I have just returned from my seventh 24 Hours of Le Mans, an event ranked as one of the greatest sporting spectacles in the world. As a motorsport photographer it is sometimes too easy to concentrate on the on-track action and to forget the human element in this drama played out on the 13.6km circuit.
Endurance racing is a story of men, women and their machines competing against each other, and also against the track and the weather. It is also a story of the 250,000 fans that travel each year to the centre of France to be part of this story, staying awake for the entire race so as not to miss any part of the spectacle.
Over the years I have tried to capture every angle of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, including the drivers, the teams, the officials and the fans. They all play their part in this week long festival of motorsport.
The 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans is the 86th edition of this world famous race that was first run in 1923. The event begins two weeks before the race at the official test day on June 3rd. This gives the teams their first opportunity to test on the full circuit, which is part race track and part public roads, which are closed for the event.
Also all of the rookie drivers, the ones taking part in their first Le Mans, must complete ten laps of the track. The 2018 rookies include former F1 world champions Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, and former F1 race winner Juan-Pablo Montoya.
After the test day, the following weekend sees the event begin with the technical scrutineering, Le Pesage, take place over two days in the centre of Le Mans at the Place de la Republique. With 60 cars taking part it takes two days to check every car to make sure they comply with the rules.
Le Pesage gives the fans a great opportunity to get up close to the teams and the drivers, and also the media their first opportunity of the week to get an interview in the ‘can’.
On Wednesday the track action begins with free practice followed by the first of three qualifying sessions, the first and third session held in the dark under the floodlights. Thursday sees the final two qualifying sessions to determine the grid for the big race that begins at 3pm on Saturday afternoon and concludes 24 hours later on Sunday.
The pitlane is the best place to capture the human element to this race but you have to be very careful when working in this area. All photographers have to receive a safety briefing before they are allowed into the pitlane and they must wear a fireproof and a helmet at all times. With 60 cars, all with a team of mechanics and engineers to service them, the pitlane can get very busy. The cars are limited to 60kph in the pitlane but they still move at speed and you have to have eyes in the back of your head at times.
Each car has three drivers to share the load so when one driver is in the car, the other two are resting or getting ready to get into the car. Motorsport is one of the only sports in the world where you cannot see the competitor at work. Most sports like rugby, soccer or cycling you see the competitors’ faces and they can make for great images. Drivers’ faces are covered with a helmet and they are inside the cockpit of the car, so the best place to capture emotions is with the other team members in the pitlane.
I use X-T2s and an X-H1 with an XF16-55mmF2.8 or XF16mmF1.4 prime for wide angle shots and either a XF50-140mmF2.8 or XF90mmF2 prime for telephoto, along with a 1.4x converter for the zoom if needed. I always shoot with a shallow depth of field which means shooting with the widest aperture possible. I also have a Samyang 8mmF2.8 fisheye for the odd shot where I need the 180 degree ultra wide angle field of view.
One of my favourite shots is to shoot the mirrored visors of the pit crew’s goggles with the car reflected in the mechanic’s face plate. Trying to avoid getting my own reflection in the goggles is always a challenge but with the XF50-140mmF2.8 zoom, this is usually achievable.
My other favourite shot is the post-race celebrations on the podium. It is a massive scrum in the pitlane but the shots from the podium, with the elation of the winners clearly etched on their faces make these images some of the best of the ten days I spend at Le Mans.
Le Mans is a great event and, of course, I have plenty of trackside action shots from this year’s event. But for me it is the human element that makes this event one of the best in the world.
For more information on the 24 Hours of Le Mans CLICK HERE