Will Gray

Tech Talk: The arduous challenge of 20 races

Will Gray

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This year's F1 season will involve the highest
number of races in the sport's history - so how will drivers and teams cope
with the gruelling and seemingly ever-growing schedule?

The F1 calendar has expanded from 16
races in 2003, when the season covered eight months from March 9 to October 12,
to a highest-ever total of 20 events this season, with the first race on March
13 and the final one at the very end of November.

Since 2003, F1 has introduced a ban on
testing, which has reduced budgets and could go some way to coping with the
added cost of more races. However, the sport has also committed to its summer
break, where it virtually shuts down, and has also introduced a resource
restriction agreement to reduce the number of people involved in the teams.

Now, an increasing number of races not
only puts pressure on both those elements, it is threatening to stretch the
members of F1's travelling circus, who already spend much of the year abroad
and away from their families, to breaking-point.

Fatigue is the biggest issue in the
expanding number of races as the pit crews generally work well into the night
at the track.

New rules will prevent teams from doing
regular all-nighters this season, with mechanics now forced to leave the
circuit for a minimum of six hours on Thursday and Friday nights (although each
team is allowed four exceptions). But those working hours are still intense,
and with the mechanics still having to survive every racing weekend on limited
sleep, the more races they experience the more fatigue will set in.

For the smaller teams, who employ fewer
personnel and generally tend to experience more problems, that is a big
challenge. Meanwhile, even some of the bigger teams are treating this as such
an issue some have developed an element of squad rotation to cope with the
situation.

Mercedes boss Ross Brawn has revealed
his team has a small group of mechanics which can be interchangeable between
races to limit their fatigue and manage any injuries sustained during this kind
of manual work. For engineers, however, it is not so easy, as the continuity
required between driver and engineer and the relationship that is built between
them means switching one in and one out is almost impossible.

The resource restriction agreement makes
an approach like this more difficult, and increasing the group of rotating
staff to limit increased fatigue caused by the expanded schedule will likely be
difficult, if not impossible.

It's not so ideal for the drivers,
either. Although the more track time they can have the better (and with testing
restricted that means more race weekends), every additional race puts extra
strain on the drivers both physically and mentally, with more media and sponsor
requirements and more global travel. This can only add to the fatigue of an
already hectic season.

To ensure their drivers don't suffer
burn-out, teams will have to think carefully this year about how they activate
their sponsors' needs and limit the days spent flying to extra destinations
around the world between races - although with sponsor pressures higher than
ever that is clearly unlikely to happen.

In terms of logistics, however, the
addition of one more race should not make a massive difference. Indeed, with
the teams' fixed costs far outweighing the logistical costs of races, an
increase could make the sport more cost effective.

Each team transports around 32 tonnes of
equipment around the world to each race, and for the flyaway races that means
around 120 containers. In these instances, the parts are packed in carefully
planned and labelled crates while the cars have a metal frame built around them
to protect the front, rear and sides so no part can be damaged.

For each flyaway race, around nine
tonnes of equipment is sent by sea, with teams usually using around three sets
of identical equipment to cover all flyaway races (the crate of kit used in the
Bahrain season-opener, for instance, will then be shipped for use at a race
later in the year). The rest will be sent by plane, while any last minute
changes are also air freighted to the circuit on special containers on the
Wednesday or Thursday before the race and even more last-minute components can
be personally delivered as team personnel luggage.

The first pack-up takes time and
involves careful strategic planning to ensure everything fits in the crates
correctly, but once it is done it is more or less set for the year.

This year's calendar has 11 flyaway
races and nine Europe-based races, and over recent years, apart from Canada
stuck rather oddly in the middle of the 'European' season, the calendar has
developed a sensible structure to ensure its expansion has limited impact.

Although there are now four back-to-back
races, they are carefully positioned to make logistics easier. The two sets of
back-to-back flyaway races are in Malaysia and China (in the early part of the
year) and Japan and South Korea (later on in the year), each of which makes
perfect logistical sense for the teams. The two European pairs, meanwhile, are
also convenient, with the Spanish race in Barcelona just round the corner from
Monaco and Germany and Hungary also closely located.

It seems, however, that this expansion
will continue, with confirmed future events in the USA and Russia in coming
years and potential additions from South Africa, Bulgaria, Paris and New York,
and it is threatening to change the sport significantly.

If more races arrive then it is
realistic that teams will push for a two-day race weekend, with rotating crews
to cope with the increased number of races. That in turn, however, implies the
resource restriction agreement could have to change, and the value of
travelling all around the world for just two days of activity rather than three
could be challenged on environmental, financial and logistical grounds. Not to
mention the reduced value for the already struggling race circuits in terms of
revenue.

That would be a significant step change,
but it is one that could well need discussing soon. For now, however, F1's race
teams and drivers will simply have to contend with a little less sleep each
year...

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