With this morning starts the Super Special Stage – a press junket more than anything else. A track has been built locally to allow the journalists and photographers a chance to record the racers, the vehicles and get some dramatic shots of bikes screaming around a dust track, all without leaving the comfortable confines of Abu Dhabi itself.
For those of us who are heading out to the event for real, it’s an opportunity to familarise ourselves with seatbelts and neck braces, how to remove a crash helmet, how to trigger the vehicles’ internal fire extinguishers and to remind ourselves of any idiosyncratic racers that may throw up extra complications.
Midway through the day we meet for a final brief, lining up in the slim shade of a high wall. I’m quietly pleased to realise I can keep up now with the jargon and language that last year left me baffled. Before coming out this time I invested in a Nyrex folder and WebTex binder, the ultimate in inhospitable environment admin. Think the sort of FiloFax that the A-Team might carry and you’re not far off.
It’s invaluable, giving me a stable writing platform and letting me short-hand notes throughout the brief. With a year’s experience I can concentrate on details, rather than frantically swinging my head back and forth amongst the rest of the group for reassurance that someone else understands what’s going on.
Craig, Hannah and I are scheduled to fly the following morning with the Abu Dhabi police helicopter. An RV has been arranged for the helipad at the Circuit’s Clinic where we worked at the F1. The brief completed, we return to the event, taking photos, drinking water and trying to adjust to the heat before it really matters.
Standing in a knot of medics I see Lisa chatting to a short, olive skinned gentleman. She nods, smiles and points towards me and he approaches.
It’s only when he’s closer than I recognise him.
A year ago to the week he decked out on the dunes, I argued with my sweep team about his need to be MEDEVACed and, through being a stroppy little git, secured my place on the team. On arriving at hospital they found he had a fractured skull and, he explains with difficult English, damage to his third, fourth or fifth vertebrae.
“The doctors say, my neck, if it is bad? It is bad for my breathing, my breathing would stop.”
We use a rhyme to remind ourselves – “C three, four and five keep the diaphragm alive”. Damage to the cord at that level is frequently fatal, removing the patient’s ability to breathe.
He tells me what he remembers about that afternoon.
“I was in the sand and I could hear your truck. I tried to get on my bike and get away before you came, I didn’t want a doctor. But then you came. And then I went to hospital. You stopped my race.”
“You should not say sorry. I must say thankyou. Also, my wife? She says thankyou to you.”
“It’s nothing, it’s my job.”
“It is a good job.”
We stand awkwardly, an emotional moment between strangers.
“So….are you racing?”
“Not this year. I was in hospital for a long time. Next year, I race. I am training.”
“Is your wife happy with that?”
He cackles, winks at me.
“She does not know – you don’t tell her, ok?”
We shake again, his hand on my shoulder, we lock eyes and he nods at me, unspeaking, but saying plenty.
Men. We’re shit at this.
A clutch of medics gathers in a portacabin to steal water and luxuriate in the air conditioning for a while when an excited shout draws us back to the action. The Kamaz trucks are taking a turn around the track.
I love these things, they’re the size of small fire engines and they race through the dunes. They’re fast too, frequently beating smaller cars and buggies over the course.
The thing is, like jumbo jets, they don’t look like they SHOULD be racing.
We gather excitedly at the fence to watch them do their stuff and I’m prefocussing my camera to capture the first truck coming round the corner in a shower of dust when my eyes are pulled from the viewfinder by a collective “Ohhhh!” from the crowd.
I look up just in time to see one truck tipping torturously slowly on a bend taken too fast, it tips, tips and slams down on its right hand side with an epic boom and triumphant cloud of sand and dust.
The team stand at the tape for a moment, pointing and saying “fuck….fuck!”. Patch’s car, standing by at the start line for exactly these eventualities lights up and zooms onto the course. Nothing is moving on scene.
I look over to Sophia, a Major in the British Army and DC veteran.
The track is undulating, huge soft scoops and heaps and sand stand between us and the crash. Running through it will be like running through snow drifts. Fuck that.
I clock a yellow Civil Defence minibus, probably here to shuttle fire and police officers to the event.
Sophia and I run for the bus, closely followed by Ben, a newbie on the event. We swing the side door open and pile in.
“Medics. Drive me to that crash, please.”
The driver nods, pulls the bus forwards and floors it along the track. The response rate is fantastic, he corners hard and fast but fails to consider his stopping distance. The crash site looms large ahead of us and he stands on the brakes, locking all four wheels up as they slide forwards on the soft layers of sand.
The three of us yell out as the rear end of the bus fish-tails madly before coming to rest and letting us disembark.
All three racers are out of the truck and stamping around the fallen beast, swearing and kicking. Patch meets us as we jump out.
“All looks good.”
We nip round to the side of the truck, diesel gushing out of its tanks into the sand. Patch shouts for a fire crew and recovery truck to damp down the spilled fuel and then joins me as we corral the crashed drivers and check their heads and necks at the roadside.
Nobody hurt, just bruised pride. One of the Italian drivers communicates with us through his interpreter.
“He says he’s upset, because last year they didn’t finish and this year they might not start. Last year they broke down.”
“On the last day?”
The driver listens while the interpreted explains then beams widely, shakes my hand.
With familiar faces and shared history, it’s all starting to feel a lot like home, this event.
Medical responsibilities complete I’m free to flit about shooting photos. Traumaqueen is becoming an enjoyed and respected resource for the team, both Gus and Patch suggested it to new team members and the local press as a source of information regarding what we do out here. Learning to perform as both a medic and a journalist while out here is a challenge I relish. Hopefully I can do both roles justice.
The Civil Defence bus has gone by the time we’re ready to head back, so Sophie, Patch, Ben and I climb onto the running boards of the Patch’s car and ride off the track in style, hands gripping the roof rack. The rest of the team are waiting for us in the car park and jeer when we pull in.
“I’m sure there are seats in there…” starts Booker.
And sure there are.
But why ride when you can surf?
Nina, Hannah, Ali and I retire after the event to a nearby mall where I remember seeing a party supply shop last time I was here. Inside I buy an impossibly Mac-Daddy cowboy hat (with fur and silver chain trim), rainbow poncho, Mexican moustache and a huge plastic steer skull to decorate the clinic with. If I can’t be a traditional cowboy at the fancy dress party, I’ll be the gayest gaucho out there.
We dine on pizza (Ali and Hannah) and shawerma (Nina and I) in the food court before riding a taxi back to the hotel for one last night of sheets and showers before setting off to Liwa in the morning.