Kicking off the second half of 2010 with a trip to Spa was never going to be a particular chore. This mighty track, located in the depths of the Belgian Ardennes Forest, is a legendary venue, and one that brought back as many personal memories as it did racing ones. The iconic corners of the old track bring back visions of times gone past: the flat-out Masta Kink in particular summing up the dangerous nature of the old road circuit. Porsche 917s, Porsche 962s, Porsche GT1-98s… All of them have been freeze-framed in the classic start shot of a pack of cars streaming down the hill past the old pits and into Eau Rouge. And it always rains.
My own Spa memories are more around Italian than German cars however, so I was pleased to have an Alfa Mito hire car to bomb about in for the weekend. My previous visits to Spa had also been Alfa-centric: ’99, when I’d just picked up a new GTV I’d bought in Germany and drove it straight down the Autobahn, into Belgium and around the Spa track – then with the majority of the track still open as public roads. My second visit was with Rod, whilst we were working on the GT Legends computer game in 2004 and I needed to get reference shots of the Alfa GTAs.
Last August I’d felt a bit of a lightweight, as I was there to cover just the GT1 races on Friday and Saturday and not the full 24 Hour race that would take place over the weekend. It also took me a couple of attempts to remember my way around the ramshackle Spa paddock that is organically spread over the stepped slope down from the F1 pit complex at the top of the hill. The multiple levels and blocked-off walkways meant every time I ventured out I ended up taking different routes. The sparkly Merc GT3 SLS on display provided a navigation point, as did the Alfa Zagato Corsa next to it.
Drivers think Spa is great, but most photographers are in love with the place as well: I know I am. There are few tracks where you can get the variety of shots or where you can can get so close to the cars. At the La Source hairpin you can literally reach out and touch them as they pass, clattering through the rain gutter on the exit. It helps if you try and keep the lens on your camera though: Spa was where I had my final public humiliation of my big, heavy expensive 300mm prime lens dropping onto the grass as I half-ran, half-stumbled my way down to the first corner for the race. The release catch just kept being hit when I had the lens slung; from then on, I rigged up a strap between the lens and body to keep them together.
The only bad thing about Spa was the sparsity of media shuttles to get you round this enormous track. Everything seemed geared around ‘VIP’ guests. Not for the first time I was jealously eyeing a parked scooter… And when three blacked-out Range Rovers scythed past me as I was trudging back from the furthest reaches of the circuit I think my feet hit a low-point. But my time would come.
A trip to the British Touring Car Championship at Silverstone courtesy of a good friend was a welcome chance to just watch some racing, and for once not through a lens. Mostly. I caved in slightly and did take a camera, and couldn’t help snap a couple of the Red Arrows display team and the WWII Lancaster bomber that followed. The funny thing was being led out on a grid walk as a guest with the Motorbase team and being lined up for a shot with their grid girl! It was very strange, being the wrong end of a lens and not on the grid working…
Nurburgring in Germany was the following GT destination at the other end of August. The rain at Spa had been occasionally heavy, but it turned out to be nothing compared to this weekend. But this was the right kind of rain. Biblical storms – only missing the toads. I loved it.
It’s a double-whammy, a combination of the visual excitement at watching these big racecars slither and slide round the track plus the fact that you find completely different kinds of shot in these conditions. But what is breath-taking about the Nurburgring (and Spa) is just how quickly the conditions can change. For example:
1:53pm in the Qualifying Race.
1:55pm in the Qualifying Race. Quite a challenge for the drivers.
Nurbrugring echoes Spa’s epic and varied nature, with the tighter twists of the corners around the start counterpointed to the faster sweeps at the back of the track. I had a wry smile about the red zones here: the bane of photographers, the areas we’re banned from getting to. On the inside of the first turn was a small red zone, prefaced with a tiny little fence that you were allowed to stand behind. Step five paces south, and the three-strand Armco is waist-high and you’re leaning out into certain death. I had plenty of bits of rubber bounce off my head at the start: I just keep my eye to the viewfinder and shoot. In any case, my head hasn’t got anything useful in anyway. But this is what frustrates me about tracks: the inconsistent application of safety to photographers.
Sometimes teams want to see shots of their cars at particular corners – this is where you feel like you’re telling tales on drivers. For once, you’re treated like a school prefect by the teams rather than some kind of bandit. Michael Krumm in the #23 Sumo Power Nissan GT-R was banging through the kerbs every lap, taking more and getting more and more air each time. Naturally, every lap I was willing him on… The engineers weren’t quite so impressed.
Much as I profess to love the rain, it also made me appreciate the access I had to the Sumo Power hospitality unit: I have no ability to operate in the morning until I’ve had a gallon or so of coffee, and being to dive in and out for refills of caffeine and chocolate on demand was particularly welcome.
I could also take pride in the decals on the side of Sumo Power’s race trucks: I’d provided the side-on images, so was pleased to see them on display.
Team Need For Speed’s Patrick Soderlund and Edward Sandstrom were also here, taking a busman’s holiday from FIA GT3 by taking part in the national ADAC GT3 race. Just before the start of their race it had started spitting with rain, triggering a mass exodus of drivers seeking shelter. A nice thing is that as the season progresses you get to know more and more people: it’s a great feeling being able to walk up a grid and say hello to familiar faces. Of course, with Patrick heading up Team Need For Speed he was always an easy target!
Damage and fire. The Nurburgring was the low point of the season for driving standards, the Lamborghinis in particular treated like bumper cars. All four Murcielagos were virtually destroyed by the end, body panels crumpled or missing, the only constant the fire thrown out by the exhausts under every deceleration. As I was walking back to the pits after one of the races I came across a corner workers’ post, where the guys there proudly showed me the shattered carbon remains of the bonnet from the #23 Sumo Power Nissan. Back in the garage, a sorry-looking #23 was being repaired… with a nice hole where the missing piece would have fitted.
The morning after the race Sumo Power PR Simon and I made our way up to the hallowed Nordschliefe itself, hoping to put a lap or two on the poor Seat hire car. But with BMW booking out the track for a corporate Mini day, we had to settle for the interesting RingWerk museum back at the track, and a virtual tour of the track in their simulator. Paddy took a comprehensive look round the place last year. But all I can say is Zakspeed Capri. What an amazing car.
I’ve already touched on September’s racing in the Algarve in me and Linhbergh’s bridge story. It’s always the sign of a good track that I immediately want to download a sim version and race around it – the Portimao track was definitely one of those. It’s a shame that the pool at the back of the pits isn’t much more than paddling depth.
It was amusing watching a fashion photographer turn up to shoot a model on the grid for a Cosmopolitan story, complete with assistant, assistant assistant and assistant’s assistant in tow. How do they cope?! The poor darlings!
With the track being universally praised by drivers and media alike, and some exciting racing, it was just a shame there wasn’t more of a crowd watching. The grid girls outnumbered the spectators…
…because everyone was here…
…Which meant this. A shame. I hope this year’s visit pulls in more people.
The final round of the GT3 Championship was held in Zolder, Belgium. It was really nice to take the Eurostar rather than flying: I had begun to get bored of the over-bearing security checks and interminable waiting associated with air travel, and the Eurostar is just so relaxed in comparison. Turn up half an hour before, get on the train, arrive at destination. I stayed in a hotel in Zolder called the Top Class, which with a name like that I was fully prepared to be the opposite! But it turned out to be a lovely little family-run place, with the half-dozen comfortable rooms an adjunct to the absolutely lovely modern cuisine of their restaurant. Lovely people, lovely place. Stay there! My safety release strap was working well, too, keeping everything secure after squeezing down the narrow path between the fence and barrier at the first corner.
I balanced the fine food at the hotel with something rather more traditional. Waffles. Om nom nom.
My hotel in Los Arcos, where the Navarra track in northern Spain in northern Spain is located, was rather more incongruous. It was a petrol station. Very bizarre. But, it was ideally located just five minutes from the track, had comfortable IKEA-a-like rooms and friendly staff. And good coffee. Memories from Spain include the incredibly clear moon that was still out when the race morning warm-up was due to start, followed by the golden glow of a glorious dawn. Here I received a final send-off from the European rain and a selection of the most incredibly rainbows. Time to say goodbye to a chilly European Autumn and hello South America. After a lot of flying for us, and a month-long voyage in sea containers for all the cars.
Interlagos. Brazil. I still can’t believe I’ve been there. The place just exudes history. It’s an anachronism amongst F1 tracks: compared to, say Yas Marina it’s a relic of a bygone age that surely has no place on the calendar. But thank god it does. It’s incredible. The new track layout nestles in the arms of the fearsome original, which was a true man’s track. I’ve got a Temple Of Speed on the place which I’ll put up soon, describing my walk around it.
At the track, the sound of industry was countered by nature. The bass clanging and hammering as the work crews broke down the scaffolding grandstands erected for the F1 race a couple of weeks previously was countered by the bird song coming from the unexpected nature reserve that has sprung up in the middle of the track.
What is a 4×4 course in the infield has become a sanctuary for local wildlife fleeing from the encroaching town of Sao Paolo. 60 years ago, the track was in the countryside on the outskirts of town; now it’s completely surrounded by concrete and breeze block.
Some of the wildlife is more wild than others. Whilst stalking the beautiful owls that flit around the woods I realised it was actually me who was being stalked. I’m not great with dogs at the best of times, so when the barking started all thoughts of ‘isn’t nature great’ turned to ‘nature is out to KILL ME NOW’. I’m sure they just wanted to be friends. And invite me to dinner. It’s just that I was pretty sure I was the dinner.
The giddiness of my escape from the killer pack of slavering fang dogs/harmless puppies (delete as appropriate) then probably contributed my faux pas in the Qualifying Race press conference. Leaning across for a better shot, I leant on the one table they hadn’t screwed together properly. So, just as the first question is about to be asked there was a loud bang as the table collapsed and I ended up in a heap on the floor. I think I got away with it… In no way shape or form. Post the racing, the richer locals took to the air to leave the track whilst we made our way out in a minivan through the throng of cars and bikes and back to the hotel.
But Sao Paolo was all about that up and down, fright and delights. Another place I hope I get the chance to go back to and spend more time in.
Racing over, I swapped local Itaipava for Quilmes as I went on an enjoyable road trip with some of the Sumo Power guys, making our way from Buenos Aires to San Luis via Mendoza.
After the run of hotels during the year, it was not at all unpleasant to be sharing a nice holiday cabin only 10 minutes drive from the San Luis track. This area is particularly popular with vacationing Argentinians, and these places are real home from homes – with the balmy temperature, stocked fridge and swimming pool the whole team soaked up the end of term atmosphere of this final round.
This final weekend provided so many high points it’s hard to record them all. The best evening of the year was definitely had, with the Sumo Power mechanics firing up the BBQ, handing out the Quilmes and kicking back to watch the incoming electrical storms battle each other for supremacy in the vivid sky. Just a fantastic evening with great people.
The best evening was then followed a couple of days later by the best hour of the year – and also involved a barbecue. It started with keys. To a scooter. Francois and several of the season photographers had been kindly giving me lifts around circuits over the past couple of rounds. Around midday on the qualifying day, he happily came over to me in the media room and handed me a set of keys. They had a spare bike! I could take my own one! It’s at this point I really should have admitted that I had never ridden a motorbike in my life.
The time came to fire up and ship out: after a couple of abortive kick starts I got going and wobbled off. This wasn’t so difficult! We arrived at the turn 6 chicane after some off-roading and riding through a shallow creek and caught the end of the local TC2000 qualifying. Forget getting a scooter licence, I’d be going straight for competing in motocross. But the sky turned dark. Then went black. The rain came from nowhere, lashing down; the crowd who had been gathering for the GT1 qualifying evaporated in an instant, running to find shelter in cars, tents and whatever other shelter they could find.
We initially sheltered in the campsite shop storeroom, where the owners seemed utterly unperturbed at their uninvited guests. Francois then disappeared to find a lighter (he is French, after all), but was gone a surprisingly long time. I poked my head out into the storm, to see him gesticulating over. He’d made some new friends! And what new friends.
As the rain continued to flood the track, we were treated magnificently: FORCED to eat fine Argentian steak! It was torture.
FORCED to drink red wine. And champagne. And local speciality Fernet Branca. The horror!
An hour later the rain had stopped and session was over. We hadn’t seen any cars, but we’d seen what makes Argentina such a great country. Hospitality beyond belief, taking pity on two drowned photographers. But sadly we had to get back to work and check out what was happening. As we got the bikes started we realised the peril of our return journey: it was just as well that we were then suitably steeled for the efforts we’d need. The creek was now a raging torrent. Of course, it seemed like a hilarious idea to take pictures as we took turns to make our way across.
Incredibly, we both made it across and up the sand bank, and got back to the pits unscathed. Remember kids, don’t do this at home. We’re stunt photographers. Amusingly, if you flick through the series of photos that Francois took, you can see me very clearly mouthing something quite rude as I hit the deepest bit of water. Next day the last races of the year saw Vitaphone crowned inaugural World GT1 champions: it was difficult to believe that the season was over, and it was actually quite sad in the press room as everyone said goodbye. Cars and equipment in containers, kit packed away, we all began the 40 hour journey back to Europe. But it wasn’t quite over…
There was one event left: Sumo Power’s #22 car had won the GT1 round at Silverstone back in May, which also meant they were due to be awarded the prestigious Tourist Trophy. The Club, located just around the corner from Buckingham Palace, has the feel of a 19th century gentleman’s club (in fact, women have only recently been allowed to join!) but is alive with
The Tourist Trophy is the oldest trophy in motorsport: given out by the British Royal Automobile Club for the first time in 1905, the names of Sumo Power’s Warren Hughes and Jamie Campbell-Walter would be etched on next to the likes of Tazio Nuvolari, Rudolf Caracciola, Stirling Moss, Caroll Shelby and Graham Hill.
Even though I was there to take photos, I was kindly invited to join the lunch – where Stirling Moss himself presented the award. Moss is as charismatic as you’d expect – and full of energy despite his terrible accident last year. A surreal, magnificent end to Speedhunting 2010.
So, that was it. Time to hang up the camera for at least a couple of weeks. But the joy of the year was tempered by the sadness of admitting my beloved desert boots had seen their final trip. These boots have trod the deserts of Syria, souks of North Africa, the temples of Cambodia and more race tracks than I can name here. The boots are dead! Long live the boots! I wonder how many miles I walked in them in 2010 alone? Here’s to their retirement, and a new pair in 2011.