Formula One Has Long Been at the Cutting Edge of Camera Technology

Formula One cameras

Formula One has been the pinnacle of motorsport since its inaugural season in 1950 and has has been at the forefront of imaging technology throughout its history.

The 2023 F1 season concluded last weekend in Abu Dhabi, with Max Verstappen taking his record-setting 19th checkered flag of the year. This past season marked the first time every driver was equipped with a super-compact camera inside their helmet, allowing fans to get a “driver’s eye” perspective.

However, this sort of onboard camera is not new. Fans have been able to join their favorite racers around the track since the 1970s. The Instagram account Pogona_TV recently shared a video from 1978, when French driver Patrick Depailler raced his Tyrell 008 machine around the streets of Long Beach, California, during a practice session for the United States Grand Prix.

The video below has been upscaled and put to 50 frames per second by the YouTube channel King Fish. If not for the film grain and style of the car, it would be easy to believe the video is much younger than 45 years old.

However, camera technology in 1978 meant that the images could not be transmitted live from the car, and the camera itself was too large and intrusive to be used during an actual race.

At the 1985 German Grand Prix at the iconic Nurburgring, Formula One made motorsport history by showing the view from Francois Hesnault’s Renault F1 car during a live broadcast.

Hesnault’s camera-carrying Renault was interesting for another reason. It was the team’s third car in the race, the last time this happened in Formula 1. Hesnault had previously been fired from the team but was brought back to drive the prototype car with its groundbreaking onboard camera. Anticlimactically, Hesnault did not finish the race and subsequently retired from motorsport altogether as he battled lasting injuries from a devastating crash during a test drive. However, the Frenchman certainly made a lasting mark on F1.

Onboard cameras continued to improve, including with Ayrton Senna’s 1987 qualifying run at Monaco and the Brazilian’s ear-shattering charge through the tight streets of Monaco during the 1990 Monaco Grand Prix.

The video below is from Senna’s third-place effort at the 1992 South African Grand Prix at the Circuit Kyalami.

Few modern onboard camera shots have matched the raw speed of the Senna onboard videos of the late 1980s and early 90s. However, a brand-new camera angle used by Formula One at this year’s Japanese Grand prix comes close and is perhaps the best example of the speed and precision of F1 drivers.

That said, the new videos are almost too smooth. While the novel stabilization techniques offered by modern F1 onboard cameras are incredible, there is something to be said about the sheer violence of older F1 footage.