Speed. It thrills when it’s loud, when it feels real, when it’s up close. Fast isn’t just about Formula One, it’s become the keyword for modern life. Faster internet connections, faster food, faster travel and faster friendships.
Formula One changes tyres in less than three seconds; Amazon loses sales with every tenth of a second’s wait.
No, this isn’t going to be a post about how we all need to stop and slow down (I like speed and I’d love a faster internet connection.) It’s going to be about Formula One and the illusion of speed.
Time may wait for no man but it does freeze for photography. As Sherry Ott explained, it’s easy enough to snap a crisp shot of a car on the tarmac as it hurtles past. Problem is, the photo gives no hint of the movement, the pace, the excitement, and the intensity of the real-life experience. Said car may as well be plonked in a supermarket car park.
There’s video* (which I played around with this year) but without a press pass, a helicopter and an incredibly good-looking presenter, that too, has limitations. I’m a huge fan of words but this time I wanted to better my efforts at photography.
The trick is simple, its execution messy. The idea is to swoop the lens of your camera along the track at the same rate as the car as you press the shutter.
Crisp car + smudged background = the illusion of speed.
Last year I ratcheted up a good four or five hundred of these shots. And by good, I mean it as an expression of quantity not quality. Most had the car out of focus, many had no car at all.
This year, with totally unfounded optimism, I decided to do better.
Prowling around the stands in 30 plus heat and risking the kind of repetitive stress injury that comes from watching too much tennis, I had precisely 57 laps and 24 cars to get one good shot. Yet, crouching in the far corner of the stands as the scaffolding throbbed with the cheers of the crowd, I had a second epiphany about Formula One and the meaning of speed.
There’s a viewpoint here where the track snakes in front of Valencia’s dazzling Arts & Sciences building. It’s away from the spectators and only visible if you’re up to the kind of deranged acrobatics I was in my quest for a decent photo. Right here, beneath the melting Valencian sun, the Formula One secret became clear: the cars slow down.
There’s a hairpin bend so tight that even when fractions of seconds lose you millions, when tyre changes happen faster than Facebook status updates and when aggressive overtaking makes London’s cabbies look tame, there’s still a point, a moment, a corner where drivers hit the brakes and drive at a reasonable speed.
Speed, of course, cuts both ways. Slow as well as fast. Visible and invisible.
That corner also reminded me that the real success of Formula One doesn’t come from super-slick, second-splitting events. Its power and skill comes from the hours and days and weeks and months of training, rehearsing, developing and researching. Of practising, refining and reviewing. The work of many to put a spotlight on the few.
It’s just not that sexy to say so.
Back at my computer, I waited while another few hundred sets of pixels shuffled from my camera onto the screen. With my well-honed delete finger at the heady, I began scrolling through.
Another surprise. Over the course of a year, with many more hours at the viewfinder, something interesting had happened. My photos had improved.
How did this mysterious ability to predict F1 car trajectories come about?
I can’t say. Sometimes it just takes a while to get up to speed…
Disclosure: The Land of Valencia invited me to the Valencia Grand Prix