x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The GP Marshal blog: Smile! You’re at F1 Weekend!

Being a GP marshal means concentrating all the time when you're on duty, but that doesn't mean you can't get some enjoyment as well.

Jane meets her hero, Charlie Whiting, and gets a wave from Lewis Hamilton – and also ends up in the photo albums of dozens of F1 fans.

Race weekends start early in the morning. Which is relative to how well you slept the night before. Which for me on Thursday night was not at all – I was way too excited.

So I found myself at the track bleary-eyed, wishing for some coffee or tea, wondering how I was going to get through the day. Honestly, I wanted to go back home to bed, anticipating sore feet, exhaustion, sweaty heat … Right up until the moment I heard those cars. The sound of an F1 car starting up, then the engine screaming until it hits the rev limiter … it sounds like it’s exploding. I almost jumped out of my skin when I first heard it, and I wasn’t the least bit sleepy after that. I felt absolutely awake. Alive. Enthusiastic. Walking on air, in fact.

After hearing that noise, I floated out to the pit lane with the biggest, most moronic grin on my face, and kept it there all day. Great things kept happening… like, I met Charlie Whiting. He’s the race director for F1, the safety delegate, the permanent starter and head of the F1 technical department. In other words, my hero. I had volunteered to pick up some radios from Race Control and there he was, chatting with Dave Baker, who is the chief of the main pit lane and my boss. Plucking up my courage I stuck out my hand and pretty much forced Mr. Whiting to shake it, and told him I was really honoured … and Dave rolled his eyes at me. I didn’t care. I met Charlie. Grin intensified.

And great things just kept on happening. We actually had a tremendous rain shower in the morning that made the whole place look and smell like spring had arrived. The teams seemed stunned – who comes to Abu Dhabi and expects it to rain? It lasted long enough to soak the track, and there were a few spins in the support series as Porsche continued their practice session, but it dried out quickly and the humidity dropped fast, afterward.

Then the F1 cars began their first practice. I discovered that it’s impossible to feel unhappy when you’re standing less than a meter from the most fantastic cars on the planet as they shudder past you making that noise. They may only be doing 60kph down the pit lane, that they sure sound like they’re going faster … and two meters behind me, they’re doing 300 on the track, and it sounds like a thousand.

So instead of trying to look all somber, and waste the big smile that the day was bent on giving me, I decided to grin at everyone – kind of… share the joy. After all, everyone was there to have a good time. Even the drivers. Dave says that those drivers don’t miss a thing, too. So, I just BEAMED as they went by – and after about his fourth trip past me, Lewis Hamilton actually raised his hand in a little wave. Grin intensified again!

As an observer, my job was to record the time in and out of the pit lane for the two cars I had been allotted, any work done on the car in the pit lane itself, and any apparent infractions, but also to make sure that nobody above inadvertently dropped something onto my team. Last year, apparently, someone leaned out of the stands above, and their sunglasses fell into Jenson Button’s lap while he was sitting in his car! So I was looking up, not just out – and smiling – and I got smiles back from all the people in the stands above me, even the ones whose attention I had to attract to tell them to put out their cigarettes or not to lean out with a glass in their hand.

In fact the smile worked so well that during the Paddock Club pit lane walk, when all the big-price ticket holders get to wander down the pits and look into the garages, I had more than 40 people ask if they could take my picture with their spouse, or friend, or family member. That was a tad bizarre – but it’s kind of nice to know that I am going home in the recorded memories of more people than I can count twice on my fingers and toes. I can hear them now: "Her, yes, the marshal across from our seats … she had this idiotic grin plastered on her face all day … odd, isn’t she?"

But this was just practice day, after all. I’m sure we’ll all be feeling a lot more serious tomorrow during final practice and qualifying, and during the first of the support series races. Today was a day to get comfortable in our post, learn to recognise our team personnel, make a few calls on the radio to get the hang of it.

But meeting Charlie, going home as someone’s memories of the pit lane walk, and having Lewis wave at me … that was pretty great. I doubt tomorrow can top that. But I’ll let you know.