Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Volunteering for Singapore F1 Grand Prix

Volunteering for Singapore F1 Grand Prix
By Monark Buhain

Formula 1 has always been regarded as the pinnacle of motor sports. I have been a follower of the sport since the days when Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher were duking it out for their respective teams, McLaren and Ferrari. That was around the late 90s. From there, motor sport has given some sort of a refuge away from the usual busy schedule of my number 1 sport - basketball.

The sheer speed of how fast these drivers are hauling their cars around the racetrack is enough to make one’s enthusiasm pique. Not to mention the grueling conditions their bodies have to take during a race that lasts an average of 1.5 hours.

Now, I’m not as physically fit as these drivers are. Or, shall we say, I’m not fit at all. However, the idea of being able to marshal along the track where these drivers throw their cars at around 200Km/h intrigued me. It gave me an urge to prove something to myself that I can do this. Heck, if the old guy in a jumpsuit being shown in ESPN running across the track to pick up a debris from a car can do it then I can do it just as well.

Singapore GP, the promoter and organizing committee of Formula 1 Singapore, has been regularly recruiting volunteers every year. It’s not until the 5th year of the race that I decided to sign up. An urging from an old friend who has been a race official since year 1 also helped in making the decision. Also, this was the last year of the existing contract between Formula 1 and Singapore to hold the race. I couldn’t get the chance to take part of the only night race in Formula 1 history to slip by. (Newly ratified contract between Formula 1 and Singapore to extend the race for 5 more years was only announced recently).

So I signed up to become a race marshal during the earlier part of this year around mid February. And, luckily, I received a confirmation that I will be an on-track marshal. I only found out later that being an on-track marshal on your first year is not an easy gig to get in.

By April, training has started. It’s mostly held in classrooms made available by Singapore Management University (SMU). We were taught the basics of formula 1 racing (e.g. racing line, hand signals, flags). It wasn’t all that tough. You just have to listen. Or so I thought.

In May, exact roles and track assignments were handed out. I was assigned on Turn/Sector 12.0. This is the turn that comes right after the Singapore Sling - the most famous and tricky part of the Singapore track. Turn 12 is a turn where you can expect some drivers to be a bit on the wild side after negotiating the Singapore Sling corners. Hence, people have to be on their toes.

However, I got a bit of a downer when later I found out that my role was an Observer Marshal. You have to know that every sector has a Sector Lead, Observer Marshal, Track Marshals, Flag Marshals and Fire Marshals. An Observer is the one that wears that big muffled headset coupled with a noise reducer microphone who constantly communicates everything about what’s happening at their sector to Race Control. I mean everything. From an accident that happened at your sector, to reporting of damaged safety barriers, and even the stinking portable toilets that you and your team use to relieve yourselves must be reported. You see, I thought I was going to be a “tracky”. Track Marshals or “tracky” are the ones who goes running out on the track in case an accident happens. They are the ones who check up on the driver if he’s ok or not, and move the car out of harms way.

But I guess, everything has a plan. Maybe the Man upstairs thought I’d still need to earn my spot before I can become a tracky. In short, I got to lose weight.

It wasn’t long until the “support” races (Porsche Carrera Cup, Ferrari Challenge and GP2) started that I realized it doesn’t matter if I was a tracky, “flaggy”/ Flag Marshal or Observer. Once the cars came zooming at your corner, you have to be on your toes. These “support” races helped me in getting into groove for the ultimate race – the Formula 1 race Sunday night. 

Being an observer, you have to listen intently for Race Control directives. Then you have to relay that information to your Flag Marshals. Even if the accident happens from a different part of the track, you have to know if the Yellow Flag need to be hoisted to inform the drivers of an impending accident down the road. And of course, there’s the very serious need to raise the Red Flag. Red Flag means something very serious happened. Hence drivers need to back off from their racing stance and observe a much more safer defensive driving.

By the time all the practice races (Friday) and qualifying races (Saturday) were finished, I was all geared up for the Formula 1 race (Sunday). And the moment came on the 1st lap of the race. Ferrari driver Felipe Massa spun 180 degrees at our turn causing his rear left tire to puncture. And so my duty called…

“Race control this is Post 12.”
“Post 12, send.”
“Car number 6 (Massa’s car designation) spun driver right. Off racing line. Rear left tire punctured. Driver continued.”
“Copy that Post 12.”

And that was my contribution to the 2012 Singapore Grand Prix. Massa limped back to the pit and got his tire changed. He eventually finished the race earning him and Ferrari some valuable points. Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull won the race keeping him an arms length from Championship points leader Fernando Alonso of Ferrari.

Apart from the minor accident that Massa encountered, I would have to say the whole Formula 1 experience is memorable. I said earlier that drivers endure 1.5 hours of being in an enclosed heated works space. But the marshals had to be at their stations from Thursday to Sunday from 12 noon up to around 12 midnight, every single day. Singapore’s climate is hot and humid. So you can guess how it feels to be inside your overalls from morning to night. And you’d have to be on your feet most of the time. Marshals are expected to keep the track safe for drivers to race, to help them in times of trouble, and to be the eyes and ears of Race Control.

You will form a bond with your teammates in a manner you least expect it. The sweltering heat and harsh conditions will force you to bond as brothers. Knowing that your track marshals will be there to respond when needed, your flag marshals will wave the flag for minutes on until it needs to be withdrawn, and your observer will keep everybody informed are all essential in making the race a successful one.

As the Singapore Grand Prix Clerk of Course, Gabriel Tan, bid this year’s volunteers, “We are now established as THE jewel in the F1 Crown.

We started out to be the best, and we achieved it in the most spectacular fashion. The way forward now is to maintain that status every single time Singapore hosts the Grand Prix. Remember (in the words of Emergency Coordinator Daniel Yong), we are only as good as the next event. But for now, let’s enjoy the moment and bask in the afterglow of the event’s success.”


Monark is a very good friend of mine who lives in Singapore. Incredibly, we became friends through my blog Bleachers' Brew that he reads (thanks, bud) but since we've become very good friends. Going to the Lion State is always a treat when I meet up with him and his wife, Noreen.

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