Package tour

Moving Formula E from point to point is the task of logistics supremo DHL, which will have to contend with delivering to densely populated city centre locations, explosive components – and a directive to dramatically slash carbon emissions. Ross Ringham braves security guards, warehouses and birds of prey to find out more.  

The owl oversees everything. Perched on an exposed steel beam – one of many that support the metal grills of the mezzanine floor on which we’re standing – the owl sits alone, its wide eyes surveying the cavernous area stretching out below. Even approaching midnight, the huge warehouse-like structure is bustling. Staff sit at glowing screens, x-raying packages of all shapes and sizes; forklift trucks flit across the expanse, like worker ants bearing heavy loads across a nest; containers are pulled hither and thither by hand across silvery floors with wheels sent into the surfaces; and, everywhere, conveyor belts of varying sizes crisscross the space, soaring high and low, carrying parcels along a black spider’s web of continuous motion. And the owl oversees it all.

The wise old bird isn’t real. It’s a lifelike model (made more so by the low glow of artificial lights far above), designed to scare pigeons away from the vast internal space of the DHL East Midlands hub, UK, a critical seat of operations for the logistics giant. It appears to be working; we’re not troubled by low flying interruptions.

“We” are a group of bloggers, journalists and DHL top brass, touring the facility late at night after the fifth and final Formula E preseason public test day at Donington Park. The hub is right next door to the race track and is critical to sending the new electric motorsport on its way. As it turns out, DHL Express isn’t just responsible for posting bits of cars to the races – the organisation helped shape the race calendar itself, honing the sequence and timing of events to yield the lowest possible carbon footprint. There’s a lot more to that vivid splash of red and yellow on the racing cars that at first meets the eye.

DHL East Midlands hub interior courtesy DHL

A brief history lesson: DHL was created in 1969 in San Francisco, US, to forward documents to Hawaii to streamline shipping operations. It was a niche that turned out to be a rich, untapped seam. Demand soared, and allowed the company to expand rapidly, working its way east across the Pacific into Asia, on through the Gulf and into Europe. Now headquartered in Germany, the logistics giant has several different divisions, works in more than 220 countries and boasts more than 300,000 employees, its own fleet of aircraft and 80,000 road vehicles.

For a company of that size and which has counted the F1 circus among its operations for decades, moving the 200 tonnes of freight that is the Formula E roadshow – roughly equivalent to two full Boeing 747s – is about as complicated as licking a first class stamp.

Still, shifting 41 cars, 45 rather large and volatile lithium battery packs, 20 charging stations, two 1000kW generators and upwards of 200 tyres, as well as all the other more conventional race track paraphernalia, is not a task to be sniffed at. It helps that the race schedule is positively leisurely (10 one-day events over 10 months) and arranged in such a fashion as to allow logical progression from location to location without returning to Donington Park in between races.

That’s a point worth stressing. Formula E plans to move its kit in order around four continents without it ever returning to its British base during the season. That’s China to Malaysia as leg one; Malaysia to Uruguay to Argentina for leg two; Argentina to the US for leg three; and finally, from the US to Europe and back to the UK.

(There is a rogue tenth date that hasn’t been announced, though FEH says while 10 races are preferred, nine events would be “comfortable” and the FIA require only eight.)

That logical sequence hasn’t happened by chance and follows an unorthodox mandate set by series organiser Formula E Holdings and significant input from DHL. It wasn’t enough for everything to arrive at the right place at the right time: FEH wanted it all delivered to the heart of some of the world’s busiest cities for one-day events, and then deconstructed immediately and moved on. What’s more, the carbon footprint of the logistics operation – traditionally by far the biggest carbon culprit in motorsports – was to be slashed to as near to zero as possible; jackboots out, Jimmy Choos in.

e.dams-Renault delivered to London Bridge courtesy DHL

It is no small undertaking, especially considering that DHL was only approached by FEH in June 2013 (the partnership was announced three months later at the Frankfurt motor show, along with the first public unveiling of the Spark-Renault racing car). To meet the challenges, the primary coloured operation has devised a series of solutions. “Minimise, then optimise,” has been the mantra to date, which has informed the whole shebang, from planning routes that cut out as much air travel as possible and selecting event dates that would allow for multimodal freight solutions to devising better ways of packaging the cars to fit more components into smaller spaces.

Mahindra Racing car being packed away for shipping courtesy Mahindra Racing

Yet both DHL and FEH head honchos are all too aware that emitting absolutely no carbon is next to impossible while balancing commercial and scheduling demands, but they’ll be happy with carbon figures that are far lower than comparable ventures. At the end of the season, what carbon footprint there is will be offset. While offsetting can seem like dropping coins onto the collection plate after burning down the church, it does demonstrate a genuine desire to tackle the situation positively and realistically.

To get to Beijing, air and rail freight will be the modes of choice (most of the race equipment, such as the cars themselves, will be shipped the first week in September); after the race, everything apart from the teams will be put on a slow boat from China. Although it is not as fast, shipping is generally regarded as far “greener” than air travel and, by spacing out the calendar, DHL has ensured there’s more than enough time between fixtures to span the vast ocean expanses between the four continents the series will visit.

Our tour moves from the warehouse space out to the tarmac. That means passing through full airport security – belts and shoes off, keys and coins out of pockets, fertiliser bombs placed in trays. The reason for the steely eyed stares is that DHL takes its security pretty seriously – as does the CAA, the UK’s aviation regulatory body. Not only does DHL x-ray packages but it also uses sniffer dogs; as a result, it’s trusted enough that UK customs officials don’t feel the need for an overbearing presence on site, helping to speed up operations.

The exterior of the Boeing transport aircraft sat on the apron is toy-like in its bright yellow and red livery. The interior, however, is like something you’d expect to find at a space station. The empty upper deck is one long bright chamber of white panelled walls. Metal rails run along the floor, interspersed with steel ski boot-like clamps to lock containers in place. It’s easy to imagine that you’re in an airlock with nothing on the other side but the Earth spinning a long way away.

DHL East Midlands Hub night courtesy DHL

Routing Formula E by aircraft such as this poses problems other than carbon considerations – namely, batteries. Batteries are rather volatile and their movement by air is heavily regulated. Formula E is using a prototype battery that weighs in at more than 300kg all told, with particularly energy-dense cells. Williams Advanced Engineering, which supplies the batteries, had to work very closely with Dallara (maker of the safety structure the cells are packaged in) and DHL to ensure that the batteries wouldn’t be refused entry at the border of any of the countries on the calendar. The trio are very proud of the UN certification which means that the batteries can wing it, although packaging has had to be carefully thought out to offer maximum protection while in transit.

The solutions developed to transport Formula E batteries safely will yield useful lessons for car manufacturers, who are faced with similar challenges in transporting large volumes of lithium batteries around the world as electric vehicles proliferate in production and geography.

This hub sees more than 20 flights a day, yet down the road at Heathrow, DHL flights total more than three times that. The company has ambitious plans to double the size of the East Midlands facility to keep pace with ever growing demand. It seems a contrary objective, but DHL also has plans to reduce the carbon footprint of its activities by 30% by 2020, measured against its 2007 baseline. That goal underlines many of its initiatives, from upgrading its aircraft to the most fuel efficient models to rolling out hybrid and electric road vehicles and buying electricity from renewable sources.

It must be said though that the Formula E link up is not just about business or marketing opportunity: the DHL top table is genuinely excited by the new motorsport and its prospects for the future of society, and that comes across in every conversation. 

The synergies between the goals of the logistics king and the new electric racing series are myriad. DHL is not just the logistics partner of the series, but also a headline sponsor. That makes for a complex relationship but one that that will allow progressive low carbon logistics solutions to be shown off to the world alongside the pioneering low carbon racing.

Spark-Renault Frankfurt delivery courtesy DHL

Images courtesy of DHL and Mahindra Racing. 

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