The man charged with ensuring 10 Formula 1 teams—and all their equipment—arrive in time to compete in 21 races over five continents compares the task to playing Tetris, the addictive puzzle video game from the 1980s. The game was about creating order out of chaos.
“Everything has to be in the right place at the right time or it simply doesn’t work,” says Paul Fowler, vice president Motorsport and managing director, UK DHL Global Forwarding, on the phone from London. The company has been active in Formula 1 logistics for more than 35 years and has been the Official Logistics Partner since 2004.
Described as the “race before the race,” the logistical effort it takes to transport up to 2,000 tonnes of freight from one racing venue to another safely and on time leaves little room for error.
“It is like playing Tetris at the highest level, only quicker,” says Fowler. “The only difference is we don’t get to do Game Over, because that’s not an option.
“There is literally no room for any failure at all.”
During an eight-month schedule (April to November), beginning in Australia and ending in Abu Dhabi, Fowler and his team sometimes have less than 48 hours after the race to dismantle the irreplaceable equipment at the race venue, transport it to the next venue and reassemble it there.
There is a timeframe of just two days for the transportation of the valuable and sensitive cargo, including the teams’ racing cars, tires, fuel and spare parts, but also transmission technology, hospitality and marketing equipment. “For the tight schedule to work, everything has to be planned well in advance to the minute,” says Fowler. At European races, DHL operates up to 25 trucks to transport around 1,000 tonnes of freight from one racing venue to another safely and on time. For fly-away races outside Europe the amount of freight handled by DHL increases to about 2,000 tonnes (or 240 elephants), corresponding to the load capacity of six Boeing 747 aircraft and 40 sea freight containers. During the course of the 2017 season, those airplanes travelled a combined distance of 131,995 kms.
Each team requires 2,000 litres of motor fuel, 140 litres of engine oil, 40 litres of oil and 90 litres of engine coolants—for each race. On average, there is 40 to 50 tonnes of freight per team, including 10,000 kilograms of electronics. In addition, 150,000 kilograms of broadcast media equipment and 30 freight containers of hospitality equipment is moved between each venue.
Silverstone, England, DHL F1 Logistic Work at the Airport – DHL TV Commercial, Silverstone and East Midlands Airport.
The Grand Prix du Canada, held on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Montreal’s Ile Notre-Dame in June, holds unique challenges and not just because it follows the race in Monaco.
“It’s on an island, so we have to deal with bridges, roadwork and traffic,” says Fowler. “For timing, we like to operate at night or out of peak periods, but sometimes flights are delayed and that can put us into a traffic situation.”
They fly into Mirabel International Airport, which Fowler says is great for capacity, but it’s further away from the race track which can lead to traffic issues when you have a convoy of 40-50 trucks.
“Because the Montreal race is not a 365-day circuit, and so semi-permanent, we have to also consider the local infrastructure going in first—grandstands, etc.—then our sea freight arrives around this time,” explains Fowler. “At the same time, we are talking to the organizers to see when we can get access to the track without causing any bottleneck to operations.
“Next into the track is the team and TV infrastructure, like the garages for the teams, which have to be completed nine days before the race when the air freight arrives from Europe and plugs in to this pre-installed equipment. Revisiting tracks helps us because we know what to expect.”
While this is all happening, the race is going on in Monte Carlo. As soon as the checkered flag is waved, the DHL team springs into action.
“All the equipment is broken down and the technical equipment is sent back to the factories for a full rebuild, before being broken down again and put in what we call a fly-away kit—basically a travelling garage—and we collect them for shipment to Canada, where they are set up over the next three days in preparation for the teams’ arrival on the Monday before the race.”
The race happens on Saturday and Sunday and while you might think that means the DHL teams gets a break, you’d be wrong. “I want to say we get a chance to catch our breath, but there is still a lot of last-minute equipment that can arrive as late as Saturday,” says Fowler.
He says the logistics requirements are getting harder and harder as the windows are getting smaller because racing fans want to see more races and the only way to do that is to expand the season and that means more back-to-back races.
Or back-to-back-to-back, as happened this season after the Montreal race. For the first time in the history of the series, there was a triple-header on the race calendar, i.e. three races on three consecutive weekends in three different countries: France, Austria and Great Britain.
And Fowler doesn’t list that as the most difficult challenge he’s faced during his 33 years being involved in Formula 1.
“Two years ago, Baku [Azerbaijan] was a new event and was a back-to-back with Montreal [June 12 and 19], which was probably, with the time difference, the hardest the gig we’ve ever had to do. It was a seven-and-a-half-hour flight with the time zones working against us and a brand new event where the host country that was not really prepared for what was about to arrive—but they did exceptionally well under the circumstances.”
During his time with Formula 1, Fowler has seen a lot of change, both on and off the track.
“From a logistics point of view, it’s grown unrecognizably,” he says.
“The season has expanded from when I started in this industry from four long haul international and 16 European races to 12 international and seven European races, so the dynamic for us as a forwarder has changed a lot. With more emphasis on the international events its longer periods away, and the team discussions are always about keeping all of the systems mobile, but safe.”
With an increase in the size has come a commensurate amount of pressure to win.
Their motto is: “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”
“Teams haul around a lot more equipment than they used to because they don’t want to fail and that demands more people and more equipment. It’s the drive for success and success sells,” says Fowler.
“We have to have a 24/7 operation and follow everything through to the finest of details because you can’t be the weak link in their chain.”
For Fowler, the biggest reason for DHL’s success in Formula 1 is people. He oversees a team of 57 full-time employees for the planning and logistics of F1, divided between Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom.
“For us, we’re blessed with DHL’s global resources so we’re able to get local knowledge and support where required.”
The logistics people at DHL have to know the individual peculiarities of each country inside out and ensure that all regulations are adhered to scrupulously. One mistake and the equipment may be held up for days or even weeks.
That means good advanced planning. The DHL experts therefore draw up a long list of transport and customs rules before the start of every season. For example, no timber may be imported into Australia, China or Malaysia.
Not a single wheel could turn in Formula 1 without logistics. No cars, engines or fuel would ever reach the race venues around the world. The drivers would not even have a driving suit in which to tear around the circuit—assuming they got to the race track first.