Monday, 26 September 2011

Flying solo ...

Saturday morning. 5am. It's dark outside and threatening to rain.

Once again, I peel myself from the warm, comfortable bed and try and wake myself up a little. Shower, dress and make a cuppa. Today was going to be an exciting, albeit slightly nerve-racking, start of a memorable weekend. The first full days of my marshalling life.

Coffee done, I pull the orange romper suit off the hanger where it had been since I had won it on eBay the week before. It's not perfect, but it'll do. I will eventually get round to ordering a made to measure one - but that will have to wait until all the paperwork is in order. I twist and turn as I pull the overalls on, and finally manage to get the suit zipped up. I pull on my boots, and then check that I have put everything into the rucksack that I would need. I re-read the instructions sent to me for sign on, take the paddock pass out of the envelope ready to put on my dashboard, put the ticket into my pocket, check my lunchbox is suitably stocked and fill the water bottle.

Reasonably sure that I had everything I needed I lugged the stuff to the car, coaxed the engine into life and headed off. Petrol station, cash machine and then off to Donington for the F3/GT weekend.

My mind was racing a little on the trip down. I had been there before on the taster day of course, but this time there would be no friendly faces pointing me in the right direction. I didn't fully know what to expect, but I was on my way and going to enjoy the weekend regardless.

Before I know it I'm at the circuit. I head in through the main entrance, and the security post that had looked at me strangely on the taster day spotted the pass and orange overalls, smiled and just waved me through. They obviously mistook me for a real marshal or something!

Using the Zen art of navigating (follow someone who looks like they know where they are going ...) I found my way to the paddock entrance. Again, the security guys spot the pass and overalls and wave me through. I then realise that I am entirely too early. Sign on starts at 7.45am - it's now 6.50am! I wanted to leave enough time in case I had any issues with my 4x4 on the way down, but it did me proud and didn't miss a beat. The gateway is open to the assembly area so on I go onto the track. Hazard lights on I gingerly drive round, hoping that I am actually allowed to be there, fully expecting a car to come racing up behind me and ask me what the heck I think I am doing.

There is no car chase of course, and I turn off the track towards the sign on area, only to be presented with a closed gate. I get out, fully expecting it to be locked, but find that it's not. I swing the gate open, drive through, close it again and wait again for the irate circuit staff member to come wagging fingers at me ... and again, it doesn't happen. As I wait, rechecking the instructions in case I was in the wrong place, another car comes through and drives down to the meeting area. I follow on behind and park up in the car park. I wait and watch as the driver of the other vehicle gets out and slowly gets his kit out of the back of the car. I spot another orange romper suit, so lock up the car and head slowly down to say hello and check I was in the right area. The guy seems more than a little surprised to see me, but is polite and chats as much as someone can at that time in the morning.

As we chat, a few more cars turn up. More guys get out and the orange trickle begins. People with briefcases turn up and unlock various doors. Those in the know start congregating around the area. I venture inside the room with a couple of the guys and spot sheets being placed on the counter with people's names on for sign on. A quick scan of the sheets and I spot my name on one. This is it! It's official!

I am about the third person to sign on. With as much of a smile as I can muster over the nerves, I joke to the official about being nice to me as it's my first day marshalling. He scours the list and decides to place me on Post 4 with someone called "Ian", as he is "really good with new marshals". A handshake and a "welcome to the mad house" later and I'm all signed up and ready to go. I go outside and check the list of post chiefs outside, and spot Ian's full name. I had no idea who he was, or where to go specifically. I knew where Post 4 was from the taster day, but that was about it.

More and more people arrive and sign on. I scan the faces to see if there were any that I recognised. Eventually there was - Ian and Caroline who had looked after me on the taster day! I still had no idea if the Ian I had met a few weeks before was the same Ian that I would be posted with on the day or not - we hadn't exactly exchanged full names before. I try and spot any name badge on Ian's overalls, but I can't. I just nod, smile, and keep myself mostly to myself as sign on continues.

8.15am and sign on is concluded. There is a quick briefing on the day by the organisers - most of which goes straight over my head. International rules for one race, but not for another. Radio messages to be kept short and sweet etc. The briefing draws to an end and everyone starts heading off. I sum up the courage to interrupt the Ian I recognised to ask if he was, in fact, the same Ian as I needed to meet up with for the day. To my delight, he was! At least there would be a friendly face for my first day. I apologise to him for being saddled with me again, and ask the dumb question of where I was going and what to do with my car. He politely informed me and headed off.

I jump in the car and drive back up to the top of the road to the track at Redgate. I park up just inside the fenced area, climb out and get my gear together. I wait for Ian, and then start on the long hike (well, it felt long!) across the track and gravel trap to the post area. Already there was Ben, who would be Observer/Flag for the day. I introduce myself and warned him that it would become painfully obvious that this was my first day, and I had no real clue as to what I was doing.

Ian started setting up the post. I was handed a couple of extinguishers and sent off to the other side of the track to set them up. By the time I returned Ian had set up the others and we were ready for the day. A quick brief and the day was under way.

The day was fairly uneventful from an incident point of view. We watched as the various practice sessions got under way. The drivers, clearly trying to get a feel for the track, were all very cautious going around Redgate, so we had little to do. Ian deftly pointed me in the right direction as needed, and Ben waved the appropriate flags in the appropriate places. Ben came and spoke to us from time to time between sessions, and Ian was the ever professional expert, doing whatever it is that these experienced marshals needed to do. Watching the various types of car head round the track was fantastic, and I was glad that there wasn't much to do while I became accustomed to the role.

In the afternoon there were a few races, and this provided more entertainment. One of the Formula Fords decided to test their drifting skills across the gravel trap, which in turn created a hail storm of small rocks heading our way that we needed to take cover from. One of the Caterhams beached itself in the gravel, and once the session was over we needed to push it back to the exit area at Redgate in. Pushing a lowered car through gravel is akin to trying to push a saloon car up a steep hill - lots of grunting and groaning but little distance covered in a seemingly long time. Before long the day was over, and we packed up the post and headed off home. An hour later and I was collapsing in my chair, exhausted but with a big grin on my face.

Sunday morning. Another 5am start, but with a little less trepidation about the day this time. Once again I climb into the truck and head off to Donington. Once again I arrive earlier than I probably should have, but I was eager to get the day started. The rain gods had decided that today was going to be an interesting day on track. It had rained over night, but stopped by the time I got half way to the circuit. I arrive at the sign on area nice and early again, and I am assigned to the same post again. This time I spend some time chatting to Ben and a few of the other marshals while we wait for the briefing, which made the start of the day much more comfortable than Saturdays.

The briefing comes, and a very confusing set of instructions are issued regarding the different classes of race and the requirements for flags and reporting "4 wheels off". I try and take in the information in case there is a quiz later in the day as threatened by Ben. Briefing over, I confidently stride to the car and drive back up to the same parking area as before. I grab my gear and take the long walk across to the post ready to help set up. Once again, I am sent across the track to set up the extinguishers, and then we are good to go.

Sunday was mostly racing, which was made even more interesting with the variable weather conditions of the day. The day started with a wet track but no rain. This turned into a slippery track as it dried out, to a dry track - back to a wet one as the rain came down. Coats went on and came off. The rain did manage to point out one vital piece of equipment that I was missing however. There's nothing like reduced visibility due to a lack of windscreen wipers on your glasses to make you realise that you should have taken a hat of some variety! A reduced lunch break and a quick dash to the Donington merchandise stand resolves the issue. Five quid later and I am the proud owner of a Braun GP baseball cap.

The races continue, and several false alarms kept us on our toes as vehicles pirouetted around the track by us, all able to recover by themselves. The F3 race and one of the cars decide to park in the gravel. We pull the driver to safety and leave the car there until the end of the race. Of course, just as we declare it in a safe position, Will Buller takes an excursion through the trap, missing the car by a matter of feet! The race was soon over and Ian and I swung into action as we helped the driver back to his car and the tractor pull it away. Brushes out and a track sweeping session later and we're back to racing condition. In one of the Caterham races, two cars come together on the track and one of them deposits a wheel guard on the side of the track. Risking life and limb (well, in so much as the risk of a heart attack during the run) I am dispatched over the tyre wall and across the trap to recover the discarded part. The cars of course were well round the track on the other side to us, but it was an interesting experience nonetheless.

During one of the breaks between the sessions, I am surprised to learn from Ben that I had won a prize in the marshal's raffle! After a detailed explanation of how to get to Race Control to collect the prize, the rescue unit takes a drive around the track and stops at our post, handing an envelope to Ben, who then passes it on to me. After we have finished sweeping the track I return to the post and open the envelope - it's a fiver! Completely unexpected and very welcome, it turns out that in effect my nice new cap that was keeping my head mostly dry had effectively been for free!

The last race of the day arrives. A three hour GT endurance race. It's also an endurance test for the marshals, as once the session is under way, you can't just pop off and grab a cuppa. For three long hours we watch the cars thunder around the track, shifting weight from one leg to another, wandering up and down the wall checking the extinguishers ... anything to keep the legs moving and the urge to just sit down and have a kip at bay. A few skids and spins were observed during the race, but overall nothing much happened in our sector.

The end of the day and we put the post to bed. I thank both Ben and Ian for looking after me over the weekend, and head back to the car. As I drive out of the track there is an even bigger smile on my face. I am hooked. If I can stand there in sheeting rain watching not much happen in the way of incidents and yet still have a thoroughly enjoyable weekend then there must be something to this marshalling malarkey! The only down side is that at the moment the 2012 dates are not on the site so I can start planning my year. I think my next outing will be for one of the training days I have been told about, but again I await the details. I will also be trying to convince some of my friends and work colleagues to get involved in the orange, and all the rewards it brings.

Roll on 2012!

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

First day of a new life ...

Sunday morning. 5am. It's cold, wet and dark outside. My alarm has just gone off, the rest of the house is sleeping and the hard, uncomfortable bed I went to sleep in last night has been magically replaced by a nice warm comfortable one.

Fortunately, 5am starts are fairly usual for me - and the excitement of the day outweighed any thoughts of just pulling the covers over and going back to sleep. Up, showered, dressed and breakfasted all by 5.30. Going over the invitation e-mail in my head I hope that my army boots and combats, and denim shirt - that clashes horribly but is about the only thing that I own that covers my arms - are going to be suitable for the day, but nonetheless I climb into the car and start the 50ish mile journey to Donington Park.

An hour later, I pull into the main entrance of the circuit. The two guys manning the security gate look at me as if I am some sort of alien, but that look soon turned to complete bewilderment as I ask them where we were supposed to meet, until I mentioned the Grand Prix collection, at which point I was waved through and pointed vaguely in the correct direction.

Two other cars in the car park. This is a good start. As always at this time in the morning, my mouth engages while my brain struggles to catch up. I just about manage to string a sentence together to ask the other two people there if they were here for the taster day. They nodded politely then went back to drinking their coffee.

The guy with the elastic band at East Midlands Airport then started firing the planes off overhead. A good way to start waking you up is to see 100 tonnes of aircraft hanging precariously overhead. Slowly more and more cars started turning up in the car park. More bleary eyes peered around and affirmed we were all there for the same reason. Then a moment of excitement as someone in an orange romper suit turns up. He looks as startled to see us as we are to be there at that hour. More cars turn up. More attendees. Then more orange jumpsuits.

Chris, the organiser of the day, marks his arrival with an exclamation of how surprised he is that so many people have turned up ... which was a worrying start. However after a few minutes of the team gathering their wits, the talk began. Desperately trying to listen to all that is said as the rubber band guy keeps trying to deafen us overhead, we all nod and smile as we are talked through what the day would entail. Many of us put on our best high-viz clothing in a failed attempt to look prepared. We all pick up our rucksacks and bags, only to be told that we don't need anything with us, and we will be moving our cars before long anyway. We all sheepishly put our stuff back in the boots of our cars and carry on with the sign up and safety briefings.

8am, and we are to move our cars. The long conga line of vehicles sets off from the museum and winds it's way through the maze of dirt tracks to the actual entrance. Much to the amusement of the security guys on the gate we all move through, turn through a gap in the fence and are suddenly met by some very well maintained tarmac ... We're on the actual circuit! Hazard lights on we all become seasoned race drivers and speed up a little as we travel down the start/finish straight, before hanging a hard right onto another track towards the meeting area. We park at the top of the car park and get out to see a sea of orange at the bottom of the area having their morning briefing. A bit more of a chat from Chris as the rain starts. While we are all listening and taking the sights in, the morning briefing finishes and the sea of orange turns into a raging river as the car park empties in what seems like seconds with the pros all heading off to their assigned posts for the day.

Somewhat bewildered, we start our tour of the circuit. First stop - the toilets! Those that need, do, while the rest of us huddle under the small amount of shelter the building provides while the rain lashes down. We wait and listen, hoping that the rain gods would be nice to us and ease off on the downpour. I'm not sure who's prayer they listened to, but they capitulated and the rain died down. Off we trotted to through the paddock and past the back of the pit garages. First impressive sight was the stunning amount of money's worth of motor homes and mobile garages parked in the area.

Next impressive sight, and not an inconsiderable amount of sound, was the actual vehicles in the garages. Smiling at the mechanics and drivers on the way past, hoping that they wouldn't notice that we were all wide eyed interlopers and not actually worthy of being there just yet, we move down the line of vehicles making the appropriate "ohh" and "ahh" noises while we resist the urge to just go up and drool all over the cars. One of the garage's occupants all started to line up as we passed and peered in. Expecting looks of derision, I was pleasantly surprised to hear words of encouragement and support from the team. A nice touch, which just made a good day even better.

On we walk. Up to the medical centre, then back down the paddock to scrutineering. We pause outside while we wait to be invited in, before being shown round and told about the role and resources of the scrutineers, and how marshalling can lead into that area as well.

After a good talk from a very knowledgeable guy we move onto the pit lane. Dodging cars and mechanics we look around and have a talk from Jayne as to what marshals do in this area, before walking up to the start of the pit straight and a look around one of the fire trucks there - another marshal powered service!

Every time that Chris went off to ask if this bedraggled group of nobodies were allowed to visit certain areas, he always came back with a smile on his face and an exclamation of how the relevant people were more than happy for us to be shown round. I'm not sure if it was down to pride in their jobs, or a willingness to introduce people to the world of marshals, but either way it was very nice to see.

On to Race Control, and we are ushered in with a stern warning to be quiet as there was an incident in progress. As many of us as could fit in stood at the back of the room watching as military precision was applied to the deployment of the safety car and the recovery of the vehicle. We were told about the roles up there, and the fact that one of the cars had missed it's mandatory pit stop so was going to be summoned for a drive through penalty. A while longer gorping and we were moved out so the second half of the group could go in and watch.

Once we had all been suitable impressed we moved on to where the "real action" was - one of the actual posts! We were introduced to Colin, the Post Chief for the day. He talked a little about his time as a marshal as we watched his crew sweeping up the debris from an earlier spin ready for the next race. We stayed a while to watch the start of the race, before moving on to a suite to have the last of the main talk from Chris and the all important cuppa.

Well organised orange envelopes of information were issued. Chris talked about the role of BMMC, and MSA, followed by an introduction on how to apply and the benefits, and process of rising through the ranks was covered. The option was then given for anyone who had had enough of the day to head off and just become a spectator for the rest of the day - an option which nobody in the group took. We were all hooked and wanting more.

We broke for an extended lunch break. Several of us headed back down to Post 3 where we had met Colin earlier and clung onto the safety fencing as we watched the cars pound round the track. As we looked on, still a little bemused as to what would actually happen if a car went off, a very obliging driver decided to go straight on at the corner and into the gravel. Wide eyes watched as the orange suits ran off to assist, the yellow flags came out, the tractor was fired up and driven onto the area and dragged the car back towards civilisation and the barriers were moved and opened to allow it through to the paddock right next to us.

A suitable time of getting in the way passed, and we headed back to the suite to find out our fate for the rest of the day. Several of the group expressed an interest in the specialist areas of marshalling and were taken off to the pits to be assigned jobs. The rest of us were assigned posts and split up into groups to be taken off to the correct areas. Our small group headed off to assembly, then on to the posts on the last corners, heading back down to the start/finish line, progressively getting smaller in numbers until just myself and Chris remained.

Post 1. This was the post I was going to interfere with the smooth running of for the rest of the day. I was introduced to Caroline and Ian who were manning the post, who seemed a little surprised to see a dumb looking newbie arrive there, but were polite and welcoming nonetheless. Chris headed off for a well earned rest as the guys pointed out the various points and pertinent information of the post layout.

Now this is the part that impressed me the most. I was fully expecting to be very much in a "look but don't touch, and stay out of the way" kind of place for the rest of the day, but the two guys took this completely clueless individual and included him in what they were doing. As the first race of the afternoon was starting I was taken with them up to the start line as the cars lined up on the grid. We watched as they all started off on their formation lap before heading back down to the post for the race proper. Cars thundered round the track and I watched with awe as Caroline deftly waved the appropriate flags. I still to this day have no idea how people keep track of who to blue flag and when.

Each time we a race started we headed down to the start line. For one of the races we stood trackside with extinguishers ready while they sat on the grid. Once the engines restarted we headed back over the barrier and watched. One of the vehicles stalled on the grid. Before having chance to think or panic over what to do, I was called over with the guys and suddenly there I was, push starting a very expensive racing car!

We headed back down to post and watched. Then there was a safety car situation. Caroline spent a while waving the flag, followed by Ian .. and then it was handed to me. Who would have thought that waving a flag was so difficult. I spent most of my time unfurling the thing rather than waving it. I was told to keep an eye on the previous post, and to withdraw the flag and safety car sign when they did. I will be honest here - I was that focused on trying not to tie the flag up in knots that I missed the signal. Ian, calm and patient, just gave me the nudge.

Between the last two races, Caroline quizzes me on the flags. I had spent the weeks before studying everything I could on the internet so as not to be completely clueless. Yellow flag - know that one. Even know about it being waved where the incident is and static at the post before. Green flag - Know that one too. Blue flag - yup, that's sorted. Black and yellow - yes, even know this one. Then Caroline points to the white flag, and so does my brain in surrender. My mind goes blank. Hours seem to pass as I try and desperately claw at the information, but it's not forthcoming. With a smile, she just explains it to me and all is well in the world again.

Last race of the day, and I have my instructions. As soon as the race is finished I am to bring the extinguishers back to the storage bin. I do, and then help Ian with the ones on the other side of the post. All equipment stowed away and the day is over with a crash. I thank my two mentors for putting up with me and my inane questions, and head back to the car park with my head buzzing with thoughts of the day. Everyone I see arriving back at the cars have huge grins on their faces. A good day all round, but it's not quite finished yet.

We jump in our cars and head off. You can't drive the wrong way around the circuit, so we were forced ... forced I tell you ... to drive around the majority of the circuit to get to the exit. The journey home was filled recalling the experience and wondering where to go next.

Now home and back to normality, the next steps have been chosen. My BMMC application forms have been filled in and posted. Fingers crossed my application will be accepted and I will be joining in the fun soon!

If anyone is thinking of getting into marshalling, I can highly recommend taking a BMMC Taster Day. The guys go out of their way to ensure you have a good introduction to all aspects of marshalling, and give you the good and bad points as well. I am so very glad I took this opportunity, and all being well this is just the start of my marshalling career.