MotoGP gives TV audiences an impression of what it’s like to lap a track at speeds near 200mph and achieve lean angles of 65 degrees thanks to at least four bike onboard cameras every race; some of which rotate, some are gyroscopic and others showing close-up views of the rider’s visor, knee or backside.
If that wasn’t exciting enough, in late 2021 promoter and TV producer Dorna Sports unveiled its staggering “shoulder cam” when Team Suzuki’s Alex Rins gave observers of Free Practice at the Algarve Grand Prix a dynamic twist on how these highly gifted riders achieve their feats of acceleration, braking and close overtaking.
The shoulder-mounted camera emerged only a few months after Fernando Alonso had provided Formula 1 fans with a new take on the sport at the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps thanks to an eye-level, point of view (POV) helmet-mounted camera.
The micro technology in the blue riband events on four wheels and two is now an essential and irresistible component of their respective live broadcasts, even if they are still in their infancy during this season.
As with most innovations, the camera came to light courtesy of the advancements of lens technology. The shoulder cam has been in the works since 2018 and has been through seven generations of development purely due to the demands of the racing and the vision that the TV crew wanted to share.
Sergi Sendra, Dorna Sports Head of Global Technology, says: “A rider is moving and leaning around the motorcycle all the time so having any camera on his body is difficult, even before you consider other things like the weight and dimensions of the system.
“Having auto stabilisation through our Japanese partner was the first step to making a new opportunity a reality. In 2019 we first tried the system with test riders and realised that a camera in the shoulder zone was an amazing new shot.
“From a director’s perspective it is important to have versatility in the equipment for the type of angle so that the viewer is not going to get sick,” he adds. “We didn’t want them thinking ‘Nice shot, but I can’t watch this for more than 10-15 seconds’.”
A flurry of refinement has seen the camera, cable and transmitter combination shed almost half its weight to only 500g with custom-made batteries and the use of 3D printing to shrink the set-up even more. Fabricating a dependable and practical structure was one task. Dorna Sports then had to secure the willing collaboration of safety suit manufacturers such as Alpinestars and sway the riders themselves.
Fortunately, it was a process they had been through before with the spread of onboard camera equipment at the turn of the century that eventually made them world leaders in the field. On that occasion they had to persuade manufacturers and teams that installation of the lenses and equipment on the motorcycles would not impede performance, interfere with functionality or betray confidentiality.
“Nobody had put cameras on the riders before, so we knew it wouldn’t be easy,” Sendra says. “It’s a process, just like the onboard for the bikes. Every single camera has a story; its own anecdotes to be standardised. We have to make something that is safe, nice and appropriate for the racer, so they are not losing speed or performance.
“But, you know, if we don’t believe in the future or evolution then we won’t move forward. We had to build something that was light, cheaper, efficient, homologated but, above all, safe.”
Alpinestars, which “wraps” eight of the 24 riders on the grid, has been a key partner. The Italian company’s Media Manager Chris Hillard says: “To accommodate the shoulder camera we have to make the right hole in the right position and make it comfortable for the rider.
“It’s quite simplistic in terms of the safety and integrity of the suit because we make sure it is in an area that is not close to other seams, that’s quite centralised and then secured around the camera and around it again. We put it through a rigorous testing programme so we know the suit section will perform. We have a test lab where we can do that but, generally, we always make ourselves available to Dorna when it comes to innovation prior to it making it to track during a MotoGP session.”
Persuading MotoGP riders to not only alter their suits but also carry the camera (most of which fits into the aerodynamic “hump” on their upper back) has been a major task and is still a delicate subject. At least two – Francesco Bagnaia and world champion Fabio Quartararo – have won Grands Prix while wearing the system.
Alpinestars’ TechAir race suits are already complex in terms of the mandatory airbag technology and the composition of materials but the addition of the camera and the way it is housed is next-level, especially as it must not interfere with deployment of the airbag. “The good thing is that the camera is between the leather and the armour,” Bagnaia tells us. “It is not that the airbag pushes you in a strange way. For sure when it explodes, I feel the camera a bit but it’s not a problem. It’s OK.”
There are still issues. The shoulder cam means extra grams and bulk for the rider and that can make it inhibitive. “I have no reservations using it because I think it’s really cool,” says Red Bull KTM’s Brad Binder “but we have been in the wind tunnel with KTM and we have built the hump on my leathers to fit perfectly and be as aerodynamic as possible. To do that we made the space inside the hump as small as we can, so I don’t know how easy it will be to bolt all that camera hardware inside.”
Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro, a title contender, says: “I really control my diet and my weight and I like to be really precise. I had quite a lot of weight on my leather suit with the camera so I didn’t really like to use it but it’s not a [major] problem.”
‘We've only just started’
First-person perspectives in sports and extreme sports are nothing new with the proliferation of resistant and high-spec hardware like GoPro cameras over the last decade, but systems that can withstand the speed and meet the safety requirements for motorsport have been rare. This is why MotoGP’s shoulder cam is so ground-breaking and could inspire others.
Fans marvelled at the “shirt cam” footage in a recent friendly football match between AC Milan and FC Köln, even if it was edited rather than shown in real time.
“For the first time ever, we have five cameras per rider and bike per race,” Sendra says. “It means a huge difference and really expands what we can show in the broadcast. The rider’s camera is not connected to the bike. If he crashes and walks away then he has his own picture. If he is walking to the podium then he is his own ‘camera operator’. It is an autonomous feed.
“We will get faster with this when we can have more riders using the technology because each time we use the shoulder camera then we learn something. We’ve only just started.”
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