The history of Helmet Cameras in Formula 1


Formula 1 is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world right now. Much of its recent success can be credited to the Netflix show Formula 1: Drive to Survive but that is not the sole reason for it. The Formula 1 governing body is trying to bring in more new audiences by making the sports easier to understand. The best example of it is their YouTube channel which posts regular behind the scenes and informative content that helps newer viewers understand the sports better.

I believe understanding the sports better is the best way to appeal to the newer audiences as Formula 1 is quite technical in itself and requires a good amount of knowledge about things that go on behind the scenes. Another strategy for the expansion of sports and added appeal among the younger generation is to make them feel like they’re in the driver’s shoes.

The best way to give the audience the feel of driving a Formula 1 car is through helmet cameras on F1 drivers.

Formula 1 has been trying to implement helmet cam for a long time now and recently it seems to have perfected the tech. From the season 2021, it is being used by all the drivers on the grid. Before however, we look into the tech behind the current helmet cam in F1, let us understand the history of helmet cams in F1.

First-ever onboard footage on a race track

The first-ever onboard footage of an F1 track comes from 1956 when Mike Hawthorne drove around his Jaguar D Type with cameras attacked on it. He also wore a microphone for talking throughout the drive. It’s a fascinating window to F1 in the past.

The first onboard footage on a formula 1 track came in 1957 when Juan Manel Fangio drove his camera laden Maserati 250F on Modena Autodrome.

In the movie Mediterranean Holiday where a bunch of German teenagers travel around the Mediterranean and meet Graham Hill and Phill Hill in Monaco. This movie also captures some cool onboard footage from the track which is among the very best from that era. Click on the link for the Mediterranean Holiday movie and go to 2:02:00 at the time stamp.

Early Helmet Camera Tech in F1

The first use of a helmet cam dates back to 1965 when Jacky Lee, a Denver Broncos quarterback did football practice wearing a helmet cam. There is no data on the earliest use of helmet cam in F1 but I found this picture of Jim Clark wearing an early helmet cam.

Jim Clark in his Lotus 43

Based on this picture the earliest use of a Helmet cam can be dated back to 1966 when Jim Clark drove his Lotus 43 wearing two helmet cams on either side of his helmet. Just based on this picture it looks like a very uncomfortable solution to capture first-person video. I am certain that this was just done for testing for a few laps as it could potentially break the neck muscles if continued for longer.

Another picture that I found is of Jackie Stewart wearing a Nikon camera on his helmet in practice for the 1966 Monaco GP. Another similar picture is of Graham Hill wearing the same Nikon camera for practice.

In this next image from 1984, you can see Nigel Mansell in Dallas GP wearing a helmet cam that is much more integrated than the likes of the 60s and 70s. The helmet cam was now legal to use in F1 races and not just practice.

Nigel Mansell

As camera technology improved, Helmet cams became smaller and could be better integrated into an F1 helmet.

Post-2000 F1 Helmet Cam

A helmet camera was never a permanent accessory in formula 1. It has been sparingly used for making some cool shots every few years without making it mandatory. The above video is taken from Paul De Resta’s helmet can in 2012. Williams also experimented with a helmet cam on Bottas in 2012.

Current F1 Helmet Cam Tech

Towards the end of the F1 season, 2021 Fernando Alonso became the first F1 driver to wear a camera mounted inside the F1 helmet. All thanks to the advancements in camera tech, today’s cameras are so small that they can be easily mounted in the foam of an F1 helmet.

Leclerc’s tiny helmet cam

The onboard footage from these F1 helmet cams gives a view that has never been seen before. The most eye-catching aspect of these new f1 helmet cams is the jitteriness and bounciness of F1 drivers. Although viewers knew that F1 cars are very stiff and drivers face a lot of uncomfortable while driving but it is through the new helmet cams footages that this is apparent how uncomfortable it really is.

Future F1 Helmet Cam

Although current F1 cams have reached a very acceptable point where everything is properly visible, it still has some issues with it. The biggest issue viewers have with the F1 helmet cam is their positioning. As you can see in the image below, the current F1 helmet cams are placed by the side of the helmet and not in the middle. This is done because placing it around the forehead areas would put all the pressure of the driver’s head on the camera module which would not be good for the camera but more importantly for the safety of the driver.

This left positioning of the camera makes the POV slightly left-biased and not centred. As you can see in the video, the left tyre is more visible than the right one due to the camera being on the left side.

Although F1 has tested cameras from the centre of the helmet those have to be mounted on a glass which the driver has to wear. This hinders the safety of the driver and is also not confidence-inspiring for them. This is why they are not used in F1.

Take a look at Tsunoda driving his Alfa Tauri wearing camera glass.

So what do you think about helmet-mounted cameras in F1? Do you like them or are they migraine-inducing? Have your say in the comments.

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