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The logistics of an aborted season start

By now in a normal world we should be reflecting on the first four rounds of the 2020 Formula 1 season, fresh from the Chinese Grand Prix and races in Australia, Bahrain and Vietnam.

Instead, many countries are in lockdown, and F1 teams and power unit suppliers are observing an extended period of mandatory FIA shutdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Not a wheel has been turned by an F1 car during an official race weekend this season so far, but the sport came very close as it tried to race in Australia before the situation worsened.

For many people, that has meant less work to do while we wait for restrictions to be lifted and racing to resume. But for Honda F1’s Logistics Manager Graham Smith it has been a busy time, starting with the cancellation on Friday morning in Melbourne.

“Once we found out the race was off, we just treated it as a Sunday night finish almost, as if the race had finished but the cars were already in the garage,” Smith says. “So the mechanics just did their normal routine of taking the engine out and boxing it up. It was a normal pack-up, just a bit slower because we knew we had time.

“In terms of getting people home, it was a combination of working with people from the office back at home and me having to liaise with team members on-site. The original plan was to leave everything as it was because we were all going on various flights on the Monday and Tuesday, but the later flight was the engineers and we managed to get them moved forward to Sunday with the rest of us going on Monday.

“The airlines were fairly good about changes, even if some people got re-routed, so it wasn’t too bad. The race was called off on Friday morning and the last people were back at base by Tuesday afternoon.

“It wasn’t a problem getting everyone home, but the whole scenario was weird with the build-up to the Friday morning and the lack of news coming through. I’ve never seen anything like this in my career, in 38 years, and I don’t think I’ll ever see it again. Back in 2001, 9/11 was tricky when I was working for Honda before but that was only flight-wise - we couldn’t fly any Honda employees - which was a little bit challenging but we got around by train. This was just more weird.”

With the second and third races in Bahrain and Vietnam postponed on the Saturday in Melbourne, everyone was heading home for a spell rather than to another event, and health guidelines were strictly followed.

“When we got back, everybody had the choice of whether they wanted to go back to their houses - because depending on situations, they might live with their parents or grandparents or at risk people - or to stay in a hotel paid for by Honda. I think eight or nine people did take up that offer, although personally I self-isolated on my boat before I went home! Everyone had to self-isolate.”

Once through that phase, it was then a case of waiting for the air freight to return to the factory in Milton Keynes, which understandably took longer than expected.

“We were told the freight was definitely going to go to Bahrain and it would be decided from there whether it would go back to the UK or stay there. Ours actually went to Dubai and it just sat there at the airport for two weeks. We finally got it back on the 1st April, so three weeks after we were there.

“It’s all down to Liberty and FOM (Formula One Management) cargo, they tell us exactly where, when and what time freight will arrive. But the arrival back in the UK kept changing day-by-day - I think I got three different dates on that in the end - until it finally arrived back on 1st April.

“It wasn’t as complicated as it could have been. Stuff was late coming back but it was all packed up at the circuit, left like normal as if it was going to another race and then flew off a couple of days later. It’s just the knock-on effect of trying to get planes, crews, routes etc. that took a long time.

“Because of the mandatory shutdown situation, the FIA gave us special permission to go in - we obviously couldn’t just leave it outside, it had to be unloaded and put back in the factory. So myself and a couple of mechanics put everything in the factory and that’s it, it has just been left after that.”

There was no rush to get the equipment back as there is an indefinite gap until racing will resume due to the number of races that have so far been postponed, but there is another type of freight that is constantly moving around the world and remains in limbo.

“The sea freight that went to Australia is en-route to Canada as scheduled, we can’t really stop that at the moment so it’s due at the end of May in Canada. Once it gets there it will stay there and we’ll make a decision from then. The Bahrain sea freight is in storage in Dubai on hold, possibly to be used for Sochi.

“The Vietnam sea freight is in Vietnam and is going to stay there, so we’ll probably use that for Singapore if we can, and fortunately the Chinese one didn’t go. We have four complete sets and DHL were good and held it back for an extra two weeks from when it should have gone and fortunately a decision was made, so that’s still in the UK. We’ll keep it all in storage until we know what’s happening and at least we’ve got things scattered in the right areas!”

At the time of writing, nine races have been cancelled or postponed, meaning nine lots of flights and accommodation have had to be dealt with by Smith and his staff.

“We’re obviously cancelling hotels as we go along and seeing what we can get back. But on the whole we’re just watching the news and watching the calendar and cancelling them one-by-one, there’s not much more we can do really. I don’t know what happens if races get moved around though, whether we get those rooms back if we need them! We’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it.

“[Toyoharu] Tanabe-san goes to all the FIA meetings and is in touch with the FIA, so he can pass on his view in terms of how it will impact us, and he passes that information on to me - as do the team managers.”

So now, like many other people involved in the world of F1, it’s a waiting game for Smith. But he is confident that whenever it is safe to restart the season Honda’s equipment will be ready to go quickly, even if given little warning.

“It wouldn’t take us very long whatsoever. If FOM said there was going to be a flyway and to have it ready in five days, we could do that no problem. We could do it in a couple of days for sure, because we didn’t really use anything in Australia. Things like stock levels of spare parts and consumables are all as they were really.

“The engines all went straight back to Japan immediately. They will go on a chartered cargo flight so as long as things are getting back to normal we can move them pretty quickly to any race location. But if it was like now where there’s only one Japan Airlines flight a day to anywhere in Europe it would be a lot trickier.

“It’s definitely going to be tricky if and when we get going again, you can look at gaps and see when things might be, but until we have a calendar you can’t do anything really. But we can start quickly.

“If we’d just done a race and stuff needed to be turned around then it would be a bit different, but seeing as nothing turned a wheel everything is really ready to go.”