No sports is as logistically challenging as motorsports. While equipment matters in any sport, in motorsports the human is only half the athlete, the vehicle is the other half. The performance of a motorsports vehicle is directly tied to having the right components in the right place at the right time so the logistics are part of the competition.
Racing maybe a sport but its not all fun and games. Teams are businesses – businesses that are expected to make money. The most valuable Formula 1 team, Scuderia Ferrari is worth over $1.35 billion. This means this team is valued at about as much as tech companies Payoneer, Clubhouse, Socar, Razorpay and Klook.
The wealthier teams, like Ferrari, are able to spend more money on transport to bring more equipment and spare parts which can make the difference between winning and losing when things go wrong.
Formula 1 is by many measures the most international sports competition. Over its 21 yearly races the teams traverse five continents with as little as a week between events.
A chaotic ballet of trucks, boats, and planes transports this show across the world each year while its important to remember that teams headquarters are all around the world.
For teams, the European leg of the season is, compared to the rest, relatively easy logistically because within Europe you can drive. The cost of shipping by truck is so comparatively low to shipping by plane that teams bring whole buildings with them to the European races.
These buildings are what are modestly referred to as ”motorhomes” but can be as large as Red Bull’s three story structure that includes offices, bars and a restaurant with a complete kitchen. All of that packs into a number of trucks and can be assembled in less than two days. Along with all the equipment including cars, spare parts, and electronics, convoys of dozens of trucks per team cross the continent before each European races.
Typically races are held every two weekends on Sunday which gives teams plenty of time to relocate before activity begins on the Thursday before the Grand Prix but from time to time the scheduled is crunched and races take place two weekends in a row.
This proves a more daunting logistical challenge as teams only have three full days to break down, transport, and reassemble their equipment at the new race site.
Even worse, for the first time ever the 2018 season saw three weekends with three races. On June 24 the French Grand Prix took place in Le Castellet then the next weekend the Austrian one was held in Spielberg finishing off the following weekend with the British Grand Prix in Silverstone.
The Austria-UK transfer was the most difficult one as it involved driving nearly 1,000 miles including through the choke-point of the channel tunnel. For this track, each truck was manned by three drivers so that while one drove the others could sleep in a RV that accompanied the convoy. That way, the trucks could drive continuously only stopping to refuel.
But again, these races are easy logistically compared to the ones outside of Europe – the ones known as flyaway races. Just like with the European races, the majority of flyaway races occur with two weeks between them but from time to time races are scheduled on back to back weekends thousand of miles apart. These back to back flyaway races are the most logistically difficult weeks of the Formula 1 season.
On Sunday April 8th 2018 the Bahrain Grand Prix was held in Sakhir, Bahrain then seven days later, the following weekend, the Chinese Grand Prix was held in Shanghai, China. Over 4,000 miles separated those two racetracks and yet, just like every race, everything came down on Sunday night in Bahrain and had to be operational by Thursday morning in China.
Even worse, Shanghai is five hours ahead of Bahrain which is effectively five hours fewer to do the work but in reality, the planning for this transfer began months before. Around January 2018, three months before the first race of the season, each of the ten teams packed up five sets of shipping containers. Each of these sets held their sea kits carrying things like chairs, tables, appliances, cooking utensils, and some elements of their garage.
They send these bulkier and less expensive pieces of equipment by sea as its massively less expensive than sending them by plane. The number of containers per team varies as the wealthier teams like Red Bull will take more but in general each team takes about three 40 foot containers.
Of course ocean shipping is slower, but since there are five sets there is always one at the right place at the right time. That January shipment sent the first five kits to the first five flyaway races – Melbourne, Australia; Sakhir, Bahrain; Shanghai, China; Baku, Azerbaijan; and Montreal, Canada.
Then, as each race was completed its kit was packed up and sent to the next flyaway race destination without a kit – the Australian one went to Singapore, the Bahraini one to Russia, the Chinese one to Japan, the Azerbaijani one to the United States, and the Canadian one to Mexico, and then towards the end of the season, when there are no more tracks to send kits to, they’re sent back to the teams home bases for the winter.
At the racetrack, the Formula 1 logistics team’s main downtime is actually during the race itself but for the Bahrain to China transfer real work began the Thursday before the race. That’s when each team logistics manager started making their tear down plan – deciding in which order and into which containers their different pieces of equipment should go.
Once that was completed there was really not a lot to do until Sunday. On Sunday morning, before the race even started, the pack up began. Many of the spare parts can’t be used during the race – they’re not going to replace an engine during the Grand Prix – so they’re the first pieces of kit to be packed into their containers.
Not much happened during the race itself but within 15 minutes of it ending the main pack up began. The cars, the most important pieces of equipment, were subjected to a post-race inspection to be sure no illegal modifications were made but everything else was immediately ready for packing. All the equipment that the teams wanted at the destination first were put in one of three priority pallets.
Together each team’s priority pallets filled up the first plane to Shanghai. As soon as these were packed they were driven directly to the airport only a few hours after the race ended to be prepared for an early morning flight to Shanghai. As that plane took off the final pallets were being packed up back at the racetrack.
Only about six to eight hours after the drop of the checkered flag, all pallets were packed up and on their way to the airport By midday Monday, all six of the Boeing 747’s used to transport the teams equipment to China were in the air. These planes were chattered by Formula 1 but the teams still pay for the space. Also on Monday all the staff started their journey to Shanghai. Many of the lower level staff just flew on normal commercial flights while some of the higher profile drivers flew private between the two countries.
After nine hours in the air, the first plane touched down in Shanghai around early evening local time. The freight was unloaded and bought to customs. By midnight, all the priority freight was on its way back to the racetrack. Overnight, logistics workers arranged the different teams freight into their respective paddocks. No team is allowed to touch their freight until all the other teams freight has arrived both for fairness purposes and safety to assure that there aren’t many people around as pallets are being unloaded and moved.
By Tuesday morning, its game on for the assembly crews. At this point each team had their three priority pallets and their sea kit. In their priority pallets teams didn’t put the highest value or most important cargo, they put the things they needed to assemble first – the bare bones of their garage. That includes the wall paneling, the core of their electrical system, and the majority of the IT and communications equipment.
By Tuesday evening that build was done and the track was once again made inaccessible to the teams as the non priority pallets were delivered overnight. Early Wednesday morning around 6am the teams arrived back at the track and began work on the final assembly of the garage. Only after about four hours, by late morning, all the different teams garages were operational.
All in all, ten Formula 1 teams successfully packed up, shipped all their equipment 4,000 miles, and reassembled their paddock in 58 hours. Thanks to careful planning and practices workers, Formula 1 pulls off this impressive feat every year without a hitch.