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Formula 1

The problem exposed by F1’s winter shutdown push

by Edd Straw
5 min read

The proposal for a two-week winter shutdown in Formula 1 is a logical one, but it exposes a significant problem created by the ever-expanding calendar.

Currently, this idea is under discussion and is some way off being set in stone. But the basic rationale is sound because it would ensure there are two guaranteed two-week breaks for personnel in the two available windows – one in August and the other over the Christmas/New Year period.

As Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said during the Mexican Grand Prix weekend, such a shutdown would be good for staff well-being.

“There’s many of us team principals that would like to replicate what we have in the summer, at least starting at Christmas, and then going into the new year for two weeks,” said Wolff.

“But obviously, that’s still being up for discussion. But that was positive indication for the well-being of the people.”

Toto Wolff Mercedes F1

As Wolff acknowledges, the fact the season finishes earlier this year should already give the travelling race team more time off over the winter than over the previous two seasons. But that doesn’t impact staff working at the factory, so why not give them the same benefit at the same time as making absolutely sure the travelling staff also get a break?

“We plan to introduce a shutdown in the coming year,” said Wolff.

“Not everyone is in agreement but I would very much hope that we can do that for our staff.

“Having two weeks more [thanks to the earlier end to the season] is definitely welcome, but on the other side there’s many people in the factory who are going to work flat out between Christmas and New Year. But for the race team that’s clocking many airline miles, that’s a positive. “

While two locked-in weeks off in late December/early January might sound ideal for the factory-based staff, it isn’t necessarily the dream ticket.

Mercedes F1 factory Brackley

With two mandated weeks off for the factory shutdown in August already, that dials in inflexibility into holiday time. Add two more weeks at the end of the year, and the vast majority of holiday time is imposed on you by F1.

Some argue that people who work in F1 should just put up or shut up, but these are real people with an existence outside of their working environment. If your workplace locked in the majority of your time off in that way, that would be something to rail against, no? And remember, this isn’t just about ‘holidays’ – although that in itself is a problem given many have family commitments that dictate when they might need to be away – but all sorts of other non-work commitments that require some flexibility.

Yes, many industries and companies have restrictions on when leave can be taken and put huge demands on personnel. But F1 teams collectively employ thousands and while they all endeavour to treat staff well, there’s only so many hours in the day and weeks in the year.

More races means more revenue. And that works for F1 and even the teams given they profit directly from the income increasing. Of course, those making the decisions about this are usually the most highly-paid and those who therefore have the means to make the realities of everyday life somewhat less time-consuming. That’s not necessarily the case for the rank and file.

The growth of the calendar has come at a price. Whether you’re travelling staff or not, the demands of F1 are extreme. Few of those involved are the kind of people who are nine-to-fiving it and not willing to put in the hard yards but there are limits.

As Alpine team principal Otmar Szafnauer pointed out, without forced shutdowns, people will just keep working to gain a strategic advantage.

Otmar Szafnauer Alpine F1

“The way I look at it is we’re doing more and more races,” said Szafnauer.

“And if you don’t force shutdowns, people work through because it’s a strategic advantage.

“So if you remove that advantage, meaning everyone’s got to take it off, I think it’s good for all of us.”

The problem is the relentlessness and the lack of room to manoeuvre. Whether it’s the travelling staff – and that means not only the operational personnel running and engineering the car but all those who attend races – or those at the factory, it’s a demanding job and one that has to be balanced with personal demands and physical and mental realities.

To say there are many worse off in other walks of life, which is absolutely true, is an argument for wider social measures to improve that rather than making a case for everyone to be stretched to their limits and beyond.

There comes a point when the demand level is such that the only solutions available to you are the imperfect ones, such as the winter shutdown.

F1 Dutch GP grid

There’s a lot of talk of sustainability in F1. That shouldn’t only mean environmental sustainability but also ensuring that highly-accomplished personnel can be retained and contribute in the long term without paying too big a personal toll.

To their credit, team bosses such as Wolff are trying to tackle this and do take the issue seriously. But fundamentally it’s a wider F1 problem, one that will persist given its continuous expansion is a workload expansion, too.

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