Brands sponsoring events, athletes and celebrities is nothing new in the world of watches. It’s a way for a brand to associate themselves with things/people of greatness and, frankly, market their goods. There are different ways brands go about this, sometimes plastering a celeb with their logos, sometimes putting their watches in extreme circumstances and other times more subtly. It’s this last approach that I got to recently witness while attending MotoGP in Indianapolis with Tissot, who are the Official Time Keeper of the event. Yes, their name is on the track, though modestly compared to other sponsors, and yes they do sponsor racers, such as the US’ Nicky Hayden, though you won’t see them wrapped in logos either… And no it doesn’t mean that the wall clock is simply a Tissot. Rather, in a quiet booth, behind closed doors, is a team of technicians who closely monitor and time to within hundreds of a second the races and racers.
Before getting into that, it’s worth taking a look at the amazing spectacle that is MotoGP. I’ll openly admit, prior to attending this year’s race, I was not well versed on the sport. I new vagaries about motorcycles and high speeds, but witnessing it in person was an eye-opening experience. MotoGP, as well as Moto2 and Moto3, which are distinguished by the size and thus top speed of the bikes (and likely more technical details as well), is completely insane. These bikes rocket down the tracks at speeds hovering around 150mph, which to the eye is almost in comprehensible, but to the ears is blistering. They then turn and bank at angles that actually make their elbows and knees, which are specially protected, drag against the road. It’s very clear when you are watching that it isn’t just about mechanical excellence, speed and guts; it’s a truly physical sport where the riders wield beastly machines like a conductor does a wand. It’s intense and amazing.
As you could imagine, the timing of laps is of the utmost importance and requires precision that can match the speed at which the bikes move. This is not just to determine the winner in a photo finish, but also the time between riders and lap times, which are critical during qualifiers. So, sitting in a tower above the finish line is Tissot’s team, who by using various devices measure, track and communicate that information with lightening speed. In order to do this, they use transponders that are mounted to each bike. These transponders, which are small but rugged black boxes with a few ports for cables, transmit a specific id number, which is then picked up by antennae on the track. When the bike speeds through them, they instantly ping the control room, giving the timing data.
There are a few failsafes in place too. Perhaps my favorite is simply the lookout. Yes, just in case, they have a designated technician monitoring the bikes by eye to make sure things are as they seem. Since the bikes go so fast, this tech has to identify them largely by the bike and rider’s coloration. This gets in trickier as teams gain and lose sponsors, which can effect their outfits, and there can be multiple riders on a team. The former is dealt with with due diligence, while the latter is dealt with via different coloration within the riders number. They might not be able to read the number, but if it’s red and white rather than green and white, for example, they’ll know it’s rider X not Y.
Lastly, they have a camera mounted on the finish line to record and determine photo finishes. This camera is actually constantly seeing, but when an object enters it’s field of view the change in the input causes it to capture. It’s perfectly level with no distortion over the line, so two bikes going 155mph can cross simultaneously, but if one is an inch ahead of the other, the camera will determine it. It will also determine the rare tie, which they showed us an image of. The forward most points of the front tires of both bikes were literally on the same line of vertical pixels, which is pretty incredible.
One of the more profound aspects of the timing team is that they aren’t a permanent fixture at the track. Despite have tons of equipment and a baffling amount of wires, much of which is very sensitive, they travel with the races, having to move their equipment, set it up, test it, run it and then break it down again, practically weekly during the season. In fact, after MotoGP, they were headed all the way to the Czech Republic for the next race.
As far as sponsorship goes, I have to say I find this a cool thing for a brand to do. It’s not about being flashy or getting your name in the face of every fan (or stomach as it might be… Redbull was the big sponsor at the races and I lost count of how many of those things I downed over the weekend) it’s about making the whole thing work. It’s about getting the little details of information that people really rely on to understand the speed and sheer closeness of these races, where hundredths of a second often determine 1st and 2nd place, or who qualifies for pole position. It’s unseen but vital, like time itself.
Now, a weekend with a watch brand wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t get to try out at least one watch, so I borrowed from the Tissot team one of their newer PRS 516 automatic models. The PRS (Precise Robust Sport) 516 watches are Tissot’s motor-sport inspired line that draw on their own 60’s origins. The three-hand model I got to wear features a day/date via an ETA 2836-2 automatic, black dial with applied lume markers, blocky hands and a steel bracelet with butterfly clasp. It’s a simple and clean watch with just enough boldness thanks to its size and some sporty elements.
Overall though, it’s fairly reserved, which I like. The 42mm case wore comfortably, looking larger thanks to the black bezel, which extends the dial out to the edge. The bezel was actually my favorite component of the design. It’s a PVD over circular brushed steel with white markers, giving it a nice texture and a subtle sheen. On the bracelet, the watch felt like a business/casual design for those who day dream of the open road and the wind in their hair. Coming in at $675 MSRP, it’s a really solid deal considering the movement inside and overall solid feel.
Tissot does make a MotoGP automatic chronograph, which might have been more contextually appropriate, but the design is far more intense, and the watch is very large, so the PRS 516 was more my speed, so to speak. More over, they have their T-Race Nicky Hayden Limited Edition. As you can see in the picture, Mr.Hayden was wearing one himself over the weekend.
I have to give a big thanks to Tissot for taking us along for the ride, and letting us peak behind the curtain at MotoGP.
Image credits for the fantastic track shots goes to Manny Pandya (for those not watermarked with a w&w logo).