Formula E Operations: Circuit testing
We talk to the race organiser’s senior OSH manager about managing the world’s first fully electric car championship.
ABB Formula E Championship E-Prix races involve a civil engineering feat unlike any other. Richard Bate equates it to the construction and disassembly of the Silverstone racing circuit in England multiple times throughout the nine-month racing calendar in different cities throughout the world.
“Everyone sees my role as particularly glamorous, but I can work 18-hour days in very difficult circumstances,” says Bate, the senior health and safety manager at the business behind the racing series (see “From a standing start” box below).
“We are on a very tight schedule. We can’t push back on the race start because it’s now going out to a global [TV and social media] audience of potentially 35 million plus.”
Regulated by motorsport governing body the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), Formula E’s four racing seasons to date have taken the contests to the streets of cities as diverse as Beijing and Buenos Aires, New York and Marrakesh.
The level and detail of planning varies from race to race. In April this year, the Paris E-Prix took the drivers around the foot of the Eiffel Tower. To minimise disruption to the public, the business built four 10 m high pedestrian bridges, each 30-40 m wide, over the track.
“Just looking at a single bridge, the planning process, the permits, the permissions are a standalone project which could take hundreds of hours to arrange,” says Bate.
“Then there are the road closures and traffic management that go along with it. We can close roads relatively easily if we have a mayor who is fully invested in what we are delivering, but what we never do is shut the city to the local public.”
Depending on a race circuit’s complexity and location, it typically takes three weeks to assemble and dismantle.
From the time of race finish, 22 hours later, every piece of equipment that we own was gone
The transformation of the city streets into a track for cars racing at speeds of 225 km/h (280 km/h in season five) must be completed by the Saturday morning before its handover to the FIA, which manages each race and is responsible for the safety of the drivers, the trackside teams and the vehicles once they are on the circuit.
From a standing start
Founded in 2013, London-based Formula E Operations is the business behind Formula E, the ABB FIA single-seater championship and the world’s first fully-electric international single-seater motorsport race series.
When the business signed a contract with the FIA, the technology for the cars did not exist and there were no racing teams. Formula E Operations used external designers to develop the first fully-electric, open-wheel – with the wheels outside the body – car for the first race in Beijing in 2014.
A department works with client cities to finalise the race calendar, which has to gain FIA approval. A team comprising external track designers and the company’s event manager and designer first carry out a detailed feasibility study of a prospective venue, using satellite software and global positioning system data to map possible street locations. Next, they visit the city to determine race feasibility. With potentially tens of thousands of grandstand spaces to sell, they must also consider its commercial viability.
Major manufacturers including Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Nissan have joined the series recently. To date, ten teams and two drivers have competed from each franchise in races that typically take between 45 minutes and an hour. Season five will feature 11 teams and a more advanced vehicle with a more efficient powertrain and radical new-look.
Some E-Prix are better suited than others to public viewing, but Formula E’s greatest reach is through home viewing. In season one, the average viewing figures per race was around 17 million. In Rome in April, the race attracted close to 35 million viewers.
To minimise its carbon footprint and curb transport costs, Formula E Operations tries to source the track fences and concrete blocks locally.
One of the E-Prix championship’s aims is to fuel innovation in electric car technology while also promoting clean energy and the sustainability of the motor racing industry. The business partnered with UK-based Aquafuel Research in season one to introduce a new glycerine combustion system for standard diesel generators which eliminates nearly all nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. Bate says, once the system has been fine-tuned, fewer generators will be needed at future races.
But the delivery and installation of the fencing and concrete blockwork that acts as track boundaries is only one of many individual builds around what is a 2-3 km-long construction site.
The supporting infrastructure includes grandstands, a medical centre, VIP suites, viewing platforms, those pedestrian bridges, catering facilities, a power compound and generators to supply the electric cars, the control centre for monitoring crowd movement, and broadcasting facilities. Bate estimates that around 30 km of cabling is used for the power supply alone.
Since joining Formula E Operations in April 2017, Bate has taken a front seat in race safety planning. His work starts with a safety concept, including plotting traffic and crowd management and pedestrian flows to minimise the impact on the surrounding areas. Next he looks at the permitting and licensing process. Given the nature of the negotiations and the need to compromise, last-minute changes are common, such as to the size of grandstands.
Procurement usually starts before contracts are signed. Bate admits that, under pressure, there have been times when they have done this retrospectively and faced problems.
“Sometimes you get a situation where we’ve used a supplier [and] their credentials and portfolio looked amazing but, when they came to deliver, it wasn’t the standard we’d expected,” he says.
“That was a learning process and we’ve now tightened up the procurement to ensure that will happen less frequently... because it will happen again.”
Early on, Bate recognised the pre-contract OSH due diligence element was weak. Most suppliers and contractors reacted positively and requested a written process from him. Bate, who says he needs them to be honest about their accidents and incidents, is particularly interested in near-miss safety occurrences.
“I can tell through experience. If a company is honest, open and engages with me, that for me is a green flag. If they are defensive and don’t want to share, it’s a red flag.”
At the end of each season, he will ask the suppliers to share their OSH figures, which he then analyses and includes in his post-season audits, so he gets “a better picture of where we are moving into the next season”.
Long before his arrival on site, the business also develops a logistics plan to manage truck movements. At the Zurich E-Prix in June, there was a single drop-off and pick-up point for materials, so scheduling was extra critical.
“At the end of Paris [this season] we knew there was a very short window to get all our trucks moving out of the city before the curfew,” Bate says. “From the time of race finish, 22 hours later, every piece of equipment that we own as a company was gone.”
The ultimate sanction, which we almost never use, would be to take over from the promoter
As a rule of thumb, Bate will visit each venue once or twice a few months before a race to meet the local organisations he works with. In the case of new additions, he will have visited the previous year and identified key contacts, which include building control officers, city traffic managers, local OSH managers, the police, fire and rescue, the ambulance service and civil defence.
Depending on how far the race is from the UK and the circuit’s complexity, he will normally arrive ten to 12 days before, part of a core, ten-strong management team which includes the overlay engineer, production manager and event manager.
Around 90 staff attend each race. They sit through a 20-minute, prerecorded site induction prepared by Bate. The presentation is also emailed to each staff member and includes extra information on scheduling, security and welfare tailored to the event: “In Mexico City, the security side of the induction probably takes up about 55% of the presentation.”
Once the core management team is on site, Bate holds regular meetings with key contacts and chases any outstanding risk assessments and method statements and insurance certificates. He carries out spot audits and ensures the global suppliers that deliver and install the blockwork, fencing and power have received site safety information, signed it and returned it. There are also accreditation checks to be made for site access.
To add to the frenzy, he must field at least 50 questions a day, fired at him by colleagues, suppliers and contractors, local contacts and members of the public.
Most suppliers operate globally so typically provide high-quality documents. Bate still insists on risk assessments in an accessible format. “I don’t like 60-page risk assessments that I know no-one is going to read. I want to see that somebody has understood what they recognise as a potential risk and how they mitigated it.”
Unlike a standard construction project, the unique conditions imposed by the sites require compromises.
“We may not always be able to put in a fixed barrier system,” Bate says of the work areas. “We may have to use hazard tape and a security guard because the difference is we may only need to work in an area for 30 minutes.”
This produces its own challenges, which were brought home at the Zurich E-Prix, the first time the race was held in Switzerland’s largest city.
Under Swiss law, the state cannot exclude citizens from any public space. The Swiss will exercise this entitlement and Formula E Operations has no legal right to prevent their movement, even on a building site. Consequently, as workers began to construct the track perimeters on the eve of race day, pedestrians and cyclists were able to circulate around the forklift trucks and cranes positioning the fencing and blocks.
Zurich was challenging as well because it was one of the few races set up by a local promoter under licence.
“Where this is different for me is that I need to work with the promoter to access his suppliers and contractors,” says Bate.
”To minimise risk, Bate worked closely with the promoter to engage Zurich residents and explain what the build entailed and the hazards. He also asked the promoter to give him early sight of the safety management system to which the local authority-sourced workers would operate.
Safety culture tune-up
More than 100 Formula E Operations staff have passed IOSH’s Managing Safely course. The remaining 50 will take it before the end of the year.
Richard Bate has also worked with training organisation A.C.T. National to develop a bespoke safety course with the logistics team at Donington Park in Leicestershire, where the electric-powered cars are assembled and where the vehicles and generators are shipped from.
To further instil a safety mindset in the business, Bate has co-developed a bespoke reporting system with the company’s head of IT, which is accessible to all staff through SharePoint.
“If one of my colleagues starts to create an incident report, I am notified immediately and can join in live,” he says.
“Twelve months ago, I couldn’t have asked a colleague to write a risk assessment. Now they will write one based on a template and send it to me for review. That’s a big step forward.”
So that staff start to recognise risk management as an integral element of setting up each race, Bate says he has tried to introduce the risk assessment concept as part of the creative process, so it isn’t added retrospectively.
His global safety support team consists of 15 full- and part-time staff and agency workers. This includes four from the business’s safety, security and crowd management team who travel to all races, agency staff in Hong Kong, Monaco, Paris and Rome, and an earthquake safety expert in Mexico City.
As part of his two-year development plan, Bate also supported the drive towards certifying the company to the sustainable events management standard ISO 20121, which it achieved in May.
Bate’s next goal is the ISO 45001 OSH standard and is working with the business’s senior sustainability consultant with the aim of achieving compliance by 2022.
“If we feel that it isn’t robust enough or up to the Formula E Operations’ standard, then we have options,” he says. “We can try to influence the promoter and give them the appropriate information that helps them to brief staff, contractors and suppliers. The ultimate sanction, which we would almost never use, would be to take over from the promoter. That is unlikely ever to happen, and we would find a resolution.
The build was completed without a major incident, although Bate admits he did remove one individual from the site.
“It’s something I hate doing. He was very tired, and we invited him to go home,” he says.
“In those instances, I would ring the promoter, tell him what I’d done and why. I would then log it, produce an incident report and send that on to him.”
Bate knows all the global contractors the company uses and, in off-season, he discusses with them the standard he expects. Together, they work to develop a methodology to deliver each element of the build process safely.
At the start of season four, Bate expressed concern about how much work at height was involved in preparing the racing circuits: “It was almost accepted custom and practice that there must be some working at height. I didn’t think that necessarily it was unsafe. There are always alternatives.”
This includes using less cabling that needs to be rigged at height, reviewing cable routes and introducing lighter cabling, which can be pre-installed in the equipment that is shipped between races. This negates the need for installation on site.
One advantage of being in a transition phase between seasons four and five is that Bate has more influence in minimising the work at height risks. Next season there will be a further reduction.
Bate is often asked whether Formula E Operations complies with the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015). Strictly, the business shouldn’t need to because it hasn’t raced in the UK since season two in 2015-16.
“However, we do,” he says. “We decided as a company that CDM shouldn’t be an aspirational standard but one we work to in every country we race. We certainly follow the process. We understand the key deliverables and we achieve those.”
Soon after joining, Bate sent the company’s two engineers on a CDM designers’ course. “I now see the completed [safety] files and that’s pretty much where I get involved.”
However, he admits that, due to the lack of regulation, it isn’t possible to work to CDM at every venue.
“In some South American countries, it’s difficult enough to explain the basics of health and safety management but, where we can, we will work to the standard or the European equivalent.”
Bate’s background is in major international sporting events; he cut his teeth on two Olympic Games, an Asian Games and the World Rally Championship.
In 2016, his then employer, UK-based event safety management specialist A.C.T. National, put him forward to audit Formula E Operations. He spent two weeks with the business.
Its co-founder, Alberto Longo, was looking to fill the senior safety and health manager post and offered Bate the job on the day he presented the audit.
One reason Longo sought out Bate, to whom he refers as “Doc” after the Christopher Lloyd character in Back to the Future, was that he recognised someone who would be good at assessing risks in a fast-paced and evolving environment.
Longo also recognised that Formula E Operations’ meteoric rise in three years necessitated a reassessment of safety performance and handed Bate a two-year development plan to improve the business (see "safety culture tune-up" box above).
An external audit during the Mexico City E-Prix just before he joined offered some pointers.
“There were some positives,” Bate says. “The management of safety in a sporting environment around racing was good but where it was lacking was in event safety management.”
Bate has made great strides since, but he recognises that, as a relatively new member of the team, he will occasionally annoy colleagues. However, he has the full support of his boss.
“You need to piss people off,” says Longo. “If we don’t do that today, we won’t educate our people. The more that we do that now, we’ll [achieve] a standard of procedures for the future. And it only gets more complicated each year.”
Nick Warburton is deputy editor of IOSH Magazine