Friend of Badger, Georgina O’Hara Smith, has gone one step further than many motorsport fans and got involved with the sport – trackside. Read on to find out how she got on with marshalling… there’s more to it than you may well think…
My day began with a 05:30 start and a ‘lovely’ drive to Brands Hatch on what was a rather grey and chilly morning. I arrived, signed myself in and wandered through to the breakfast room to join my new colleagues for a tasty, complimentary and much-needed fry-up. I have to say that every person I met in the whole day was friendly, interesting and able to talk cars as much as I am (which is rather a lot) and that there was a real sense of camaraderie and respect amongst the marshals.
Having finished breakfast I joined the other first timers for our first briefing where we were assigned our posts, introduced to our Post Chiefs and given a talk about safety. As we were all complete beginners we were strictly instructed that under no circumstances were we allowed on a ‘live’ track (the track is referred to as live whenever cars are being driven in anger – ie. races, qualifying, practice etc.). We were also reminded that, although we were to be under the constant supervision of experienced marshals, we had to take responsibility for our own welfare and safety, not put ourselves in danger and maintain a good level of awareness.
The briefing complete, I was assigned a place on Post 10 just between McLaren and Surtees under the aegis of Neil Stretton, Chairman of the South Eastern region of the British Motorsport Marshals Club and Post Chief extraordinaire. On the way to Post 10 – which we got to by driving down Brabham Straight and round Clark Curve, even in a Smart car doing 20mph it was cool – I chatted more to Neil about the safety implications of marshalling and mentioned the most horrifying incident I had ever come across.
It turned out Neil had been at Brands Hatch that day and he very calmly told me that it had happened in July 2010 and he had been on that post, and he would never forget that day. Luckily everyone involved in the accident was ok but it demonstrates the risk taken by everyone involved in motorsport and the quick thinking and awareness needed by the marshals.
We parked up behind the medical centre (a fortunate thing as it meant we had a toilet near to our post – many posts do not) and, leaving my winter coat in the car, we wandered down to Post 10 where Neil introduced me to my fellow postees Flag Marshal Richard and Track Marshal Reece. Having been introduced we commenced our post briefing, discussing complexities specific to our post (we had limited visibility of Post 9 and Post 11 and limited visibility of the far end of our area of track), the types and times of the racing that day and me being a total novice.
Having finished the briefing, Neil started his pre-race Post Chief duties and asked Richard and Reece to show me what they do. My first duty was to help Reece carry out the track inspection – checking for slippery surface patches, damage to the barriers, boulders in the gravel traps and any other loose debris. As Reece pointed out, quite sensibly, the inspection process is as much for our own safety as that of the drivers. No-one wants to be hit with a bike faring at 100mph. Richard then gave me a brief tour of the flags (which vary in subtle ways from the F1 flags I am used to) and let me in on his maximum-effect-minimum-effort waving technique. Suffice to say the flagging system made my head spin and Richard must have wrists of Adamantium.
It was time for the first race. Neil asked Richard to give me a job so I was put in charge of the yellow flag. As the yellow flag is used to warn cars of up-coming hazards the marshal holding it must be facing in the same direction as the cars to be able to spot the hazards (unless there is already a hazard, in which case the marshal will be waving it!). Although it was very tempting to turn round and watch the on track action behind me I managed to keep focussed without much of an issue until a car hurtled nose first into the barrier a few metres behind me. I jumped out of my skin and I may even have used an expletive, or two. And, other than the urge to duck and cover every time a car came through the gravel a few feet away, I managed to hold my nerve and give the right signals at the right time.
By the end of the race my wrists were tired and I was cold. Neil noticed – like all the best Post Chiefs he really keeps an eye out for his team – and sent me back to the car to get my jacket with the admonition that cold marshals are not focussed marshals and are therefore a danger to themselves and everyone else. I gratefully retrieved my jacket and returned to Neil, Richard and Reece chatting about adverse marshalling conditions. I chimed up, in my usual way, with a comment about the adverse spectating conditions at Silverstone this year – they really were as bad as they looked – only to be told that conditions had been so bad at a club meet last year that four marshals were hospitalised with hypothermia.
The rest of the morning passed relatively smoothly with myself and Reece taking it in turns to assist Richard with the flags and Neil gently guiding us as to what we should be doing. At various points I green flagged and yellow flagged, inspected the track and inspected the gravel trap, and generally got into the swing of things. We recovered parts of cars, and whole cars, and returned them to the pits. We made jokes about Adrian Newey aero-testing on Minis and Pastor Maldonado being, well, Crashmore Maldonado. And by the time we broke for lunch I was feeling pretty pleased with my lot in life.
We all felt like we needed a sit down by lunchtime and were cheered by a brief glimpse of sunshine. We set about our lunches and I had time to ask Neil, Richard and Reece about their marshalling experiences. I was amazed. Between the three of them they have more than 50 years experience and have been everywhere and done everything – club meets, F1, Aussie V8s, Nascar, Europe America, Asia, Australia…. Everything. As they were telling me of their exploits I couldn’t help noticing the badges on their overalls. Alongside the obvious club and rank badges was a stitched and pinned history of their marshalling life, a series of badges of honour and treasured memories.
The afternoon passed much as the morning had, and although I had not had a single bored moment (there wasn’t time) I had a slight feeling of dread at the prospect of a 2 hour endurance race to finish they day. The fear of a boring end to the day was luckily unwarranted. The race began with 2 Safety Car incidents in the first 30 minutes and I was on yellow flag duty. After about 2 laps of the Safety Car my wrist felt like it was falling off and I had to ask Richard to take over with his far more practiced technique.
Finally the race re-started. As the safety car had been out all the cars were still nicely ordered by the time they came in for their first pit stop and I was given blue flag duty under the strict instruction of Richard. As the race opened out I started to lose track of who was on what lap. To be fair to myself it was a crazy race with the leader 3 laps ahead of p2 and 5 laps ahead of p3. Then came the second pit stops and I was lost. Unlike F1 where there are helpful screens with the running order on, we had 30 minute updates of the top 10 cars and just had to keep track ourselves – by the end of the race I had definitely blue flagged one car wrongly twice (it was a genuine error, I was not alone in making it and the car ignored it anyway so no real harm was done) – however, Neil, Richard and Reece never once lost track of which car was where, they never lost concentration and, although we all had a really good laugh, they never stopped doing their jobs even when it seemed there was nothing to do.
By the time I got home I was dead on my feet but I had one of the best days of my life. There is so much more I could say about my day, so many little details and jokes and moments that will never cease to make me smile when I think of them. The marshalling experience had been everything I hoped and more. If you had asked me a week ago to describe the job of a British Motorsport Marshal I would have said something about flag waving, track clearing and accident sorting. Today, the morning after my first attempt at marshalling I can honestly say that marshalling is about so much more. For some unknown reason (and I know that I am not alone in this error) I assumed the marshals worked only under the instruction of Race Control. I was wrong. Although marshals do receive instructions from Race Control, they are in many ways a part of Race Control; they are the eyes and ears of the track, the drivers’ instructions, the informers of incidents, the writers of reports for the stewards’ inquiries, the callers of medics and the rescuers of cars. Without marshals there really would be no racing.
Know your Flags.
- Black/White Chequered – Waved = Race complete.
- Green – Steady = Start of race. Track is clear.
- Green – Waved = Safety car is in. Track is clear.
- Yellow – Steady = Caution. Slow down and be prepared to stop. Strictly no overtaking.
- Yellow – Waved = DANGER. Slow down and be prepared to stop. Strictly no overtaking.
- Yellow and Red Striped – Steady = Slippery surface.
- Red – Waved = Race stopped. Return to the pits/start line slowly and carefully and await instructions.
- Blue – Steady = Faster car approaching.
- Blue – Waved = Faster car is trying to pass (This flag is advisory at club level as opposed to the mandatory flag of F1).
- Black/White Diagonal – Waved = Warning to car. Unsporting behaviour noted. Black flag possible.
- Black – Waved = Return to pits/Disqualified.
- White – Waved = Service vehicle/ slow vehicle on track
- Black/White Chequered – Waved = Race complete.
- Black/Orange Disk – Waved = Car has a dangerous mechanical failure. Return to pits
Essential Marshalling Kit.
- Steel Toe Capped Boots.
- Fireproof Overalls.
- Welders Gloves.
- Food and Drink – Thermos of something hot, water, lunch, lots of snacks (it’s hard work and you really need the calories).
- Cold Weather Gear – Warm coat with a warm hood, warm under gloves, scarf, ski socks, thermal underwear (I kid you not), lots of layers!!!
- Wet Weather Gear – Waterproof trousers, waterproof coat, dry clothes for when you finish.
- Hot Weather Gear – Sun cream, sunglasses, extra water.
For more about marshalling and how to get involved, see The British Motorsport Marshals Club