The adventures of an F1 corner marshal
Standing 20 feet from a race track while dozens of the most expensive cars in the world scream past at almost 200 mph – some might call it the best seat in the house. Except you can’t sit down. The corner marshals, or corner workers, are the people stationed out on the track tasked with waving flags, removing debris and helping drivers whose cars have crashed. Last year I was able to volunteer to be among the large track crew for the inaugural US Formula 1 Grand Prix at the Course of the Americas in Austin, Texas, which marked the return of Formula 1 racing to the United States after several years of absence. So what's life like for a corner marshal when race weekend rolls around?
Formula 1 cars are the at the pinnacle of auto racing. These are technically the most advanced automobiles ever created, they ooze space age materials, they're super lightweight, insanely powerful and just about impossible to drive. For the last several years these computers on wheels have also been hybrids, using a KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) that adds electric motors for an additional boost in power.
Formula 1 racing is the largest spectator sport in the world. Around 300 million people watch a typical race weekend on TV. F1 car teams have enormous budgets and vie for the title of constructor’s champions at the same time as drivers compete for individual hoors. F1 races are held all around the world, in China, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, England, Belgium, Spain, Germany, and now, once again in the United States.
The Austin circuit features 20 corners, including the very impressive Turn 1, which looks like a ski slope. Stationed at these corners are the people you see on the track throughout the race waving flags, removing debris, or helping drivers out of wrecked cars. Since the track twists and turns, drivers can’t see problems up ahead of them, which is where we corner marshals come in.
There is a lot more going on in the corners than what you might see on TV or think you know from attending the track. At the F1 Race last year, I was working at station 19B, the second flag station that is part of the sweeping turn 19, the second to last corner in the track before the cars return to the start/finish line. Turn 19 is quite large, so we have two flag stations in this corner (one of the turns is large enough to have three stations). Our team has six people. We have a corner captain, who naturally is in charge and makes sure we are all properly equipped and prepared, and who takes over if someone needs a break or has a problem. He will also be grading us on our performance all during the race and will take corrective action if he sees someone struggling. He also runs the team briefing before each race, where we go over the rules and rehearse our actions.
Then we have a communications person, who talks on a radio and landline system to Race Control. Also on the radio are the safety car, the ambulances, the tow trucks, and all of the other corners. As with any formal event, the radio operator has to have special training, and we have very strict rules about how and when you can talk. For example, corners are never allowed to talk to each other, but must pass messages via Race Control. Keep in mind that if a car crashes, we will be the first ones to see it and can instantly call for whatever aid is required.
The art of flagging
We have two flag people, who have slightly different tasks. The yellow flagger looks down the track, which in our case is towards Turn 20. His or her job is to watch for accidents or problems. We are responsible for everything from our station until the next station at Turn 20. If there is a problem, out comes the waving yellow flag. The blue flagger looks up the track towards the entrance to Turn 19. The blue flag is the overtake flag, and warns a slower driver that a faster car is about to pass them and is mostly used for cars being lapped by the lead cars in the race. In F1 racing, failure to slow for a blue flag can result in a penalty, so the blue flag must be taken seriously. In practice it is quite difficult for the flagger to judge the relative speeds of the cars, so throwing the blue flag is an art.
We have other flags as well. The dreaded red flag means that the race has been suspended, and all cars must return to the pits. A flag that has red and yellow stripes means that the track ahead is contaminated – usually by oil or debris. When the safety car is on the track, we wave a special card with the words “SAFETY CAR” written on it, or just “SC”. A white flag at a station like ours means emergency vehicles are on the track. In Formula 1, all flags are waved, which is different from other racing series, where a stationary flag has a different meaning from a waving flag. The “Meatball” flag (black with a red circle) is waved at a car with a mechanical problem.
If there is a local yellow caution flag at the station before us, we will wave a green flag, indicating that the problem has been passed and the track is clear ahead. We also wave the green flag for the entire first lap. You may also see us at the end of the race waving all our flags at once to salute the drivers (and some salute back by waving at us).
Intervention Marshal - with the shirt to prove it
So that leaves two more people at our six-person station, and that includes me. On my shirt it says “Intervention Marshal.” I’m standing just off the track – behind the catch fence, of course – with a fire extinguisher. My job is to put out a race car fire, as I will be the first person on the scene in the case of a fiery crash or mechanical failure – which if you’ve seen many F1 races on TV is not an uncommon occurrence. There is a gap below the fence for me to crawl through – I go under the first fence and over the second crash barrier. I’m wearing a full-length set of coveralls, and have on a set of thick leather welding gloves, to protect my hands from hot metal car parts. I don’t have a radio, so we have developed our own sign language so that I can communicate with the person with the radio back in our tower. I’m several hundred feet (100m) up the track from the flag station, and the second Intervention Marshal is 100 m (300 ft) down the track from the flags. With the other corner workers, this puts a fire extinguisher (and a person to wield it) about every 200m (600 feet) around the entire race track – a total of almost 200 volunteers.
Fortunately at this race weekend, we don’t rescue anybody and no car comes close to hitting our fence, although turn 19 is pretty lively, with a lot of cars sliding off the track and into a patch of gravel. Austin has wide areas with lots of runoff space if the car leaves the race track, so damage is rare.
Standing room only
Being just off the race track, we are much closer than any spectator. This is the “can’t sit down” part. We have to be prepared to run at any time, either to avoid the oncoming car, or to rush to someone’s aid. There is no sitting for corner marshals, no matter how long the race. In three days of racing that runs pretty much sunup to sundown, that’s a lot of standing.We do have several other functions. We are the final eyes of security, watching for fans who might run onto the track. That includes watching after press photographers, who must stay behind the fences. Press photographers tend not to like taking photos through fences, so that’s an ongoing skirmish. We also watch the race cars, and we are the ones who usually notice when a car passes another under a yellow flag, which is not permitted. We call in if a car runs off the track or passes another car by taking a shortcut off the track, or if a car is having mechanical problems that the driver may not be aware of, such as smoke coming from the rear of the car, or oil leaking out. By the way, for our part corner workers are never allowed to take pictures of the race ourselves. We are working and to take our attention away from the race would be unsafe.
The most dangerous part of the job, and one we do very carefully and with a lot of forethought, is clearing debris off the track. Debris can come from several sources, the most common being the aerodynamic appendages of the race cars. A modern Formula 1 car has wings front and back and all sorts of fences, guides, and do-hickies to make them behave aerodynamically. When they hit each other, razor sharp bits of expensive carbon fiber fly everywhere, and if it lands on the race track, we have to go pick it up. Generally this is only done when the race is under a full course caution and the safety car is deployed to slow the cars down. For US Grand Prix weekend, we only needed to go on the track between races to clear debris.
It is typical for a race weekend to be several support races besides the “main event” to keep the fans happy. We also supported a Ferrari Cup race, with the track full of snarling Ferrari 458’s, a Porsche Cup race between supercharged 911’s, and a vintage formula race between retiree race cars from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. In the interest of training, we switched responsibilities each race. I might have the yellow flag for the Ferrari’s and be on the radio for the Vintage Formula cars. The rules for the flags are slightly different between the different series, so we had to be on our toes to be following the correct rules for each race.
After each race, we critiqued each other and ran down what we did right and wrong, and our Corner Captain would supply any remedial advice he felt was necessary. As mentioned, the blue flag for passing requires a particular artistry, and all of the other workers might complement you if they felt you’d flagged properly, or make a rude noise if a flag was put out unnecessarily. I was nervous when it was my turn to be the radio man, as they are quite picky about following the proper protocols, but I got good marks for the weekend.
Becoming a corner marshal
How do you get to be a flagger at a professional racing event? The answer, like in a lot of endeavors, is to pay your dues. I started three years earlier as an apprentice flagger for the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), one of several organizations that rent out race tracks on the weekends and hold what are called Club Races. The SCCA is actually quite a large organization, and has hundreds of events all over the country. It's divided into districts, and each district holds its own championships. Each year at the end of the summer, the drivers with enough district points can go to the National Run Offs and compete for honors there. Besides SCCA, there are several other organizations that hold road races and use corner marshal volunteers. There is the National Auto Sport Association (NASA), which is similar to SCCA, and races held by the Porsche Club, the BMW Club, the vintage car racing Corinthian group and several others, including motorcycle organizations.
An SCCA club race can be far more fun and interesting than many of the professional events. There are few fans or spectators, the only people at the track are the racers, the club workers, and their families or friends that got roped into helping. Most “race teams” are one or two people, fathers and sons, or fathers and daughters. There are dozens of different race classes and race car types, from very expensive cars that look much like the Formula 1 cars, to modified street cars and the ubiquitous Mazda Miata, which is the most commonly raced car in SCCA. I’ve seen Spec Miata races with 73 cars on the track at once. The great thing is that the SCCA races on the exact same tracks as the professionals. I’ve worked races at Texas Motor Speedway, the famous Laguna Seca racetrack near Monterey, and Infineon Sonoma Raceway in California. These are amateur races for non-professional drivers, however, many pro drivers have started in SCCA, and SCCA hosts some pro events.
I learned a lot at the club racing programs where we might be running 20-30 races a day 20 minutes at a time five minutes apart. Did I mention that corner marshals never get to sit down during a race? For many weekends we raced all day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You might imagine, and correctly, that it takes a lot of volunteers to make this all happen, and that is how you pay your dues as a corner worker. Everyone at the club race is a volunteer: the race controllers, starter, the tech inspectors, the safety people, pace car driver and the safety crew in the pit lane.
For my first race I was paired with a couple from Kansas who had driven 600 miles to work a race they were not getting paid for. They had been flagging races together for 20 years. They knew everything about the job, including the ins and outs of extinguishing car fires and getting drivers out of wrecked cars. Even in club racing, safety is paramount, and the safety features in the cars (roll cages, seat belts, fuel cells, etc.) means that injuries these days are rare. I’ve yet to have to call an ambulance after flagging over 100 races.
My pay for the F1 race was breakfast and lunch each day, a shirt and a hat – and the knowledge that the event would not have gone on without the volunteers out on the track, making the event safe, and doing it for the love of the sport.
Right now I have to get my flagging gear ready. I’m working a 24-hour endurance race this weekend.