Inside MotoGP with Dorna: State-of-the-art Technology in the world’s oldest Motorsports Championship
“We keep learning”, noted Manel Arroyo in the first few seconds of the conversation we had the opportunity to have with him, an unmistakable sign of the perfectionism that is Dorna’s landmark after 28 years of experience in this competition. Its body-and-soul devotion to producing the Motorcycle World Championship (MotoGP) enables full consolidation of its working methodology, which can be defined by using two words: ambition and respect for sport.
Because it does not matter whether each Grand Prix makes use of 24 on-track cameras, 134 additional cameras for the International Program Feed (including VR technologies, onboards, highspeed or Shotover from helicopters), 13 live RF cameras, 250 microphones… At the end, the key is succeeding in conveying onto the audience the spectacular feel of each competition they manage. And they do succeed.
We interviewed Manel Arroyo, Managing Director; and Sergi Sendra, Senior Production Director, so they could tell us all about this world reference in the field of sports production.
By Sergio Julián
Dorna Sports was born in 1988 and since 1992 it has, on an exclusivity basis, the commercial and TV rights for the FIM Road Racing World Championship Grand Prix. It currently runs 59 events every year, covering 193 races, 17 countries, and many other internationally recognized competitions: MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship (WorldSBK™), FIM Enel MotoE World Cup, FIM CEV Repsol, Red Bull MotoGP™ Rookies Cup, Idemitsu Asia Talent Cup and British Talent Cup. Furthermore, the organization cooperates in many other productions within the motorsports field, where it contributes its expertise and know-how.
For Manel Arroyo the key to success lies in adopting a proactive attitude when liaising with all the championship’s stakeholders: “The feedback we got about what we have been doing right is that we have always kept our eyes wide open and we have at all times been very keen to listen to what customers, paddock, riders and the market all have to say. It has always been very beneficial to us to keep looking out, not only internally, but also externally. Any first-rate sports production is a reference for the Dorna Sports team: “One has to be watchful about what goes on in the NBA, football, Formula 1, in any sport we understand it is a reference in the way rights and international presence are managed.”
TRANSPORTING 360 TONNES THROUGH AIR, LAND AND SEA
The MotoGP championship involves a tremendous logistics effort. Dorna Sports takes care of the whole production for these events, which entails continuous movement of both material and human resources. 360 is the number of tons moved every other week (or every week when races outside Europe are successively hosted), of which 99 are for audiovisual production material -covering the TV, cameras, radiofrequency compound- and a bunch of additional equipment.
“When we are in Europe, obviously, you can figure out that the transport is road bound. When outside Europe, the situation is tackled through air transport. This takes at least four fully-loaded jumbo aircraft. Two of them are nearly crammed with all the material taken by Dorna, which includes TV equipment, the type taking up most space,” remarked Manel, which gives us an idea of such impressive deployment handled by the 215 workers who travel down to the GPs, not to forget about 70 professionals (technicians, journalists, developers…) that can work from the central studios.
Among the material moved, are also items such as static advertising or logistics material for the races, such as timing and data processing equipment. Sea transport is another option relied on by Dorna Sports: “We have four material parcels that have been traveling to different places all over the world. On the other hand, part of the equipment we have used in Austin may be probably traveling to Japan or to Australia.” The material we are making reference to is the 50 kilometers of fiber that are used in each Grand Prix: 25 of Dorna monomodal fiber and another 25 of SMPTE fiber for on-track cameras.
COMMITTED TOWARDS PROPRIETARY PRODUCTION
Dorna always works with owned material or with equipment leased for the entire season, as this “provides consistency to the work done by our engineers, operators and, therefore, to the final product.” Dorna’s Managing Director explained the reason they have been implementing this method since 1997: “This is one of the things we have been gradually learning over the years. Initially, we decided to do all relating timing and data processing internally. Later on, we also integrated within Dorna’s work all production and fitting of motorbike on-board cameras. Little by little we also took over a number of processes that had been so far commissioned to third parties.”
This also had an impact on broadcasting of the sport events: “Back those years we started to work alongside broadcasters: There was the concept of “host broadcaster”, a domestic partner doing the production for the local country’s signal, which was then conveyed worldwide. This partner no longer was needed as we decided to perform the whole production ourselves. In this way, as we are in charge of the international production, each country may enrich customization as much as possible: They do not have to worry about what happens internationally, as we already take care of that.
Such customization and standardization in the championship’s production results in uniform content, thus allowing for a common narrative: “I like saying that the championship is like a book that we begin to write in Qatar and we complete in Valencia. It consists of 19 chapters, and each one of them is authored by the same writers, the same journalists, the same camera operators, producers, and video operators. The team explaining the story is the same in each part of the season, and that provides consistency to the product.
This working methodology has been replicated throughout time by many other entities engaged in the organization of sporting events: “I would say that this path was most probably initiated in the Olympics, with the overly famous RTO that was kicked off by a Spaniard, Manolo Romero Canela. Then, football followed suit with the operations carried out at FIFA through a single production company; a similar process is also being developed in the European Champions League, as it is also the case with Formula One.”
SPECIALIZATION AS A VALUE
Manel is fully convinced that the success achieved by Dorna Sports and its position as world referent within motorsports is not due to his own management, but instead to the specialization of every member of his team: “I always explain that it is not that our camera operators, producers and video operators are better than anyone, but they are the best in motorbikes because that is what they do all year long, and therefore they have unique experience in the field.
The producing team especially benefits by these dynamics as, although GPs are held every 15 days, there is a host of other competitions in which they put their whole talent, such as the World Superbikes or FIM CEV, the junior world championship. At the end, confirmed Manel, “our team is nearly 52 weeks every year doing motorbikes.”
In some instances, the team led by Sergi Sendra works in championships outside the scope of their rights, such as the recently held US MotoAmerica: “This is a new championship led by three-time 500cc world champion Wayne Rainey. He asked us for advice and assistance to launch it already five years ago and, ever since, the production and design team for said championship is managed by Dorna. We deploy a whole human team in each event to run and perform production tasks. Additionally, the entire graphic system is ours, we designed it for them. We have also implemented the on-board cameras.” In view of its experience, Dorna has a proprietary methodology and work process that perfectly adapts to the circumstances around a first-class motorbike competition: “We like the fact that all major motorbike championships are dealt with in the same fashion, and therefore motorbike productions are a referent within the sports industry and in TV.”
HOW IS A GRAND PRIX BORN?
Only 19 are hosted each year, but there are many cities that would like to be part of the World Motorbike Championship and therefore, write yet another page in the history of this long-standing competition. It is a complex process that involves considering a lot of issues from a technological standpoint. Manel Arroyo explained which is the path for getting an event like this spring to life: “There is a logical sequence in place, although the first thing is to draw an agreement based on the fact that the circuit meets specific features as certified by our team of safety and sports inspectors. They must have many elements in mind, from ambulances to race commissioners.”
Sergi Sendra, Senior Production Director, Dorna Sports, told us more about how the process would be: “When a circuit appears as a novelty, the first thing to do is send a team of technicians, producers and logistics staff. These are the three key profiles for dealing with the space on which the technology installation will be deployed. Talking with the circuit managers is very important in order to ensure that there will be wiring routes so as to be able to complete installation within record time: we arrive on Monday and, between Tuesday and Wednesday, more than 50 kilometers of fiber are wired, either for receiver antennas covering the bikes’ on-board cameras or helicopter cameras; or fiber cable for on-track physical cameras.”
Experience works in their favor, but the truth is that no matter how much effort they put into it, the passing of years ultimately shapes to perfection the configuration of equipment for GP broadcasting: “Initially we may be wrong by a meter right or left in the placing of cameras. Once this design has been made, we test it with the riders. We have seen that it takes us 2 or 3 years to get a perfect result. When we go through the first race, it is some experience to boot. In year two, riders also tune up their experience. But, however, we can say that by year three, both cameras and the starring cast -the riders- will shape up the script we might be looking for.
Throughout a GP weekend, we find various events: press conferences, trials, qualification rounds, and finally, Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP races. Emotions build up by the hour, as also does the technical deployment used for race production. As explained by Sergi: “When MotoGP started out back in 1992, set-up was basic and the most important thing was narrating what was going on at the tracks. This is only achieved -and this is a big difference between a field sport and ours- by deploying a sequence of cameras. These devices, linked together based on cuts and segments, explain the full lap.” According to him, there is a basic configuration to cover a basic broadcast for these races: “15 cameras would suffice for 4 or 5 kilometers. This is the basic set-up implemented for the Spanish Motorcycle Championship. This basic set-up could be strengthened by means of one or two cameras deployed at the pit lane or at boxes to supplement podium and grid.”
However, as the reader may have already guessed in reading this feature article, Dorna Sports is committed towards a comprehensive coverage in order to capture all angles: “In MotoGP we use 25 cameras, and we would use 30 if we could, but that is not feasible because of configuration issues, capacity and budget restrictions. At present –if bikes are taken in- coverage uses 120 cameras, including one helicopter equipped with Shotover F1 system. However, in Moto America, by deploying only two-onboard cameras on the right bikes, you may achieve great results.”But… why saving the overhead camera for MotoGP if just minutes before the Moto2 and Moto3 competitions were held? Manel Arroyo explained: “Categories are of obvious importance. We want that to be noticed, we want to make a clear distinction between MotoGP, where the teams and makers invest more in developing bikes, and Moto2, Moto2 or World Superbike. And there is also an obvious issue: the real heroes are Marc Márquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo. They are the ones we should give better coverage of, with more angles and points of view. They are the heroes. The others are heroes in the making, so we must focus on and devote all our efforts and means to the big category, and that is MotoGP.”
AD-HOC MOBILE UNITS… READY FOR REMOTE PRODUCTION
Comprehensive control of the whole production system and the narrative associated to the World Motorbike Championship result in the fact that technological needs must cater very especially to the championship’s narration. For that reason, Dorna has in place mobile units that are tailor-made based on specific needs. Sergi told us: “We are an atypical product. Currently, we have an agreement with the company supplying the on-track cameras for the next six years, as it is very unsound having to change the mobile unit every year.” The production of a Grand Prix is distributed in two large units: “One does the track, where only cameras and mikes are used; all this will be digitalized to enter a level-two network. This second level is the “international program feed”, where the rest of signals are added.”
These units are the resources needed to support the remote production in which Dorna has been working for the past three years. For some time now, thanks to its partnership with Tata, work can be performed with ultralow delay signals through the use of a fiber of 1.5 GB. Currently, among other tasks, “graphics, onboard control and RF control is performed from Barcelona.”
The experience has been for better so far, and Sergi thinks this will essential and of crucial importance: “Part of the staff may stay here. We are gradually migrating in order to be able to leave more and more people in Barcelona and therefore save costs and implement new ways of working that could derive a profit. For example, Dazn, which has produced the signal for Spain for the first time this year, carries out the production from Barcelona as compared to production from the circuit, which was what Movistar+ was doing. We have 20 people -adding up replays, mixer, director, producer and, the only thing we do at the circuit is generate the signals and send them out in this fiber spiff, which even though we have it limited, up to the last megabyte is used. The following step is doing the replays in remote.”
FROM SATELLITE TO FIBER: DISTRIBUTION AT DORNA
The truth is that its advances in regard to remote production already gave us some clue, but Sergi Sendra confirmed to us: the satellite, an essential element with high historic importance in signal contribution, has become a secondary item, operating as a mere backup. Fiber is the main feature in broadcasts: “Throughout our 1.5 Gigabytes we get out all signals for programs of all clients, they are relayed to London and from there they are distributed to all cities where our partners are based: Servus TV for Germany and Austria, Sky for Italy, BT Sports for England, DAZN in Spain, Canal + for France… There are other companies such as Eurosports, Fox, ESPN… depending on each country. The main output, as I said, is through fiber. This is the third year we have been using this procedure and the truth is that we are happy.”
To Sergi , this technology remains critical in instances where distances are long, as in Australia and in Argentina, but “by gathering experience, putting in means and controlling processes as much as possible, we have succeeded in making it stable.”
VIRTUALIZED PRODUCTION… A REALITY?
MotoGP generates 18 hours of live content times 40 signals and behind everything there are 170 cameras. Virtualizing means sorting out these signals, and eventually this concept is mixed with Big Data.” Sergi Sendra and his team are delving deep in such a promising field for the future. Concepts such as AI, machine learning, production and distribution, intertwine in order to eventually shape up that long-awaited embrace between the IT and broadcast worlds: “These are words that are being used a lot in here, with various players both from the digital industry and from the traditional industry, by big brands such as Gras Valley, Sony and Lawo. Various fronts are being tackled and, as we in Dorna are privileged to rely on many developers, these are things that we work out internally, because we do know our product and we have such a large amount of signals and data for which we must carry out a number of internal processes in order to be able to make the most of it.” In Dorna, tests have already begun for automated production, although this is a process being undertaken with caution. Manel himself clarified that this notion cannot be understood within motorbike racing in the same way as in other sports where further advances have been already achieved: “It does not mean we can go hands-free. We are fortunate that in this sport our drivers’ activity is huge and, for the time being, robotizing it all seems quite unlikely. Development entails going robotic in some functions or specific elements, as well as warnings: there is a standard for on-track movements which, depending on whether they occur or not, an alert may be raised. But for live production, luckily enough, automating certain functions is just impossible.”
LOOKING TOWARDS THE FUTURE: THE ARRIVAL OF 4K
We had already pointed this out: 25 on-track cameras, 120 motorbikes cameras available, 66 signals recorded live, cameras on the pit lane, highspeed, a camera onboard an helicopter, 13 RF equipment items, 250 Audio Technica microphones, 25 ENG Sony XDCams for videos, programs and aids; 25 GOPRO cameras for timelapse, programs and videoclips…
The deployment is just spectacular, but we must keep in mind that the pace of consumer technologies dictated by the latest technological trends may also reach large entities such as Dorna Sports… and the truth is that the arrival of the UHD standard with HDR support is an increasingly noticeable reality.
Sergi Sendra told us about the company’s progress in this field: “We are currently running tests with several Sony 4300 cameras that are capable of capturing in 4K HDR, but only experimentally and using Sony’s slog3 format. This is tested within the mobile unit, but it is then converted into HD so as to be distributed within the TV technology site, a signal that is in 1080i at present. We are now under a transition process into 50p, as we want to make the most of the quality that can be obtained from the progressive in order to be able to work also in HDR in the future.”
This long-awaited transition requires a big updating of equipment that has already commenced: “We started out with replays. At present, servers are second-generation Dynos from Grass Valley. The idea is that the 30+ signals from the RF cameras that we are using for both unilateral customer signals and for ourselves will follow suit next. Let us keep in mind that not only the base equipment needs to be changed, but also the whole reception/ transmission systems. Then would follow the more critical RF world: On-board cameras, helicopters, cameras around paddock, pit lane and boxes…” Sergi is perfectly aware that this will be a hard task, but the initial tests are already yielding great results: “In motorbikes, for example, we do not use 4K as a composite signal, but we are instead using its four quadrants to make the most out of HD. In the last Jerez GP, Rossi had a motorbike equipped with H.265 encoding, so we were able to obtain four signals. The big advantage of using this is that we had four eyes on Rossi: we could see at any time his front camera image, his image looking backwards, the back and the helmet.”
VR test have been also launched: “Johann Zarco carried a 360-degree system, and not a VR one, but a ‘live-reality’ system instead. The camera is located on the tail and displays the rider and his entire surroundings. This type of content is published on the website: one of our suppliers, Tata, encodes this signal into H.265 and sends it to Barcelona. There the stitching of the four horizontal signals placed over 360 degrees is made. For the time being we know that we are the only ones doing it live in the world of Motorsports”. Manel pointed out that production of this interesting signal ranges between 20 and 40 seconds, a positive assessment given the type of content being supplied.
The transition process is already under way, but Manel is not clear about when a 100% 4K HDR broadcast will be performed with the same level of detail that we have today in HD: “It not ours to set, but something involving all industry players. What it does exist is a constant request from broadcasters: at present, high-definition production standards prevail in the market and I understand that as of today no moves have been made by subscribers suggesting that they want an improved signal quality. We have broadcast GPs in this format, but nothing more. And you know, a 4K HDR production has a cost that must be obviously borne by someone at the end of the chain.”
“5G DOES NOT EXIST”
As a world-reference producer, Dorna Sports is “obligated” to follow all trends in the market. Its managers and engineers attend every year to events such as the IBC in Amsterdam or the NAB Show in Las Vegas in order to stay up-to-date in respect to all market variables coexisting in the technology world.
Although Sergi admits that 5G looked strong this year both in the US show and in the Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona, his conclusion is clear: “5G is really cute… but it does not exist yet.” And he elaborated: “It is a reality, but it remains to be seen how long it will take to be implemented. It is true that if an antenna infrastructure exists locally, the possibility of being tested would provide a large benefit. In fact, we have had a meeting so in the Catalonia GP a local test can be made. We will see what this means.” In spite of this caution, given the early stage of development of this technology, Sergi finds that its adoption could be beneficial: “In some circuits, such as Malaysia for instance, we could deploy 5G cameras without need for cables, thus lowering costs wherever we do not take the whole infrastructure. It would be interesting for the winter tests just when our equipment for the GPs is being prepared, when rewiring, when tweaking… We are working on that.”
WHAT TO DO WHEN EVERYTHING FAILS?
Broadcasts and live, no matter how much caution is taken, may sometimes become unforeseeable territory. It is the duty of the sporting events companies to anticipate any potential issues and incidents, but sometimes, several unfortunate events may force to resort to creativity and commitment in order to create a solution capable of coping with the situation. Manel told us one of the crucial moments of what he terms as “the most brutal anecdote” they experienced: It was in an Indianapolis GP, which by then was called the US Grand Prix. With 8 or 9 laps to go, there was an explosion and the two 110 Volts power generators burned down: the original and the backup generators. Thus, the mobile unit that was generating the on-track signal became unusable and we were making production only with the international signal for the rest of the race, where the on-track signal -which was not available- the signal from on-board cameras, from the helicopter and the graphics were all received. That is, for 8 laps we had no camera deployed on the track and we made the production with only these two elements. What was really remarkable was the fact that commentators did not even realize. When the broadcast was over, I told them and they looked at me in astonishment. It is really impressive, but this also shows you both the degree of intensity of our races and the versatility of other solutions.”
NEW CONSUMPTION HABITS: GIVING SPECTATORS CONTROL OVER BROADCAST?
For sometime now there has been talk about the possibility that viewers may eventually have some control over broadcasting cameras, in which case they could play the role -as a real-time OTT- of a home-based producer by choosing in every instance what camera they would like to use, what rider follow up closely and, in sum, taking customization to the highest degree.
The issue is whether this approach could be extended to a type of broadcast as fast-paced as MotoGP. In this regard, Sergi had no doubts: “One thing has been learned: people who watch TV do not like working (laughed). At the end, people just want to view the program, and figures clearly show that.” Manel shared his colleague’s view: “If this is to be taken as mere, raw entertainment, we must think about viewer attitude on a Sunday morning when relaxed at home. I recall that in the Champions League, Heineken launched an initiative in which viewers were allowed to interact in the football game, but if they did they would miss what was going on. This is the same. If you are busy switching cameras, you will miss the action. And this is a key element that is eventually understood and rejected by viewers in an -so to speak- intuitively fashion.
AN OTT PLATFORM FOR MOTOGP: DAZN
Last year, the Movistar+/MotoGP partnership came to an end after a period in which Telefónica’s platform offered the races on an exclusivity basis for Spain, apart from other additional premium content. In an interesting turn of events, Dorna Sports decided to give up control over this content to DAZN, an OTT platform within the Perform group that is growing exponentially in the field of sports broadcasts. How is the experience turning out so far? The truth is that Manuel was very pleased with the decision made: “We are starting to work in an immensely fast-paced, flexible environment with very loose ties with users: they are given ample freedom. On the other hand, DAZN is learning a lot about motorsports, a field unknown to them up to now. It must be taken into account that a Grand Prix is not held at a certain time on Sundays, but it starts on Thursday with the prior press conference, then the Friday tryouts, the Saturday qualifications… Users appreciate having this content available, as shown by the statistics we have, and they remark to be very pleased with the platform and the degree of interaction achieved. On the other hand, we are very satisfied about how things are developing.”
This content requires a big production effort, completely taken care of by Dorna. Manel went into more detail: “We do it 100% in coordination with and under approval by DAZN as they are ultimately the end distributors, the ones that have the platform. We gave them the initial approach, how the experience should be. They grasped this and provided what users look for and expect in the platform. But as regards of production, exclusively, we are in charge, as it was the case with Movistar+.”
eSPORTS: AN ESTABLISHED, GROWING PRESENCE
Aside from discussions on whether eSports will end up reaching the business volumes generated by broadcasting rights of sporting events over the next few years, the truth is this is something on which more and more producers are setting their eyes. As a company that was awarded the rights for MotoGP and other competitions, Dorna decided to start working on this electronic leisure contests back in 2016, getting ahead from other competitors and showing their interest within the technological, broadcast and commercial environments.
Manel thinks they are on the right track in this matter, but recognized they must expand awareness and promote the championship further. At present, they are not sparing resources in order to turn this electronic competirion into a world reference: “There is a very important community of eSports fans and we are looking to provide our fans with yet another element for interaction within our sports. Teams are gradually creating events to feed into the season, as is the case with Yamaha, which appointed riders recently. Furthermore, both traditional sponsors and new players are joining in sponsoring these competitions. This year, our championship comprises six Online Challenges in which a first screening is performed through a fully online event. Then, several on-site finals are held, this year in San Marino, Valencia and, possibly Malaysia.”
Said on-site events, which are broadcast by companies such as Sky in Italy or Globo in Brazil, feature a two-hour format and require considerable technical deployment: “In the last final, held in Valencia, 21 cameras were used: we had 5 studio cameras, a traveling, a pole cam, two RF cameras and 12 minicameras focusing on the players the whole time. The entire production required 16 Lenovo PCs: 12 for the players, 2 for production, one for the helicopter and the other one for the race director. The system was supplemented by two EVS –one for live replays and the other for the race direction in case they might have to review a certain situation or movement that could be subject to penalty. All this was set up in a 30 x 20 meters tent, in which the stage took up 18 x 15 meters.
FUTURE CHALLENGES FOR DORNA SPORTS
Throughout our conversation, many lines of action have been transversally seen in which Dorna intends to work further: implementation of 4K technologies, R&D regarding Big Data and AI; eSports, consolidation of the OTT sphere… It is very clear to Manual that all these technological developments are essential, but also that Dorna should not lose sight of the core of production: the races. “We must not forget what we do is sport, the competition, how a fight is going on at the track between Valentino Rossi, Maverick Viñales, Marc Márquez, Jorge Lorenzo and others; the way they develop as riders, how a motorbike that was not among the best last year is now fighting to make it in the first three. This is what people are looking for and it is our duty to get them to watch it in the best fashion and as comfortably as possible, letting them interact as much as they can without missing the competition”, he pointed out. This is an ambitious challenge that they been dealing with throughout their history. And yet, it is not enough: they undertake to keep improving broadcasts, promoting a spectacular show and innovation. This does not stop: “At this point, we have to make the race as beautiful as possible, the best possible one when it comes to providing angles and points of view; as for having the means so as to be able to see an action not seen live replayed or in other platforms . It is our duty.”