A lifetime ago
Quick, run – the leader is on his final lap.
Sprinting across the Hockenheim pit lane, I head for the swarm of red-and-white-clad McLaren boys as they lean against the Armco, straining to greet their race-winning hero. A small gap appears and in a flash I’m through. Now with a clear view of the track, camera to my eye, I squeeze the shutter release as Ayrton Senna crosses the line, punching the air for yet another crushing McLaren-Honda victory.
25 years later and here we are again. Hockenheim, Germany, on a July Sunday afternoon.
Everything is different and yet so much is the same. As was the case back in the day, one team is dominant, two drivers are fighting for one title. They don’t get on; one is emotional, super-quick and fragile, the other calmer, more measured and politically astute. Lewis Hamilton is the 2014 Ayrton Senna, Nico Rosberg a modern-day Alain Prost.
January 4th 1988 was my first day on the long road to being what I’d always wanted to be – a professional photographer of Formula 1. Landing a job as a junior black-and-white printer at top motorsport picture agency Zooom Photographic, I had a plan. Work hard – very hard – do a good job, keep the bosses happy, get passes for as many junior UK formulae races as possible and practice, practice, practice, and practice some more.
Improve my photographic technique, and some time in my third year I might get to shoot at an F1 grand prix...
One and half years later there I was, walking up and down the Hockenheim paddock, all starry-eyed, proud and shy in equal measure. My boss introduced me to guys whose words I’d read, cars I’d adored, races I’d watched, and – most importantly to me – pictures I’d admired.
Maybe it’s the significance of the circuit as the venue of my first ‘foreign’ grand prix, or memories of how the track used to be. Could it be the Teutonic concrete nature of the place sitting adjacent to an autobahn? Probably not! Whatever it is, I always enjoy coming back to Hockenheim. Even now with the savagely truncated, pale imitation of the once unique track that it used to be.
Like a sad old man telling tales of ‘the good ol' days’, I no doubt bore the current generation of younger lensmen with stories of early mornings standing in the forest, alone with the birds, green trees all around, listening for the caterwaul bark of a howling V8, V10 or V12 engine as it screamed at dizzying speeds along long straights on a narrow ribbon of Tarmac towards wheel-hopping chicanes, walled on either side by dense and unforgiving woodland.
Beautiful light, fantastic colours, wonderful sounds, and a real sense of being in a privileged position all came together so often, I’ve had some special moments shooting in that forest.
Free Practice Two, Saturday morning August 1st 1998. Possibly the greatest hour or so of photography I’ve ever enjoyed. Arriving at the second chicane – along with just about every other snapper at the circuit! – I chose to stand somewhere a little different. As 99 per cent of my competitors headed for the outside of the track, I walked to the inside. A more challenging position to make work through the lens but hopefully more rewarding as a result.
Ten minutes in and a cracking shot in the can already. Jacques Villeneuve’s wretched driving in the Williams FW20 provided me with a perfect opportunity. Right front brake locked as he approached the second chicane, bursting from the shadows into bright early morning sunshine, smoke pouring from the Goodyear rubber. “Now you know what a flat-spot looks like!” was the oh-so-apt caption as the shot ran large across two pages in the next edition of F1 Racing magazine.
Five minutes later and not in my wildest dreams did I expect what happened next to unfold. Rolling slowly towards the chicane, Michael Schumacher’s scarlet red Ferrari F300 had a problem and Michael was looking for a safe place to park his stricken machine.
Wonderfully – for me! – he turned right, stopping just yards from my position. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Climbing from the car, the always guarded German quickly ordered a couple of obedient track marshals to protect his ride from any prying photographers’ gaze, turned and walked away.
As the two-times world champion strode past me I glanced across the circuit towards the throng of my crestfallen colleagues, staring longingly at the photographic opportunity. So close and yet so far away…
Schumacher had nowhere to go. No access road back to the pits, only a small area in which to stand, and a confident photographer close by. It must have been his idea of hell.
Walking as far away from me as possible, Michael hoped to escape the scrutiny of my lens, but, try as he might, he had no chance. Stalking through the trees as if hunting a wild animal I crept silently past, so as to see Schumacher’s face.
A lull in the on-track action and all was quiet in the forest. Taking care with every footfall, I didn't want to spook my prey. CRACK! The silence shattered as my foot came down on a fallen branch, and my quarry peered into the darkness. But I remained unseen.
Crouching down no more than 15 yards from Ferrari’s main man, I fired off a handful of shots before, spooked, he turned away.
No matter. A contemplative study of a camera-shy F1 legend, in bright red race suit, backlit by beautiful early morning light, with a foreground of almost lime green leaves, was safely etched in Fuji Velvia celluloid.
16 years later, Tarmac all ripped-up and long gone, nature has all but reclaimed the long straights and sharp chicanes that served photographers so well. Perhaps fittingly, the ghosts of those drivers that so violently perished in the trees, Jim Clark and Patrick Depailler, are now alone in the peaceful forest.