Put the Camera Away!

photo: Jason Anthony

I have always loved photography. Long before I spectated my first rally, I was fascinated with the skills and techniques needed to capture a moment in time. When rallying entered my life, I became enthralled with the challenge of trying to combine the environment, the car, and the time of day into a memorable photograph. However, at a rally, sometimes you just need to put the camera down. I came to this realization on the walk into the first stage of Sunday morning. In the early morning gloom, my head was on a swivel for potential photograph locations. While scouting out the stage, my thoughts were racing. Should I choose an open area to maximize the available light? What ISO should I use to allow an adequate shutter speed? Would the low light require too large of an aperture? What type of white balance should I apply to contend with the lack of contrast in the morning fog? As I mulled through these questions, we came around a corner on the Duesaigues stage. In front of us laid the most beautiful stretch of road that wound down around the reservoir into a grove of trees and then back up the other side of a ravine. A high bank on the side provided amazing sight lines for about 300 meters.

I knew in an instant that this was going to be my spot. It provided so many different options for both wide angle and zoom photographs. To pass the time before the first car arrived, I took a few practice shots of the spectator control cars with various settings to test out the conditions. While the low light presented a challenge, I was able to find a suitable compromise that properly exposed both the cars and the environment. Even though I was already pleased with my other photos, I had a feeling that this location had the potential to give me my best shots of the weekend. As the 0 car passed ten minutes prior to the start of the stage, my first battery ran out. “No bother,” I thought as I reached into my bag for one of my spares. As I rummaged around, trying to find the pack of batteries, I could hear the TV helicopter circling in the distance. The stage start was imminent. With increasing anxiety, I began to pour out the contents of my rucksack onto the ground… where were those batteries??? Then it dawned on me… they had been charging in the center console of the car during the drive to the stage. With the car 5 kilometers behind us and the stage closed to foot traffic, I was stuck.

I was still cursing my luck when the sounds of a rally car came drifting through the hills. As I turned my eyes up the road, I was again struck by the incredible beauty of this location. In the morning mist, a few birds were chirping, and somewhere, a stream could be heard flowing down into the reservoir below. It was so very peaceful and relaxing. Then, in an instant, the peace was shattered by the cacophony of a rally car under full load. As Stephane Lefevbre’s DS3 burst into view and passed beneath us, I realized that after spending the entire weekend squinting behind a viewfinder trying to frame the perfect photo, it was so refreshing to just witness these cars with my naked eye. There were so many little details that I didn’t pick up on while taking photographs. As each car come through the stage, I began to understand what made some drivers faster than others. By listening to the engine notes and watching the body language of the cars, it was evident who was fully committed and who was holding back. For example, Stephane Lefevbre, who is still building his confidence in a WRC car was lifting… a lot. Every few seconds, there was lots of anti-lag noise echoing up through the trees. In contrast, Andreas Mikkelsen was absolutely on the limit! He left his braking until the very last moment, and the only backfires that could be heard occurred during his up-shifts. Despite this, his style appeared very smooth and undramatic. It was clear to see that he was balancing that VW Polo on a knife’s edge!

For fun, I took out my stopwatch to keep track of the splits as the cars came through the stage. It was fascinating to see how the split times correlated almost perfectly to what I was witnessing. As Thierry Neuville was approaching, a lot of tyre squealing and lock-ups could be heard in the distance. It sounded like he was pushing very hard but wasn’t being very tidy with the car. As he flashed around the corner into our view, he had a big sideways moment. He looked spectacular, but it was evident that despite his efforts, he was losing time. Sure enough, when Kris Meeke came by the same 5 kilometer mark where we were standing, his split was almost 2.5 seconds faster than Thierry! As each car passed, I became more and more engrossed in analyzing the driving styles and lines taken through the corners. By the time Ogier, the last WRC car had passed, I had completely forgotten about leaving my camera batteries in the car.

Photographs are great, and they provide us with some lasting impressions of a rally. However, watching an entire rally through the viewfinder of a camera just doesn’t do justice to what you could be witnessing. There are so many beautiful little details that can be lost in the pursuit of the perfect image. Don’t make the same mistake that I was close to making. Once in a while, pick a stage to just watch with your own two eyes the incredible spectacle that is rallying. You won’t regret that you did.