British Grand Prix

British Grand Prix

I’m not a sporty person. I grew up in a home full of artists. My mum in fashion and then painting, my dad in advertising and later illustration. My sister, musical. Me, I like art of all kinds. But the art of sport never really registered, and the beautiful game wasn’t even on my radar.

I swam in primary school. My instructor was an old tyrant. Mrs. Martin introduced me to the pool by hoisting me off my feet by my hair and throwing me in the deep end. She’d whack you with a pole that was intended to assist swimmers in distress, until you dived down and picked up the ‘brick’ from the bottom of the pool. But swim I did, and well. Until it came to competitions. In competition I often overthought my technique and spent far too much time contemplating what I should be doing, rather than just getting on and doing it. Pronto.

As a result, swimming was superseded by running in secondary school. I was fast over 100 meters, and the 200. I always made the relay team and can’t recall any inter-form losses. But send me off to a local track meet and I’d be just shy of the podium every time. I didn’t have that extra kick of focus and therefore, lacked the motivation. I enjoyed running, I just wasn’t one to take competitive sports seriously.

I tried tennis for a time. And hated it. Again, I was always overthinking my technique. Again, it didn’t come naturally. Mum liked to watch Wimbledon and I suspect that’s why I ended up with a racquet and tennis lessons. Dad even enjoyed the rugby on occasion, being a Welshman. But neither of them imbued that passion you get from a loyal fan. Mum was impressed by this year’s prodigy; Dad followed the national team during the big competitions. Sport made fleeting appearances in our house for only a few weeks of the year. There wasn’t that regular sense of loyalty to our team or our hero that so many sporting families share. And so sport never really registered with me.

With the exception, that is, of Tony.

Tony was one of our neighbours and the Barretts were family friends while I was growing up. Tony was OBSESSED with Formula 1. He had a Nigel Mansell moustache. We would go to the Barretts’ for Sunday lunch and Tony would have to be pulled away from the television set to eat, always rushing back to the lounge for an update while his roast potatoes went cold. When it was our turn to host, he’d have the Formula 1 on there too. I saw many world championships play out over the shoulder of Tony. He was always engrossed. Elated when Mansell won and devastated when he lost. It was my first introduction to the passion of a sports fan. I was captivated; that a stranger on the television could affect a person so completely, so utterly, to the point Tony was winning and losing with his team from the sofa. That passion eventually rubbed off on me.

When Lewis Hamilton burst onto the Formula 1 scene in 2007 I was instantly hooked. I finally had my person to root for, my football team that never was. Although it wasn’t until 2015 that I attended my first Grand Prix. But what a first to start with.

I’d been working for a design agency in London for several years, and one of the directors shared my passion for motorsport. We both loved Formula 1. We even had the opportunity to work on the livery for Brawn GP in 2009: The team that took Jenson Button to his world championship that year. It was a livery vastly reduced to the point of ridicule, but still, a dream brief for a Formula 1 fan. 

Eventually I decided the time was right to move on from my job, and found myself bestowed with two golden tickets to the 2015 British Grand Prix. General admission passes for the whole race weekend. AT SILVERSTONE.

I took my mum. Tony’s influence had clearly rubbed off on her too. Lewis Hamilton no-doubt helped. But either way, Formula 1 had become part of her irregular sporting fixtures all these years later. And so I packed my Canon 650D, my trusty 55-250, and the hefty 24-70, and off we went. 

The British Grand Prix is a British institution, like The Boat Race or Wimbledon. Silverstone is a racetrack as iconic a venue as Lord’s or Ascot. It’s a destination set in the heart of the English countryside, surrounded by farms and light airfields, country pubs and quiet villages. That tranquil image is shattered in a cloud of smoke and scattered rubber as the teams and drivers descend at the beginning of July every year: The British Grand Prix is the Glastonbury of motorsport. There’s camping in muddy fields, barbecues and burger vans, pints in plastic cups (or strawberries and champagne), entertainment away from the track, evening concerts, and a sprawling site with hundreds of thousands of passionate fans.

You can feel the electricity of the place as you approach along the winding roads of Northamptonshire; the rumble of engines and the baritone of announcers carried on the summer breeze. There’s excitement in the air from everyone as you enter the site. Not just the ticket holders but the stewards and the security guards, the guy flipping your burger and the girl selling programmes. It’s the one place where everyone seems to be a fan and it’s an honour to work the weekend. I’ve never been to an event where the crowd are so amiable, so easy-going, so jubilant. People cheer for the drivers they don’t support: Credit where credit’s due. And erupt when the drivers they do support succeed. Fans make space for each other, consider the lines of sight of those behind them, share banners and flags and photo opportunities, make friends at the slightest of passing glances.

And it’s not just the Formula 1 you get for the price of admission either. There’s the Porsche Supercup, Historic Masters, GP3, and Formula 2: Practise, qualifying and a race for each class throughout the weekend. Classic cars from motorsport’s history are rolled out. There’s entertainment and family areas, a drivers parade, meet and greets in the Fan Zone, access to the pits if you’re lucky, and multiple airshows. The Red Arrows put on a display worthy of a royal event, the RAF demo some frankly terrifying but awe-inspiring aeronautical technology, and you even get a parachute display to top it all off. There’s fireworks of course, as part of the big finale with this year’s rock or pop sensation (or at least, former sensation). And when the big race is all over they open up the gates and let the fans flood the track; everyone rushing to get a spot beneath the podium. You can even walk the circuit afterwards. It’s utterly brilliant.

The British Grand Prix is a great place for a photograph. From freezing the action on track (or the trickier technique of conveying a sense of speed) to candid captures of the crowd. And with the way the racing sessions are programmed, you can divide your time between both with ease.

But you don’t head to a sporting event just to photograph the crowd or the equipment. You go to watch athletes performing at the peak of their physical and mental capacity: You go to see sporting heroes.

Friday practice wasn’t looking good for Lewis Hamilton. He struggled to match the times of his teammate, Nico Rosberg: Not at all happy with the setup of his car while Rosberg was top in both sessions. But on Saturday the world champion put all that behind him. He set the fastest time in third practise, half a second clear of the field.

Qualifying was a tense triple-session as multiple drivers had their times disallowed for exceeding track limits, despite warnings from race directors prior to the event. Both McLarens were out in Q1, much to the dismay and despair of British racing fans, and no doubt the British team themselves.

Another team with Great British heritage lost out in Q2, as both Lotus cars were eliminated. Max Verstappen in the Toro Rosso was also a surprise casualty.

But Q3 is where it really counts. Fans raised their Union Flags that declared it was ‘Hammertime’ and Lewis Hamilton raised his game. He laid down a rapid initial lap to secure provisional pole, with Rosberg in second. But Rosberg was unable to improve on his time and Hamilton aborted his second run having already done enough, beating his teammate by 0.122 seconds.

Thousands of British fans left the track happy that afternoon, dreaming of a Sunday home-win. Expecting a Sunday home-win.

The race didn’t begin well.

Both Mercedes had a poor getaway, allowing the Williams cars of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas to move into first and third respectively. Action at the back of the grid caused a chain reaction of contact after Pastor Maldonado collided with his teammate, Romain Grosjean, and retired both of them. Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso had to take avoiding action and hit his own teammate, Jenson Button, putting Button out of the race and having to pit for a new front wing himself. The trail of damage and retired cars brought out a safety car.

On the restart Lewis Hamilton immediately went on the attack to overtake Massa, but ran wide at Vale corner, allowing Bottas to pass him into second place.

Hamilton stayed calm, sat back, tracked the Williams cars and bided his time until the first round of pit stops. On lap 20 he opted for the undercut, pitting for a new set of tyres before anyone else. He produced what Williams technical chief Pat Symonds called a “stunning” in-lap: His out lap was the fastest of the race and saw the world champion take the lead. Massa and Rosberg pitted and rejoined in second and third respectively. But Bottas also had an excellent stop and managed to jump ahead of Rosberg on the next lap.

By the halfway point, rain was expected and it wasn’t long before the first drops fell. There’s not many outdoor sports where rain would energise the audience, but it’s guaranteed to increase both the tension and drama in Formula 1. By lap 38, drivers started losing traction. The decision from there is always a gamble: stay out and brave the slick tyres, or pit for intermediates. Kimi Räikkönen made the stop. He pitted at the end of lap 39 after his Ferrari teammate, Sebastian Vettel, overtook him. But it proved to be the wrong choice; the track not yet wet enough. Rosberg retook third from Bottas on the same lap, and second from Massa two laps later, while Räikkönen lost additional places and dropped down to ninth on his intermediate tyres.

Rosberg, now in clear air, pushed hard and significantly reduced Hamilton’s lead. He closed dramatically to within 3.7 seconds and was beginning to fancy his chances when Hamilton abruptly swept into the pits. Hamilton sacrificed track position for intermediate tyres, a move which Sebastian Vettel imitated. It proved to be inspired: Just when the rain returned with increased intensity. By the time Rosberg and the two Williams cars had tip-toed back to the pits it was too late, Hamilton’s rival fell back and both Massa and Bottas fell behind Vettel. The win—after so much uncertainty—was finally assured.

Hamilton improved his lead over Rosberg to take victory by 11 seconds. The world champion’s fifth win of the season was greeted with roars of delight from the fans.

You couldn’t have asked for a better outcome at the British Grand Prix. At least, with the exception of fellow Britons Jenson Button and Will Stevens not retiring or finishing in last place respectively. But few concerned themselves with such details. Everyone was too busy revelling in Hamilton’s glory, and we were soon rushing out across the track to get a good spot beneath the podium, watching him lift that great-golden trophy above an adoring crowd. A sellout crowd of 140,000 and a sea of Union Flags waving in the summer sunshine.

I’m not going to jump into a Formula 1 car anytime soon, but I’ve certainly found my sport to rival the fandom of any football team.

Event Notes

With a general admission pass you don’t get a seat in the stands, but you do get access to almost all of those stands for Friday and Saturday Practice. We started on the International Pit Straight and made our way clockwise around the circuit to each of them. The pit straight is of course ideal for photographs of the teams and drivers, and it wasn’t long before I’d captured a number of both in their garages.

Becketts is a brilliant spot to watch and photograph the cars. They sweep through two successive corners here, followed by a long straight. The cars are at full capacity as they weave left-right, left-right in the space of a few seconds. The speeds are immense.

You need a long lens to get a decent view of the on-track action at Silverstone. But there’s plenty of vantage points and clean lines of sight. The rapid autofocus of a DSLR is essential. I took a Canon 650D (now the Canon 750D) with the EF-S 55-250mm for shots of the cars on track. I used the EF 24-70mm for candid shots of the crowd.

Lewis Hamilton has since won his fifth British Grand Prix, in 2017, bringing him equal with greats Jim Clark and Alain Prost. Last year he took the celebrations one step further, announcing to the audience on the podium; “I’m coming over to crowd-surf, just so you know. Be ready for me!” And he kept that promise. This year, and this weekend, Mercedes arrive at Silverstone looking to make amends for a woeful double retirement last time out in Austria, and will be hoping to ride that wave of success once more.

A big thank you to G, B, and H for the thoughtful and generous gift. It was quite the sendoff after many years together.

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