The world of modern Formula 1 is so saturated with images that it takes something very special to emerge from the mass and lodge itself in the collective consciousness. That happened last October, when a freelance photographer named Peter J Fox took himself to the Degner Curves at Suzuka during Friday’s free practice sessions for the Japanese GP. He thought he’d spotted a vantage point from which he could capture the cars under stress as they hurtled into the first right-hander. He ended up with a picture of Nico Rosberg that made F1 in the 21st century come alive.
You’ve probably seen it. The champion-to-be’s Mercedes has just passed the apex, indicated by a glimpse of kerbing. Sparks are flying from the W07’s undercarriage and you can see the grain of the track surface and the dark gleam of the bodywork. The car is under maximum lateral load and the suspension is working at its hardest to balance the forces that have been generated. The right front tyre is barely touching the asphalt. The left rear is being literally driven into the ground, its contact patch scrunched and its sidewall deformed beyond belief. It looks like it’s about to fly off the rim, or simply disintegrate. But it doesn’t. This is simply what happens when the machine is working properly. It’s an intimate moment in the life of an F1 car, and one that can only be properly revealed via a skilfully taken still photograph.
Photographers were vital to motor racing from the very beginning. Those of us who developed an interest before the days of regular television coverage depended on black-and-white photography in newspapers and magazines to shape and nurture our addiction. A single image became something to be cut out and pasted into a scrapbook – or, like my precious Geoff Goddard print of Moss at Monaco in 1961, framed and hung on a wall.
This goes back to the earliest days, when the 19-year-old Jacques-Henri Lartigue took himself to the 1913 French GP at Amiens and captured an astonishing image of René Croquet at the wheel of his Th. Schneider, the speed of the car and the limitations of the photographer’s equipment distorting the image so that the machine appears to lean forward and the three spectators visible in the background seem to sway back, as if blown by its slipstream. As a pioneer of capturing speed in a still image, Lartigue would have admired Fox’s shot of Rosberg.
Between the wars, the photographers would take portraits of the protagonists, such as Ferrucio Testi’s full-length photograph of Enzo Ferrari in a stylish overcoat in Modena in 1931, the Scuderia’s second year of operations. Two British photographers, Robert Fellowes and George Monkhouse, defined a golden age with their action shots of the Silver Arrows thundering through the unspoilt streets of Monaco or the hill villages above Pescara.
Louis Klementaski began working before the war, and after it he became the doyen of motor racing photographers. From his bottomless archive of classic images, one of Luigi Chinetti’s Ferrari 195S barchetta being worked on in a private backyard before the 1950 Le Mans 24 Hours, surrounded by locals, tells us everything about the informality of racing in those years. The respected German photographer Julius Weitmann caught the moment when Hans Herrmann was ejected from his cartwheeling BRM at AVUS in 1959. In Italy, the prolific Corrado Millanta caught Felice Bonetto sideways in his Cisitalia in Mantua in 1948. The gifted Jean Dieuzaide recorded the annual visit to Albi of the greats – and their beautiful wives and girlfriends on the pit wall. Bernard Cahier, the debonair Marseillais who became close to many drivers, climbed high above the Monza banking in 1961 to get the four surviving Sharknose Ferraris running nose to tail after Wolfgang von Trips’s fatal crash.
During the post-war years a posse of Americans arrived in Europe. Jesse Alexander immortalised the victory embrace between Juan Manuel Fangio and Maserati’s team manager, Nello Ugolini, at the Nürburgring in 1957. Robert Daley’s sensitive shots of the drivers’ weary introspection in defeat burrowed beneath the sport’s skin. Pete Coltrin pitched camp in Modena, opening up the world of mechanics and panel beaters behind the scenes at Maserati and Ferrari.
Edward Eves, Geoff Goddard and Michael Tee were Britain’s masters in that era. They enjoyed the kind of proximity that their successors – such as Darren Heath – cannot even begin to dream about in an era of obsessive image management.
Heath also writes a blog, passing on the insights gleaned from his vantage point. In a recent post he complained about sneaky tactics used by some of his colleagues, one of whom gave the game away when, during a GP weekend, he mentioned that Darren’s website appeared to be down. But it had been taken it down on purpose, temporarily, to prevent rivals copying Heath’s ideas. That’s just one of the ways F1 has changed in the digital era.