How Formula E gets from A to B

Transporting 40 Formula E race cars, highly sensitive lithium-ion batteries and all the teams’ equipment around the world safely, and on time, is a huge undertaking. But doing it in the most sustainable way possible brings with it even further challenges. 

Logistics are, of course, fundamental to any international race series. No cars means no race, yet it’s an element that is all too often taken for granted (until there’s an issue such as when the ash cloud from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano jeopardised the arrival of the F1 cars for the 2010 Spanish Grand Prix).

In Formula E’s case, logistics remain even more crucial as, being a sustainable championship, it’s one of the most important areas for reducing its carbon footprint, as well as one that is heavily scrutinised. 

This largely explains how the inaugural Formula E calendar originated. Fans have often questioned the extended gaps in between races but the reasoning is surprising straightforward; longer breaks allow the use of slower, more carbon-efficient modes of transport.

Other motorsport championships decide their calendar and then workout how to get there. With Formula E it was fashioned in collaboration with official logistics and founding partner DHL. The global logistics specialist boasts more than 30 years’ experience in motorsports including F1, the World Touring Car Championship and the World Endurance Championship.

“We had the perfect ‘customer’ in Formula E”, explains DHL’s Deputy Motorsports MD Pier Luigi Ferrari. “They consulted us from the very beginning and involved us in planning the race calendar. This allowed us to provide advice, such as not hopping between continents and instead concentrating the races in individual regions to reduce the overall number of kilometres travelled, and to also avoid returning to the Formula E HQ in Donington Park between races.”

With the aim to use more carbon-efficient transport it means that boat or rail is the preferred option to transport the Formula E circus family – consisting of 450 tonnes of cars, batteries, wheels, equipment, hospitality structures and drivers’ race gear – more than 52,000km during the nine-city season.

Understandably, due to time, distance and/or geography, using just boats and rail is not always possible which means at times air freight has to be used. “In these cases we always look to use the most efficient, ecologically friendly aircraft types such as Boeing 747s or 777s, which burn less fuel per kilogram carried. We also pack the cargo as tightly as we can, to ensure that those planes are carrying the maximum weight,” says Pier.

For Beijing, this was equivalent to around two Boeing 747 aircraft and 25 ocean containers, with 25% going by rail and road. The total carbon footprint was around 1,200 tons which, like all races, will be offset by Formula E at the end of the season.

“The transportation to Malaysia will allow us to use more ocean rather than air freight and reduce the footprint even more,” adds Pier. “Next year, based on the learnings from this event, we expect that we will also be able to deliver even greater savings for the first race.

“Indeed, efficiency is key. The biggest impact you can have on your carbon footprint is by being more efficient in the way that you ship goods. This means that our first aim is to use the shortest routes and to consolidate all the cargo as much as we can, to ensure that the ‘emissions per kilometre tonne’ are as low as possible. We also aim for the most efficient transport mode, right down to using electric forklifts for loading.”

But the calendar planning is not the only element of concern for DHL. The cargo itself is far from clear-cut. “The lithium batteries pose a unique challenge themselves for two reasons: firstly, they are highly flammable, which means that they have to be packed and handled for air freight in a particular way, and they can only be transported on cargo aircraft. Secondly, they were new innovations that have been created specifically for Formula E and which were based on technology that was the intellectual property of the manufacturer. This meant that they needed to be certified, in order that they could be carried and imported to each of the countries where the races would take place. We have plenty of experience in automotive and motorsport, so we were able to address both issues jointly with Formula E and the battery manufacturers.”

And what about future seasons? It’s no secret that over time Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag plans to increase the calendar to 16 or 18 races. With less time between each ePrix, avoiding having to use air freight may well present DHL with even more obstacles. “It all depends on where those races are and how far you need to travel between each race. We will learn with every race, however, to explore all the options we can, and also hopefully integrate more efficient vehicles, such as electric trucks, into the transportation process. It’s possible we may not be able to avoid flying for all races, but we will use the most efficient freighters available for each route whenever we do have to fly. And then who knows? Maybe one day, someone, inspired by Formula E’s electric revolution, will invent an electric cargo plane!”