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The extreme logistics behind Formula One’s global circus

DHL helps deliver the action as a new racing season gets underway

Red Bull's top driver Max Verstappen pulls out of the garage. (Courtesy of Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool)

Formula One kicks off a new racing season in Bahrain this weekend. It’s a high-tech sport where hundredths of a second separate winners and losers, and demanding team owners spend small fortunes in expectation of success.

The high-profile events wouldn’t be possible without the ability to pack and move racing machines, parts and tools, fuel, oil, tires, broadcast equipment, and entertainment accessories under extremely tight, mission-critical conditions.

An extreme sport that travels across the globe requires extreme logistics.

“You’re working right on the edge of what’s possible logistically, and any hiccup has a knock-on effect on the teams,” F1 Sporting Director Steve Nielson told reporters in December before the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Last year’s dramatic championship win by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen came down to the final race, where he edged out Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in a controversial finish aided by the race director’s restart ruling on the final lap.

FI’s popularity in the United States is exploding due in large part to the Netflix series “Drive to Survive,” which offers a compelling inside look at the drivers, teams and competition. ESPN’s live coverage in 2021 averaged a record 934,000 viewers, and in a survey of 6,630 adults conducted by Morning Consult, 28% identified as F1 fans — nearly the same as IndyCar, the more established open-wheel racing circuit in the U.S.

No surprise that F1 added a second U.S. race for the 2022 season, with Miami joining Austin, Texas, as host tracks. It’s the first time in 38 years that F1 has raced in two American cities in the same season.

On Saturday, the reigning champion blistered the track in pre-season testing with a lap time of 1:31.72, made possible by composite materials, advanced aerodynamics and sophisticated software. 

The logistics operation is also based on speed and precision engineering. If one piece doesn’t make it to a race, a team could be extremely disadvantaged. 

In fact, the Haas Formula 1 team missed the first round of pre-season testing in Bahrain last week after the cargo plane they used to transport their vehicle was stalled in Istanbul due to technical difficulties. The shipment arrived two days later than planned, according to F1.

Formula One freight moves by land, air and sea to five continents in nine months. With 22 events separated by less than a week or two — the Russia Grand Prix was scrubbed after the invasion of Ukraine — the logistics schedule is intense.

Deutsche Post DHL Group, F1’s official logistics partner, has a dedicated staff of 35 specialists who travel to each race to manage transportation, setup, breakdown and packing. 

In 2021, DHL moved 1,540 tons of equipment and 532 cars more than 74,500 miles. That translates to about 44 to 55 tons for each of the 10 teams, more than 330,000 pounds of broadcast media equipment, 30 containers of tents and other hospitality equipment, and more than 22,000 pounds of electronic gear per team.

DHL also provides multimodal transport for about 460 tons of equipment for Formula E, including electric race cars, batteries and charging units.

Teams and other F1 units pack all the gear in air containers or pallets for truck transport. A collective shipment is referred to as a kit. On average, the equipment is delivered to the racetrack 14 days before the event and removed one week afterward.

In addition to the kits transported from circuit to circuit, about 120 ocean containers circulate in the background moving less urgent equipment, such furniture or catering items, to race sites. 

The set transported by air or road has to be at the track eight to 10 days ahead of the race, depending on equipment and schedule, said Paul Fowler, global head of motorsports for DHL Global Forwarding.

In addition, five to six duplicate kits per team are shipped via ocean freight and stored in various locations on each continent.

DHL has three teams — inbound, on-site customer service and pack up — that leapfrog each other to manage every step of the process, especially with back-to-back events. Even before the checkered flag is waved at the end of a race, the DHL team is already dismantling and stowing equipment. 

For each race, priority pallets with material to set up the garage typically are first to arrive at the site, so the set up team can start building work quarters before the rest of the personnel and equipment arrive, according to a YouTube video by Williams Racing. The team says it takes about 60 computer screens to the track, with 400 miles of wiring and cables to run the IT infrastructure. For races that require air transport, teams can’t start creating their individual spaces until all the cargo has arrived to ensure fairness, according to F1 experts.

DHL typically uses five Boeing 777 freighters for a flyaway event. Seven aircraft are involved if there is a lower series race, F2 or F3, at the same track.

Most transportation for races in Europe is done by truck.

Fowler said Brexit created additional logistics complications because most of the teams are based in the United Kingdom, and everyone had to adjust to complex new customs procedures, documentation requirements and fees to cross the border. 

DHL Forwarding experts were able to step in and supply ATA Carnets, a temporary international customs document that permits duty-free and tax-free imports for up to one year. These “merchandise passports” are typically used by travelers and businesses crossing multiple borders and returning home with the same merchandise.

DHL expects to utilize more seafreight in the future because the lower cost conforms to new Formula One cost caps and is more sustainable, the motorsport chief said, but doing so carries risk now because of the global backlogs and extensive delays plaguing the industry.

In the past, race cars traveled as complete units. Today, they are disassembled, with sections put in foam slots and sometimes wrapped in bubble wrap as an extra precaution, and transported in specially built protective pods that fit into an air container. They are reassembled at the next destination. Each aircraft can carry about 40 pods, Fowler told FreightWaves.

Logistics planners this year have to make allowances for shipping boxes that were enlarged to hold a new type of tire that requires bigger rims, although the exact implications for logistics won’t be known until teams figure out the best loading method, Fowler said.

DHL also has to manage expedited freight outside the normal routine, such as when a team rushes in a replacement car from the factory or replenishment freight with modified parts for the car. Parts also have to be flown out and back for testing in special laboratories around the world.

“We must always be prepared for last-minute demands, as this can have an impact on the race,” Fowler said.

DHL is also helping F1 reduce its carbon footprint and overall environmental impact.

The logistics provider is fitting its entire fleet of F1-dedicated trucks with a 5G data upload system and GPS to monitor fuel consumption and select the best routes, using more ocean shipping and replacing 747 cargo jets with 777s, which are 18% more fuel efficient. Last year, the truck convoy tested biofuel on a trip from Northern Europe to Italy, said Arjan Sissing, head of global brand market for DHL Group.

As independent entities, F1 teams are allowed to select their own logistics suppliers. In January, Ferrari entered into a multiyear partnership with Ceva Logistics, part of the CMA CGM Group, to provide road and ocean transport for equipment and support items to Grand Prix and GT series race sites. CEVA is also managing spare parts shipments in Europe and the global distribution of retail merchandise. 

DHL is responsible for shipping Ferrari’s race cars.

Overcoming pandemic triple-headers

The past two years were especially complex and draining, according to race officials. COVID forced multiple calendar changes.

Before the pandemic, tour management and DHL would take up to 18 months to plan an event. Instead, some races were organized in a matter of weeks. Substitutions condensed part of 2021 into three triple-headers on consecutive weekends, which race teams oppose because of the toll on travel crews, said Nielson. 

Adding to the burden were the ongoing restrictions and stringent DHL safety protocols, such as disinfecting vehicles and freight zones on the European circuit using atomizers that turn disinfectants into a mist.

The biggest hurdle: a tri-continent triple-header consisting of races in Mexico, Brazil and Qatar. Bad weather delayed the air cargo to Rio de Janeiro, causing shipments to arrive significantly later than scheduled and putting DHL in a race against time to get everything in place.

“It’s a tough challenge. You’re working right on the edge of what’s possible logistically, and any hiccup has a knock-on effect on the teams,” Nielson said. “In Formula One, we plan everything to death because when you plan you have got a better chance for success. So we plan every detail months and months in advance. [With shorter horizons] experience and trust in partners becomes hugely important because you don’t have time to go through all the details that you would in a normal environment. We don’t take risks that we don’t think are worth taking.”

Hitting the delivery targets during double- and triple-headers is never easy, but DHL improvised to make it happen.

“There is no room for failure,” Fowler said.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, he was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]