Shot and written for Petrolicious. Full story here.
The Monaco Grand Prix has a special place in my heart. It’s probably where my love for motorsport was born, pinpointed in 1992 when I attended my first F1 race there with my father. The contemporary event is always special, but like most of you it’s the classic side that is the source of the most emotion. The historic edition of the race is held every two years, and has been a fixture on my calendar for the last 10. For me, it’s not only about seeing legendary race cars battling on the iconic circuit, it’s the whole experience of being in such a vaunted setting as the harbor, the casino, the tunnel. I think every motorsport fan should see it at least once in his or her lifetime if possible.
Taking photos at the the Monaco Grand Prix is a bit different than at other racing venues. Seeing as it’s more or less temporarily built on the principality’s public streets (though many of the markers are there year-round, the curbs, the guardrails, etc.), the space is really limited. But this also means the action is merely meters away from the spectators. With media access privileges, the distance from the cars is reduced even further and sometimes only limited by good sense and single barriers, allowing for some incredible photography, seen here in Will’articles coveringthe event.
Unfortunately for me, all I had were regular tickets, bought online a few weeks earlier. I still wanted to take home some good photos though, so I had to get a bit creative in order to tackle the challenges of limited access. For example, navigating the complex system of tunnels, passageways and bridges, or dealing with the security officers—well-trained professionals who take their jobs very seriously. So here’s a recollection of what I did during those days and the results that came out of my camera.
There were a total of three days of action. For the qualifying sessions on Saturday and the races on Sunday, access to a grandstand was only granted with the correct corresponding ticket. Even if the prices between 15 and 30 euros were fair, I wasn’t going to buy a ticket for every single grandstand. Besides, even if I wanted to, many of them were already sold out months in advance! Luckily, this wasn’t necessary as during the training sessions on Friday, every grandstand was absolutely freely accessible to everybody without a ticket needed. The cars on track were of course the same that would have been racing on Saturday and Sunday, so the photos don’t discriminate based on the purpose of the drives.
There were even terraces and balconies belonging to restaurants and normally reserved to customers that were open on Friday, allowing for even more interesting and uncommon views. Friday was definitely the day where I had the most freedom to move around. While I walked my way uphill from the harbor, I tried out almost every grandstand, even Casino and Noghes (behind the start/finish straight) which are normally the firsts to sell out. It was probably this more relaxed setting that let me also sneak into the paddock for the close-up shots of the cars parked there. I expected someone to show me the way out at any minute, but luckily that didn’t happen and I was free to shoot all I wanted for hours.
The Top Spots
While the seats in the middle of a grandstand offered great views of the action on track, the photos taken from them were hardly special. On my quest for more interesting shots, I had to move around a lot and exploit every corner I was allowed to be in and around a grandstands. Some of the best spots were at the sides: either very low, where the view of the track was unobstructed, or at the top, where it was possible to peek over to the other side, away from the intended viewing angles.
On the big “K” grandstand this meant having a very good sightline of the cars slowly exiting the pit lane, and at the same time of the ones speeding down the start/finish straight.
My favorite place though was definitely the small area between the Tabac and Sainte Devote corners. It had no grandstands nor seating options but the location was hard to beat. In front of me I had the whole harbor area and behind me the uphill straight. And the best thing: a path leading to the runoff of the chicane. When something happened there, the cars would come to a stop in this area and wait to get moved at the end of the session.
Another great place was the “L” Grandstand, which overlooked the chicane at the piscine. From there, I had a nice vertical look down the track on one side and over the pit lane on the other. But the coolest thing must have been the bathroom area, located lower than the track and offering free sight of the cars from a very low point of view.
The Casino Grandstand on the other side looked better in pictures than what it was like in reality. It was almost impossible to get the best seats there, which were at the front-left side where the cars could be seen speeding down towards Mirabeau, so it quickly got a bit boring because I couldn’t really move around.
I also used the big screens around the track to my advantage. For example, if I saw someone having a problem at the chicane, I knew the car would be parked there and I could go and shoot it. It also helped to know when the cars I really wanted to capture would appear in the section of the track I was currently standing.
Equipment and Technique
As I knew I would be moving around quite a lot I brought only one camera, a Nikon D600, which has a full-frame sensor in a very small and light body. Coupled with a 50mm f/1.8, it’s my basic setup for most situations, but for this particular occasion I needed something that could handle the distance between me and my subjects better.
The Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 was the perfect lens for this task. With it I was able to shoot almost this entire gallery, from close-up detail shots in the paddock to the frantic action on track. As I was often stuck behind a tree, a pole, other people, a fence, or even multiple layers of fences, getting a clean shot was difficult. This is where this lens’s widest aperture of f/2.8 (which is available across the whole zoom range) helped me a lot by blurring out the distracting surrounding details.
Besides a polarizing filter to keep reflections under control and some basic cleaning stuff, I made sure to carry enough memory cards and spare fully charged batteries. I was glad I did, because shooting with so many obstacles in front, especially during panning shots, dramatically reduced my “keeper” rate. Often, even if the car was sharp, it was probably just disappeared behind a wall, a pole or a tree. To compensate I had to shoot more and at full burst, in order to increase the chances to catch the car in the right spot. This obviously had a big impact on the memory cards and the batteries.
Being on the hunt for unusual spots and interesting situations was not always enough though. On Saturday I was standing at the heavily guarded entrance of the pit lane, right when Mika Häkkinen, Riccardo Patrese, Thierry Boutsen, Eddie Irvine, and other legendary drivers were getting ready for a demonstration run. I could not see anything over the wall so I politely asked if I could just peek through the door very quickly. To my surprise, the security guy let me take some steps inside the pit lane, allowing me to take photos I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Being friendly and discreet paid off not only with security officers; when the grandstands were packed with people and the best spots taken and coveted, a “Sorry, I’m just going to take a photo and then leave” was enough for them to tolerate me blocking their sight for a couple of minutes.
After three full days at Monaco, I came back with thousands of photos and a minor sunburn. Here is a small selection, I am very happy with how the photos turned out and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did taking them.