The drop of the chequered flag on Sunday in China marked a first victory of 2017 for Lewis Hamilton and MERCEDES-AMG PETRONAS Motorsport. But long before the winner’s champagne had even started to dry on the podium, a new race was already on, as the timer started on the countdown to the Bahrain Grand Prix.
A massive logistical challenge.
Fans adore back-to-back races, as they get two consecutive weekends of Formula One action. But for the teams, it’s a massive logistical challenge, as the rush begins to shift up to 15 air freight cases, 10 loose freight boxes and numerous suitcases, totalling almost 39 tonnes, across the world from Shanghai to Bahrain. And that’s not to mention the sea freight, which set off for Bahrain in January.
An army of forklift drivers.
Before the team can even assemble for a celebratory picture in the pit lane, the first elements of the epic pack-up operation have already begun. Unseen on TV, the first of the team’s freight pallets arrive in the paddock mid-race, as an army of forklift drivers set to work.
For a flyway race the team has three days (Monday - Wednesday) to build the garage and then just six hours to take it down after the race on a Sunday night. The MERCEDES-AMG PETRONAS garage started coming down just 15 minutes after the chequered flag fell at 15:37 and the boys closed the lid on the final pallet and walked out of the circuit at 22:30. Quite some turnaround.
A well-oiled machine.
Pack-up planning actually starts as early as Thursday, with meetings between the Chief Garage Technician and Chief Mechanic to determine the Sunday workload and what can be prepared ahead of time. Spare gearboxes, for example, can often be stripped on a Saturday evening, ready to fly out on Sunday night with the engineers as handy carry. By Saturday, the Chief Garage Technician will have a pack-up plan, setting out where all of the freight pallets should be laid out in the paddock post-race, arranged in order of which will need to be accessed first. It’s a detailed and well-oiled machine.
The first big mission on Sunday night is to tackle the priority freight. Each team gets three priority pallets that go to FOM for immediate transportation, which must be loaded and sealed before midnight on Sunday if they’re going to reach Bahrain – a massive 4,238 miles away – by Tuesday. Crack one of these priority pallets open and you’ll see that it’s filled with the carcass of the garage – the panelling, VIP area, gantry and garage sidewalls. All the structural elements which form the framework of a race weekend garage operation.
The race is back on.
Interestingly, even if one team’s freight touches the ground 12 hours before another team’s, they still can’t touch it until everyone’s freight is available. That policy is enforced by FOM to ensure health and safety. The last thing you need is a crew clambering in and out of pallets while other teams are still moving 12 tonne forklifts around the pit lane! But, as soon as the last pallet touches the ground, the race is back on.
Shortly after the freight touches down in Bahrain at 06:00, eight garage technicians, two electricians and two IT experts serve as the vanguard of the setup operation, with the hospitality team also on hand to begin setting up the team suits for the weekend and, more importantly, keep the crew fuelled for the mammoth task at hand.
The objective on Tuesday is to complete the central engineers’ station, the main IWC gantry and the track shacks so that the trackside electronics and IT systems can get up and running, before the Bahrain International Circuit turns into a customs control zone at 18:00 that evening.
12 hour lockout.
This 12 hour lockout halts all progress until the Wednesday morning, when the 12 remaining pallets arrive at 06:00. The truckies and IT guys have an early wakeup call, leaving the hotel at 05:30 to get into the paddock and start breaking those crates open. They’ll be joined at 08:00 by 25 mechanics and, by between 10:00 and 11:00, the garage should be finished. Only then do the cars, pit gantry, engines and gearboxes come out of their crates and the garage starts to resemble a “normal” race weekend operation.
A big paddock.
Each back-to-back race has its own unique challenges. Formula One swaps one big paddock for another moving from China to Bahrain, leaving plenty of space to work in. This certainly makes life easier than fitting everything into the tight and twisty confines of a street circuit, for example. But, on the flip side, the distance between the venues means the team has longer to wait for its freight to arrive. It’s never a straightforward game – and the men and women who make it all happen are true unsung heroes!
Incredibly, there will already be a crew in Russia before the team leaves Bahrain on Wednesday following the first in-season test of the year. In Formula One, the racing never really ever stops – on or off the track. Better stock up on the Monster Energy ...