observations of my own. The latter are frequently generated from briefings kindly supplied before the sessions by principal race engineer Phil Prew or sporting director Sam Michael.
In terms of getting the word out, the garage has it’s own wifi network, the McLaren LIVE CMS is web-based so there’s no special software to download and the headsets charge themselves between the sessions when plugged into the rack. There’s a massive amount of technology in the background to make it all work so that it’s idiot-proof for me at the front-end.
What’s the most interesting or revealing aspect about being right at the heart of the action?
Perhaps the most revealing aspects are the sheer complexity of preparing a car to race and the enormous amount of work required to make that race successful. Watching F1, even watching it from inside the paddock, it’s easy to fall into thinking that it all just happens: to win, the team with the fastest car simply has to show up. The reality that’s brought home by working on McLaren LIVE is that, even with the best car and a driver at the top of his game, there’s still dozens of other things that have to be done absolutely perfectly to give that driver any chance of winning.
Process perhaps isn’t the most glamorous facet of F1 but getting it right is just as important as building a fast car or hiring a demon driver.
What’s the best bit about doing the job?
It broadens your knowledge but doesn’t dampen your enthusiasm. In fact the extra insight makes it more exciting and increases your enjoyment, which is a rare thing indeed. Hopefully some of that comes across.
…it’s also nice when people say they enjoyed the coverage.
…it’s also also nice that at the end of the race everyone in the garage has an ice-cream.
And what’s the most difficult aspect?
Balancing what to say and what not to say is always the big challenge. You’re wary of giving away too much but equally, worried about not providing enough insight.
When is usually your most intense part of the weekend?
Usually qualifying and particularly Q2. The cars are being cycled in and out of the garage and every lap tends to count. With the grid so tight at the moment, it’s perfectly possible for anyone to miss out on Q3. That means the team are always taking it to the very edge in terms of timing their runs. It’s an astoundingly intense period of activity, but also very exciting and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
That said, you can have a very intense pocket of activity at any time. During the race in Hungary there was a perfect example of that: the order was fairly static, then suddenly Checo came in for a pitstop and would be racing cars for position at the exit. But as he hit the pitlane limiter, Jenson had a collision with Romain Grosjean on the other side of the circuit and was radioing that he had damage. Checo hammered out and got into a melee at Turn One that could decide his race while Jenson came through the pitlane so the crew could take a look at the car and see if his car was critically wounded. That was a fairly intense 20 seconds.
Are you in contact with the mechanics or engineers during the session?
I can hear them on the radio but otherwise, no, not at all – they have rather more important stuff to do during the session. At most there might be a glance or a raised eyebrow when something very interesting happens.
Are you transcribing every element of the conversations between the team?
Ah… hmmm… let's just say that we share as much as we possibly can. We wouldn’t transcribe anything that gives away race strategy, or talks about specific setup choices. Basically anything that our rivals might like to know is off-limits.
In short, what we’re trying to do is to give everyone at home a flavour of what’s going on, and maybe a broader appreciation of how the team works during a race weekend – the intention isn’t to describe ever single aspect of car performance and race strategy.
Likewise, we won’t transcribe conversations that get too… spicy. F1 drivers play rough and it’s not unknown for them to get on the radio and vent to the team! It raises a smile in the garage – particularly if the race engineer deadpans back “message understood”, or “we’ll discuss that in the debrief,” but printing it wouldn’t be a good idea. We know everyone would love to hear it but aside from the obvious issues with profanity, it’s a little too much like telling tales out of school.
– of course that level of restraint backfires spectacularly if TV then broadcasts the message to half a billion viewers but that’s out of our hands.
Are there particular circuits or environments in which it’s better to work than others? Which are your favourites?
McLaren build the same garage every race, from the colour of the floor paint up to the lighting rigs suspended from the ceiling, so the only real differences from track to track are the width of the garage (wider is better) and the ambient conditions. Hot and humid races are hard work. South-East Asia obviously but also somewhere like Valencia where the garage is built under a tin roof. It’s all relative though: sharing the garage with mechanics in heavy, flame-proof overalls sometimes working inches away from brake disc merrily glowing at 600°C, you realise how much worse it could be.
In terms of the best places to work, it’s always great when you have a narrow pitlane and there’s a full grandstand directly opposite. When you can see the crowd and hear the buzz coming off it, that’s absolutely brilliant. Hearing the crowd roar when the formation lap gets underway definitely give you a shiver.
What’s been your worst equipment nightmare?
As you might expect, the garage wifi infrastructure is much hardier than anything you’d get at home, so equipment problems tend to be generated by external factors. The obvious one is when the timing goes down or goes wrong. It gets very lonely when you’re suddenly staring at a page of frozen numbers and don’t have a clue what’s going on.
Likewise when the comms aren’t clear it can be difficult figuring out what’s happening. The start of the Monaco Grand Prix this year was quite difficult – with thousands of mobile phones being used a few metres away on the grid, the interference from all of those microwave transmissions was making it very hard to hear anything the drivers were saying.