Volunteer marshals unsung heroes of motor racing

The 2023 World Rally Championship Safari Rally, which is now a page in history,  will remain etched in our memories for a long time to come.

Frenchman Sebastien Ogier won the Safari Rally for the second time, and he together with other drivers are back  at their bases preparing for the next World Rally Championship (WRC) round in Estonia next week.

All said and done, there is one group of unsung heroes — the volunteer marshals who form the backbone of the Safari Rally.

They were usually the first to enter a rally route and the last to leave long after everybody else.

This is a job the Federation Internationale de I’ Automobile (FIA) describes as the most important component of the WRC and in all other motorsport competitions under the federation. Marshals are entrusted to ensure top-notch safety for competitors and rally fans. According to FIA, a rally cannot be held without marshals.

Organisers provide marshals with transport to and from their pick up and drop off points, accommodation, food, transport and the requisite attire for the rally.

I am prompted to comment on the ill treatment meted on marshals by fans during the WRC Safari Rally that was held on June 22 -25.

Some fans were needlessly harsh and rude to marshals — a group of hard working individuals.

While on the route, some marshals encountered wild animals such as salivating hyenas that were ready to devour them for breakfast. Luckly, the marshals were accompanied by armed rangers.

The work of marshals sounds really cool. People imagine that it is a front row seat in the wild, sampling the beauty of Mother Nature, and at the end of the day retiring to a warm bed after a full buffet meal.

It sounds really enticing. But it is not.  A case in point was of a female marshal appealing to fans not to assist a crew of a Hybrid car to get out of the vehicle after it crashed right in front of global TV last year.

She could have been accused of being insensitive under normal circumstances. But she was practising what she had been taught. A Hybrid car has live electricity current which must be handled with utmost care by well-equipped personnel.

Here is another offending incident involving a marshal and some fans should be condemned with the contempt it deserves. A marshal picked a  phone which had been dropped accidentally on a rally route with the intention to give it back to the owner.

But the poor marshal was accused of stealing it when he finally met the ungrateful owner. The marshal was busy trying to control noisy spectators on the route and failed to hear the phone ringing. The matter escalated until senior safety officials intervened.

There were also incidents where prominent people, some of them senior members of the rallying fraternity, bullied marshals who withstand thirst, dust, heat and chilly mornings to deliver a successful WRC Safari Rally.

Marshal and highly trained given their responsibility and should not be dismissed.  The current marshals were hired in 2018 and received rigorous training.  They are managed by a team of dedicated officials in the safety department headed by Norris Ongalo.

Ongalo and his team should team up with established motorsport organisations like Motorsport UK to introduce certification of marshaling from certificates to diploma level.

Kenya does not offer training on hybrid technology safety in motor vehicles apart from the WRC Safari Rally.

Kenya can also adopt similar training modules offered by World Athletics regional training centres where technical officials are trained.

Just like is the emerging trend in rally where local technical officials are now recognised and are being invited to officiate in other WRC events like was the case of John Kamau in WRC Sardinia last month, marshals too have the knowledge to serve. They should be treated as professionals.

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