We live in a time when motorsport broadcasts every last detail of every single race. Our screens are filled with statistical confetti. Milliseconds, mini stop clock icons, words and numbers constantly flash and fold before our eyes. But let’s strip it back. Let’s try to imagine a time before timekeeping wasn’t really a thing. How and when did people marry a sport built on pure speed with the crucial concept of time? Yes, people did still keep time during a race, but how and when did the need for accuracy become a valuable, vital asset? How and when did timekeeping become an art form? Much of timekeeping’s evolution began under the watchful gaze of a handful of unsung heroes. Individuals like Jean Campiche, the man who used technology to transform timekeeping, and motorsport, forever. Campiche helped some of the most legendary Formula 1 teams dominate racetracks in the 1970s and 1980s. This is the story of a timekeeper who proved that, in racing, time is of the essence.
The early years
Campiche’s origin story isn’t what you would expect. After graduating as an electronic engineer in Lausanne, Campiche pursued his true passion: motorcycle racing. He competed in the world championships till 1972. It was the highest level of motorcycle racing at the time. But this exciting, exhilarating new world took its toll. After 6 years of racing motorcycles, funding his passion and overcoming niggling injuries, Campiche ended up at the finish line with a sense of accomplishment. It was time for a change.
Jean Campiche in Monaco, 1974
The other side of the racetrack
In 1973, Campiche found himself on the other side of the racetrack with a chronograph in his palm. He had got a job at Heuer, the pioneering Swiss watchmaker. The gig combined his two passions, speed and electronics. Heuer hired Campiche at the request of the legendary Enzo Ferrari. The fiercely competitive Ferrari wanted to get independent timing measurements at his private Fiorano circuit. He wanted to enhance and optimize his cars, and timekeeping became an integral part of that process. The circuit was equipped by Heuer with 45 photocells. This helped measure all times, especially acceleration and braking times. At the time, official timekeeping across most racing formats was not very reliable. The times would come in many minutes after the action, the sheets riddled with errors.
Each racing team had its own timekeeper. “It was vital not to make mistakes, despite the number of cars, because if you forgot one lap, the driver might run out of fuel”, recalls Campiche. That’s why he was always armed with an electronic timing device from Heuer. With it, he recorded Ferrari’s cars with more clarity and precision than the official timekeepers. He found himself reporting and revising the timekeepers’ time. Timekeeping had to change. And Campiche made sure of that.
From timekeeper to time lord
By embracing Heuer’s innovations, Campiche helped change the way motorsport kept time. Over the next few decades, he used different types of technology: stopwatches, computers, keyboards and radio equipment to take Ferrari, and the sport, to higher planes. He helped evolve transponders, which were attached to cars, to improve the accuracy of qualifying and race times. He moved from endurance sport to Formula 1 to even Indy.
And now, motorsport can’t do without good timekeeping. In fact, F1 timekeeping is considered to be the most precise in the world. Its systems are directly linked to a network of atomic clocks working to within one billionth of a second. Without timekeeping, racing just wouldn’t be as exciting as it is today. The difference between winning and losing has gone down to microseconds. And that’s all thanks to unsung heroes like Jean Campiche.