x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Marshal law: learning to be a Grand Prix flag waver

As the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix nears, Georgia Lewis finds being deputised to help run the race is more work than people think.

Tamas Zettner, the head of sporting for Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, trains potential race marshals on Yas Island.
Tamas Zettner, the head of sporting for Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, trains potential race marshals on Yas Island.

Without marshals, Formula One races would be dangerously chaotic. But the marshals need to know exactly what they are doing and, with that in mind, the first 2010 marshal training session for this year's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was held at Yas Marina Circuit last weekend. The 380 marshals required for the November 14 race will be selected from last weekend's session, where more than 350 people turned up, and from another on July 9.

The voluntary positions that need to be filled are those of flag marshals and intervention marshals. Flag marshals have the important task of ensuring the right flags are waved to inform the drivers about such things as track conditions, race stoppages and crashes. Intervention marshals are required to be on the scene in situations such as crashes and clearing debris from the track. There are countless combined hours of training that need to take place for the marshals. And while some of the training sessions may seem monotonous, they are essential to ensure that this year's race runs as smoothly as last year's inaugural event.

A multinational group of aspiring marshals was present, including hardcore F1 fans, a woman who had previously marshalled at the Bahrain International Circuit and even someone who had never seen an F1 race on television or at a race track. The trainees were presented in the morning with a 14-page document explaining the procedures of an F1 race and what role the flag marshals and intervention marshals would play on race day. The broad-ranging document covered such topics as the formation lap and the start of the race, communication, safety, physical and mental requirements, the hierarchy at the track, the flags and even how to be polite to the drivers.

"The drivers are not your friends," Tamas Zettner, the head of sporting for Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, reminded the group. "Never touch them unless it is necessary, direct and escort them with definite body language. Do not ask for an autograph, and if it's necessary to talk to them, they are always Mr Schumacher or whoever, not Michael." Zettner should know the rules - he has 24 years of experience in motorsport, making his start marshalling races at the Hungaroring Circuit in his native Hungary. He has been the chief marshal for Formula One races since 1992. It is not Zettner's first time training marshals for a new grand prix. In 2005, he trained 500 officials for the first Turkish Grand Prix, developing a safety plan and finalising circuit preparations.

Because of the overwhelming volume of information involved, the day was punctuated with regular breaks. As the day wore on, natural attrition occurred in the group. After each little break, there were a few less people at the session. It was clear that with each session, the realities of being a marshal were sinking in - everything from the time commitment to having to stay in one position for several hours may have conspired to make people realise that marshalling is hard work. The marshals will have to commit to further training in September as well as marshalling a Radical race weekend over three days in October and a four-day commitment for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix itself.

"Forget your weekends," Zettner told the group. Jane Ludgate, a Canadian F1 enthusiast , said: "If people leave early, that's OK, some people will decide it's not for them and that's fine - better they find out what it's all about now rather than getting there on the day and messing up because they're just not committed." Ludgate, along with her equally enthusiastic husband Dennis Henschel, were among the candidates who stayed to the very end in the hope that they would make the cut.

Zettner was well aware of the dry nature of the day's material and broke up the 14 pages of notes with humour, passion and videos from past FIA car and bike races where marshalling had gone wrong. There were scenes of confusion when flags were used incorrectly, marshals nearly getting hit by cars when they were leaning on safety barriers - "never touch a guardrail" warned Zettner - and a MotoGP race where a riderless bike caused bedlam, which had the students giggling, gasping and realising how important it is to keep one's wits at the track and get enough sleep the night before.

"If you are tired, you are dangerous to the drivers and to your colleagues," said Zettner. But he lightened the mood when he talked about how marshals would most likely appear on international television on race day: "Only a few hundred million people will see you, it's nothing." At the end of the day, approximately 280 potential marshals passed the written test. Race control will be in English but ADMM is accommodating the needs of all potential marshals with multilingual training.

All the successful applicants will be FIA-accredited by the end of the training and become members of the UAE Motorsports Marshals Club, run by the UAE Automobile and Touring Car Club. Training sessions aside, the excitement of being a part of an F1 race is why people learn how to marshal and then keep coming back race after race, according to Zettner. "When you push a race car and a car goes past at 260kph, it's a very nice feeling," he says with a smile. glewis@thenational.ae

Jane Ludgate will be blogging for The National through her marshal training up to race day. Follow her at www.thenational.ae/motoring