The Insanity of Shooting a World Touring Car Race

The second round of the World Touring Car Championship 2016 was held at the  Slovakiaring racetrack, located about 40km to the capital of Bratislava, Slovakia. With our writer and photographer, Milan Svitek in the area, DriverMod decided to go the WTCC.

My first alarm sounded at 3:30 AM. The second alarm at 4:00 AM. My bags were packed from the night before, the batteries are all charged, SD cards ready in the cameras, and my documents were cleanly laid out on the table next to them. This is the proper way a photographer wakes up to shoot a world event. When I imagined the World Touring Car Championships, I pictured an event with hundreds of thousands of screaming fans packing stadium-like seating along the edges of a long and winding track. I pictured a packed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Shanghai International Circuit, Fuji Speedway, or any of the other world-famous tracks dotted around the planet. So as I entered the main gate of the Slovakiaring for the second round of the WTCC 2016 series, I was pretty much expecting to step into Motorsport heaven.

What I didn’t take into account was the time. It was 8 AM on a Saturday and the WTCC drivers probably haven’t even had their breakfast yet. The only people present at the track were the security guards, track and FIA employees, some early birds, fellow media, and some cars lapping the track. The main WTCC races wouldn’t even be held today. Nevertheless, I found four favourite spots to shoot the race from, made a preset in-camera for each location, enjoyed the free food and drinks, and headed to my hotel room in the evening. I saw the practice rounds and had a good grasp of what I was up against, or at least I thought I did.

Sunday came, and I woke up a few hours before the first race. After a good breakfast, I went to my first location, got set up, and waited. In the distance I heard the siren signal the one minute mark and I began counting down in my head. As I hit zero, there came the sound of roaring engines and screeching tires. I knew from my timing of yesterday’s practice runs that it would take the lead car around 50 seconds to reach my section. That was my first mistake.

Erupting from over the crest of the hill like a pack of demons just 35 seconds after the start of the race, the speed of the cars passing by forced me to take a step back as I tried my best to follow them shooting past. The speed wasn’t as extreme as F1, but the raw savagery of the vehicles diving into the corners was on a completely different level. There was an older photographer next to me who asked if it was my first time shooting a World Touring Car race. After informing him that it was, he chuckled told me something that confused me: “They’re taking it easy for the first lap. Be ready for the next one.”

He wasn’t joking. The next lap threw dirt and grass into the air as the drivers pushed into any open space, hoping to pass their opponents.

When a car enters a corner, it has to slow down a little bit prior, naturally. When a WTCC driver enters a corner, he barely touches the brake until well into the turn. I simply couldn’t turn my body fast enough to pan with the movement of the motorized projectile arcing in front of me. Every time a car passed, it felt as though it’s pace had picked up. I stopped keeping time in my head and instead had to dedicate my full concentration to listen for incoming vehicles. Dust was beginning to fill the air as the drivers cut corners into the gravel. Finally, the sounds died off and the older photographer beside me informed me that all 11 laps of the first race had been completed. I was about as close to a non-drug-induced high as I have ever been.

A break followed the first 11 laps and the comparatively boring and slow Swift Cup was to fill the space while teams repaired any damage and adjusted for any variables they noticed in the first few laps. I took a walk through the pit lane, taking a peek at the mechanics working on the beastly machines that stunned me minutes earlier. The Hungarian team of Zengő  Motorsport had a rather unfortunate mishap with the steering system, leading to a crash near the end of the race, and Volvo Polestar seemed so be in a bit of a slump after their impressive performance the day before, finding it harder and harder to gain positions as the race went on. Every team was hard at work and the tension in the air was only broken by the occasional Suzuki screaming by on the other side of the barrier.

One and a half hours passed and the second race was about to get underway. I took my place looking over the crest of a bridge and mentally prepared myself for the onslaught of dust and air pressure pushed out as the vehicles pass.

Half an hour of screaming engines passed and it was over. There was sand in my hair, dust in my eyes, tire smoke in my lungs, and the biggest smile possible on my face.

The victory lap set out as the cars were let to cool down. The DHL Cruze passed by and the driver greeted my thumbs-up with one of his own. The man didn’t win, but I could see him smiling. Everyone was smiling.