x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

How joy turned to terror in 10 minutes at the Spanish Grand Prix

Gary Meenaghan gives a personal account of the chaos and terror that hit the Formula One pit lane in Barcelona after a fire broke out.

Williams's team mechanics help a colleague as they leaves the garage destroyed by the fire at the end of the Spanish Grand Prix at the Montmelo racetrack near Barcelona, Sunday May 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Andres Pardo) *** Local Caption *** Spain F1 GP Auto Racing.JPEG-08667.jpg
Williams's team mechanics help a colleague as they leaves the garage destroyed by the fire at the end of the Spanish Grand Prix at the Montmelo racetrack near Barcelona, Sunday May 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Andres Pardo) *** Local Caption *** Spain F1 GP Auto Racing.JPEG-08667.jpg

Standing at the entrance to the Williams motorhome in Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya paddock waiting to speak to Pastor Maldonado, who had just won the Spanish Grand Prix, the dark smoke billowing out from behind a Toro Rosso truck first became noticeable.

Initially, it looked like a barbecue had been extinguished outside the upstairs paddock club, but by the time Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion, - recording live nearby for a TV station - recoiled and pointed to the air.

The plumes had grown and there was no doubt this was a serious fire.

In the Williams garage Sir Frank Williams, a man as soft-spoken as he is silver-tongued, had been preparing to address his staff after their first grand prix win in eight years.

As paddock guests fled the source of the smoke, those who moved cautiously towards it, trying to discover what exactly was going on, were warned to back away by fraught faces as the area was cleared and headed back to the motorhome.

Staff who had escaped from the garage swarmed around televisions in hospitality - some with their hands over their mouths in horror; others anxiously asking about Sir Frank. A TV station broadcasted images of their colleagues emerging from the smoke-filled building coughing and covered in ash.

The reality of what they were watching was driven home by the choking smog cloud that wafted in through the team's sliding-door entrance from across the tarmac causeway.

A member of the hospitality staff closed the door and locked it so that even when Bruno Senna, Maldonado's teammate, appeared on the other side intent on gaining access, he had to wait for assistance.

As thick, acrid black smoke billowed from the garage he, like so many others in the F1 fraternity who found themselves close at hand, had helped extinguish the fire and ensure people's safety.

When Maldonado arrived moments later, he spoke quickly in Spanish to family and rushed back towards the pit lane in front of the garage.

He would later be photographed carrying his cousin, Manuel, on his back in an image that will likely prove far more enduring than the countless taken of him on his maiden Formula One podium.

Around 10 minutes later, as the smoke started to subside, Sir Frank returned in his wheelchair, the doors were opened and the paddock slowly started to fill up with people and their personal tales.

One colleague, who was stood within touching distance of Sir Frank when the flames began to lick the garage walls, spoke of her terrifying dash to safety as she waited for the whole pit lane to ignite behind her.

As rumours pervaded the paddock, questions started to be asked: what had caused the fire, was anybody seriously injured, why had circuit officials been so slow to react?

It is that final query that saw their anxiety turn to anger. Now answers are needed, for were it not for the bravery of F1 personnel, the sport could today be in a state of mourning.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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