Marshals are often referred to as “unsung heroes” in Formula One (F1), and among the 850 working behind the scenes in next week’s Indian Grand Prix will be two former rally drivers from southern India.

The marshals - varying from track, fire, flag and recovery - work tirelessly during the racing weekend to ensure the race goes through smoothly. The drivers hog all the limelight in the glamorous sport, but the marshals, who put their life on the line for a job that does not even pay, hardly get a mention.

However, there are enough incentives in the job which lure people from across the world and all walks of life. Being a marshal is probably the best way for an ardent F1 fan to be associated with the sport. They are the closest people to watch the drivers careening their machines at 320 kmph and rescue them in case of an accident. The action starts when they raise the green flag and ends with their waving of the chequered flag.

One of them at the Buddh International Circuit (BIC) in Greater Noida is Indian National Rally Championship (INRC) driver Philippos Mathai. And the other is Matthew Lan, an automobile engineer.

Mathai, who has driven for teams like MRF in his decade—old career, is one of the fire marshals undergoing training at BIC. His task during the race will be to use different sets of fire extinguishers depending on the nature of the accident.

“F1 in India is something I could not miss out on. I had to be part of it in some way,” Mathai told IANS.

Marshals are stationed at various places along the F1 track to provide a support system for smooth conduct of the race.

“We will have various sets of fire extinguishers during the racing weekend and be prepared for any untoward incident on the track. The training for the event has been a lifetime experience. We got to learn a lot from the marshals who came from Bahrain. They shared their past experiences (of Bahrain GP), which are always a great help for the people who will be doing it for the first time,” said Mathai while referring to the 150 marshals from Bahrain who will be helping their Indian counterparts during the race.

Mathai last sat behind the wheels in 2009, and he sees the Indian Grand Prix as an opportunity for him to resurrect his career. One of his friends in the Indian motorsports fraternity is none other than Narain Karthikeyan.

“It will be an emotional moment for me. I hope to catch up with a lot of friends as many of them will be competing in the support races. I am good friends with Karthikeyan’s cousin Arjun Balu (another rally driver). With many people of the industry around, I can plan out my comeback as well,” he said of MRF Formula 1600 Championship and JK Racing Asia Series, which are feeder events to the Indian Grand Prix.

The other rally driver, Matthew Lan, happily took a pit stop from work in Kochi, and has been in the capital since Oct 15. He is a track marshal and will be taking care of the logistics during the three days.

“I will supply everything needed around the track. It includes providing recovery equipment in case of an accident, fire extinguishers and different kind of flags,” said Lan, who was into rallying for over 10 years.

Lan, 42, says as an Indian, it is a great honour to be there at the first Grand Prix the country is hosting.

“It is an honour for any motorsport fan to be part of your country’s maiden F1 Grand Prix. None of us is getting a single penny from the organisers, but that is the last thing on my mind. The whole experience so far has been a memorable one and it will only get better with the race approaching,” he said.

Being a marshal in Formula One might be an “honour” for some, but it also has it perils. Many marshals have been killed and badly injured in the sport’s 60—year history.

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