An essential element of most motorsport events
Timekeeping is an essential element of most motorsport events, with the timekeeper’s role being to record competitors’ times and positions in order to determine the event results.
The tools used range from simple hand-held stopwatches to complex electronic timing systems that can accurately measure to the nearest thousandth of a second.
To acquire a Trainee Timekeeper licence you simply need to complete Motorsport UK’s New Officials Registration form and return it by post to the Membership Services Team, having ticked the Timekeeper Trainee box.
You will then be sent a Trainee Licence and an introductory pack with the Training Module.
John Davison has been timekeeping since the 1970s and has officiated at a range of events from sprints and hill climbs to grands prix and speed record attempts.
“During my university days I worked at the Royal Radar Establishment at Malvern, where one of my friends said there was a shortage of people to help out at a race meeting at Silverstone. I had no experience of timekeeping at all. I’d always had an interest in motorsport and was intrigued at the thought of being part of it. I think that’s the attraction of any volunteer role in motorsport, be it timekeeping, marshalling or something else. I would find it quite difficult now to go to a race and just watch it; I enjoy getting involved, as you get more of an insight into what’s going on and a feeling of doing something useful.
“Plus, I’m an electronics engineer by profession, and motor racing timekeeping is quite analogous with what goes on in my workplace, while also being sufficiently different to give me a bit of escapism at the weekend!
“It was the early 1970s when I started, so we were using electronic timing systems by then. However in those days it only produced a time; it didn’t do any processing, so you sat for the duration of the race doing the subtractions for the lap times.
“After Silverstone I went along to the Shelsley Walsh hill climb venue to have a go there. I particularly enjoy speed events because in a sense they depend entirely on the timekeeper; you can theoretically run a circuit race and declare a winner without any times, but you can’t run a hill climb or a sprint without a timekeeper. So I became ever more involved in speed timing, although I did do a few races meetings, including in the days when Motorsport UK used to do the timing for the British Grand Prix. I also did timekeeping at drag races for a few years.
“The actual role and responsibility of the timekeeper has not changed greatly over the years. What has changed is the technology, and the job itself is now more about integration of electronic systems and provision of information more than used to be the case. It used to be a matter of watching a clock and scribbling times on a piece of paper, and after every 10 cars or so you’d pass it on and the organisers would have a typing pool to type up the results as you went. Now it’s a matter of inputting into the computer programmes the list of competitors at the beginning of the day, with their classes and vehicles, and if used correctly the computer will complete a print-out of results.
“So there’s been a removal of some of the manual elements but it hasn’t negated the need for a timekeeper. For example take a venue like Wiscombe hill climb, where there’s an escape road just before the finish line. If a competitor approaches the final corner just a little bit too fast, he’ll go straight on up the escape road and the clock won’t finish, and then the next car will break the beam and end up with an unrealistic time. So that requires you to look at the times and make a judgement; are they right or are they not?
“There’s also the element of accurate alignment at the start, which always requires a timekeeper either to do it themselves or observe a marshal doing it. Any errors in alignment can make a significant difference to a competitor’s time, for if a car starts race 25mm behind the line, it has a run-up, a mini flying start. It might not seem like much but it makes more of a difference at the start than anywhere else. That’s why timing struts are now used; they overcome the errors introduced by the car lifting its nose as it takes off from the starting position.
“The other thing that’s changed for the better over the years is that we have more permanent venues now, so there’s much less cable laying required. And of course the clocks themselves have changed.
“We tend to use TAG Heuer, Janus, Wasco or Seiko clocks, which can time extremely accurately, the limitation being the position of the car relative to the timing beam. At sprints and hill climbs we now also use a 64-foot trap, which can measure acceleration off the startline, and several intermediate or sector times and speeds. When I started we could only provide a total time, and a finish speed.
“If anybody is keen on getting involved in timekeeping there is an excellent training scheme in place, which is currently being updated to provide online access. Either visit an event and go to see the chief timekeeper, or get in touch with Motorsport UK and you can sign up as a trainee. It will give you a taste of what it’s all about, and you can then go on through the grades as your experience increases.”