MotoGP gives television audiences an idea of what it’s like to ride a track at speeds close to 200 mph and reach lean angles of 65 degrees thanks to at least four cameras aboard the bike each race; some of which rotate, some are gyroscopic and others show close-up views of the rider’s visor, knee or rear.
If that wasn’t exciting enough, late 2021 TV promoter and producer Dorna Sports unveiled its jaw-dropping “shoulder walk” when Team Suzuki’s Alex Rins gave free practice observers at the Algarve Grand Prix a dynamic twist. on how these highly gifted drivers achieve their feat of acceleration, braking and close overtaking.
The shoulder-mounted camera emerged just a few months after Fernando Alonso offered Formula 1 fans a new insight into the sport at the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix in Spa Francorchamps thanks to a helmet-mounted point of view (POV) camera.
Micro technology in the blue ribbon events on four wheels and two is now an essential and irresistible component of the respective live shows, even if this season they are still in their infancy.
As with most innovations, the camera came to light thanks to advances in lens technology. The shoulder strap camera has been in the works since 2018 and has gone through seven generations of development solely due to the demands of racing and the vision the TV crew wanted to share.
Sergi Sendra, Dorna Sports Head of Global Technology, says: “A rider is constantly moving and leaning around the bike, so having a camera on the body is difficult, even before considering other things like the weight and size of the system.
“Having automatic stabilization through our Japanese partner was the first step in making a new opportunity a reality. In 2019 we tried the system for the first time with test drivers and realized that a camera in the shoulder area was a great new shot.
“From the director’s point of view it is important to have versatility in the equipment for the type of angle so that the viewer does not get sick,” he adds. “We didn’t want them to think ‘Nice shot, but I can’t watch it for more than 10-15 seconds’.”
A burst of refinement has seen the camera, cable and transmitter combo lose nearly half its weight to just 500g with custom batteries and the use of 3D printing to further reduce setup. Building a reliable and practical structure was a task. Dorna Sports therefore had to secure the voluntary collaboration of safety suit manufacturers such as Alpinestars and influence the riders themselves.
Fortunately, it was a process they had previously faced with the popularization of on-board photographic equipment at the turn of the century that ultimately made them world leaders in the field. On that occasion they had to persuade manufacturers and teams that installing lenses and equipment on the bikes would not impede performance, interfere with functionality or betray confidentiality.
“Nobody had put cameras on the riders before, so we knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” says Sendra. “It’s a process, just like onboard for motorcycles. Every single camera has a story; your own anecdotes to standardize. We need to create something that is safe, nice and appropriate for the rider, so that they don’t lose speed or performance.
“But, you know, if we don’t believe in the future or evolution, then we’re not going to move forward. We had to build something that was light, cheaper, more efficient, approved but above all safe ”.
Alpinestars, which “wraps” eight of the 24 riders on the grid, was a key partner. Italian company media manager Chris Hillard says: “To accommodate the shoulder camera we need to drill the right hole in the right position and make it comfortable for the rider.
“It’s pretty simplistic in terms of the safety and integrity of the suit because we make sure it’s in an area that isn’t close to other seams, is centralized enough and then secured around the camera and around it again. We put it through a rigorous testing program so you know the suit section will work. We have a test laboratory where we can do it but, in general, we always put ourselves at Dorna’s disposal when it comes to innovation before it hits the track during a MotoGP session ”.
Convincing MotoGP riders not only to modify their suits, but also to carry the camera (most of which fits into the aerodynamic “hump” on the upper back) was an important task and is still a sensitive subject. At least two – Francesco Bagnaia and world champion Fabio Quartararo – have won Grand Prix wearing the system.
Alpinestars’ TechAir racing suits are already complex in terms of mandatory airbag technology and material composition, but the addition of the camera and the way it is housed are of a superior level, especially since they do not have to interfere with the activation of the airbag. “The good thing is that the camera is between the skin and the armor,” Bagnaia tells us. “It’s not like the airbag is pushing you in a weird way. For sure when it explodes, I hear the camera a little but that’s not a problem. All right.”
There are still problems. The shoulder cam means extra grams and bulk for the rider and this can make it inhibiting. “I have no reservations about the use because I think it’s really great,” says Brad Binder of Red Bull KTM, “but we’ve been in the wind tunnel with KTM and built the hump on my suits to fit perfectly and be as aerodynamic as possible. To do this we have reduced the space inside the hump as much as possible, so I don’t know how easy it will be to bolt all the camera hardware inside. “
Aleix Espargaro of Aprilia, contender for the title, says: “I control my diet and weight a lot and I like to be very precise. I had a lot of weight on my leather suit with the camera so I didn’t really like using it but it’s not a [major] problem.”
‘We have just started’
First-person perspectives in sports and extreme sports are nothing new with the proliferation of tough, high-spec hardware like GoPro cameras over the past decade, but systems that can withstand the speed and meet the security requirements for motorsports were rare. This is why the MotoGP shoulder cam is so revolutionary and could inspire others.
Fans marveled at the “shirt cam” footage in a recent football friendly between AC Milan and FC Köln, even though it was edited rather than shown in real time.
“For the first time ever, we have five cameras per rider and bike per race,” says Sendra. “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 leaves, then he has a photo of him. If he’s walking towards the podium, then he’s his “camera operator”. It is a standalone feed.
“We will get faster with this when we can have more riders using the technology because every time we use the camera on the shoulder we learn something. We have just started”.
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