Formula 1 tech spotlight: Under the bright lights in Singapore

Illuminating a high-speed race at night
by Niky Tamayo | Sep 20, 2014

Formula 1 tech spotlight: Under the lights in Singapore

This weekend marks the seventh running of the Singapore Grand Prix, notable as the first Formula 1 event to be held completely at night, held under high-powered artificial lights. While there were those who doubted the idea would work, it has gone seven years without a hitch. Of course, lighting a high-speed race at night is a lot more complicated than simply pointing a few floodlights at the track.

To create the lighting system used in Singapore, the FIA turned to Valerio Maioli S.p.A, an expert in stadium lighting systems, to design a system suitable not only for the drivers but also for video. High-definition TV broadcasting requires bright lighting to deliver a crisp, clear picture. To this end, Valerio Maioli partnered with Philips, which provided 2,000W metal-halide lights capable of delivering 3,000 lux of illumination to the track, four times that of most stadium lights.

Lux is a measure of illumination that counts lumens over a specified area, with one lux equaling one lumen per square meter. Think of lumens as torque and lux as horsepower, and you'll be close but still completely off-base. Big lumen numbers are ego-boosting, but the light reaching the ground matters more. Metal-halide lights like these typically put out around 200,000 lumens, give or take a few thousand. Yes, we'd recommend not looking straight into those bulbs. While reflector efficiency and distance see that number drop to 3,000 lux at the track, that's still more than good enough for high-speed photography, without frying the drivers from the heat.

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Providing power to all 1,500 light fixtures are over 100km of high-voltage cable hooked up to 25 diesel generators. Originally, power was provided by 12 "twin-power" diesels, but last year's contractor, MaxPower, went with Volvo Penta 500kVa diesel generators capable of supplying 400kW of power for a total capacity of 10MW. If that sounds like it's a whole lot of power, it is. But since the lighting system alone draws nearly 3.2MW of power during the race, you can't just plug it into the city power grid! The extra capacity means that even if two-thirds of the units go offline, the race can still go on. Presumably.

More important than the sheer power of the system--since our local Fox Sports provider no longer seems to care about transmitting races in HDTV for one reason or another--is the evenness of the illumination. It simply won't do to have parts of the track brightly lit while others sit in near-darkness.

For this purpose, the lights sit in special reflector housings that are asymmetrically shaped, allowing the light to reach the far edge of the track without washing the nearside fence in too much light. Each reflector housing is custom-shaped for a particular section of the track, and they're spaced 4m apart on aluminum trusses that sit 10m off the track. The extra height helps minimize glare for the drivers. The lights are also yellower than normal, to further reduce glare. This is especially important in the event of rain.

Lewis Hamilton might be praying for rain, or he might not. The Mercedes ace has always done well here in Singapore, and will be looking to nip away at the considerable lead of teammate Nico Rosberg.

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The rest of the field, however, is probably praying for it to rain buckets, as that might be the only chance for the non-Mercedes drivers to make it to the top step of the podium. Nico, on the other hand, will be praying for the booing to stop. A strong showing here, without controversy, should go some way to appeasing fans who are still disgruntled over the Belgian incident.

Photo from Mercedes AMG Petronas

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