On-screen graphics are regularly evolving to aid fans' understanding of F1, while fresh camera angles and techniques are constantly explored to bring the on-track action alive.
But no camera angle has got as close to giving fans a true feeling of what it is like inside the F1 cockpit than Driver's Eye. Through a small 9mm x 9mm camera fitted to the padding of the helmet, fans are able to get a closer understanding of what the drivers can see through the visor, offering some spectacular footage.
One of the finest moments last year came at the opening race in Bahrain, when Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen duelled for a series of laps for the lead. The F1 TV directors were able to switch to the Driver's Eye camera in Leclerc's helmet throughout the scrap, giving some incredible insight into how a race-winning overtake is executed from the cockpit.
Designing a camera that is capable of delivering broadcast footage while fitting within the safety requirements of the helmet was a big challenge. Alex Haristos, the chief operating officer of the Racing Force Group that founded and owns the Driver's Eye technology, explains to Motorsport.com that safety was the number one priority throughout development in order to gain the support of the FIA.
“We didn't start from: 'We need to have a camera with the best image' – we started from safety requirements," Haristos explains. "We worked backwards on this. That was the challenging bit, because we found the right position next to the driver's eye, on the liner that is the protective padding. The camera has to be smaller than the size of the liner when it bottoms out, so the face of the driver doesn't get in touch with the camera."
Driver’s Eye Camera detail
Photo by: Racing Force Group
A camera and the required sensors were found to fit the small space, and the wider electronics were hooked up through the car with a very thin cable into the helmet. Haristos says it was a breakthrough after "six or seven official attempts" to integrate camera technology to the driver's helmet.
“Ours was the first one, and it was a big success," he says. "I didn't even realise it at first probably, but people were waiting for it."
But there wasn't the immediate clamour from F1 to get the technology into its coverage, prompting Haristos and his partners to talk to Formula E, who he says were "very receptive." It proved to be the perfect development ground for Driver's Eye, even if concerns from teams about broadcasting the footage on the steering wheel dashboards meant some elements had to be blurred out.
But long-term, the goal was always to work in F1 – and little time was wasted once the exclusivity window expired in the summer of 2021. "After 10 days, we were in Spa with Fernando Alonso and we ran that first test," says Haristos. "It was extremely exciting."
Haristos recalls standing in the F1 broadcast centre along with its TV chiefs, Roberto Dalla and Dean Locke, as they watched the first F1 footage come through using Driver's Eye. It was only meant to be an initial test, but that quickly changed. "After a few seconds, they looked at it, and said: 'Can we air it? We would like to air it!'" he recalls. “I said yeah, OK, let's do that. As soon as they did that, like 30 seconds, one minute after that, all the phones in the room started ringing! Everyone wanted to know what that was."
Driver's Eye soon escalated to become an important part of F1's TV offering as part of a fully customised project for the series. All drivers using Bell helmets – Bell being part of the Racing Force Group – had the cameras fitted last year, while refinements were made with the positioning of the camera to offer an improved angle and improved stabilisation, albeit without losing the rawness that makes the footage so authentic and close to what the drivers experience. Haristos feels the technology was "very well accepted" across F1 in a win-win situation for all parties. "We do business with Formula 1, Formula 1 is producing content and it can sell to the broadcaster, and the teams, they get more exposure," he says. "And in a unique way for the first time, the driver gets personal exposure as well."
Driver’s Eye Camera detail
Photo by: Racing Force Group
Zhou Guanyu joked last year the angle of Driver's Eye made it a "nightmare for me to analyse my driving line compared to the other [cameras]", but recognised it was "very cool footage" for fans, who remained the target audience. "It's more for the audience," he added. "But for the team, they can see what you are changing on the switches as well, which makes it less private." Unlike Formula E, there was no blurring of the various messages or movements on the steering wheel in F1.
The success of Driver's Eye has prompted a full roll out across the grid for 2023, as requested by the F1 Commission in a meeting last year. Haristos says the modular design of the Driver Eye camera meant it could be tweaked as needed to fit rival manufacturers' helmets. "The key was to develop in the first place something with already the vision of how modular it would be to adapt to different contexts," he explains. "When we started this project, the dream scenario was that this technology would be available for everybody. This technology was the one thing that put us [manufacturers] all working in the same direction, and we gave all the support to adapt the technology and the way we install the technology to adapt it to their helmet.
The current Driver's Eye camera is generation 2.5, and has already reduced in weight by almost 50% (2.5g down to 1.4g) and in size from an initial 21mm x 12mm to the current 9mm x 9mm from the first generation. But as further advances are made, thought is being given to other uses even beyond motorsport.
"Skiing is a very good example," he says. "Can you imagine going down the slope, having that immersive view? But you don't have a car. You only have the athlete. You have safety regulations. Where do you get the power supply, and so on?"
Within motorsport, the interest stirred by Driver's Eye could see it reach right across the racing world, even in closed-cockpit series like NASCAR and sportscar racing. "The possibility to give the audience this immersive experience from the point of view of the driver is something appealing for everybody," says Haristos. "It's very well received, even in closed cars. I'm going to be at the opening of the Supercars season in Australia in March, and we're going to roll it out there. It's very exciting."
It may not be much use for the drivers and teams from a practical point of view, but in the Drive to Survive era where fan demand is growing to greater appreciate the driver's experience, Driver's Eye has broken big boundaries.
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