BLOG: Ed Fahey goes behind the scenes at Spa
Photography – pick up the metal box with the glass tube on the end, look through the little hole in the back and press the button, sounds simple – in theory yes, but driving a racing car around Spa-Francochamps is simply a case of pushing the pedals and turning the wheel at the right time – or is it? The basics might be accomplishable by anyone but a good deal of skill is involved in both operating the equipment and knowing when to time your next move and where.
The first move of the weekend before you even get to the track is to get to the accreditation centre to get your pass, once you have this it’s onto the track and get set up in the media centre, usually set up your desk of a laptop and a few battery chargers, plus prepare and set up your cameras, while checking out the event timetable and deciding where to go and when. I’ve been to Spa a few times now, so know where to go and when, but for a new circuit it is often trial and error, or accompany a colleague who knows the circuit and have them show you around.
Something that has become very relevant lately is photographer safety. I’m sure almost everyone has seen Allan McNish’s terrifying accident from Le Mans 2011. It frightened me, but what also frightened me more was seeing several friends and colleagues running for cover as the R18 hit the barrier at high speed and almost cleared it while disintegrating, which would have resulted in tragedy instead of a bad accident. A media briefing is now compulsory for everyone, some simple dos and don’ts, stay out of the restricted (red) zones and don’t lean over the barriers. Also be aware of everything going on around you, so no headphones. Simple things and yet some people can’t comply with them.
Onto the first session and Les Combes is my destination, a right-left-right section after the long Kemmel straight which follows Eau Rouge/Radillion. It is one of the main overtaking sections of the track and also where you can get close to the cars. Unlike most modern circuits, Spa does not have huge runoff areas, so instead of into the gravel or onto the runoff, if you make a mistake hitting the barrier is the usually the result. First shot is of the cars rushing towards me along the Kemmel straight, then entering the first part of Les Combes, and then left, then right and down the hill towards Rivage. Spa is renowned for its inclines and the exit of Les Combes is the highest part of the track, the Kemmel straight being uphill after the steep initial climb up Eau Rouge. The beauty of Les Combes is that you can shoot both sides of the track, so I only do the inside, as I’ll be doing the outside during the first hour of race. Time management as a photographer is critical, depending on what’s happening you might spend 5 mins, 30 mins or 30 seconds at a certain position before moving on. This session lasts for 90 mins, barring stoppage. After Les Combes, it’s under the tunnel and to the outside of Rivage, a medium speed hairpin. This is 1 of the corners upgraded to more modern safety standards, so the gravel trap is gone, replaced with resistant tarmac along with a debris fence, but thankfully this 1 has mailbox holes cut into it, just big enough to poke your lens through. 25 mins here and the session is over – for the drivers at least.
Back to the media room and time to download and process images, and pick the best ones for uploading to Motorsport.com, and to plan for the next session. My plan here is to continue on my slow lap of the circuit so its back to Les Combes, except this time looking down (approx. 60 ft. up) on the ‘unnamed turn’, T13 after Rivage a fast left going downhill. This is one of the classic Spa shots and allows you to pan through the trees before the cars enter T13, then onto the next straight downhill towards Pouhon. I do this shot from both the higher position at Les Combes, and at ‘ground level’, a 5 min walk, then onwards towards Pouhon, a fast double apex left, also downhill, so a real test of car and driver, then along another straight towards Fagnes or Pif-Paf another fast right-left sequence. The pre-qualifying session was shot from here
Certain parts of the Circuit are inaccessible, the main one being Blanchimont, a flat out kink to the left, which is the second last corner before Chicane also known as the Bus Stop, mainly due to the possible risk of a very fast accident there, or there being little protection/barriers/runoff etc. It is made very clear where you can and can’t go, and it is unwise to break these rules, as you could find yourself with your pass removed and some explaining to do. When areas of track are forbidden, it’s a case of making the best of what you have, or simply go elsewhere.
When most people think of Spa the first corner that springs to mind is Eau Rouge and indeed it does offer some fantastic photo opportunities. But the rising speeds of race cars over the years and the continuing fearlessness of drivers has led to it being regarded as yet another dangerous corner so it has become more and more restricted, so much so, that I’m not a great fan of shooting there anymore, given I have shot there in the past when it was less restricted and have found that some of the best parts of it are now forbidden and a better photo can be obtained from the spectators area, which is rare but not totally unusual. The spectators area is much higher than the track level, so you are looking down on it. All photographers criticisms of the restrictions on Eau Rouge were lost however when in the only major accident of the race, the LMP2 Norma-Judd went off heavily here; into and under the tyre wall – an area restricted to photographers, so occasionally you see why you can’t photograph from there, with good reason of course! I shot qualifying from Eau Rouge
The pitlane is another dangerous place. Cars entering and exiting at speed along with refuelling and pitstops. A pitstop is a vital part of race and getting it done quickly is very important also, so the last thing the pitcrew want is a photographer getting in the way of things and in my time I’ve seen media literally grabbed and thrown out of the way if they are too close, not to mention being run over too which has happened unfortunately. The advantage of the pits in the WEC is that passes are strictly limited so there are relatively few people in the pitlane when the track is live, less than 50. This compares favourably to most other events where anyone and everyone is allowed into the pitlane sometimes. The all-important fireproof overalls are also needed in the pitlane, although in the future helmets and balaclavas will be needed, so photographers will soon resemble pit crew, all in the name of safety. Also while shooting pitstops at Spa, another classic shot is possible – the inside of the La Source hairpin. My pit pass was for the race itself, so pitstops and the inside of La Source were shot during the race.
The race ended at 20.00 local time so for the final 2 hours of the race the light was fading, so time to get somewhere quite close. Off to the outside of La Source first, which features a slight drop as the cars cut the corner tightly, crunching their carbon undertrays off the tarmac as they do often with a spark result and then down the hill towards Eau Rouge, The strange thing about when you stand on Eau Rouge is that you get little idea of how steep it is, but if you are on the approach to it, you can see it clearly, so a few ‘perspective’ shots are taken, along with a few side on pans also, I then went under the tunnel to catch the cars braking for the Chicane (or to give it its old name The Bus Stop) . The light is disappearing rapidly here, so you must be ready for this with your setup, then into the grandstand to get the podium celebrations. A tough but satisfying circuit to shoot and for the photographer once the race is over, the real race begins with processing and uploading of photos, which meant I was one of the last to leave the media centre, tired but satisfied after a god days photography and racing. At least the forecasted rain held off for raceway, unlike previous years!
So that’s a tiny insight into shooting at an event, I could say a lot more as there is a lot more to being a photographer than just taking photos!
Nikon D300, D7000 D-SLR camera bodies
Nikon 300mm F2.8 lens, Sigma 70-200 F2.8 lens, Nikon 18-55 lens
Nikon SB-800 flashgun
Toshiba laptop with Adobe Lightroom