Planes, new terrains and automobiles

Getting a Formula 1 team to all the races on an ever-expanding calendar is an organisational feat like no other. We visited Williams to see how it’s done

A Grand Prix racing team spends a lot of time in the sky. More than 300 hours, zig-zagging 150,000 miles around the globe, hauling over 30 tons of equipment and up to 100 people to 19 races in 18 different countries, from Australia to Abu Dhabi. The logistics of this are akin to a decent-sized military campaign. The cost is almost 10 per cent of the annual budget.

And, if Bernie Ecclestone has his way, they will be spending a lot more time up there. The Formula 1 circus returns to the USA in 2012 and there are yet more races planned for India, Russia, possibly Africa. Only Mr E knows where else. If 2010 was a challenge, there’s a lot more still to come.

A glance at the 2010 calendar boggles the mind, in particular the early races and the final three in October and November. This is not a schedule for the faint-hearted or those who find it hard to do more than 10 things at once.

To delve deeper into the logistics of 21st-century Grand Prix racing I have been to the Williams factory at Grove in the Berkshire countryside where, on any given day at this time of the year, there are deadlines to be met, schedules to be checked and checked again, last-minute revisions to be made and cars to be repaired, revised or rebuilt.

Williams takes 66 people to every race, all of whom need flights, hotel rooms, hire cars, three meals a day and clean uniforms each morning. In Europe there are eight trucks out on the road, traditional ‘truckies’ long ago replaced by freelancers who drive to the races and either stay in hotels or fly home again. European legislation no longer allows those all-night blasts along endless autobahns.

The man responsible for making sure the team and its equipment is in the right place at the right time – and that none of the pieces of the jigsaw is missing – is team manager Tim Newton, a graduate of the Williams touring car programme and F1 test team.

In the calm and order of his office at Grove there are pictures of yachts at sea, one showing Newton at Cowes Week at the helm of a boat crewed by lads from the racing team. Skippering a team is what he does best, but there’s no time for sailing these days. His mind is focused on getting FW32-03 and FW32-04 back from Turkey, sending them on to Canada and forwarding tons of sea freight to Brazil in time for the final two races.

The weeks leading up to the race in Istanbul were an extreme test for the whole outfit. This began with a delayed departure from China in mid-April, caused by the Icelandic volcano filling the skies over Britain with ash. Eventually the cars were returned to Grove for the first time since Bahrain in March, just in time to turn them round before dispatching the trucks to Barcelona, and a week later to Monaco. Meanwhile the sea freight for Canada was on its way across the ocean. After the Barcelona race, departure was again delayed by volcanic ash as well as a British Airways strike. But everyone got away and duly arrived in the Principality where, on race day, all hell broke loose. By mid-afternoon both cars were wrecked against the walls. Qualifying in Turkey was just 10 days away. At least the volcano had quietened down a little. These are the challenges that have to be met by Newton and his crew.

“Logistics is about moving things around – we try to keep it as simple as we can and without it being too costly,” he says. “We have a motto, an attitude if you like, which is if it’s physically possible then we do it. If it looks impractical or awkward then it’s a matter of how do we get it done? There is no impossible. The season is split into two distinct areas – the flyaway races and the events in mainland Europe. The latter are fairly straightforward, apart from Monaco, where we have no space for the trucks and we have to unload all our kit into a garage and then take the trucks away. It’s better than it was, not as cramped. We work a long time in advance and it’s a matter of planning each move, then achieving each task. No plan can be too rigid or you can’t react to things or make any changes, so some flexibility has to be built in. But Barcelona-Monaco-Turkey threw up some problems that, in the end, left us with a very tight turnaround for Turkey. We had to stay an extra day in Monaco to get the cars repaired as much as possible before the trucks left for Trieste en route to Istanbul. All the new parts we needed were being made at the factory before being air-freighted to Turkey. Then, after the race, BA was on strike again so we had to move all the flights around. These things happen.”

Williams is understandably proud of the fact that it was the first sports team to produce a detailed carbon footprint through its active participation in the Carbon Disclosure Project and its ‘Williams Spark’ initiative, which invests in energy, education and road safety programmes. The company is deeply involved in developing new energy technologies within its Williams Hybrid Power subsidiary and at its Technology Centre in Qatar. Grand Prix racing is a soft target for environmentalists, but the energy consumption is not as alarming as might be imagined. During the course of winter testing and racing the team will use 38,000 litres of fuel while, on average, a single Boeing 747-400 has a capacity of 216,250 litres and will use 165,000 on a return flight from London to New York. Of course the teams recognise that they spend time on board these jets, but their consumption for a racing season is remarkably frugal compared to other industries. Nobody is pretending that F1 is a ‘green’ activity but the sport – encouraged by FIA measures such as KERS, smaller engines and a testing ban – is now more politically aware, more watchful of its carbon footprint.

Few of us outside the paddock have paused to register just how daunting the task is of getting racing cars to the grid and back home again. Sunday’s GP is just the tip of the iceberg.

“People can’t imagine the sheer amount of time, energy and effort that goes into these logistics,” says Williams co-owner and director of engineering Patrick Head. “They simply have no idea how demanding the schedules are. The Spain-Monaco-Turkey example is a good illustration – we were going pretty well until Sunday afternoon in Monaco. Then Nico [Hulkenberg] ran into the back of a Hispania on the first lap, damaged the wing and hit the wall in the tunnel. Later in the race Rubens [Barrichello] hit the barrier at the top of the hill. We only had two of that spec of front wing, diffuser and rear wing beam, so now we had a problem. We’d been doing a major upgrade for Canada, so all the bits from Monaco had to be sent home, repaired or re-made and sent on to Turkey without compromising the new diffusers and chassis modifications for Canada. Every circuit has very different downforce demands and set-up requirements, and all this with the cars coming back to Grove for a mere 36 hours in the workshop. This is going on all through the season – modern F1 is relentless. Nobody ever sees this side of F1, and while it may not be as exciting as the racing, it is every bit as fascinating and complex – if not more complex – than the cars themselves.”

What Head fails to mention is that, while all this is going on, the team has been working on its 2011 chassis since February. New regulations, including a double diffuser ban and the probable return of KERS, have led to a redesign of both the complex gearbox geometry and the rear suspension layouts. As a result, the entire gearbox department and a section of the aero department are now working exclusively on the design of next year’s FW33.

Newton is juggler, ringmaster and commander in the field. He has to be the master of “multi-tasking”. And it’s not only putting competitive cars on the grid that concerns him. There is the catering for hungry mechanics and engineers, hospitality for those all-important sponsors or ‘commercial partners’ and their guests. There are many balls in the air.

“There are lots of specialists in F1 nowadays,” he says, “and that means meeting the needs of drivers, mechanics, engineers, aerodynamicists, the guys from Cosworth, drivers’ physios, the press, public relations and marketing people, and our chefs. In Europe we have eight trucks, each covering about 30,000 miles a year, three for the race team and five for the motorhome. Once the trucks are safely at the circuit, six men take 36 hours to build this structure in the paddock. The chefs collect fresh food, which they’ve organised in advance, and the marketing people look after the sponsors.”

Flyaway races are more complicated. But again, there’s a routine. The build-up for Canada, two weeks after Turkey, was a good example.

“After 36 hours in the factory the cars were flown out from East Midlands airport at 6am on the previous Sunday on the FOM [Formula One Management] charter, which goes via Munich to wherever we are,” explains Newton. “A small advance party left from Heathrow late in the afternoon, ready to start on the Monday. The main group follows on the Monday evening to start unpacking the sea freight and the air freight first thing on Tuesday. That day we complete the garage area, then on Wednesday and Thursday we prepare the cars ready for first practice on the Friday morning. Then it’s into a normal race weekend. After the race we pack up, get home, wait for the cars to come back and then we have three days to prepare them for the next race at Valencia, and off we go again.”

The last five races of the 2010 season will certainly be what Newton describes as “a fairly demanding schedule”: five continents in less than eight weeks and the final two GPs – Brazil and Abu Dhabi – just a week apart.

“We’re in the entertainment business and we need to keep people entertained,” says Newton. “If we need to do 20 races next year, then we’ll find a way. We’re a part of the process of F1, not the process itself, and we don’t set the challenges. If we have 25 races in the future we have to meet the challenge, and that means above all enthusiasm for the job. You can rise to it or not, but there could be a point when it became impossible to do any more. We have a good team of people, but nobody is indispensable. If the system didn’t work because one person was absent, then the whole structure must be wrong.”

It’s scarcely credible that Grand Prix cars used to get to the grid on a trailer behind a van or jammed into the back of a hastily converted truck. Mechanics worked all night, often sleeping in the truck or on the garage floor. But times change, and it’s now a global TV show.

“While it’s possible and practical we keep pushing on and the numbers are different now,” says Newton. “Moving people is more complex than moving cars or equipment – for example we apply for at least 160 different travel visas every season. On the equipment side we have five sets of everything, so all the weight and volume – like starter batteries and garage equipment, nine tons in all – moves by sea. It’s just too costly to send this by air as well as the cars, and we already fly 23,000 kilos. We are one of the lighter teams in the air – Toyota used to fly 50 tons of kit to a race.

“We take as little as possible but as much as necessary. The kit for Canada is waiting in Montréal, while the Singapore load is already on its way and right now we’re packing the containers for Korea, then later in the year we’ll move the freight from Singapore to Brazil, and from Canada we’ll ship to Abu Dhabi, and so it goes on. The most demanding logistics this year will be Brazil and Abu Dhabi with effectively two working days between the race at Interlagos and setting up in Yas Marina.”

I trust you’re keeping up with this. Does it sound like a dream job? If so, then you’ll need to tick the following boxes.

“If I was recruiting a team manager,” says Newton, “I’d want someone who is a good organiser of people and a good planner, who can put those people and plans into action. Oddly, good planners tend not to be good in a crisis, but then they don’t get themselves into a crisis. And people who don’t plan things properly are often good in a crisis because they always manage to work out a way through. He must be able to delegate, not try and do every job himself, and he must get the right people in the right places and pulling in the same direction without conflict. That’s like skippering a yacht, getting it all right on a downwind mark on a gusty day – that feels good. You may not have the fastest boat or car, but you still get the crew all doing the right thing at the right moment. The team manager must also be flexible and a sense of humour would be a good thing, but… I don’t know,” he laughs, “I haven’t got one.”

And despite having collected millions of air miles, you won’t get many – if any – holidays. Still interested?

After the Hungarian Grand Prix in July/August, a rare period of peace will descend upon the workshops at Grove; the mechanics and engineers not allowed to go near the cars until shortly before the next race at Spa. For two weeks the factory is shut down, effectively ‘parc fermé’, as decreed by the FIA and agreed among the teams in an effort to reduce their huge costs. Some will take a well-earned break, ready to hit the ground running when seals are removed and the curtain rises on another seven races. Tim Newton will tinker with his beloved vintage 3-litre Bentley, maybe spend a day on the water.

Money will be saved, but Williams exists to go racing and this sport never truly sleeps. Grand Prix racing is as much about brainpower as it is about budgets and, while the engines may be shut down, those brains never rest.