Winning the race: behind the scenes at Formula 1

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The Formula 1 season is an exciting time for motoring enthusiasts and tourists alike. It is considered the pinnacle of automobile motor sports and takes fans across the globe and 2018 is no exception. Starting in Melbourne and covering 21 races across five continents this is one of the most complex and impressive logistics operations out there.

So, how do you transport 20 cars, ten race driving teams, 20 drivers and 2,000 tons of freight across 130,000km over a period of nine months? Thomas Nieszner, President and Global Head of Motorsport at DHL speaks to Logistics & Materials Handling about the project and how the key to success is impeccable planning and a will to succeed.

Gearing up

The 2018 Formula 1 season kicked off earlier this year in Melbourne, Australia and this year’s season will see races take place in China, Singapore, Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi to name a few. It  also the return of races in France and Germany.

Having an experienced, meticulous and specialist logistics team is crucial in the delivery of such an important and large-scale event. Formula 1 has been working with DHL for more than 35 years, with becoming the Official Logistics Partner in 2004. “The initial relationship started with Formula 1 more than 35 ears ago and has evolved year after year. It began as a logistics supplier relationship but has turned out to be a most exciting global partnership, built on mutual respect and expertise,” Thomas Niezsner, President and Global Head of Motorsport at DHL says.

It takes a huge team of experts to deliver such a fast-moving global event. There is a core team of 30 full-time specialists at DHL to support the operation around the world, as well as local teams at every race.

Up to 2,000 tons of valuable and time-sensitive freight is moved to each racing location, including racing cars, tyres, fuel and replacement parts, transmission technology as well as marketing, TV and hospitality equipment. It is a multimodal operation with the goods being moved by road, sea and air.

About 660 tons of it is air freight, while 1,000 tons is transported by sea. During the course of the 2017 season, six Boeing 747 aircraft were used for fly-away races outside of Europe to transport items over a combined distance of 131,995 kilometres and up to 150 trucks were needed for the European races.

For DHL, a Grand Prix weekend starts 12-15 days before the actual race takes place, with freight being packed in boxes or temperature-controlled containers, depending on the requirements and seasonality. “Logistics has become so well defined and rehearsed. The freight in most cases is available for teams on a Tuesday to set up, and event pack up is usually complete close to midnight the Sunday two days before. This shows a remarkable achievement of logistics planning and execution,” Thomas says.

Each equipment has different requirements. For example, all cars have to be securely latched and loaded onto specially designed cargo crates prior to take-off. Each team is also responsible for the safe packaging of broadcast equipment, spare parts and other material in special boxes.

“I think it’s like adult Tetris at the maximum skill level – everything has a place whether this is on one of the Boeing 747 aircrafts or in the 120 sea freight containers. This can only work if all the parts are positioned and at the right time. There is a solution and no time to fix problems – no dress rehearsal. Unlike Tetris we don’t get to play again if this goes wrong, failure is not an option,” Thomas says.

Challenging schedules

One of the most challenging legs of the tour is when races take place on two consecutive weekends. Thomas refers to these as “back-to-back” races. “This is the ultimate test of all key stakeholders working in unison: the team, the suppliers, F1 and, of course, DHL,” he says.

This year presents a particularly tough challenge for Thomas and his team, with back-to-back-to-back races taking place for the first time. “This year we have races on three consecutive weekends, France on 24 June, Austria on 1 July and UK on 8 July. This is likely to be one of our toughest challenges so far,” Thomas says.

Time zones and flight times add to this remarkably tight schedule. “Some events have a seven-hour flight time with an eight-hour time difference. We lose half a day or more just for taking off and we still have to maintain that Tuesday delivery,” he says. This requires a maximum of speed, reliability, detailed planning and expertise that Thomas’ team have been preparing for.

DHL is also working with Formula 1 to commit to a greener more sustainable event. “We are working to minimise air freight volumes of the racing equipment and provide the most efficient logistics possibly,” Thomas says.

Each race has its own challenges, whether that is complying with local rules, infrastructure or even political events. The Melbourne leg of the race is unique not only is it a city circuit, but it also takes place in a park. “The City of Melbourne, as part of the development of the area, is committed to not damaging the area in anyway. We have to leave the park as it was found after the event. All forklifts have to have terrain wheels so as not to damage the grass, and access and delivery points are all closely monitored as is work practice under stringent OHS rules. We even use a vehicle that has been specifically adapted for this event to be able to fit under the bridge while on lockdown for the event to bring in late shipments of spares and parts,” Thomas says.

Certain countries have specific rules. In China, for example, there are extremely strict rules with regards to dangerous goods and lithium batteries this all has to be planned and pre-approved before the teams even arrive. These negotiations are conducted at airline, civil aviation and agent level.

Preparation, planning and punctuality

According to Thomas, the key to success in this entire operation is preparation and planning. “Plan, plan and plan…oh and plan. It’s no joke every item is meticulously planned, and we run a Continued Improvement Programmed (CIP). This accommodates all issues and these are flagged openly so they do not repeat themselves. We debrief after every event and continually tweak the process to iron out any creases.”

An operation like this one puts logistics in the spotlight. Without such a precise and punctually planned project there would be chaos. “This sets the standard for logistics,” Thomas says. The challenge that each season presents gives the logistics sector an opportunity to grow and push the boundaries of what has been achieved before. Demands like the back-to-back-to-back races challenge the experts involved and led them to achieve great things in the world of logistics. “Many of the demands at first seem unachievable, but we pull it off over and over again.”

The innovations that are developed for the Formula 1 project trickle down into consumer logistics. “These disciplines can be blue printed and rolled out as a product,” Thomas says. The race series places particularly high demand on logistics. “A tight racing calendar with race venues around the world comprising valuable, highly sensitive equipment calls for innovative, customised logistics services. Some of the solutions developed for Formula 1 are now being used at other global events,” Thomas says.

Thomas is passionate about his job and for him, a career in logistics was always on the cards. “I loved jigsaws and puzzles as a child. There is only one way to complete the puzzle or game and the rewards of achieving the impossibilities is there as are the stress levels. I started in this industry aged just 17 and have known the people I work with for a very long time. It’s become very much like a travelling family.”