Marshal law: never watch the race: Malaysian grand prix

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Date: Mar. 16, 2001
Publisher: Guardian Newspapers
Document Type: Article
Length: 922 words

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Byline: Richard Williams

What killed Graham Beveridge in Melbourne two weeks ago was the fact that when two cars ran into each other at 170mph, he was looking the other way.

As the cars streamed through turn three on the fifth lap of the Australian grand prix, the volunteer course marshal seems to have swivelled his head to watch the bright yellow Jordan of Jarno Trulli disappearing down the track. Perhaps Trulli, who was three seconds ahead of the battle between Ralf Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, had run wide at the corner. Something, at any rate, made Beveridge want to turn and follow his progress. And when a wheel torn from Villeneuve's car hurtled through a gap in the safety netting, he had no time to take evasive action.

This was the second fatal accident to a marshal in six months, and at the Sepang circuit this week the trackside personnel - more than 700 incident marshals, flag marshals, firemen and paramedics - were presented with a code of behaviour by Philippe Gurdjian, the executive director of the Malaysian grand prix. It consisted of six points, of which the first was simple and, in the circumstances, poignant. "Always watch the cars coming towards you," it said, "and never turn your back."

It is 15 years since I sat among the marshals on the outside of Woodcote Corner at Silverstone, waiting for the British grand prix to start. On the grid were 26 turbocharged formula one cars, each with around 1,000 horsepower linked to the driver's right foot. As they waited for the start and revved their engines, the noise was such that the sky seemed about to cave in.

Just over an hour and a quarter later, as the chequered flag fell and the racing stopped, I discovered that I was suffering from a stiff neck so painful that my head would hardly turn at all. For 65 laps my eyes had been looking in one direction, locked on the location immediately in front of me, where the cars were leaving Woodcote at around 100mph and using all their massive power to reach upwards of 180mph as they passed the pits.

Under heavy acceleration while still steering out of the corner, the cars squirmed and bucked on the limit of control. In practice, Keke Rosberg had completed a qualifying lap at an average of 160.938mph - still a record for formula one. These cars were brutally, terrifyingly fast. And if some component had broken or the driver had lost control while they were exiting Woodcote, they would have smashed straight into the earth barrier upon which I sat among a group of orange-overalled marshals. Self-preservation alone dictated that it was impossible to avert my gaze. I had only the vaguest idea of what was happening in the race. I simply couldn't afford to look.

Graham Beveridge was in a place where, in theory, he could afford to look. It was his bad luck that the accident started to happen while his attention was diverted, and that it happened too fast for him to react. As Gurdjian pointed out, "If the marshals' eyes follow a car going past them, the noise of the engines means that they won't have a chance of hearing an accident starting."

Last week some of the drivers who raced in Melbourne donated helmets and overalls to an auction raising money for Beveridge's family. Traditionally, however, the marshals believe that the multimillionaire drivers - arriving at the circuit by helicopter before taking refuge in lavishly appointed motor homes - never give a thought to volunteers spending the race weekend under canvas and existing on fry-ups.

"The drivers do think about the marshals," Peter Gethin, who won the 1971 Italian grand prix at the wheel of a BRM, said yesterday. "They're an absolutely necessity, and some of them have certainly saved lives. I've seen them do fantastic and brave things. But, you know, every accident is different, and in my opinion the outcome is usually a matter of luck. So the precaution you take as a result of the last accident won't always prevent the next one."

But lessons can still be learned. Since the 1977 South African grand prix, for instance, marshals have been told never to cross the track. On that occasion a fire marshal ran across the Kyalami track's long main straight while carrying a heavy extinguisher and was hit by Tom Pryce's Shadow at something close to 200mph. The impact killed both men instantly.

On a far more mundane level, the experience of marshalling at a Silverstone club meeting left me with a memory, still vivid many years later, of the fear engendered by the need to clear debris from a start-line accident in the space of less than two minutes, before the cars came around to complete their first lap. One colleague stayed on the track, spreading cement dust on puddles of engine oil, until the leader's nose was appearing around the corner, before diving for safety on the grass verge.

An hour or so after the accident in Melbourne, David Coulthard paid tribute to marshals as "the people whose work enables us to go racing". In Peter Gethin's view, "Most marshals do an incredible job, with no other motive than enthusiasm."

It may have been that very enthusiasm which cost Graham Beveridge his life. "The biggest problem with marshals," Gurdjian told journalists in Sepang this week, "is that they have a tendency to want to watch the race. And they simply can't do that."

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A71903881