The German Grand Prix saw one of the greatest races of the modern era take place, with Max Verstappen storming to victory in changeable conditions.
Off the track, Formula 1 faced their own technical battle which nearly saw Saturday’s action plunged into darkness for half of the worldwide audience.
Writing in F1’s Media Pass ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix, Television Systems Group Manager Trevor Turner explained in further detail what happened.
Instead of copying and pasting his quotes word for word, it is worth analysing what Turner has said in detail, as Turner gives a fascinating insight into the intrinsic nature of motor sport broadcasting.
The World Feed
As this site revealed last month, there are four different versions of the F1 World Feed, catering for different regions.
Turner’s post reveals the nature of these feeds, and where they are distributed from:
- European feed – distributed from an on-site Eurovision Services up-link and fibre truck
- Asian feed – distributed from F1’s Media and Technology Centre in Biggin Hill
- American feed – distributed from F1’s Media and Technology Centre in Biggin Hill
It is likely that the fourth World Feed serves F1’s over-the-top broadcast, although Turner does not directly confirm this.
Additionally, Turner confirms that the Eurovision Services truck provides “additional transmission services for Canal+ in France and Movistar in Spain,” and is also the hub for all of F1’s additional feeds, such as the pit lane channel and on-board channels.
Over in the UK, F1’s Biggin Hill base also delivers digital content, such as social media, web and F1 TV content.
Tata Communications, F1’s official Connectivity Partner, provides different backups on-site, including a backup of the World Feed.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, a fire destroyed the Eurovision Services truck (referenced above) at the Hockenheim circuit. In other words, the German Grand Prix was facing blackout for all its audience across Europe. Swift co-operation was required between F1’s stakeholders, including F1, their broadcast partners, and Tata.
“While the truck itself looked relatively intact, inside it was completely destroyed,” Turner said.
“It quickly became clear that we were in real trouble. RTL [F1’s German broadcast partner] had already stepped up and arranged for two satellite trucks to be driven to Hockenheim (one from Frankfurt and another from Munich) but neither was expected to arrive before FP3.”
Broadcasters’ help F1 out ahead of FP3
With the Eurovision Services truck out of action, the Asian international feed became a far more important asset than in previous events.
Geneva is home to Eurovision Services, which is a subsidiary of the more widely recognised European Broadcasting Union (EBU). It is this facility which played a key part in getting the feeds to air, as Turner explains.
“So, the first solution was to use the Asian international feed at our UK Media Technology Centre to cover the loss of transmissions over Europe (now which were no longer possible directly from the track) and Eurovision teams in Geneva to plan transmission of this feed in both HD and UHD formats from an alternative fixed satellite facility,” Turner notes.
My day-to-day job (Senior Data Engineer for those interested) involves me hearing the phrases ‘upstream changes’ and ‘downstream changes’ daily. How do changes up the chain affect me, and how will changes I make affect those further along on the chain?
I can only imagine that those pieces of terminology are commonplace in broadcasting, except the risk involved is significantly greater.
A sport beamed to millions of viewers worldwide on a bi-weekly basis, any change presents high risk if not thoroughly tested. Other parties stepped up to help introduce additional fail-safes, including both UK broadcasters, preventing further issues from occurring during the weekend.
European feed – ‘business as usual’ process
- Content generated at track
- Transmitted across Europe via Eurovision Services truck
European feed – Germany process
- Content generated at track
- Content sent via Tata’s fibre links to F1’s Biggin Hill HQ
- Content passed from F1’s Biggin Hill HQ to Eurovision Services’ Geneva HQ
- Transmitted across Europe via Eurovision Services’ Geneva HQ
“Tata offered access to their on-site back up world feed satellite link to support the new transmission set-up we’d put in place for Europe,” says Turner. “In addition, RTL offered access via their fibre to Cologne and Sky UK’s Master Control Room (MCR) was on standby to support with signals which they also had available via F1 and Tata in London.”
Now having overcome the main hurdle, getting the third practice session on-air to its core audience, F1 next needed to understand how to facilitate the needs of their other stakeholders, as well as their own additional feeds.
From Biggin Hill to Geneva, and beamed worldwide
The additional feeds were more of a concern for F1, given that the feeds are not only used on F1 TV, but also by a variety of worldwide broadcasters, such as Sky Sports in the UK.
“That content is available at the UK Media and Technology Centre via Tata’s fibre links, so our Master Control Engineer, Russell Tree, managed to access those signals and configured some spare equipment to get those channels to Eurovision’s hub in Geneva where they were able to repackage them and get them to our clients.”
Canal+ and Movistar’s additional feeds followed a similar route to that of the additional track feeds, both passing through Geneva.
“We offered them access to F1’s social media and post-production edit video connections from the circuit to F1’s UK MCR where they were again on-passe to Eurovision,” says Turner. “This would restrict F1’s social and edit activity during FP3 and Qualifying but our colleagues in F1 editorial were happy to help given the gravity of the situation.”
All the hard work behind the scenes now complete and to the viewer at home, nothing had changed. Everyone was able to keep the show turning, which is a testament to those on the ground.
F1 pulls together in a near TV crisis
It is not unusual for behind the scenes technical issues to hit F1’s broadcasts, and for the individual crews to help one another out in the middle of a broadcast crisis.
Several years ago, Sky Sports stepped in to help the BBC when their graphics machine crashed, Sky helping to get the BBC programme back on the road. Rivals on-screen, a camaraderie atmosphere exists off it.
The system that F1 collectively implemented for the third practice session in Germany remained in place throughout the remainder of the weekend, only suffering minor hiccups with their Ultra HD offering on Sunday. The two RTL trucks that arrived at the track following FP3 were not utilised to avoid additional risk.
Turner was extremely happy with how the weekend turned out.
“We were able to broadcast FP3 live without any issues. It was real team effort and the assistance we received from all our partners – at Eurovision, Tata Communications, RTL, Sky – was brilliant,” says Turner.
“It really was a bit like a Formula 1 team arriving on Saturday morning to find they got a problem and need to do an engine change in a real hurry. In fact, it was worse. It was like opening the garage and finding that the car’s gone!”
“If I was calling it as a race result, I’d say we started in 20th and won the race. So, one place better than Sebastian!”
The additional resources F1 implemented for Germany will remain in place this weekend, as the championship heads to Budapest for the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Thanks to Darshan Chokhani (@DarshanChokhani) for alerting me to the quotes.