Insight: The logistics of transporting F1 around the world

Formula 1 has one of its tightest turnarounds of 2018 this week, with the paddock travelling straight from Russia to Japan for the next Grand Prix, a journey that also results in the loss of five hours due to time zone differences.

The show must be transported from Sochi to Suzuka, with a herculean deconstruction and reconstruction task awaiting in order to ensure everything is ship-shape in the Land of the Rising Sun.

“There’s six or seven Boeing 747 cargo planes,” says F1 Sporting Director Steve Nielsen on the logistical challenge. “Depending on what the teams decide to take it can involve a seventh plane. A cargo jumbo jet takes around about 130 tonnes. It’s not only the teams’ equipment but also our own – the broadcast centre, the timing equipment, all of the FIA’s equipment. It’s well in excess of 750 tonnes.”

It is a well-drilled operation that has developed over the decades; pack-up for teams in the paddock on a Sunday can take around seven or eight hours, but the process is staggered. The first items can be put on the trucks to go to the airport around an hour into pack-up, and consequently, the first plane can take off shortly after. That knock-on effect means that equipment will be the first to arrive at the next event and so that has to be considered on a load list that gets “very carefully pre-planned weeks in advance”, according to Nielsen.

Along with the air freight, there is also sea freight, a much cheaper way of transporting equipment around the world, albeit with the caveat that such a process is much slower, meaning basic items can be duplicated.

“Let’s say you’ve got a piece of equipment like a vice,” says Nielsen. “It’s fairly cheap but it probably weighs 10kg, so it makes economic sense to duplicate it five times over and send it by sea, rather than to fly a single heavy object around the world. You wouldn’t do it with car parts, but you might do it with crowd control barriers or garage panelling, larger heavier items that are relatively low costs. And so generally the teams have five sets. At any one time, two or three of those sets will be on a container ship somewhere going to the next race.”

The process involved in setting up a Formula 1 paddock for a race weekend means that some employees will be at a circuit potentially as early as Wednesday of the previous week – therefore sometimes before the preceding Grand Prix weekend has even begun.

“Because teams are bringing more and more sea freight they want to arrive at the track earlier, and so we have regular requests from teams to access the track on the Friday, the week before the race,” Nielsen comments. “If you went back 15 or 20 years the teams would probably arrive on the Tuesday of the race week. That all happens four days earlier now, especially at flyaways, and it’s because their garage build, the wiring, the cabling, is so much more complex now, and getting more so all the time. From our point of view at F1, our broadcast centre is built even earlier than that. I think our first people are in Brazil on the Wednesday of the week before the race. For us and the teams it is an incredibly complex process, almost a military operation.”

A turnaround such as Russia to Japan is a challenge for the sport, but not the most strenuous of this campaign – and there have been worse ‘flyaways’ in the past.

“The European back-to-backs involve taking down motorhomes, building motorhomes, fleets of trucks and all sorts of movement. In Europe, F1 requires nearly 300 articulated trucks. It’s actually more complex than a flyaway. With flyaways, the distances are obviously far greater, but you’re basically packing everything up and putting it on the same set of planes. F1 organises the movement of all the teams’ freight and it’s a very efficient process; the way in which the equipment moves is much slicker than at a European race.”

Nielsen points to the Canada-Azerbaijan as perhaps the worst back-to-back that ever there was – on account of travelling half the world and moving forward eight time zones – but remains in awe of what Formula 1 achieves logistically at each Grand Prix.

“It never ceases to amaze me how it all happens,” he says. “What Formula 1 does on the track is special but for me, the logistics around moving the sport around the world are just as impressive. It still staggers me that we are able to move the amount of stuff we do, over the distances we do, and two or three days later it’s on the other side of the world, set up and working. I can’t think of many other sports or businesses that could do it. There are other big sports – football, the America’s Cup, they’re our equivalents – but we do this every other week, sometimes twice in the same week. The logistics of it are jaw-dropping.”