Pop-Up Grand Prix: The Formula 1 Race Fans Don’t Get to See

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — By late Sunday night in Baku, a few hours after Sergio Pérez of Red Bull had won the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, much of the equipment necessary to stage a Formula 1 race had been methodically packed, wrapped and hoisted onto pallets, ready to fly halfway across the world.

Chartered cargo planes did the heavy lifting from there, hauling disassembled 1,700-pound racecars — and almost anything else imaginable — to Miami International Airport, where, by Monday, the shipment had been offloaded onto trucks and delivered to the pop-up racetrack around Hard Rock Stadium, which will host the Miami Grand Prix on Sunday.

Getting from the starting grid to the finish line is not, it turns out, the only high-stakes race against the clock in Formula 1.

For the top tier of international open-wheel racing, putting on premier competitions on back-to-back weekends is a complicated logistical symphony. Behind the scenes, 1,400 tons of stuff travels by air, sea and land from track to track, and continent to continent, for 23 races in 20 countries, a perpetual cycle of packing, unpacking and repacking that this year will cover more than 93,000 miles. The lights’ flicking off at the start of each race are contingent on everything, somehow, arriving on time, every time.

It is not just the cars that need to be taken apart and put back together just so. It is entire garages, plus the technical gear and hospitality amenities — even the weather instruments — that make up essentially a modest city’s worth of necessities large and small that need to be packed up. Tires, fuel, generators. Helmets and baseball hats. Broadcast equipment. Cutlery. On rare occasions, plants.

“In some cases, we bring the ovens and dishwashers,” said Simon Price, the trackside manager for the shipping giant DHL, which has been moving cargo for Formula 1 for decades and been its official logistics provider since 2004.

Planes transport the most important — read: most expensive — cargo from one race to the next, Price said. The planes flying in from Baku this week stopped to refuel either in Casablanca, Morocco, or Luxembourg before their arrival in Miami. (Yes, everything must clear customs. A lot of paperwork is involved.) The last plane touched down Tuesday afternoon.

This week, the teams were lucky, said Christian Polhammer, the senior logistics coordinator for F1: Miami’s time zone was eight hours behind.

“That eight hours make a big difference,” he said. “If you go the other way, you lose eight hours.”

Ships lug sets of bulkier items to nonconsecutive races. The first vessel with Miami race containers arrived at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in mid-April. By Wednesday, unpacked boxes lay neatly in front of each team’s garages: “Sea shipment to Miami, Montreal, Austin, Las Vegas,” read a label outside Red Bull’s quarters.

Locally sourced and labeled forklifts — Ferrari 1, Ferrari 6 — motored to and from garages, beeping warnings as they came and went. Crews in team uniforms unwrapped cases of rims. Outside the Red Bull garage, two men inserted sensors into huge Pirelli tires.

The garages themselves, where the racecars were being reassembled by crew members blaring music, were off limits to outsiders, for competitive reasons. Practice laps were only a few days away. But no one seemed frazzled. They do this almost every week.

Last year, bad weather and vessel congestion delayed a ship in Singapore that had been headed to the Australian Grand Prix, Price said. With the clock ticking down to practices and qualifying, DHL diverted three planes and urgently sent employees to Singapore to unpack the sea freight containers and hustle the cargo into airfreight ones. Everything made it to Melbourne.

But people like Polhammer and Price cannot focus on just a single race at a time. Interviewed in Miami, they were already thinking about upcoming competitions, especially the one later this month in Monaco, where the narrow streets, Price noted with concern, “aren’t built for trucks.”

The Las Vegas Grand Prix, scheduled to debut in November, will present an altogether different challenge, Polhammer said. As soon as it ends, everything will have to be packed up and flown to Abu Dhabi, which is 11 hours ahead. It will help that the Vegas race will be on a Saturday night rather than the traditional Sunday slot, he added.

But he can worry about that later, after the long hauls to Britain, Belgium and Brazil.

With this year’s season running from March to November and requiring travel across five continents, people like Polhammer and Price spend most of their time on planes and in hotel rooms. Price, who lives in England and began his career as a Formula 1 truck driver, estimated he gets about two days a month at home. Polhammer, who lives in Austria and has worked for F1 for 16 years, said that last year he spent more than 260 nights on the road.

“I admire and take my hat off to anyone that holds down a family and a relationship with this job,” Price said.

It is difficult to explain to people outside the logistics business what they do. “They’re all like, ‘What a glamorous lifestyle!’” Polhammer said. “We are definitely not part of that.”

No other sport compares in terms of moving so much volume over such long distances in short periods of times, he added.

“F1 — its deadlines do not move,” Price said. In normal commerce, he added, schedules can be adjusted. In Formula 1, “the green flag will go on Sunday no matter what.”

Then the packing will begin again, even before the champagne is sprayed on the podium.

“It takes three to four days to set all this up,” Price said, “and we pack it down in three to four hours.”

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