The Ferrari Owners’ Club
of Great Britain

Another View : at the Abu Dhabi GP

15-12-2014

Medicine, Swamps and Motorsport, by our Middle East correspondent, Steve Griffin:

 

I have just returned from a weekend in Abu Dhabi with the Ferrari Clienti, sadly not as a member but as a pit marshal. Spending time at what must be the ultimate track day experience was thought provoking. My thoughts were mainly along the lines of ‘why after having a good job for thirty years can I not afford to do that?’ I thought I might share some Abu Dhabi experiences with you, not from that weekend but from a fortnight earlier when I was at the Grand Prix; the Clienti is another story for another time… [we will bring it – Ed]. I did get to rub shoulders with Mr P Ferrari though.

I am a keen if irregular motorsport competitor and my move to the UAE as a cardiac surgeon has curtailed my racing considerably. I was keen to get involved with the sport here in the Gulf so I wanted to help at this race. After a little research I located the Chief Medical Officer for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. He is a very affable local GP here in Dubai, he used to be the team doctor with Red Bull and is a motorsport enthusiast. He and his wife run all the medical services for the whole of the UAE’s motorsport activity including such diverse events as the Desert Challenge (lots of sand) and the Formula 1 race (slightly less sand).

Sean was happy to take me on as I was locally available, had been on the right trauma courses and had some previous involvement with our sport. I was confident that my skills would not be called upon as the last ruptured aorta was that of the unfortunate Riccardo Paletti in 1982.

As the event got closer the dreadful injuries that were suffered by Jules Bianchi in Japan meant that the spotlight was rather more on the medical team than we had anticipated. It was clear that it wasn’t going to be a beer and sandwiches kind of weekend.

My wife Jane had managed to get herself the job as a pit lane welfare marshal. This meant she was in charge of the many radios in use in the pit lane but more importantly she was to ensure that the marshals’ drinks and sarnies were delivered in good time. In recognition Jane received an ‘Access All Areas’ pass and she was able to mingle with the beautiful, talented and rich people of the paddock. As a lowly doctor I was rather more restricted for much of the meeting.

For those of you who have not been, the Yas Marina track is not like Cadwell Park. It is an all seat stadium facility holding about 40,000 people around a 5 Km circuit. It is entirely built on reclaimed land amongst the mangrove swamps of Abu Dhabi. The access roads are ten lanes wide and the surrounding hotels and beaches are of the four and five star standard. Like Monaco it is essentially a street track, lined with high walls but unlike Monaco the run off areas are enormous. If it were in Europe the owners could probably claim Set Aside grants from the European Commission. Here one needed a telephoto lens to get a good view from certain parts of the track. Such is modern F1.

The medical centre is state of the art and comprises several clinical areas and includes a three bed trauma room, X Ray facilities and everything one could need to care for an injured competitor. In fact there are probably some small African nations with fewer facilities in their entire health services.  The medics were mainly from Traumatology backgrounds, many were ex military with direct experience from the hothouse of Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. Amongst the rest of us we comprised a motley crew of cardiologists, some vascular surgeons, a plastic surgeon, me and a dermatologist. Funnily enough the dermatologist was busy, you would be surprise to learn how many embarrassing rashes develop in the paddock. Between us we could probably manage pretty much anything from heart surgery to herpes.

The organizers were kind enough to house all the marshals, some seven hundred people, in the rather magnificent Officers’ Club in Abu Dhabi. This marble and glass extravaganza was the epitome of 1980s opulence and was very convivial in that they held a “Private Party” every night thus allowing the serving of unlimited quantities of alcohol in the midst of the very Islamic establishment. We were very well catered for.

The days were long, seven in the morning till nine at night for all four days of the meeting. There were long hours of indolence during which we were able to wander the pit lane and rubberneck the teams’ activities. As the meeting progressed the security became tighter and our self styled pit lane walkabouts were increasingly curtailed. It was of interest that F1 is such a British affair, estuary English was the spoken language in all the teams bar Torro Rosso and the Scuderia Ferrari. In those two pits the staccato of rapid Italian resonated. One of the high points for me was watching the Mercedes team practicing wheel changes over and over again. I was told by one of the mechanics that they can get under two seconds in practice fairly easily but slow down to about two point five seconds during the race to ensure accuracy. It was teamwork down to perfection and a joy to watch.

I was lucky enough to spend some time with the cars and mechanics. I asked in vain exactly where the rear springs on the current Mercedes F1 car were situated, the rear end is so tight. No answer. What was obvious was the difference in the packaging of the cars. Sad to say, the current Ferrari seemed very clumsy in its packaging in comparison. One F1 insider made unfavourable comparisons to a Massey Fergusson. Well the colours are the same I suppose. and from what I saw I understood his comments. The awe inspired by Fernando Alonso’s ability to drag “that tractor” along at a pace beyond its ability was shared by everyone in the pitlane. Having owned a 1980s Ferrari myself (and been an FOC member) I understand his (regretful) desire to trade it in for a Honda, there comes a time when sometimes one needs a less involving car.

It was fun to spot the stars, we got to see all the drivers, the team owners, the assortment of film and pop stars, the odd bit of royalty and the gorgeous partners of Lewis and Nico. Mrs Rosberg and Ms Shirzinger are every bit as lovely in person as they look on the television. I saw Fernando Alonso wandering around the paddock with a spectacularly beautiful girl, I think it must be the fact that he is now is sporting a wonderful beard. Every day he looks more like a character from a 16th century oil painting of the Spanish aristocracy.

The GP2 and GP3 events were the only support races. If you have not witnessed GP2 I suggest you try and see it. The cars are 600 BHP V8s and unlike the Formula One cars are seriously noisy and spectacular. The fastest were lapping more quickly than the Caterhams. Sadly no saloon cars, no F3 or anything else really. The concept of a full day at the races Silverstone-style was not taken up. Etihad did fly an enormous four engine airliner at about twelve feet along the pit straight but where are The Red Arrows when you need them? We were slightly consoled to have the F1 Glamour Girls with us, some 55 Etihad cabin crew stationed in the ambulance bay. They were all dressed in identical black and reminded me a little of the automaton backing singers in the famous Robert Palmer video. They were a nice bunch of girls whose main complaints were sore feet from the high heels they had to wear for a long day. It was tough work but someone had to look after them and my younger colleagues seem to step up to the task with enthusiasm.

Practice and qualifying were fun, the pit lane becoming ever more feverish as the seconds ticked by. The party people on the yachts in the harbour behind the paddock pressed on with the serious business of drinking until in a stupor. A wander around the marina on Sunday morning before the race was reminiscent of Trafalgar Square after New Year’s Eve, all the detritus of a serious night of partying. In fact the inebriated provided us with the only medical emergency of the weekend, one person fell off a boat and hit their head quite badly. He was our first ‘PFO’ (doctors’ slang for Pissed Fallen Over). In fact our main business was another acronym ‘FMS’. Floppy Marshal Syndrome, is common in the heat. A day standing in thick overalls in the desert heat with nothing but a hangover and a marmite sandwich can take its toll on the strongest of constitutions

As the race ended and we were allowed to revel below the podium, it was good to see Lewis do his stuff, he deserved the championship and he won it in style. Nico was graceful in defeat and withdrew into the arms of the aforementioned Mrs R to be consoled. It could be worse I suppose.

I had one last task and that was to do the dope testing. I was summoned to race control where a highly scientific method of selection of drivers was carried out. Their numbers were put in a hat and Danny Sullivan, the Drivers’ Rep, chose four at random. My duty of confidentiality means that I cannot share with you the names of those chosen but they included the biggest characters in our sport. As one might imagine finding the drivers and serving them in effect an order to comply was not easy amongst the chaos of the end of race celebrations. They were all totally well behaved and after the initial dismay that they were the chosen ones they all accompanied us to the medical centre. There, amongst other indignities, they had to pee in front of us. Such is the glamour of motor racing! All four were really good sports and chatted amiably with us. The only point of conflict was providing driver identification for the rather stern-faced FIA officials. The drivers pointed out that their names were on their overalls and I had to argue on their behalf that their race numbers and overalls (and the fact that they are household names) should suffice for ID. Common sense won the day in the end. I hope they all passed as the post race drinks they supped were definitely not what it said on the plastic bottles, I think F1 drivers enjoy a beer after a race as much as we club racers.

My wife and I missed the concerts, this year we were too busy clearing up, it was Pharel Williams and a bunch of geriatric rockers called The Who (never heard of them…). When I got back to work on Monday the only person everyone asked if I’d seen was Kim Kardashian – I don’t know if I did, I think I might be the only man in the world who has no idea what she looks like.