The French connections

Spacesuit Media Formula E Paris 2016 Dan Bathie Fencing being built

It’s taken two years to prepare for Formula E’s 2016 visit to the streets of Paris. With 20,000 people expected, turning the capital of France into a race track is as much a masterpiece of engineering, design and logistics as the Eiffel Tower. Noor Amylia Hilda.

France is something of a mecca for motorsports. More than a century ago, the country hosted what is considered the first grand prix race. The 1906 Grand Prix de l’ACF was held on a public road just outside Le Mans. The country’s stature as a producer of world class racing teams, technology and drivers is rivalled by very few other places; even the FIA, the world governing body of motorsport, is French.

Fast forward to 2016 and the future of motorsport is about to arrive in the country where it all started. This weekend, Formula E will race electric speed machines around the historic streets of Paris. It’s an achievement mirrored by the sport’s success in securing a track in the centre of London last year and shows off series boss Alejandro Agag’s flair for the dramatic and the cinematic.

Building a race track from scratch in the middle of a busy city is no easy feat; before electric race cars can whoosh through the streets of Paris, it takes an army of engineers, planners, architects, local authority figures, safety experts and other professionals to meticulously design, plan and sequence every detail.

It’s an enormous task, even for the one day format that Formula E comprises, where practice, qualifying and the race all take place on a single Saturday at the venue. Pressure is added by the Paris fixture being regarded as a flagship event for the new series, which is part-way through its second season. Renault and Citroen’s DS both have racing teams in the sport; Michelin is the series tyre supplier; there are a host of famous French drivers, including Nico Prost (son of four times F1 world champion Alain, who helps run the Renault team), Stephane Sarrazin, Loic Duval and recent Ferrari F1 reserve driver Jean-Eric Vergne; and the whole sport is very close to the heart of Frenchman and FIA chief, Jean Todt. Many people will be watching Saturday’s happenings with close attention; any mistakes will not go unnoticed.

Spacesuit Media Formula E Paris 2016 Dan Bathie Road signs stacked

Master planning for the landmark Paris event began back in 2014, when Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo (a firm supporter of the project) began discussions with Formula E representatives about holding the electric championship in the French capital. One of the first challenges was finding the perfect spot. That’s not as straightforward as it might first appear, given that the flowing lines and swooping turns envisaged by track designers are limited by the realities of the city layout and the compromises necessary to enable the city to continue functioning during the event.

“We studied more than 20 locations in and outside of Paris and the Les Invalides site was finally the best one,” says Martin Manecy, Formula E event manager for the Paris race. The Paris layout “ticks all the right boxes,” says Agag, with a 1.93km circuit that loops around 14 turns, circling the picturesque architectural complex of Les Invalides. Populated by more than 2.34million people, Paris is Europe’s top tourist destination and the track site, flanked by landmarks such as the Tomb of Napoleon, the Army Museum and the Eiffel Tower, is often thronged by tourists in the spring months.

“It’s a beautiful location with iconic landmarks and the roads are in good condition,” Manecy goes on. “Formula E is a city centre race series so we use the public roads.”

However favourable the condition of the roads, there are modifications to consider before electric race cars can be flung around the circuit. Public roads, with their requirement to help water drain away and with damage done by heavy vehicles, are not as level as the surfaces found at permanent race tracks. That’s an issue for racing cars, which sit very low to the ground and which have stiff suspension – good for controlling body roll for faster cornering, not so good for dealing with high crowns in the road. With 18 inch low profile tyres very similar to those worn by ordinary road vehicles, Formula E cars are even more vulnerable to less-than-ideal road surfaces than traditional single-seater racing cars, whose much thicker sidewalls can offer more cushioning. “We also had to improve the roads a bit, especially parts where there are holes or where it’s not level,” Manecy admits.

A particular snag at the Les Invalides area is a cobblestone pavement section. It’s unsuitable for racing cars but is part of Parisian history so can’t be removed or damaged. The solution is to use a temporary asphalt layer, applied two weeks before the race and removed immediately afterwards.

“We’re always focused on not interfering with the original image of the site,” observes circuit designer Rodgrigo Nunes. He’s no stranger to Formula E: his portfolio includes the 2015 Berlin and Moscow temporary street circuits. “That’s one of the main points that makes a pure street circuit an amazing opportunity to develop new solutions.”

Spacesuit Media Shivraj Gohil Formula E Paris 2016 Road signs and Les Invalides

Simply reworking the surface is only one part of building the racetrack; the project must also be approved by the FIA, which scrutinises every aspect and imposes stringent safety standards. “The track is built from scratch but we improve the roads, we need to have walls and level the surfaces,” Maecy explains. “We had to remove traffic lights and set up temporary ones. We also have to set up blocks, fences and kerbs all around the tracks to comply with the FIA technical and safety regulations.” 

Formula E invests in locally-manufactured materials, such as 4m-long concrete barrier wall sections, each weighing a hefty four tonnes, as well as 2.5m tall debris fencing to protect both drivers and spectators from impacts.

Stopping an errant racing car with a concrete wall offers little in the way of energy absorption to reduce risk of head or neck injuries to drivers, yet it is generally accepted as the most straightforward, reliable and cost effective temporary method with which to introduce maximum safety for spectators lined up on the other side in the smallest amount of space available.

While concrete is might not seem the sort of low-carbon material suited to a series championing green credentials, that doesn’t mean that the green manual has been thrown out of the window. “Sustainability is something really important for Formula E,” explains Manecy. “Every time we can find a way to be more sustainable, we’ll do it. For example, the temporary asphalt we’re using is recycled from another site. Part of it will go on to another site to be recycled again after the race. We’ve improved roads here which will benefit Paris road users every day.”

Spacesuit Media Formula E Paris 2016 Dan Bathie Lifting fence panels into place

The track build process must avoid unduly disrupting life for residents and the important tourist industry. “There’s massive pressure from daily traffic,” says Nunes. “The design and planning make it possible to build the track in a very short period of time. All the solutions should be simple and easy from a construction and operational point of view.”

The Paris track build will take 10 days to complete, which includes setting up associated structures such as paddock buildings (media centre, medical centre, the VIP eMotion club, pit garages, catering area, TV compound and so on), grandstands and the eVillage fan zone.

Design and construction is only one facet of the challenge presented by transforming part of Paris into a race track. Another major issue is physically transporting in excess of 100 tonnes of materials directly into the centre of a buzzing, densely populated metropolis packed with businesses, without clogging up roads.

Massimo Foroni, motorsports team operation manager at Formula E logistics partner DHL, says that building a good relationship with local city authorities is key to achieving success in this area. “In Paris, there is a representative dedicated to working and briefing the right people in the city council,” he says. “From there we identify routes as well as required road closures so we can load our materials with the suitable timings.”

The DHL team has performed faultlessly throughout Formula E’s first two seasons. What’s more, the company is committed to cutting carbon in its operations – not an easy thing to do when moving racing cars and track building materials around the world. Here, DHL’s contribution begins far before equipment is loaded for shipping. When the schedule for the race calendar is drawn up, DHL advises on how to order locations and dates in a manner which allows freight to be sent from venue to venue, rather than returning after each race to Formula E’s technical base in the UK. For the majority of the season, this includes the racing cars themselves, which, unusually, means that teams have no access to their cars between races.

“We use intermodal solutions,” says Foroni. “In Europe, we’ll go by train, especially for the materials, while the teams’ freight will be quicker to move by road as teams would need them sooner.” Although road transport is not seen as green as using ships or trains, DHL can better control the vehicles being used.

 For the European leg of the series, which spans Paris, Berlin, Moscow and London, DHL can opt to use trucks compliant with Euro 5 or Euro 6 emissions standards. More than 90 trucks will be pressed into service to ferry materials to the Paris.

For Paris, three boats will also be used. Track materials – such as the concrete barrier wall sections – will be floated to a city dock situated a mere 1km from the racetrack, reducing the number and length of truck journeys required.

Despite DHL’s best efforts, there is one aspect of the logistics puzzle which is growing increasingly difficult – shipping Formula E’s batteries. Each “battery box”, built by Williams Advanced Engineering and Dallara, weighs more than 300kg, encasing 200kg of lithium ion cells in a sophisticated, multi-layered safety structure. To supply every car on the grid, 40 of these monster batteries are required, along with a handful of spares to counter any issues.

From 1 April 2016, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has brought into force stricter rules surrounding the transportation of these types of batteries. Foroni says DHL only received the approval to ship batteries by the FAA to Mexico for the Formula E race in March two weeks before the event.

“Honestly, two years ago, it was different and we had many opportunities,” says Foroni with a big sigh, remembering preparations for Formula E’s first season, which began in September 2014. “Now it’s becoming more difficult to find a way to ship batteries around the world because of the restrictions. In the future, it will be more regulated and that is definitely a big challenge for us.”

Spacesuit Media Nat Twiss Formula E Paris 2016 cyclist on road next to fencing

Getting people to and from the races is another challenge on a regular race weekend, while minimising any impact on the travel plans of local citizens. “There should be a huge amount of planning that goes into the organisation of these events from a transport point of view,” says Andrew Walsh, projects director at engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald. Walsh knows what he’s talking about, having advised event planners during the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the 2012 London Olympic Games (where transport planning was hailed after London continued to operate as normal, despite fears that the city would be gridlocked by the magnitude and frequency of events).

For Walsh, getting people to and from the venue is just as important as what happens at the event itself. “Closing a city centre network will obviously have a substantial impact on the city’s transport operation,” he says. “Alternative routes will need to be developed, traffic control measures will have to be changed and so on. A whole host of planning will go into keeping vehicles away from the city centre. At a traffic engineering level, that’s a substantial operation.”

City councils would clearly want the event to have as little adverse effects on the city as possible and methods exist to help achieve this. “Many cities now implement something called travel demand management, which is a whole background campaign to encourage business as usual or to encourage existing residents and tourists to use different methods of transport to travel at different times or not to travel at all,” says Walsh.

Social media can play a big role in getting people to and from venues efficiently. “It allows transport organisers to get messages very quickly to the travelling public – but it also enables traffic control rooms to receive information from spectators and identify problems,” says Walsh. “For example, during the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, we monitored Twitter activity. We could see patterns developing, such as ‘I was queuing up for half an hour at this station.’ That might be the first indication that we have a particular problem at that railway station and we can begin to look for alternative travel suggestions. So social media is very important and is only going to get more important as its understanding and use increases.”

The congregation of large numbers of people in Paris will be carefully monitored for reasons other than a desire not to interfere in the normal daily life of the average Parisian. Following the attacks which rocked the city in November and January, Manecy explains that extra precautions will be taken to safeguard event goers. “We’ll have security at each entrance and we’ll have sniffer dogs checking for explosive devices,” he notes. “There are many different state agencies around the event area which we’re working with. The French army will also be deployed in the city. You never know what might happen but we’ll do our best to secure the place.”

With the enormity of the task understood (at least in part), what’s the rationale behind embarking on such an ambitious project which carries such great risks (to local tourism, the fabric of the city, to security)?

Spacesuit Media Formula E Paris 2016 Dan Bathie Policemam

“We’re organising an important study to understand what the benefits are for Paris and for France,” says Manecy. “We’ve sold out of tickets (there were 10,000 available) and we’ll have 1500 VIPs, 2500 staff and media, so we’re expecting more than 20,000 people. These people need to eat and they’ll go to the shops nearby. Paris has not been designed for a motorsport event before so it will be an interesting impact for the area and we’ll have the figures after the event.”

The study will be a vital piece of work for future planning, says Manecy: “Paris wants to attract international sports events such as the Olympics in 2024 so Formula E is a good start. It’s going to be a very busy day!”

It’s a huge undertaking to put on a single day’s entertainment and for a race which lasts less than an hour. As the clock counts down to the race start on Saturday afternoon, organisers will be hoping that the on-track action will do justice to the years of preparation. Regardless of who triumphs when the chequered flag, Fwatching electric racing cars battle around the streets of Paris will be a historic sight, one that spectators, staff and the racing drivers themselves will never forget.

Spacesuit Media Shivraj Gohil Formula E Paris 2016 cyclist on apex

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