x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Marshals keep F1 race running and drivers safe

Mohamed Husain Al Shateri is one of 620 volunteer marshals to participate at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Mohamed Husain al Shateri, the Yas Marina Circuit post-chief marshal, at his second home.
Mohamed Husain al Shateri, the Yas Marina Circuit post-chief marshal, at his second home.

ABU DHABI // When Sebastian Vettel, the Formula One champion, and Lewis Hamilton speed up to Turn 15, Mohamed Husain Al Shateri will be keeping more than a close eye on them.

The "post-chief marshal" at Yas Marina Circuit will have a team of flag-wavers and an intervention crew under his control, ready to jump into action if there is a crash.

As F1 cars reach speeds of more than 300kph at Yas, it is crucial to have a large safety team, and at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix there will be 40 grous and 620 marshals.

Mr Al Shateri, 23, found himself in the middle of the action last year when Michael Schumacher went into a spin, causing Vitantonio Liuzzi to crash spectacularly into the seven-time world champion.

Months of training came to the forefront for Mr Al Shateri, who was last year controlling a number of digital flags - electronic devices that change the colours of the signs around the circuit to warn drivers.

"It was a huge accident but an even bigger challenge for us," he said.

Immediately, orders came in over the radio from race control and the safety car was sent out. The route was changed and Mr Al Shateri switched the digital flags to double yellow, to notify drivers of the dangers ahead.

After the safety car had made two laps, followed by the remaining cars in the field, the intervention team had cleared the track and the race was back on.

A quality engineer with Abu Dhabi Municipality, Mr Al Shateri said marshalling was exceptionally professional, even though everyone was a volunteer.

"You have to be serious," he said. "You are part of the race and you live the race because you are guiding it, ensuring the safety of the drivers. Marshals are a big role in the race."

When Mr Al Shateri applied for a track marshal post, he thought it was a guaranteed way to see the F1 race up close. "The race was in November but they started training in June, which was a long time away, so I wondered why," he said.

From his first orientation course he was hooked.

"We had to learn the rules, the penalties, know what to do in case of an accident and after all that training we'd be ready," Mr Al Shateri said.

"But the most important thing is when you are in the race. It's totally different to the training. There is a lot of timing involved, especially for overtaking."

If a car at the back of the pack is about to be lapped, the driver must allow the leader to pass him.

"You have to show the flag and within seconds, withdraw it quickly," explained Mr Al Shateri. "You have to know who's first and last.

"You have to know the colours, and sometimes the helmets of all the 24 drivers. You have to be focusing all the time and making sure everything is safe. It really is an amazing job."

A marshal's schedule is down to minutes, and they all know what is going on from the moment they sign in each morning at the track to when they leave.

They are under the sun all day in fire retardant suits, with scheduled breaks in the three days of racing, practice and qualifying for F1 and the other three race classes.

Food is brought to them at their posts, which are well stocked with water and ice.

"We don't look at it like a spectator, we have to focus," Mr Al Shateri said.

On racing days he reaches the circuit by 7.30am and signs in, collects the radios and is then given a briefing from the clerk of the course.

When he gets to his post, he checks the flags, fire extinguishers, brushes, shovels and the spill kit to make sure everything is in place.

As it gets closer to race time there is a radio check and the safety car checks the digital flags. Then the order comes from race control to start.

Mr Al Shateri said most of the action happened in GP2 racing.

"Those drivers want to be F1 drivers so they are fighting to be F1 drivers," he said. "They are the most exciting of races."

Once the chequered flag is waved on Sunday, Mr Al Shateri said he would reflect on the day's racing with a debriefing.

"You feel the whole day - you really feel it minute-by-minute," he said. "It's a long day, full of events, races and action. It's hard and it's tiring but you have so much fun."

eharnan@thenational.ae