Kartik Chaturvedi, 25, is a design engineer with Hi-Tech Robotic Systemz Ltd in Gurgaon. It was while studying mechanical and automation engineering at Delhi’s Amity School of Engineering and Technology in 2010 that a part of his childhood dream came true.
He designed a car for the 2010 California, US, edition of the Formula SAE—a student design competition organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers (now SAE International), US. The car had a wheelbase of 1,800mm to 1,500mm (Formula1, or F1 cars typically have a wheelbase of 2,500mm to 2,000mm).
Less than two years later, Chaturvedi was standing 10ft from a racing Mercedes at the F1 Airtel Indian Grand Prix (GP) 2011. He was part of a group of 800-1,000 volunteers recruited as marshals and given 60-70 hours of training before they got to the tracks. He followed that up with the Gulf Air Bahrain GP (20-22 April) and the Singtel Singapore GP (21-23 September) at the Marina Bay Street Circuit.
Marshals are the eyes and ears of an F1 racetrack. From the pits to the paddocks to the trackside, and even at race control, it is these men and women who ensure the race is completed without a glitch.
There are about half-a-dozen kinds of marshals. Interventional marshals, for instance, train for quick recovery of debris from the track, including mopping the oil from the tarmac and clearing the vehicle from the racetrack. Recovery marshals are taught how to operate cranes and trucks—which are used to clear the track of any stranded cars and put them back in the pits. Paddock marshals ensure that cars are parked at the right locations and the track is clear before the cars set out. Pit marshals are expected to know the layout of the pit—divided into three lanes: an acceleration lane, a slowing-down lane and a third lane where work can be carried out on stationary vehicles. On-track or flag marshals are trained to raise the right kind of flags to warn drivers about hurdles on the track in the event of an accident.
Globetrotting: Kartik Chaturvedi at this year’s Singapore Grand Prix. Courtesy Kartik Chaturvedi
At the Indian GP last year, several of these marshals already had motor-racing experience, having participated in races such as Raid De Himalaya and the Dessert Storm Rally. Chaturvedi was among those without any experience. He had responded to a post on the website of the Indian Motorsport Marshals Club (IMMC) asking for volunteers.
There are no age or gender barriers, no specific qualification required to become a marshal—the reason why people from all kinds of professions signed up for the race last year. All that was needed was a desire to soak in the atmosphere of the over 130-decibel event.
Pushpinder Singh, 42, had no previous motorsport experience. “It was my obsession and romance with cars and bikes since childhood that made me register with IMMC,” he says. Singh, who was a recovery marshal at the Indian GP, says it was an experience “I will never forget and can’t wait to hear those engines reverberating again in 2012”.
Sarika Baheti, a professional voice-over artiste and director with Noida-headquartered Vectus Industries Ltd, a plastic pipes and fittings manufacturing company, was the winner of the Delhi-Jaipur-Delhi Women Car Rally in 2010. The 43-year-old was an intervention officer/track marshal at Post 9 (there are approximately 30 such posts or stations for marshals along the track) at the Buddh International Circuit (BIC). “I still remember our excitement when some fibre parts of a race car just flew on to the track and we had to wait for instructions from the race control, check for the correct flag to be waved, before we got into action,” says Baheti.
She was an official with the 2011 Maruti Suzuki AutoCross event in Mumbai, and because of her motorsport experience, she was approached by the IMMC for the F1 race. “Unlike many others who wanted to be in the thick of things, I remember praying for an incident-free event,” says Baheti.
The most notable “incident” was when a stray dog tottered on to the tracks during the first practice session. It was chased away by officials in jeeps, but had this incident occurred in Bahrain, a marshal was told later, the dog would have been shot.
Long hours of prep
Chaturvedi gets animated when talking about some of the things he learnt in marshal training. For instance, tapping on the head means calling for more marshals, while a cross sign made by the driver in the air means that he needs immediate medical attention.
Ask the marshals what their biggest challenge was, and the verdict is unanimous: the long hours, sometimes from 6am-7pm, without even a snack break. Last year, it was so tough that a few marshals fainted during the training sessions. “Some training days were even more hectic: We would wake up at 5am and hit the bed well past midnight,” says Baheti.
Training is separate for every department, but the common lessons include induction, explaining marshalling, identifying flag colours, understanding the racetrack layout, essential firefighting techniques, first aid, radio protocol and how an incident report is made.
Deepak Uniyal, 34, who runs a wealth management business in Delhi and has worked at the Raid De Himalaya rally for five years, says the idea of rescuing a driver or extinguishing a fire excited him. “By the time I finished with the races (including the qualifying races), I had lost almost 4kg in the three days that I wore those huge firefighting suits,” he says.
Karuna Sharma, 37, opted for the flag because she thought it would be a good way to see the race from close range. Her six years as a motorsport official and race driver—she was the runner-up as a navigator at the Lavasa Women’s Drive rally in February—“helped me cope with strenuous hours at the track for eight days”.
Yogesh Bansal, 41, who runs his own apparel business in Delhi, was the chief post marshal at Post 26 last year. These marshals interact with race control for any incidents and submit a report at the end of the session. He has raced for five years (2005-09) with the Raid De Himalaya. “There are always great memories when you are so close to the F1 action. Bad memories? Of course there are a few, considering that it was the first time India was organizing it,” he says without elaborating.
Races to go
Chaturvedi was at Post 25 at the Indian GP, with four flag marshals reporting to him. It was during training that he met Jassim Ebrahim, assistant manager-sporting of the Bahrain International Circuit, and was invited to be an intervention marshal in Bahrain.
His proudest moment, Chaturvedi says, was when after seeing him wave the Indian flag, HRT-Cosworth driver Narain Karthikeyan stopped his car near him in Singapore.
Chaturvedi has invitations from South Korea and the US but says he can’t afford to go to any of them this year because of the expense—the marshals have to pay for themselves, and don’t get paid for their services on the track either. He plans to save money for the Australian and US GPs in 2013, and his ambition is to marshal at the Monaco Grand Prix. For that, Chaturvedi plans to learn French.
He says that while drivers and engineers enjoy more money, glamour and exposure, marshals are happy to offer their services for nothing.
Not everyone agrees though. “After last year, I was clear I did not want to be an unpaid enthusiast again,” says Uniyal. “We had to stand in our designated position for several hours with no benefits. There were also no good F1 souvenirs for the volunteers after the event. There was no wow factor...”
He pauses for a little bit and then adds: “But yes, I am proud that I was part of the founder-member team of marshals of F1 India.”