Honda Insights - The Lure Of Logistics

Formula 1 is a sport that constantly pushes technological boundaries. Racing at 20 venues around the globe, the McLaren Honda team literally never stands still. There are numerous cogs in the machine that all help the organisation work, wherever in the world it may be.

But what if you are the person tasked with making sure all of those cogs are in place and well-oiled throughout the year? The logistical challenges within Formula 1 are enormous, as teams need a comfortable working environment in order to perform at their best, while also having access to all the equipment they may require throughout a race weekend or test.

Like so many aspects of F1, preparation is key when it comes to the movement of personnel and tools, but experience can go a long way to making the job easier. And Honda’s Logistics Manager Graham Smith has that in abundance.

“I’ve been in motorsport all my life, since I was about 11 or 12,” Smith says. “I used to go to race weekends with my parents’ neighbour David Price, who ran some single seater racing cars from his garage. He let me polish the wheels, things like that, so it all started from there.

“When I left school I studied to be a chef for two years at Westminster Catering College, and then worked in the Houses of Parliament for a year. But all that time I was still going motor racing at the weekends. And I enjoyed that more. David offered me a full-time job in his team and I’ve never looked back."

Smith has enjoyed a varied and wide ranging career in motorsport. He has worked as a mechanic, paddock chef, spares coordinator, transport manager and assistant team manager. He’s even sat behind the wheel, racing his own Formula Ford car. But it’s his 20 years at Honda that have had the greatest impact.

“I joined Honda in 1998, as part of what was meant to be its fully-fledged official F1 team. We built five cars, with a view to entering the championship in 2000. Sadly, in 1999, Harvey Postlethwaite – the man in charge of designing the car – passed away suddenly and Honda decided to revert back to being an engine supplier.”

“I stayed with Honda until 2008, as Head of Logistics on the engine side – working with BAR and the newly reformed Honda works team.”

After a five-year spell at Lotus Racing – which later became the Caterham F1 Team - Smith returned to Honda as the McLaren partnership was rekindled. While many of those Honda faces might have been the same, the challenge was an entirely new one.

“The role in logistics has changed a lot; it used to be fairly straight forward. Everybody had a couple of trucks to transport all of their equipment and that was it. Now there are motorhomes, support trucks, support trucks for the support trucks, it’s gone absolutely mad.”

“Experience pays dividends in this role. You’re always working three or four races ahead on everything. There’s a lot to think about but a lot of it comes naturally because I’ve been doing it for so long.”

Smith looks after the movement of almost every single Honda-related asset in F1. His role includes managing the travel plans for Honda personnel, as well as transporting freight and the power units themselves. He’s also always on hand to liaise between the Honda factories in Milton Keynes and Sakura, and McLaren’s headquarters in Woking.

Over the course of a race weekend, the power units can be sent back to either Sakura or Milton Keynes for testing and analysis. Smith sends the Friday units on qualifying day, and the race ones go out on Monday morning. Even for a power unit supplier currently working with one team, the numbers are impressive when it comes to the amount of equipment being moved around.

“We’ve got one trailer for our power units and garage equipment, plus one motorhome and support truck, so three vehicles. Personnel-wise we travel around with a core team of 18-20 people.

“For flyaway races – non-European rounds of the championship – we have around five tonnes of equipment on a pallet. The power units go separately, to give us more flexibility around when and where they’re shipped. And for sea freight, we send one 40-foot container which has all of our hospitality and garage equipment. We have five sets of sea freight and usually send that six to eight weeks ahead of each flyaway.”

While the power units have become more complex and different components are sometimes dispatched separately to other parts of the engine, Smith says the regulations - which penalise teams for using more than four of any one component during a season - have made his job slightly easier.

“Ten years ago, when we were racing and testing with two teams, we would have 12 or 14 engines at every race and every test. It was quite intense. Now it’s actually a little bit better, you’ve still got the time issues but it’s a bit easier to control.”

Although there is less testing and fewer power units to move around, the calendar has continued to expand outside of the traditional European heartland of F1. As a result, Honda’s Head of Logistics now separates the races into two distinct categories: European and flyaways.

“European races are slightly easier because there’s less paperwork involved, but both are similar in terms of setting up and packing down at each venue.”

During the European season, the paddock is packed down straight after the race. The trucks are loaded up and will drive through the night, either back to base or straight on to the next race venue. With the in-season test directly after this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix, things won’t have to be quite so hectic at the Hungaroring. But even then, unforeseen events can ruin the best laid plans.

“If we get problems, we have to react straight away. As soon as I hear it on the radio I know I’m going to have to be booking flights immediately. You get an idea in your mind of what the options are and then react accordingly."

“Sometimes you’re faced with challenges that can affect the entire championship. In 2001, the 9/11 attacks happened during the week of the Italian Grand Prix. After such a tragic event, it is company policy for Honda to ground its staff. We were due to fly to Monza the following day, and it was my job to get 30 people from Bracknell to Monza.

“I managed to book everyone on an overnight sleeper train direct to Milan. They were spread throughout the whole train and I spent quite some time going up and down the carriages, checking everyone was on board and had a compartment!”

Moving people is one challenge, but moving new parts at the last minute can be even more difficult and happens on a more regular basis, such is the relentless pursuit of performance in F1.

“Sometimes parts arrive as hand luggage on last minute flights. I had a really close shave once at Caterham F1 Team. In Monaco, we had some cracked primary exhausts and needed some sent out from the UK. They arrived Sunday morning via hand luggage and I managed to pick up the parts, squeeze them on my scooter and beat the traffic back to the paddock. The mechanics finished fitting them 25 minutes before the pit lane opened!”

As he helps set up the McLaren Honda garage in Budapest, Smith hopes no such drama will take place this weekend at the Hungaroring, and the omens are good based on past experience.

“Hungary has been a special place to me over the years. Brabham took part in its final Grand Prix here. Damon Hill was driving and it was one of the only races that we qualified and finished the race."

“I was also here working for Yamaha in 1997 when Damon so nearly won for Arrows. But the win that did stick was in 2006 when I was doing the pit signal board for Jenson, who secured his first victory in F1.

“We packed down quicker than ever before, and met the rest of the team to celebrate. So it’s a venue that has been good to me!”