Why Every Second Counts in Motorsport

Ben Adams
11 Feb , 2022

Timing is central to motorsport. It’s what allows us to know which car and which driver is fastest over a particular course, whether it’s a grand prix racing circuit or a rallying special stage. Just like competition cars themselves, the technology and methods used to time them have advanced considerably during the history of motorised competition.

In the early days of races like the Indianapolis 500, the timing line was actually a physical wire running across the track. Whenever a car ran over the wire, it created an imprint on a time card – and it was down to a team of people to note which car had tripped the wire and manually document the running order.

Later, the wire was superseded by a beam of light from a photocell, but the time still had to be manually assigned to whichever car had passed. It’s claimed that the March team (co-founded by Max Mosley) tricked the system to earn Italy’s Vittorio Brambilla the only pole position of his Formula 1 career at the 1975 Swedish Grand Prix, when an engineer broke the timing beam with his pitboard just before Brambilla reached the line.

Around this time, teams would still record their own lap times with stopwatches – a role often carried out by the wives or girlfriends of the drivers. Sometimes, teams would use that information to challenge the reliability of the official timing, such as at the Italian Grand Prix of 1971, when Matra successfully lobbied to have its driver Chris Amon instated to pole position at the expense of Ferrari’s Jacky Ickx.

Doubts like those actually led to one of the first commercial partnerships between a watch company and an F1 team, when Jack Heuer began providing timing equipment to Ferrari in 1972. It was actually at Le Mans, rather than in Formula 1, where Enzo Ferrari didn’t trust the timekeepers, but Jack Heuer – never one to miss an opportunity – soon made his presence felt. Always a fan of motorsport, Heuer had been involved with individual drivers for many years already, having supplied watches like the Carrera and Autavia to his friends such as Jochen Rindt. It was very much a business arrangement though, with Heuer’s favoured drivers earning a commission on any watches they sold, and the company quickly becoming synonymous with motorsport.

In 1974, Heuer became the official timekeeper for F1 and introduced the kind of timing system still used today, featuring a transponder fitted to each car that sends a signal to a receiver embedded into or located next to the finish line.

Timing is even more important in rallying than in racing because the drivers race against the clock rather than battle wheel-to-wheel, and this therefore determines who wins and who loses.

Over history, there have been different ways of timing rallies. Originally, they were usually held on roads open to general traffic. Rather than outright speed, the focus was on accurate timekeeping and navigation with the requirement to arrive at checkpoints at a specified time with penalties for arriving early or late. The crew with the fewest penalties wins – and so-called regularity rallies still form the basis for many classic car events and provide a cheap and easy way into the sport for beginners.

Special stage rallying grew out of this to become the professional form of the sport we know today. The focus of attention is all about who can travel fastest over a stretch of closed road. Today this is also timed using transponders, and the information transmitted from remote locations live on television in real time for fans around the world.

Errors can still happen, which is why co-drivers also time their runs themselves so they can verify the time they’re given at the finish. What’s more, the need to check into time controls at a given time or face a penalty still remains. For that reason, a co-driver’s watch is their most important piece of equipment – and always will be. Once again, it was Heuer at the forefront of rallying from 1950s onwards, with the company making onboard clocks for competing crews to keep track of their times. You can still see many of these now, fitted to historic rally cars. But as the years rolled on, these clocks were replaced by what were effectively specialised trip computers, and co-drivers preferred to wear their watches on their wrists.

With time being so central to every aspect of motorsport, the FORZO brand has been created to pay tribute to this unique relationship. Inspired by the golden age of racing, the FORZO range includes both the DriveKing and EnduraTimer, complete with period colours and designs. Underlining the brand’s credentials are some important partnerships with legends on both two and four wheels: multiple bike champion Carl Fogarty, and Le Mans team (and supercar manufacturer) Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus.

Reflecting the unique relationship between timing and rallying, there’s also an EnduraTimer produced in partnership with DirtFish: the go-to destination for all the latest rally news and coverage (www.dirtfish.com). Featuring a special caseback and the iconic colours of some rally legends, the DirtFish EnduraTimer – along with all the other models in the range –showcases exactly why every second counts.

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