Have you ever wondered what it is like to be stood front and centre on a Formula 1 circuit, feeling the same adrenaline as the drivers, the pit crew, and the crowd?
Chris Allan, a Formula 1 marshal, explains what it was like for him to turn this front row dream into a reality.
Marshaling is one of the most integral roles in Formula 1 and without them the sport would not be a possibility. From our screens upon which we indulge in the organised chaos that is grand prix, we don’t consider those who put the ‘organised’ into the ‘organised chaos’: The marshals.
Allan’s positions as a Post Chief and Intervention Marshal at the Yas Marina Circuit are undoubtedly ones to be proud of, but the path into this position stems from something bigger than just a volunteering opportunity and he shared with us why.
“I’ve loved Formula one ever since I can remember…and I’ve always had a passion for Ferrari as well. When you land in Abu Dhabi International Airport you fly over Yas Marina Circuit and Ferrari World at which point I kind of went, yeah okay this is my home.”
“I spent the first few years going to Yas Marina as a spectator and then one of my colleagues mentioned she was a marshal. I went ‘wow, how’d you do that?’…”
Years afterwards and Allan has marshaled three grand prix and does not plan to stop there.
Although becoming a marshal may be a dream come true, the training and responsibility that the role carries is not taken lightly.
Allan describes his first experience as an F1 marshal:
“Following comprehensive training, you basically have the dress rehearsal on a practice session and if you make the grade and everything is okay, you get allocated to a post and you’re there for the Formula 1 weekend.”
“You’re wearing a boiler suit and the middle eastern weather isn’t particularly kind towards people who are wearing a big boiler suit… you’re in a group of six depending on which post you’re on and then you spread out to make sure you cover the full area.”
“Then you hear and see the cars go past you and you’re as close to it as anyone possibly could be…you are almost pinching yourself. You’re in two minds: part of you is going ‘wow I’m a massive F1 fan and I can’t believe I’m standing here, and the other going ‘okay, I actually have a job to do’.”
With that being said, many may wonder what that job actually entails. The pressure of having to react and be alert the whole time in such an intense environment is something that Chris Allan is no stranger to. He explained how he curbed the doubts of handling this responsibility and the reality of standing on the sidelines, relied upon by 20 drivers hurtling past at 200 km/h.
“You’re trained to understand the flags, you’ve got to be alert as to what’s going on. It’s not so much your reaction time, it’s about conveying that message if you see anything.”
“I wouldn’t be running on the track on my own volition, you would be given approval.”
“Actually, one of the things you do as part of the training is you have a metal mesh fence with a gap underneath and in front of that, you have the techpro area. So, when there is an empty track, you see how long it takes you to get under the fence and over the top of the techpro to the middle of the track, turn around and come back.”
“What they do then is say if during a race event we know that Chris takes 24 seconds to get there and back, we’ll make that 30 or plus 30, so when the cars are going around the track, once it’s been radioed through to race control, they will give the call ‘wait, wait, wait. Okay, I have got a 40-second gap. Go now, Go now’. So, to a certain extent, a lot of the responsibility is taken out of your hands.
“it’s a very safe environment and it has to be.”
Many of us F1 fans would be able to map out a driver’s weekend schedule almost to a T from the Friday right through to the Sunday. But what about those who enable the drivers to have this schedule? What is a day in the life of an F1 marshal like?
“It depends on the day of the week. Friday is more action packed because of the practice sessions and you would have Formula One, Two, and Three and potentially another, and then Saturday would be a bit more condensed.”
“The Friday you would arrive incredibly early, have a briefing from the ATC guys, pick up your headphones and radio, and you make sure you have your bibs and your passes to make sure you can get into the circuit.”
“Once you’ve had your briefing, you have already had your post allocated, so you know where you’re going to be, you’ve been through the rehearsal, you know where the fire equipment and brushes are, so you know roughly what the logistics are going to be like on race day.”
“At the end of the Saturday, you put everything away and get it back out again on the Sunday ready for the race.”
With all the responsibility of being a track marshal comes many benefits – of course that is after the chance to be stood trackside to arguably the biggest motorsport competition in the world.
“You get an opportunity to walk around the pit lane and you can actually get up close and personal with the cars, which is a privilege and a perk of being a marshal…You get a goodie bag with memorabilia and stuff you can’t buy off the streets so that’s a perk of the job as well.”
Aside from all the bespoke gifts and excitement of the experience, Allan’s favourite aspect of being a marshal was something a bit different.
“It’s the camaraderie, the group of people on the post was the same each year I went there, and it was such a good crowd, you keep in touch with them ever since. They’ve all got the same drive and determination, they’re fantastic.”
But being a track marshal is not always as protocol would suggest. One of the questions we all want to know is what does it feel like when things go wrong? What happens when a situation that you couldn’t possibly train for occurs?
Although Chris has never experienced anything untoward in his marshaling career, he gave us an insight to a marshal’s perspective on one of the most recent violent crashes in F1.
“There is nothing that trains you in that environment. The marshal that ran over with the fire extinguisher, rightly or wrongly he was on the track. We’ve no way to know if they were given approval but it probably helped save Grosjean’s life.”
“Human instincts kind of kick in and at that point I don’t criticise anybody for any decision. I’ve never been in that situation, but I praise those that are in those situations and do help save driver’s lives. The common denominator of all crashes where drivers have survived, going back to days gone by, is there’s a marshal there.”
Allan is right, we are no strangers to the fact that for decades, marshals have been willing to put their lives on the line for others but what about the marshals themselves? Cars and tracks have all been upgraded over the years to ensure safety for the drivers, but how has safety for the marshals improved over the years?
“I think there’s better protection for the marshals, you look at some of the old rallycross when people are standing right next to the tracks. I think there have even been instances where marshals have died from being hit by debris from cars.”
“Go back 20-30 years ago, I don’t know if there was any training or it was just a case of standing there and if it happens, sort it out. So, I think the rise of Formula One safety benefits had to improve. The training I got was fantastic and I’m sure training elsewhere is equally as good because at the end of the day, everyone has to be kept safe.”
There are many positions in Formula One, all with different roles to play, different qualities, and different responsibilities. But there are only a select few who can be so close to the action that you can feel it.
Allan described something he felt he wouldn’t be able to experience in any other role in F1 other than being a marshal.
“The big thing for me is being first on the scene. If you’ve got that opportunity when a car breaks down or in unfortunate events, once you have the clearance, you are first on the scene and there isn’t anyone else that does that. It’s down to you to go and control that situation until someone else turns up. This gives a lot of trust and respect between the drivers and the marshals as well.”
I think it goes without saying that a marshal’s role is much more than what some may see on the surface and Allan’s insight definitely depicts that.
Whether it be moving debris or saving someone’s life, the marshals are the backbone of Formula 1 and we have a lot to thank them for.