A Prelude To A Spa Weekend

I think I was about 13 years old when I accompanied my Dad to a local rally. It wasn’t our first time standing in the ditches, watching the cars blitz past as it was something I can remember doing regularly as a kid. What was different this time was that he handed me his beloved Pentax MG Super, gave me some pointers and told me to try my luck shooting the cars as they came through. I can still remember collecting the developed prints the next day after school, and the excitement of seeing the moments I had captured for the first time. From that moment, I knew I wanted to be a motorsport photographer.

That day changed the way I watched any form of motorsport. Instead of considering who was leading, I was more interested in the views and angles that best portrayed the beauty and atmosphere of any given event. I became fascinated by the men behind the barriers trying to get that shot. All through the rest of my school years and into college, I was obsessed with photographing and documenting cars in whatever way I could. This became the subject of concern for one of my lecturers, who, and I’ll have to paraphrase here, told me to grow up and to focus on more realistic career paths because I would never make a living photographing cars.

It’s a good thing for me that I’m more than a bit stubborn, eh?

When I first started working with Speedhunters in 2009, I dreamed of the day I would shoot a round of the Formula One World championship. Each year, I would block book the days of my calendar for the Spa GP, hoping by some miracle that would be the year I would shoot F1 for the first time. The years passed by, and it never happened but I still kept dreaming of when that day would come.

Tuesday the 13th of August 2013. That was the day I was told I would officially become a Formula One photographer for the very first time. What ensued between that date and the Thursday before the race was nine days of euphoria, stress, excitement and panic. The time went by so quickly though, that all those concerns didn’t have a chance to settle. Before I knew it, I was stood inside the gate of a Formula One event, accreditation around my neck and my cameras with me. I’d made it.

A Formula One paddock is a special place. At Circuit de Spa Francorchamps, the paddock is split into two separate areas.

The lower level is reserved for hospitality and VIP guests. These non-permanent structures are works of art, assembled before the guests arrive and taken down and moved onto the next event before you even know it.

The upper level, closest to the pit buildings, is home to the business end of a Formula One team.

The specialised mobile workshops, complete with everything required to see two cars through a weekend and to collect and analyse the relevant data along with the drivers’ private living quarters are all housed within two to three state of the art trailers. Unfortunately, taking a peek inside is not an option for an F1 newcomer, as privacy and protection of sensitive information and equipment is of the utmost priority if a team is to have an advantage over a rival.

You do get the odd sneak peak at what would be considered mundane enough objects for an F1 regular, but for me, there was excitement in every minute detail.

Watching how the teams go about things was fascinating.

Thanks to no on-track action, the teams went about their business in a relaxed yet focused way of getting things done.

As it was Thursday, the traditional media day of a Grand Prix weekend, it was the PR teams that were in overdrive in the lower level of the paddock.

Outside of each of the lavish hospitality units, interviews were arranged with the world’s press.

Nico Hülkenberg was the first to emerge and be immediately swamped by journalists.

It was during times like these that I was glad that Speedhunters is non-traditional in how we cover things.

Sutil…

… Gutierrez…

… di Resta…

… and Rosberg were just a few of the drivers to make an appearance throughout the afternoon and early evening.

As interesting and all as the paddock is, and I did find life inside the gates fascinating, this wasn’t what I had spent years dreaming about doing. No, those dreams would come true the very next day.

An overnight soaking – a Spa tradition it would seem – left the circuit and the surrounding areas quite damp on Friday morning. With P1 due to start at 10AM local time, I was shall we say more than eager to get out trackside as soon as possible.

Being dropped off at the car park at the bottom of Eau Rouge, I made the pilgrimage to the far end of the Kemmel Straight, to the section known as Les Combes.

In position a solid two hours before the first cars would leave the pit lane, this left me some time to contemplate and take in the moment.

Here I was, stood trackside at arguably the greatest racing circuit in the world, waiting for the very first time I would see a Formula One car driven in anger. The minutes passed by like hours.

With just minutes to go, and the course cars having completed their final safety checks, it was almost time.

Long before the cars arrive into view, you hear them coming. The sound of 18,000rpm reverberating through the Ardennes forest is enough to make the hairs on your neck stand on end.

It took a couple of passes for the awe to wear off, and be replaced by 100% concentration mode. This was as much practice for the drivers as it was for me trying to keep up with them.

I’ve been lucky to have shot a lot of fast motorsports in my relatively short career, but let me tell you this now…

Nothing on this planet moves like a Formula One car.

It’s not so much their outright speed as it is their ability to stop and change direction before you can even blink. All of this accompanied by that soundtrack makes for a visceral impact like no other.

Before I knew it, 90 minutes of P1 was over and P2 would begin in a couple of hours’ time. Rather than make my way back to the press centre, I slowly made my way back towards Radillon and Eau Rouge, using the GP2 practice session to eye up new potential locations.

Just before the DRS activation zone, I found my place to start P2 from. With a view along the Kemmel straight…

… and of the top of Radillon, I knew this would be an experience.

With the sun finally shining down upon us, the cars piled out of the pits for an intense second practice session.

Whether you’re stood at the top looking down…

… or at the bottom looking up…

… the Eau Rouge/Radillon combination of corners is fierce. The fact that pretty much every car on the grid takes this flat is just mind-blowing to watch. I still can’t understand how they get through it.

I wasn’t the only one.

With the clock running out, I stood amongst the thousands of fans who had travelled from all over the world to watch one of the greatest motorsport happenings on the planet unfold.

Here I was, at Spa Francorchamps, watching Formula One cars climb through the Ardennes. It didn’t take long for me to realise that this was the greatest day in my professional career. And there were still two more to go…

Photo by Paddy McGrath
Twitter: @PaddyMcGrathSH
Instagram: speedhunters_paddy
paddy@speedhunters.com

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