x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The GP Marshal blog: Getting Radical track time

The newbie marshals, made the day a bit of a trial for the old-hand Radical teams. We are in training for the F1 GP, of course, where every nuance of every rule must be enforced.

After several dry-run training days, Jane finally gets to spend a real race weekend in the pit lane. It’s both better and worse than she’d hoped.

Friday Goes Radical: Part One of Three: The downside.

 

Radicals are British designed “kit-cars” that are extremely light and fast, powered by small but insanely powerful motorcycle engines. They range from bottom-end “get into the sport” models that retail for £50,000-60,000 (Dh288,651-346,382) to super-pimped-out models that ask a quarter of a million. The prototype raced at Brands Hatch in southern England in 1996, and today there are over a thousand, racing at club events all over the world.

Our Radical weekend started at 7.15am on Friday, when we were issued with fire-resistant coveralls, clipboards, log-sheets and radios. And then we started one of the longest days of my life.

Have you ever worn coveralls? Maybe in your country they are called overalls? Either way, the description is accurate. Long trousers and long sleeves with elastic cuffs, a tightly fitting Velcro collar, and an elastic waist with an attached, Velcro-fastening belt. Now imagine them made of really heavy cotton (natural fibers don’t stick when they burn, Dave says), imagine having — at minimum — your underclothes and a tee-shirt on underneath, and then imagine standing in the sun all day. In Abu Dhabi. In October. At 8.00am, when we got dressed for work at the track, it was only 26 and I felt a little resigned to how horrible the day was going to smell. By 10.00am it was over 30, and the afternoon topped 40.

Forget the smell (if you can) and think about the feeling. I was one of the lucky ones. Dave managed to convince Race Control that we observers could watch what was happening better from the garage side of the pit lane, which was under cover and in the shade. So from about 11.00am onward I was out of the sun. The poor intervention marshals were stuck on the pit wall all day with their heavy overalls, their fire-extinguishers, and their welders’ gauntlets. Well, we all had those, in case we had to put out a fire (Radicals have a reputation for burning when they crash), but the intervention marshals had to actually wear them whenever there were cars on the track.

Ouch.

And radios? Well, have you ever put on a pair of heavy ear defenders or even a stereo head-set and then stood around in the heat for 12 hours? Did you even know your ears could sweat? I didn’t! And they get itchy when they sweat! How bizarre is that? But if you take off your headset you might miss a call that could be the difference between a win or lose, or even between life and death if the call is ‘Wheel! Wheel! Wheel!’ when someone’s car has lost a tire and it’s bouncing toward you at 100kph!

It wasn’t just the heat that made people uncomfortable. As a former Air Traffic Controller I’m an old hand at using push-to-talk radios, and have long since forgotten how difficult it can be for the inexperienced. Dave was clear — push the button, silently count to two, then talk. But in the excitement of actually having something to say on the radio, many people forgot and started to talk as soon as they had their hand on the button, resulting in transmissions like “… do that, Dave?”

Poor Dave.

What made Friday hardest, though, wasn’t sweating in 40 degree heat with no hope of air conditioning, while afraid to drink too much water because the toilets were a three minute walk away, undressing to use them took two minutes, getting back into coveralls another two minutes, and then a three minute walk back to post, when you only had 6 minutes between events and Race Control is watching you! What made it hard was that it was almost 14 hours standing up in the heat. Standing up. 14 hours. Ever tried it?

Ouch. Ouch, ouch, ouch. I am definitely buying support boots before the next event. My feet have never hurt like that.

Nor, I hope, have I ever smelled as bad as that — although I did smell much worse the next day!

 

Friday Goes Radical: Part Two of Three: The upside.

 

So, it hurt and it was hotter than stink. But was it fun?

Yes. It was really, really fun.

It was more than fun, it was a surreal kind of fun that I wouldn’t have imagined it being. I don’t think Formula One will be fun like that. What made it fun, and funny, were the teams. And us, of course, the newbie marshals.

The enthusiasm of the teams was fantastic. There were 40 cars, all jammed into about 16 garages. There was a lot of friendly rivalry, and very little of the ultra-secret anti-spying kind of paranoia that haunts the Grand Prix these days.

There was a lot of joshing, and jostling, and during the many practices and qualifying, a lot of rubbing and pushing on the track. Not that we could see it, from the pits, but the cars started to come in even during the first free practice with broken and bent bits. In my own pit, one of the cars was back after the first lap with broken front right suspension, and the tire hanging loose.

I have never seen people work as fast as the two super-mechanics in that garage, getting the car put together again before qualifying. Their speed and ability were truly astonishing. My dear old husband, who is a scrutineer, had been assigned the same pit garage and was absolutely dumb-founded by their work. Dear old is an engineer and mechanic too, and he was mesmerized by how fast those two men put that car back together.

The newbie marshals, (us all), made the day a bit of a trial for the old-hand Radical teams. We are in training for F1, of course, where every nuance of every rule must be enforced. But we kept getting mixed calls, confused between F1 rules and the looser rules of the Radical club racers.

So the radio calls were “Pits 16 to Pits Chief… Dave, are they allowed to work on the car in the pit box during practice?” “They are refueling with the front tires over the red line.” “How many team members are allowed on the pit wall?”

And my personal favourite: “Dave, can I let a photographer onto the race track to take a picture of the cars as they go by?” Actually, that one didn’t happen on the radio, but almost happened in real life.

The race teams were surprisingly good sports, actually. Except for one notable exception, who actually shouted at one of our poor trainee marshals, who was trying to keep him off of the fast lane in his flip-flops.

 

Friday Goes Radical: Part Three of Three: Rules? Really?



Dave told us afterward that the teams were shocked at the level of policing that we were doing in the pit lane. No one ever worried about Radicals going out without tire-safeties fitted — little clips that keep the wheel nut from popping off and allowing the wheel to well, wheel. No one tried to keep flip-flops off the pit wall. But as I said previously, they were Radical rules, not invented by Abu Dhabi Motorsport — we were just making the teams follow them.

And they were sneaky! Oh my!

An example? Many cars have two or more drivers who have invested money, so it has become a regulation that a mandatory pit-stop to change drivers is built into a race event. That meant the pit stop was much longer, of course. In the interest of fairness the rules changed so that if you have only one driver, he or she is still required to make a mandatory pit-stop, unbuckle the safety belt, step out of the car, step back in, belt back up, and then drive away again after the minimum time has passed. It’s a way of handicapping a wealthier driver so that teams with multiple investors don’t automatically lose valuable seconds during a pit stop and so, ultimately, automatically lose the race.

How fair is that? I love that rule! But sneaky, sneaky, we saw cars drive in. A ‘second driver’ approached the car. The first driver stood up, then sat down and did up his belts while the “second driver” turned and walked away.

It saved them about 10 to 20 seconds, as the belts can get tangled when a driver exits.

It seems too obvious to work, doesn’t it? But if you realize, as we finally did, as Dave had been telling us, that a pit lane during pit stops is the busiest and most dangerous place in the world, I imagine that the Radical teams can, have, and will get away with it!

Another really great cheat we saw was the ‘box block’. Despite having a man standing out in the fast lane to show the driver where to stop, a car would come in from the track and overshoot its own pit just a bit. A few feet. That meant that the next box was partly blocked, so that the car coming in there was forced to either angle in, blocking other cars and making it difficult for itself and others to exit, or stop a little bit out in the fast lane — completely illegal.

But there is just too much going on to observe and record everything.

At one point a team was push starting a car in the fast lane (perfectly legal). The driver got the car started and sped away. One of the team members fell down, because he’d had his weight all on the car as he pushed. He fell hard, but was laughing as he stood up.

A few minutes later race control called up, asking who had observed the man knocked down by the car in the fast lane, and what was the car’s number?

Hard to see what is happening, and accurately observe, record, report. It’s mayhem. Mayhem.

Luckily, an accurate report of that last one was made, and the team wasn’t penalised for unsafe manoeuvres that might have caused an injury.

Hopefully, not too many erroneous reports were made — hopefully, the race meet was fair, unbiased, and mostly fun for everyone.

Even those of us who stank very badly.

motoring@thenational.ae