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An Interview with Abu Dhabi Chief Marshal Fergus Lavers

Conducted and Written by Ineke Lavers, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

From Fan to Formula 1 Chief Marshal for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Irishman Fergus Lavers has experienced all things racing, up close and personal. His time with the Emirates Motorsport Organization has led to a multitude of experiences, from the Formula 1 weekend, to endurance racing with the Asian Le Mans, and a variety of Formula feeder series that have grown in the UAE throughout the last several years.

In our latest interview, we dive into Lavers’ personal motorsport journey to Chief Marshal for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and what it means to be a motorsport marshal during the iconic Formula 1 season finale.

Chief Marshal Fergus Lavers during the 2022 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix - Image Credits: Konstantin Maslakov

I arrived here in the UAE back in 2010 to work as an engineer. Actually, the first place I ever stayed in Abu Dhabi was in a hotel across the road from the Yas Marina Circuit. So I think it was my first view of the country was actually the circuit. And in my first year here, when it came to November, of course I took the opportunity of going to see the Formula One, back in the days of the very noisy V8s. You could hear the cars long, long before you could actually see them.

A lifetime F1 fan, first encountering the sport with Mario Andretti’s championship win in 1978 and then really following the sport in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a big fan of Senna, Lavers jumped at the chance to become involved himself.

“Well I discovered a friend of mine was a marshal here, and he basically said ‘Why don’t you join the marshal club and start working the races?’ So that’s when I became involved with EMSO (Emirates Motorsport Organization), which is the F1 accredited ASN and motorsport body for the UAE. As an organisation EMSO can trace its roots back to the 1960s.”

“I think currently we have around 4800 registered officials, with almost 1000 of them joining in the last year or so. What stood out to me from the very beginning was how diverse a team of people it is. About 40% of our members are female and at the last count I think it was 46 nationalities represented. A coordinated effort between Yas Marina Circuit, EMSO, the FIA and Formula 1 themselves who would run a weekend such as that coming up for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2023.”

Drivers vie for position at the 2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix - Image Credits: Bryn Lennon/ POOL/ AFP/ Getty Images

Lavers then expanded on the role of those in (mostly) orange around the edges of race circuits. What does being a motorsport marshal actually entail, and what sort of training goes into getting there?

“We're the people that are basically trying to provide increased or as high a level of safety for the participants as possible. Whether that's in intervening in accidents, flagging drivers to give them information of hazards on the track and stuff like that. And then obviously, post incidents, we deal with the recovery of vehicles from the track. There's no sort of unified description for the various tasks.”

“What we do here is we divide it into intervention marshals and flag marshals, and then you have a separate team of fire marshals. You have a separate team again that is dedicated to looking after the pit lane, and you have the recovery team, and you have rescue and extrication as well. We also have other personnel that work with EMSO such as the stewards and scrutineering.”

A group of orange-clad marshals await the start of the 2014 Le Mans race - Image Credits: Guillaume Souvant/ AFP Photo

A baptism of fire, for most new marshals, a quirk of the Yas Marina calendar is that the season mostly opens with the biggest event of the year — the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix.

“That first ever marshalling weekend I was just part of a corner team of intervention marshals under the famous hotel, so if any incident were to happen at that location, I could be involved in pushing that vehicle off the track.”

After the spectacle of the opening weekend for Yas Marina, some would say that the rest of the winter race season is a tad underwhelming. Lavers explains that despite the months of focus on training for the F1, what comes next is often the more exciting experience for a marshal.

“Some may say it's all downhill after the Formula one weekend, but, you know, that's not really the case. Our racing season is quite congested and short. It generally runs from November until maybe, at the most, it would be the second week of March. I'm going to make a controversial statement here now and say that along with many of my marshalling colleagues, our favourite motorsport weekend is not the F1 (shock horror).”

“For me personally, it's the weekend that we have the Asian Le Mans, in January - February time, where we have LMP2’s and LMP3’s racing. But on the same weekend, we have F4 and Formula Regional. So it's nonstop. A lot of cars and potentially a lot of incidents to deal with. After Formula One, we will have the Pirelli testing, F1 and F2.”

“And then mid-December we have the Gulf 12 hour race in Yas Marina, and the same weekend Dubai Autodrome have an event for the historics with the Dubai GP Revival. As we get into January, if I'm not mistaken, I think we have an event every weekend for seven weekends in a row. Porsche Middle East, the Ferrari challenge, F4, Formula Regional, and the Asian Le Mans. So it's a very full on racing season.”

Asian Le Mans 2023 at Yas Marina - Image Credits JEP/ Motorsport Images

The intense season gets underway fast, with Marshals in training for the busy season as early as August.

“So from a preparation perspective, as a Chief Marshal, with my colleagues, we would be in charge of training. To set the scene, all of our trackside marshals finish their season in March, and then we would start prepping with training from mid August with new marshals, and we would split that training into intervention sessions, and flagging.”

“I look after the flagging and my colleague Gary looks after the intervention training. We would hold those trainings between Yas Marina and Dubai Autodrome with set online examinations/ refresher training for everybody involved. The Pit Lane team undertake specialised training for their roles, and the Recovery Team also start months before the season start by training every Wednesday night simulating all conceivable scenarios that may happen on track”

“An extra prior to the F1 weekend is that we tend to fit in a simulation event where some of our drivers would simulate various instances around the track, with some of the course cars here. We would practise communicating that correctly on the radios, flagging that correctly and carrying out the intervention.”

When the weekend is finally upon them, marshals for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix have a busy schedule.

“I think people will be surprised at how early we start. Typically, we're at the track well before seven in the morning, checking in with our special app that controls our life for the next few days. We check in with that using a QR code. We pick up radios and our lunches, and wait for a morning briefing from the clerk of the course who's running the event.”

“Sometimes even the race director might be there in the morning just to emphasise a few points prior to going on track. One of the main things we need to sort out are the radios, and there’s many, many radios around the track. Once we disperse to various locations to do radio checks, there are inevitably issues raised with a number of radios around the track which have to be resolved before any cars enter the track. Comms has to be absolutely clear.”

One of the early Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2012 - Image Credits: Paul Gilham/ Getty Images

As for his own role on the days themselves, he has a roaming position around the track.

“Typically I'm driving a buggy around with my Deputy Chief Marshals for the weekend and I would have two channels of radio in my ear. I would have what's known as ES1 (channel one), which is Chief Comms in race control, who's talking with all the Post Chiefs. And I would also have ES3 (channel three), which is listening to the recovery personnel. So if anything happens on track, I generally have a lot of different voices at the same time in my ears.”

Of course there are other races happening over the course of the weekend, some engaging marshal intervention more than others.

“On an F1 weekend we would also have the F2 event, and here locally, we have F4 as well. From both a marshalling and spectating perspective, in a way, the F2 and the F4 are a little bit more interesting; more tends to happen, maybe save 2021. But, you know, the Formula 1 race itself tends to go quite smoothly with very few incidents during the race. Whereas you can expect anything with an F2, or especially in an F4 race.”

With several years of Grands-Prix under his belt, Lavers looks back on some of the more memorable moments of working in motorsport.

“I suppose from the very start of my time on track with the F1, I've been blessed with the fact that I've started at Yas Marina Circuit because I think it's quite special. It's a modern, iconic track, especially with the hotel. And, you know, for whatever reason, down through the years, myself and Sebastian Vettel have had a little bit of a connection.”

“Somehow, maybe both of us broke a mirror or something at some stage, but he's stopped

several times with me. Not in the same place. Whenever I've moved, he seems to, again, have stopped with me. And then when I've travelled abroad at other tracks like Monza or Austin, the corner that I just happened to be at, he's also had incidents. I've never had the opportunity to speak to him about it, but if I ever do, I'll probably mention it to him.”

Sebastian Vettel and Fergus Lavers in one of their several on track meetings, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2016 - Image Credits: Mark Thompson/ Getty Images

And not to bring up some sour memories for some F1 fans, having been right there when the incident happened, Lavers gives an insight into what it was like at Turn 14 in 2021.

“I think my biggest memory of that night was the fact that prior to everything happening, everything was very quiet. The crowd was very, very subdued. I think everybody was just waiting for the race to just finish out. I was actually coming around by the hotel in my golf buggy facing the traffic, and I had just passed Turn 14

when Latifi crashed behind me. All I can remember is the noise of the crash and then within about three seconds the noise of the crowd.”

“Because suddenly the crowd erupted all over the track. And then I had to go and basically watch my team actually deal with the incident. But one of the things people have to realise is we're not getting commentary like people watching this on TV. And we didn’t actually know how many laps were left in the race!"

"So, you know, we didn't know that once everything was kind of cleared up, there were only one or two racing laps left; we had no idea. So it all kind of panned out and happened, but I think most of us had to go home and actually watch it again on replay on the TV to understand exactly what had happened!.”

Lavers was also at the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP in 2021; Image Credits: Joe Portlock Formula 1/ Getty Images

Abu Dhabi 2021 has no doubt left a legacy that will take years to shake. However, the UAE racing scene has also begun to build quite the reputation as a hotspot for young talent to make a name for themselves in the motorsport sphere.

Looking back on his time facilitating some of the feeder series outings and being close to the action amongst these youngsters every year, Lavers gives us some of his insights into some of the standouts and talent he sees on track.

“Very recently we’ve had Kimi Antonelli in the Formula Regional Middle East. I mean, he was very much a stand out last year. We had quite a grid last year for Formula Regional. Marti, Dino Beganovic were there as well…personally I thought he was very impressive too.”

Dino Beganovic celebrates his podium in Barcelona during the F3 Championship in 2023 - Image Credits: Rudy Carezzevoli - Formula 1/ Getty Images

Lavers explains that there was a disproportionately large grid in both Formula Regional and F4 Middle East last year. He chalks it up to a backlog post-covid due to the effects of lockdowns worldwide.

“In a strange way, Covid really benefited motorsports in the Middle East. With the way we managed it locally, we held races in a very controlled environment, even social distancing as marshals on the track. At that time, we received larger than normal grids of drivers that basically relocated from Europe to go racing here. And since everything's kind of gone back to normal, that trend has continued.”

“I think a lot of the teams have seen the benefit of racing here in what is essentially the European off season. I think in the last two years we've seen a lot of talent coming through here. Previously, we had drivers here in the F4 series, like Piastri, but you know, thinking back to when he was racing here, the other drivers were not of a particularly universally high standard.”

“I think the standard of racing, particularly last year, was definitely quite high and will continue to grow. And well, it's now known that F1 Academy will also be coming here next year for the F1 weekend, which is a very positive sign for feeder series racing.”

Along with the changing racing demographics of Yas Marina, the track has also seen some changes and upgrades in preparation for its 2023/2024 winter season and its 15th anniversary.

“I think what would be most visible perhaps while watching it on the TV would be the upgrade of the track lighting. So the whole track lighting system has been switched over to LEDs, meeting our sustainability targets for the event between EMSO and Yas Marina Circuit, where there's been significant efforts made to meet and exceed these goals for 2023.”

“The digi-panels have also been upgraded. I think people have started seeing that upgrade around different circuits globally, there's a sort of a brighter, higher resolution digi panel, which is being used now this year for the first time in Yas Marina. What you won't be seeing are the upgrades in race control, which are probably the most important investments that have been made.”

“The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is actually celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, and it coincides with a substantial investment in technological upgrades. Now in race control, the digi panel will activate a border on the correct screen in front of all of the race officials should something happen.”

“All of the cameras have also been upgraded, essentially, at any point on the track, a camera can zoom in and if there was, for example, a bottle of water on the track anywhere it could zoom in so that you could read the label, it’s that precise. This will be a big help if the marshals are reporting any debris or anything dangerous on track.”

FIA and Yas Marina officials in the race control room at the very first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2009 - Image Credits: Darren Heath/ Getty Images

For those looking to get involved in motorsport, Lavers offers some insights into starting as a marshal.

“For people that are really interested in motorsport, I think it's the best step ever to become a marshal. You know, it really is the best seat in the house to marshal a motorsport event. I mean, it requires dedication. It requires focus, and it requires commitment, and you have to give up your weekends and stuff. But there is no better place to see cars at speed.”

“From whatever country that you might be in, there will be a national motorsport body, the equivalent of EMSO and that's the starting point. You start local, go through the training, get your licence. And once you have your licence, you're free to go and essentially Marshal almost anywhere.”

“You know, for the F1 coming up, we have close to 60 international marshals who have the opportunity to come in and marshal with our team. Many of them are returning marshals, and many of them are new marshals. The returning marshals are coming back because they really enjoyed their last experience here. And the same with myself, you know, I go to events internationally whether it be Zandvoort, Monza or Austin and I will bump into marshals that I've perhaps worked with in Singapore, you know, one big family, one big orange army.”

The orange army of Sector 5 at the 2022 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

We wish Lavers and his team at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix smooth sailing this weekend, as they prepare to tackle a truly jam-packed racing schedule.


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