Everyone in the Formula 1 circus arrived home from the Russian Grand Prix, dumped their bags and gave a collective sigh of relief. The brief but intense series of opening fly-away races over, the sport returns to its spiritual home to begin its regular summer-long trawl through Europe.
Just four races in, and full-time paddock folk have already undertaken a schedule of such length and breadth that few could comprehend. Flying to those first four races clocked up more than 74,000km of air travel – nearly twice round the world.
And there’s still 17 races left to go!
Mercifully, the F1 merry-go-round slows somewhat as the circus begins its summer tour through Europe – although, nowadays, with Montreal and far-flung Baku in the mix, it’s not a road-trip you’d want to make with just a car…
So let’s take a look at the greatest show on earth makes its way around the world.
Ten days before the race
The McLaren-Honda Brand Centre is our home from home during the European season. It’s transported around Europe on 15 specially equipped Volvo haulage trucks. They arrive on-site on the Thursday or Friday the week before the grand prix, with the build commencing on the Saturday.
The trucks are used to form the base of the structure and offices before the roof is assembled. Others carry furniture, equipment and spares. From pitching-up in the paddock to final assembly takes 38 hours.
In addition to the Brand Centre trucks, the cars (two fully built-up chassis and one stripped-down spare), race team equipment and spares are transported using eight race transporters.
We have 23 truckies – one per cab. European legislation stipulates that two drivers can do a 21-hour driving shift before requiring a compulsory nine-hour rest.
Seven days before the race
The first people to arrive at the circuit are our garage support crew, who usually fly out on the Saturday or Sunday before the race weekend to begin the construction and assembly of the garage. They start by painting the floor, then assembling the garage paneling – which splits the paddock space up into distinct working areas. They also install equipment and position larger spares and tool arrays. This whole process takes several days.
Five days before the race
The cars, spares, bodywork and mechanics arrive on the Wednesday of race week. With the support infrastructure already assembled, the mechanics are able to begin assembling the cars, building up the chassis and fitting any new parts.
Jenson and Fernando’s race cars travel in semi-built form – the chassis, engine and gearbox are all assembled, but the floor and wings travel separately. In a sense, the car is a very complicated model kit, and is only fully assembled in the minutes before being required on track. Likewise, it gets quickly dissembled within minutes of finishing every session.
The cars go on a lengthy tour of duty during the season’s flyaway periods – there’s not enough time to get them back to base between races, so maintenance and upgrades are carried out in the field. During the summer, when travel between European races is not as severe, the cars will return to the MTC to be stripped, painted and rebuilt.
The engineering and marketing teams also arrive on Wednesdays, when they’ll assemble their own offices, collect any freight from the containers and test all wifi and internet connections.
Four days before the race
The grand prix ‘Event’, as it’s termed, begins on Thursday, when drivers and management arrive, and the cars are scrutineered and checked for conformity by the FIA ahead of first practice on Friday.
Pack-down for a grand prix kicks off on the Sunday morning when any unused spares and bodywork get boxed up as they’re no longer needed. As soon as the chequered flag falls, the de-rig begins in earnest – mechanics don hi-vis jackets and helmets as the garage gets stripped. The marketing and engineering offices are packed away and tidied, and the kitchen and hospitality units all cleared.
At a flyaway race, the pitlane and the startline are quickly filled up with sea containers as forklifts and flat-bed trollies quickly ferry all the parts into storage.
The garage is usually empty less than 12 hours after the end of the race – but can be delayed by bad weather or logistical issues with freight and containers.
Talking of freight, let’s take a look at how we split our cargo:
We use air freight to get things to their destination in a hurry – usually either because they’re delivered last-minute to the circuit, or they’re required for work or maintenance at the factory long after the sea freight has departed. For example, the cars themselves and all their spares and bodywork will always travel by air.
We have a lot of luggage: 32 tons of air freight travelling between each race. All the car components travel by air.
In addition, we have a hefty ‘hand luggage’ quota – last-second spares or the latest pieces of kit travel out in flight case or boxes with team members as they leave for the airport during the week of the race. If a piece is particularly critical, it can be flown out specially – there are always team members prepared to travel to races with a component or critical part at a moment’s notice.
Air freight might be quick and easy, but it’s also expensive – to the extent that all teams split their freight loads and send some by sea. Travelling by sea is far less expensive, but, as you’d imagine, far slower – so slow, in fact, that it’s necessary to have five identical sets of sea freight travelling to races – often concurrently.
Each set of sea freight travels in a single 40ft shipping container and contains a lot of the basic and heavy garage equipment that’s required at every venue.
That includes garage paneling, car ancillaries, such as stands, jacks and racks, cleaning and maintenance equipment, and components and spares that aren’t performance-critical.
At the end of each year, the sea freight containers all return to the UK where they’re re-stocked and refreshed. They’re barely on home soil for long before they need to be dispatched for the first race of the new season.
And then it starts all over again!