When you think of Formula 1, you probably think of the drivers and the cars but there is one group who is just as important.
Marshals are very much the glue that holds the sport together and a look at the recent history of F1 shows just how vital they are.
It was marshals who helped Romain Grosjean after his fiery crash in Bahrain, it was marshals who rescued Zhou Guanyu after his flip into the barriers at Silverstone and it was marshals who cleaned up the track after Lance Stroll’s major crash in qualifying in Singapore last year.
But the role of the marshal extends far beyond what we see at the track and to discover just how important they are, PlanetF1.com headed to Motorsport UK HQ to speak with some of the people overseeing marshalling in the UK.
One of those people is Sue Sanders who is the director of learning and development and she explained how marshals are the lifeblood of motorsport.
“Marshals are amazing, their jobs are huge,” she said. “They range from so many little details, right the way through to some very major ones that people see, incidents for example.
“So they might be responsible in an assembly area, just moving the cars to the right place at the right time. Making sure that they’ve actually aligned correctly so that when they enter the grid, they haven’t got to shuffle them about because there’s no space.
“So that’s a really important job and it’s very, very much behind the scenes, not many people see what’s going on there.
“There are many others but on the track side, those are ones that people often see on the television. So they really need to understand who’s the fastest, who’s overtaking, when all those things are taking place and also when to put flags out and when to bring them back in.
“So they need to know the regulations, they need to know the competitors and they need to work as teams.”
It can also be a large commitment, with marshals arriving well before the drivers.
“Most marshals arrive on the Tuesday or Wednesday. So they’re very early,” Sue explained.
“And there are lots of track walks and checking where am I going to stand? How am I going to get there? What’s the best way? Making sure they’ve got enough things to take the drinks around with and backpacks and right clothing and everything.
“But on the day itself, I think the actual day of the race is the shortest of the days, that’s the easiest day. If the truth is told the Friday and Saturday are the bigger days, we are typically getting buses from the campsite down to various locations from around half four, quarter to five in the morning.
“So then we’re out with all the practice, the qualifying or the heats and then we’ve got all the rest of the racing all afternoon.
“And when the final competitive elements have gone on from the day, which can often be as late as four, five, six o’clock, maybe even later.
“I know I have had occasions where people have sent me photographs of blisters, which I really don’t need! A good pair of shoes is very essential. They’re long days but the camaraderie back on the campsite makes up for it.”
Unlike other sports where referees or stewards are provided by the governing body, in Formula 1, the FIA works closely with each race venue’s marshals, meaning that while the senior officials are largely the same at any given race, the people below them change country to country.
“With the FIA, we work very closely for all of the different disciplines, and we have somewhere in the region of 35 of our key volunteers or members of staff who sit on FIA commissions across the year,” Sue explained.
“So in the first place, we’re learning all through the year of what changes there might be and what that looks like.
“But then for the grand prix itself, we are contracted to manage the sporting aspect of the event. So the FIA will provide the senior officials, the technical commissioner, the FIA race director and so on.
“They will provide those top level roles and we provide everything else. So it’s a big part of what we do.”
Of course, things do occasionally go wrong. Most notably the track invasion in 2022 and it was Sue’s job to ensure that never happened again.
“There’s a lot of challenges around that,” she said of the incident which resulted in the six offenders being given suspended prison terms or 12-month community orders.
“So first of all, the track safety team is there to manage every single one of the access gates and that’s done very thoroughly.
“We worked really closely with Silverstone for example, in that case, to make sure that the fences are high enough, that the gates are padlocked where they should be and we try and keep it secure.
“But It’s a very large track, it’s not possible to do the whole thing. And then in that instance, these people clambered over and under three different fences in order to get where they shouldn’t and trespass upon something that was very, very dangerous.
“So the track safety team would have tried to prevent that incursion in the first place. But they’re never going to put themselves at risk. So that’s really important.
“And then once they get onto the track, the marshal is really not supposed to go and do those things but we all have such a passion and we all care so deeply about it, that it would be really hard not to go and try and sort something out like that.
“So we’re very grateful to the marshals who actually went on and did it. But following that instance, there were lots of investigations that were undertaken. Even more work has been done on track safety to prevent that sort of thing taking place, more security staff, more CCTV, all of those sorts of things.”
Track invasions are thankfully a rare occurrence but something that happens more often is crashes and marshals are very much the first line of defence.
“Marshals are fundamentally the most important volunteers that we have at an event,” said Sam Walker, Motorsport UK’s training officer. “They’re there to maintain the safety of the event, feet on the ground.
“The marshals are the ones on the ground actually dealing with things as they happen. On circuit racing, in particular, obviously, you’ve got your race marshals you see on the TV where they’re waving the flag. They’ve also got the light panels as well so they operate those.
“And that’s the primary method of communication between the officials of the meeting and the drivers on track.
“What we also have are our instant marshals, so that’s when things do go wrong. Things happen quite fast in motorsport, people end up going into walls, get stuck in gravel.
“So a lot of our marshals are trained to deal with that initial response, that first aid treatment, holding on to the head, things like that.
“But we also have our rescue recovery as well which will come along. Essentially they’re like firefighters, even though they’re volunteers a lot start off as marshals as well. So even within the marshalling cohort, there are a number of different roles that you can undertake.”
But it is not just a case of passionate fans rock up to Silverstone and get given a role, instead marshals are put through a lot of training before they get anywhere near an F1 circuit.
“All marshals can start off by purely doing an online module, it’s really quick and they learn all about personal safety,” Sue explained. “They learn about all the different disciplines, not just racing.
“And when they’ve done that module, they then can become a registered marshal and then they can actually be a marshal in any discipline that exists.
“Then they move through a pathway and it’s a pathway that has been created over many years and they go through a certain number of training modules, some will be online, some will be face to face.
“And as they’ve done the training modules, they also have to attend events, gather experience, they get assessments while they’re on an event from a martial assessor. And then they will also attend training events face to face. So they’ll do a whole combination.”
One of those who went on that journey is Sam, whose family’s passion for motorsport got him involved.
“It’s been an interesting journey really,” he said. “So my family has always been involved in the sport.
“I first went as a spectator with my family but I’ve also got other family members who competed in the past.
“I didn’t really have any ambitions of working in the sport because I didn’t think it was possible other than going down the engineer route and I was not really that way oriented.
“I did a lot of volunteering in motorsport and then just happened to be that as I was graduating, the job came here, right time, right place, and I’ve not really looked back.”
Sam’s role now is to train up and coming marshals but also to encourage new people to join.
“So if I take it back to when I was 13, that’s when I first started in motorsport in any kind of official capacity. We have registered marshals who are cadets but what we didn’t have is a proper pathway or structure for them to go through the sport.
“So since working here, I’ve got a vested interest in trying to give something back to them. We are midway through developing a new cadet programme for all of our under 18s.
“At the moment, we don’t have mandatory registration for marshals but there’s a rough estimate that we have at least a couple of hundred that are under the age of 18. But then what we do have is a number of young officials who are between the ages of 18 and 35.
“What we need to do is increase that number quite dramatically. We have an ongoing recruitment campaign within the sport, particularly for volunteers. But what we also need is to upskill those coming through the sport, the younger ones, because there’s a lot of very experienced people out there. And we need that knowledge to check right the way down through the age group so that we have a generation of professionals that can take over in 10 years’ time, 20 years’ time, 30 years’ time. So it’s a big piece of work, but it’s quite exciting.”
As for what makes a good marshal, there is one trait that Sue believes is most important.
“Being able to stand outside in all weathers! That’s my first one, especially in the UK.
“Doesn’t matter what the weather is, you just need to be able to stand there.
“Teamwork, being able to work with other people and enjoy working with other people. I would also say determination, because sometimes you’ve got to work hard to find all the information you want, and to actually be out there, but just a willingness to learn.
“So, for me, those would be the best skills for any marshal to have, because that will get them to whatever level they want. It’s not all about a badge. It’s about passion, and enjoyment.”
It is Motorsport UK’s goal to get more people marshalling and right now, it has never been easier.
“There’s so many easy, quick ways of doing it.” Sue said. “First of all, you can email marshals@motorsport uk.org, tell us you’re interested and we’ll tell you what you can do.
“On the website, there’s a ‘Getting Started’ section, they can go there.
“They can actually do anything if they find a nearby club, or if it’s a fixed venue, they can actually call up the venue themselves. They’ll often have a club or motorsport club, there’s 680 volunteer motorsport clubs that exist across the whole of the UK and Northern Ireland and into Scotland, Jersey, Guernsey, everywhere.
“They can actually go and stand trackside with the marshals and see if it’s something they would like to do. So lots of different ways that they can join us.”
Sam also had his reasons for encouraging others to join:
“It’s invaluable,” he said. “As a young person growing up in the sport, it gave me so many transferable skills that I wouldn’t have necessarily picked up in a school education, it’s more life skills.
“You can learn theory about, you know, maths, science in a classroom, but what you don’t learn is interpersonal skills and how to talk to adults and how to deal with confrontation.
“And there’s also things like first aid incident handling, there’s lots of different things that you can learn as an official, as a young official through the sport. And that’s particularly important if you’re then looking at doing a career, could be in any field.
“And it’s something to put in your UCAS application, or it’s something that you can speak about in the future. So if you’re young, if you’re thinking about doing it, go and ask your parents, get them involved as well, because then the parents can also officiate or marshal with you. It’s absolutely invaluable.
If you are interested in becoming a marshal, contract your national authority and if you live in the UK, you can find more information here.