There are some speed junkies that race on the track. For the rest of us, the safest way to experience the adrenaline rush felt when you floor the accelerator is to watch motor sports broadcasts from the comfort of our living room.
But have you wondered what goes into ensuring that the broadcast is glitch-free? Consider Formula 1. According to a report, it takes around 300 hours of effort to set up the equipment two weeks before the Thursday of race week. Every race week, 22 km of fibre optic cables have to be laid; 10 km of data cables; and 10 km of the cables connecting 147 microphones positioned around the circuit. These are connected to a tent which houses 200 people glued to 415 TV screens and 288 computers—the nerve centre of the event.
The nerve centre is also connected to the teams’ racing headquarters, which could be thousands of miles away. For example, world champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes-AMG Petronas can speak to his engineers at the team’s headquarters in Brackley, England, irrespective of where he is racing. But that’s just one part of the story. The setup also provides the feed to broadcasters, who in turn beam them to millions of homes around the world. The global television reach of Formula 1 hit 490.2 million in the 2018 season, a growth of 10% year-on-year, according to a Nielsen Sports report.
At the heart of it all is an Indian company, Tata Communications, the official connectivity provider of Formula 1, since 2012. “Fundamentally for us it was about creating a capability showcase,” Mehul Kapadia, the global marketing head of the company, tells Fortune India from London. The company which began life as the erstwhile VSNL wanted to show that it would be able to deliver a whole stack of services reliably, through a layer of customer personalisation, in any part of the world.
Edited excerpts from a telephonic interview:
You’re Formula 1’s communications partner. What does the role entail?
We deliver a whole stack of services to them [the Formula 1 group]. We connect their offices in the U.K. with all the racetracks which are part of the Grand Prix. On top of that, they run a lot of their services—including voice, data, and video—and that allows them to do things like remote operations. So they have the ability, with a little joystick, to manage video cameras, and listen in to radio edits [which are done from the U.K.] while the race is happening in any part of the world. Then there is a stack of IT infrastructure services. For example, their website runs on our private cloud offering; we also give them a range of cybersecurity services.
Then if you look at the Mercedes team, each car has 150-200 sensors, generating thousands of data points in real time. We help them take real-time strategic decisions on whether they should pit, whether they need a tyre change, whether the driver needs to drive a different racing line—all the information that comes from the car, we help them take it back to their racing headquarters in Brackley (in the U.K.), and then the remote teams are able to make strategic calls.
The third part of the ecosystem is broadcasters like Sky Sports. For Sky Sports to run their Ultra HD feeds and their own remote operations, they have their hub in the U.K., which produces the feed for their channels. We allow them to create the whole package.
Weren’t you essentially an enterprise service provider before you entered sports technology?
Seven years back, we connected the globe. We were the world’s largest wholly-owned submarine cable network. We could provide a whole layer of connectivity services and voice services. What we have done in the last few years is that we are shaping ourselves into being a digital infrastructure services provider.
The foundation of the global reach and scale of what we can do at the collective level on top of it now creating business applications—whether it is collaborations, whether it is cloud services, whether it is security, whether it is mobility services, or IoT—we’ve been able to take the whole package and take it to our customers globally. The journey has helped us to mature from a global connectivity services provider to a global digital infrastructure services provider.
What other sports are you involved in, besides Formula 1?
We thought that if we could do it for Formula 1, we could do it for any sport. So we do a whole range of sporting properties now—having developed what we could do at Formula 1—whether it is MotoGP, European PGA, the Pro Kabaddi League, or IPL and working with Star Sports to help do production.
We help Star Sports redefine the way production happens in India. What we are helping them with is our ultra-low latency TV networks, they can connect stadiums across the country to their production hub, where they are able to create feeds such as in regional languages, and able to do remote production.
Is there a common platform on which you build your sports technology products?
Fundamentally, the underlying platform that we use at a global level is consistent. Because irrespective of the sport there are certain aspects like—how does video content need to flow, how do you build an ultra-low latency network, how do you help remote operations—these fundamental principles and the technology layers in that remain the same.
What we adapt more is the service layer to serve different needs. If you look at Formula 1, their operations typically start off from Tuesdays-Wednesdays… by Thursday they have done the full testing. If you look at golf, people work for a longer period of time; if you look at Moto GP, that’s a shorter period of time.
Again, there are nuances like golf tournaments will always happen at permanent golf courses, whereas in Formula 1, some of the races happen in the middle of the street. If you look at Singapore or Monaco, there’s no permanent infrastructure there. So there’s the challenge of setting up temporary infrastructure.
How has sports technology evolved over the years and how do you keep up with it?
What it really takes is ensuring that the right processes are put in place. The reality is that whatever you do, there will be something that will come up. We can do a lot of scenario planning, so that we have weighed in efficiencies, redundancies, and it is also about the commitment that if there is a problem, how quickly can we step in to solve it? I’ll give you an example: for Formula 1, when a live session is on, there is a pit crew that teams have; we also have our pit crew. At every live session we go through, there is a pit crew connected, continuously monitoring every aspect of the service layer so that we know proactively if a problem is coming through and then we can immediately get on to fix it. So, there is nothing like we will wait for a trouble ticket to be created before we go and solve the problem. It just takes that spirit and the ability and willingness to build it that way.