Circling the globe—it is what the Porsche factory team does over the course of a mere ten weeks in the World Endurance Championship. The requisite logistics pose a sporting challenge of their own.
Urs Kuratle stands in front of the workshop of the racing department of Porsche’s development center in Weissach, surrounded by twelve objects known as slave pallets. Measuring 304 by 230 centimeters each, they are Kuratle’s standard luggage. Sunlight sparkles on the aluminum of these brand-new structures, which form the lowest layer of Porsche’s air cargo shipped to far-off continents for races in the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC). As the director of operations, Kuratle had already calculated months ago that he would need twelve pallets. Air cargo is complex and expensive. Kuratle pauses for a moment to think about how he can describe it. “It’s like playing Tetris,” he says, and suddenly you know exactly what he means.
The computer game Tetris, which has become a classic, consists of colored tiles that fall from the upper edge of the screen and have to be stacked immediately without any gaps. Logistics specialists face a similar challenge: they have to pack everything rapidly and use up all of the available space. But they can’t just press “start over” if one piece doesn’t fit.
The materials needed for the races run by the two Porsche 919 Hybrids have to be shipped on time and in their entirety to the respective racetracks. Following three contests in Europe, the rest of the races in this year’s World Endurance Championship take place very far away from Weissach. They started at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, in September, and are followed by Fuji in Japan, Shanghai in China, the Kingdom of Bahrain, and finally, São Paulo in Brazil. Air travel for the cargo adds up to around 40,000 kilometers—which is almost exactly equivalent to a trip around the globe.
The replacement chassis of the 919 Hybrid is reduced to its essentials and stowed in its own box.
The engine oil heaters on the upper shelf are just as important as the engine lift carts below.
The noise level increases and the cargo plane chartered from DHL lands at Frankfurt-Hahn Airport at a speed of 270 km/h. The plane is a Boeing 747—perhaps the only aircraft with a visage as unmistakable as that of the 911. The cloud of rubber dust disperses and the plane rolls to its park position. But speed comes right back into play. Lift platforms pull up with the containers from Weissach, and barely half an hour later the cargo hold is full. Narrow corridors are left between the cargo, and everything is securely strapped down. It all follows a set program, and every process has to meet the respective regulations.
An aircraft’s hold is not elastic. So the aim is to make maximum use of the height, breadth, and depth of the storage space, including the sloped areas. The packing process is similar to moving your household items to a new home. The boxes should have books on the bottom and clothes on top so they won’t be too heavy. The next parameter is a general principle that everyone is familiar with: whatever you need first at the destination should also be unloaded first. Boxes are marked with their content and in which room they should go, but because there is a little space left over you throw in something from another room only to rummage through the boxes later, cursing, because you can’t find the lamp fittings to turn on the lights. But somehow it all works out. Here, however, when a three-ton container is placed somewhere, then it’s there to stay. And you absolutely have to start setting up the drivers’ camp by laying the supply lines.
The two 919 Hybrids travel “stripped” of everything fragile and hidden from onlookers’ eyes.
Porsche travels with containers built precisely to fit the dimensions of the plane. Some are sloped on top, some are flatter, and some are shaped specially for the lower cargo space. These customized containers have a history. “We used to just pile up boxes and secure them with a net so they fit into the cargo space, and that was that,” recalls Kuratle, who spent nearly twenty years working for the Sauber team in Formula One. The focus there was on long trips by truck. A “square” loading approach also works for shipping by sea. But for air transport?
Moreover, there was an ever greater need for that means of transport. Kuratle was unhappy with the towers of boxes, whose packaging materials also took up quite a bit of weight. So the team introduced customized boxes and became a pioneer in saving air-freight weight. Kuratle is always thinking a step ahead. Porsche’s modern containers are more efficient than any other means of storage and transportation used by racing teams worldwide. He knocks on the thin aluminum walls. “Our Q7, which is the largest container, is around 120 kilograms lighter than anything else of this size,” he notes. It can also be loaded without a safety net, which allows an additional 1.3 centimeters of loading height. That makes a big difference in weight and expenses, when everything is added up. Inside the containers, the puzzle becomes more complex and more a matter of different shapes. The cargo list contains several thousand different items. In order to ensure that everything fits, suitability for international transport—whether the item is a tool cabinet, packaging for drivers’ helmets, or an engine box—is one of the factors considered when making purchasing decisions.
Michael Antl and Markus Bürger make the system work. Antl is in charge of the storehouse and preparation. He ensures that all requisite automotive spare parts go onto the cargo list, including documentation of their state of development and their mileage. Therefore, it makes sense that he is also in charge of sending replacement parts back and forth between the overseas races. For example, the two-liter four-cylinder engines need to be sent back to Weissach for inspection. “We did that for the first time in the WEC in 2014,” he says. “The individual components all have specified service lives, which means you can plan ahead. But you also have to be flexible in order to deal with defects or accident damage.” You have to be able to envision future scenarios, which can also mean reserving open-jaw flights between the races. These shipments are not sent by chartered aircraft, but rather in the holds of ordinary commercial airliners.
These three men make it happen: Urs Kuratle, Markus Bürger, and Michael Antl (from left) are in charge of packing in Weissach.
Markus Bürger, the team member in charge of transport and logistics, is the relentless manager of the twelve pallet units. Each pallet also has a staff member assigned to load and unload it. “This way we are sure of what’s in it, and that also ensures that we work in an effective sequence,” explains Bürger. Each of the twelve units has a plate with a number unique in the world, and each component packed in it has its own QR code, so that scanners can record what is where, and when. This painstaking organization doesn’t just promote efficiency to reduce costs and labor. Customs offices, too, have a fundamental need for information. Whether we’re talking about the series numbers of the 120 radio sets or the number of chassis components, screw packets, or tape rolls, the Porsche team puts a lot of effort into reliably documenting absolutely everything. The containers are x-rayed, and customs officials may, of course, completely unpack them and inspect every component. The schedules take enough time into account for this possibility.
Hazardous materials fly separately. These include adhesives and resins, as well as spray cans and the lithium-ion batteries for the innovative hybrid drive systems of the Porsche 919. These prototype batteries also require permission from federal aviation agencies to fly—in Germany as well as in the United States, Japan, China, Bahrain, and Brazil. The fact that Porsche possesses considerable experience in hybrid matters helps the racing logistics team in its work. But the procedures are time-consuming nonetheless. The hazardous materials also have to rest in a secure room for 48 hours before and after every flight. Fuel is shipped by Porsche’s partner Shell, and ExxonMobil brings all the oils and lubricants to the tracks. Michelin sends the tires. In the end, it all comes together.
At Frankfurt-Hahn Airport, 35 tons of cargo are loaded onto a Boeing 747 chartered from DHL.
The items are quickly loaded on board, but it takes hours to securely strap the race cars.
The team also ships some things by sea, which is considerably less expensive, but also much slower. Equipment shipped in August will return only in January. Because of the long distances and delivery times, the Porsche team sends three sets of cargo out onto the world’s oceans. The content consists of relatively inexpensive but heavy equipment, such as Tensator posts. Instead of flying twenty of these enormously heavy barrier posts around the world, it is cheaper to buy sixty of them and load them onto ships. They are joined by chairs, pit partition walls, and overhead supply systems for the garages. These shipments contain only as many parts as necessary, however, for we are talking about quite a large collection of items.
The Porsche team at a pit stop for the 919 Hybrid driven by Romain Dumas, Neel Jani, and Marc Lieb in Austin, Texas.
Sit down and think. Have you forgotten anything? Oh! What about the race cars themselves? The two cars have been “stripped down” and strapped onto separate car racks. All of their fluids have been drained; fragile body parts like outside mirrors and front and rear wings have been packed safely elsewhere. A set of used tires serves as buffers. Their weight, too, has been calculated and planned for. The replacement chassis—a monocoque without wheel bearings or axles—has its own box.
The engines start up. Ready for takeoff. The jumbo jet accelerates, ascends, and disappears into the distance. For these logistics races, the start is the finish.
By Heike Hientzsch
Photos by Victor Jon Goico
The air and sea routes taken by the cargo sent by the Porsche team to races in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) stretch more than once around the globe: Austin (USA, Sept. 21), Fuji (JP, Oct. 12), Shanghai (CN, Nov. 2), Sakhir (BHR, Nov. 15), and São Paulo (BR, Nov. 30). Three sets of sea cargo are on the move at the same time.