The quiet success of IndyCar’s digital marshalling system – Motorsport Week

Earlier this year, the NTT IndyCar Series rolled out the latest feature of its new digital marshalling system by adding LED flag panels to the sides of the track to better communicate current conditions. The flag panels mirror the messages a trackside marshal can display with waving cloth flags, but also adds a level of safety that could not be obtained through flags alone. The updated features are not the most discussed parts of any given weekend, but they have quickly become some of the most important.

The digital flag panels were first tested at the beginning of this season, with a full rollout occurring at the Indianapolis road course for the GMR Grand Prix in May. There was a lot of preparation before the implementation happened, as IndyCar worked closely with EM Motorsport, the supplier of the marshalling system, to have it customized to their needs. The goal was to familiarize themselves with the new system, but IndyCar race control actually ended up modifying some of their practices to better utilize the new tools.

With most of the 2022 season now complete, and seven races having been run with full implementation, the consensus behind the scenes is that the panels are a resounding success. MotorsportWeek.com had a conversation with EM Motorsport’s Deputy Manager Luca De Angelis to discuss the details of how the new panels are being utilized within IndyCar this season.

“We started testing the system from the beginning of the season,” explained De Angelis. “The official rollout of the system was done in Indy Lights first of all, and then in IndyCar for the Indianapolis road course before the Indy 500. Since then, we have been through different customizations. Still today, the system is now more solid, but there are some functions that the race director will come to us and say ‘It would be nice to have this. It would be nice to have that.’

“It was very interesting together with Kyle [Novak], the race director, and all the race control group, to understand what they want and what they need. Once we started rolling out the system, also on their side it was interesting to see how they started realizing what kind of features the system can provide, and how they can use it. There was quite a bit of back and forth comments between us and race control to understand how to better customize the system.

The digital marshalling system helps protect drivers and course workers alike. Photo: Kevin Dejewski

“Altogether, we started to roll out the system and they discussed with us the things that they don’t apply the same way Formula 1 does. They use different rules. When introduce these features in the system, then they realized ‘Maybe using this system, we can improve our way of managing racing at race control.’ This was a complicated situation. It’s like buying a new toy, you start playing with it, and then realize the toy can do something more. It was a nice discussion between race control and EM Motorsport personnel.

“My point of view, everything went well. We have a long experience with Formula 1, but of course introducing the system to IndyCar, we were able to learn many things from IndyCar. Let’s say they police the racing in a different way than other FIA sanctioned championships.”

EM Motorsport has been heavily involved in the racing world’s transition to digital marshalling systems, and has been working with Formula 1 since 2009 on their implementation. They have since become providers for F1’s feeder series, DTM, as well as the 24 hours of Le Mans and various other circuits around the world. The company was a logical choice when IndyCar officials decided they wanted to pursue their own solution.

There is more to the advanced marshalling system than a couple dozen LED panels, however. A lot more. Race control’s entire workflow has been updated to accommodate the new implementation, and there are many different ways that data is transferred from the timing room to the drivers. This constant stream of information leads to more timely and informed decisions, and adds to the safety level provided to drivers on track.

Luca De Angelis (left) was a recipient of the Louis Schwitzer Award for innovation excellence for his work on digital marshalling systems. Photo: IndyCar

“In IndyCar, there is technology that permits communication between race control and the drivers,” continued De Angelis. “Everything that you see on the panels, is also sent to the cars. Whenever a full course yellow is called, notification is sent to the drivers, which activates LED information on the driver’s dash. There are some automatic function where a full course yellow, the rain light starts blinking. There is also an accident data recorder inside the car, which during an accident, we can record the severity of an impact of the car. Everything is working together as a single system.

“Back in the day, a full course yellow was mainly managed by the race director screaming out ‘Yellow, yellow,’ and then ‘lights clear’ for the safety car switching off the lights. And then the green flag. None of this was timely recorded, or timestamped in the system. Now there is a command for every single command sent by the race director. Everything is synchronized with the timing.

“Another example, when there is a local yellow flag, when the driver enters the yellow sector, they receive the flags on the dash as well. All this system works together as a single automation. That’s why it requires partners and it requires equipment inside the racing vehicles as well. The marshalling system is a system that is composed of different components, and the flag part is just part of the system, but it’s the most visible.”

The panels themselves are indeed the most visible portion of the setup, and they are a critical part of the system. Measuring 50×50 cm (20×20 inches) and comprising over 1,000 individual LED lights, the panels are designed to grab drivers’ attention even as they fly past at nearly 200 MPH. The panels are controlled locally by the marshals, but can be overridden by race control in cases of a track-wide status such as a red flag. And since the system is produced by the same company that makes the system for F1, marshals that have experience working with other series have no problem picking up the details of IndyCar’s panels.

The panels measure 50×50 cm (20×20 inches) and hang out from the fencing for extra visibility. Photo: Kevin Dejewski

The panels are also designed to be erected and taken down quickly, as a single set of panels travels with the series around the country. Wires are strung around each track to connect the panels, since wireless communication in a racing environment could potentially be interrupted by interference. IndyCar’s race control worked with EM Motorsport to develop a procedure for quickly connecting, packing, and transporting the panels, and now has an efficient system that does not hinder race preparations.

All of those preparations and design considerations have led to drivers having better information communicated to them while they are inside the car. In fact, as De Angelis explains, grabbing the attention of the driver despite all their attention being on the road ahead is a major hurdle that the digital panels, which are dozens of times brighter than a cell phone, help to overcome.

“[The LED panels] make everything a lot faster and smoother and safer for drivers,” said De Angelis. “The common excuse is that ‘I haven’t see the flag,’ or ‘The marshal didn’t show the flag,’ don’t work anymore. The panels are usually bright enough to be noticed by the drivers, and they are placed in locations where it is clear for the drivers. If you put a panel in line with their trajectory, as soon as the panel lights up and starts blinking, it attracts the attention of the drivers.

“Many years ago when we started the project for the flag panels, the main goal was that we have to distract the drivers. This was the history of development of the flag panels throughout the years. That was and still is the goal.”

Having a goal of distracting the drivers while they are racing does not immediately sound like a desirable one, but it makes sense when one realizes how focused a driver has to be in the middle of a chaotic race. If the signals are not clear and extra noticeable, they may well be overlooked in the moment.

Trackside marshals are given easy-to-use controls for their flag station, which are similar to the controls for F1 and other series. Photo: Kevin Dejewski

The opinions that matter most in this regard are from the drivers themselves. It is very difficult to judge exactly how well a new notification system is working until first-hand accounts from drivers are considered. MotorsportWeek.com talked with a few drivers on the IndyCar grid about the implementation of the LED panels, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive. The experienced Swede Marcus Ericsson, who raced in Formula 1 for five years before his tenure in IndyCar, was one driver who gave his approval at a recent event.

“I think they’re good,” said Ericsson. “I was used to them in F1 where they had a similar system. I think it’s good because it helps to clear up – because sometimes there are situations where it’s a bit hard to see a flag or maybe a marshal doesn’t hang it out the same way as the next marshal. There’s a human factor there, and you limit that with the signs. They’re very bright, so they are easy to spot. I think it’s a good system that has improved the safety and the whole racing equation. I feel they’ve been good.”

With IndyCar traveling the country with its single set of flag panels, which can consist of up to 22 individual signs installed around each circuit, many tracks are seeing the setup installed at their facility for the first time. Word is spreading quickly how useful they are, and they could soon be seen at many more facilities in the near future.

Luca De Angelis described that the market for permanently-installed flag panels is still young in the United States. Tracks that host F1 races, including Circuit of the Americas in Austin, have a permanent set installed which can integrate with each series that races at the track as per current FIA requirements. But as more and more circuits see the panels in action on IndyCar race weekends, interest could grow quickly.

In fact, there is already interest from the largest racing facility in the country: Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track, which is also owned by IndyCar Series owner Roger Penske, has plans to purchase its own set of LED panels from EM Motorsport in the near future, and have them installed as soon as next year. This addition would allow the facility to offer the upgraded safety feature to each series that turns laps around the track, and there are many.

The panels are controlled locally by marshals, but can also be overridden by race control for course-wide statuses. Photo: Kevin Dejewski

“From our side, [IndyCar’s digital system is] going pretty well,” said Doug Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “One of our biggest challenges, not just for IndyCar and NASCAR, but even some of our small races, our biggest challenge is how do you get the corner workers to really work the corners. Ultimately, we want to get to a point where you’ve got a permanent digital panel where anytime somebody is on track here, we can deal with that. I think it’s the wave of the future, and I think it makes a lot of sense.

“IndyCar brings them when they’re here. When IndyCar’s not here, we don’t have them. That’s why as we think about the 150 days a year that we’re on track, only six of those are IndyCar days on the road course. What I’d love to do is see our facility have a permanent setup as well. You’re still going to need people in the corners dealing with it, but I think the visibility of those and the ability of race control to get those flagged quickly. Long term from a safety standpoint, and an operational standpoint, it’s going to make life easier. The hope is that we would have them for IMSA [in 2023]. Hopefully it will work well.”

With people on every side of the equation pleased with how the new digital marshalling system is performing, it’s hard to declare the rollout anything but a resounding success. The behind-the-scenes operations of a race weekend are rarely discussed while watching a thrilling race unfold, but that is largely the point. The system should work well enough to allow drivers and teams to put their efforts fully on the race, and fans should be able to enjoy the spectacle. IndyCar’s new marshalling system is here to stay, and its quiet yet successful implementation is something all sides should be proud of.

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