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MARCH 5, 2001

The role of a marshal

THE fatal accident which befell a trackside marshal in the Australian Grand Prix and which was caused by Jacques Villeneuve slamming his BAR into the back of Ralf Schumacher's Williams-BMW highlights the precarious role of the unpaid enthusiasts without whom this multi-million pound sport would have stalled in the pits.

While F1 has expanded dramatically over the past two decades and is now one of the world's best funded international televised sports, the fact remains that not a single car would be allowed to accelerate into action unless the track was lined by the prescribed number of voluntary officials.

A generation ago, marshals were on a par with the drivers and mechanics, chaps for whom motor racing was a hobby and their route to the inside of the sport they loved but in which they lacked the finance or connections to compete.

Today, the volunteer marshal still underpins the sport, waving warning flags, sweeping the track of debris and, if the worst comes to the worst, rushing to aid drivers who may be trapped and injured in their cars.

Yet while many drivers and engineers enjoy millionaire lifestyle, these dogged fans remain unpaid as the sport's foot soldiers, happy to offer their services for nothing. Indeed none of them would give a second thought to being paid for what amounts to the hobby with which they are obsessed.

Volunteers they may be, but there is nothing casual about the role of the marshal. In the UK, for example, the British Motor Racing marshals' club works tirelessly to ensure that UK circuits are staffed by their well qualified members, trained to be vigilant and conscientious members of the motor racing community.

At various times over the past three decades it has been suggested that the international motor racing community should provide funds for a corps of paid, professional marshals who would travel the world to work at the races.

The idea never got off the ground, largely because it would have required a major culture change on the part of those who marshal themselves. Put simply, few people would want to make a career out of full-time marshalling; they want nothing more than to make their own contribution to their favorite sport by offering their precious spare time.

"I would like to send my condolences to the family of the marshal," said BAR managing director Craig Pollock. "There is not much you can say about how the accident happened, but it is very sad.

"It is a dangerous sport and the tire did come off the car. It is impossible to make any conclusions without the facts."

Pollock also admitted that he feared for Villeneuve's life, worried that the crash had many similarities with the fatal accident which befell his father, Gilles Villeneuve, when he crashed his Ferrari into the back of Jochen Mass's March while practising for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder.

"The only thing is that Gilles didn't go into the barriers and his seat belts gave in," said Pollock. "In this one, I saw Jacques going straight towards the wall and then I thought about Greg Moore (the Canadian Champcar driver killed at Fontana speedway, California, in 1999) The (CART) cars can hold up perfectly but the guys inside just cannot sustain the shock."