Motorsport is all about the image. Whether televised or a still, it’s what we remember, that split second when it all comes together. Formula One offers plenty of drama for a photographer in motorsport. UK-based Sutton Motorsport Images is the largest independent supplier of motorsport shots throughout the world. Keith Sutton is at its center.
ec: What was the first race you attended with a camera? And at which point did you decide to turn pro?
KS: My first event was a small national racing fixture held at my local circuit, Oulton Park, in the northwest of England. I was 17 and legally too young to shoot, but was given the chance by the circuit manager Rex Foster, a good friend of my father, Maurice. At that moment, I knew I wanted to become a professional motorsport photographer and set about writing to all the circuit managers, asking for permission to shoot.
ec: It’s difficult to get any kind of credential from the FIA these days, how did you introduce yourself to the establishment when you started out? What was the scene for a young race photographer back then?
KS: Although it was, to some extent, easier when I started out, it was by no means easy to gain a pass. To get accreditation for national events, you had to work for a publication, which could be your local newspaper. Mine was Cheadle Today. Despite the paper not having a motorsport correspondent before, I was fortunate that the editor was keen to help out a local lad and he wrote a letter, stating me as their official motorsport photographer.
My first proper accreditation came through a chance association with Rex Greenslade, a touring car driver who happened to like some shots I took of him on two wheels through Lodge at Donington Park. He explained that they could be published in his magazine. He was also the sports editor of Motor magazine. This led to work with the publication and I went on to strike a great relationship with his successor, Mike Doodson.
In 1980, Mike produced a covering letter, allowing me access to the national circuits. Back then it was IRPA (International Racing Press Association) and its leader Bernard Cahier who managed the distribution of F1 media passes–not the FIA. With that letter, I was able to cover the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. I also covered the British and Dutch GP that year.
In the early ’80s, you had to cover 20 races in three years to get a permanent IRPA armband, which I attained in 1985 after years of covering grand prix where I could fit in between national racing and the European Formula Two Championship. Coincidentally, it was then that IRPA ended and the FIA took over in the distribution of passes.
ec: Did you start out in the junior ranks of UK motorsport, BTCC, Formula Ford, etc? Or did you try and cover everything, including F1?
KS: Yes, I concentrated on European F2, British F3, BTCC, Formula Ford and 2000 and 1600 until 1985, when my brother Mark and I formed Sutton Photographic. In 1986, I attended all the F1 races and the events abroad, and Mark concentrated on national racing. To this day, we still cover a wealth of formulae other than Formula One.
ec: Your friendship with Ayrton Senna was well known. How did you become friends and was there something even in FF that made him stand out?
KS: I first met Ayrton at Brands Hatch in March 1981. I had taken lots of photos of him at the opening Formula Ford race at Thruxton, as I was working for a Brazilian magazine that wanted images of Brazilian drivers racing in England. I was shy back then, so never introduced myself. But at Brands Hatch, Ayrton approached me and enquired if I was a professional photographer. When I said I was, he said he needed photos of him racing sent to Brazil on a regular basis. On that day, he won his first race and I got some great photos of him celebrating on the podium late in the evening. From then on, I continued working with him, taking photographs, writing his press releases, answering his fan mail and handling his PR work for three years.
In the early days, we had both a professional relationship and a personal friendship. I would often stay at the house he shared with fellow Brazilian driver Mauricio Gugelmin and talk about music, movies, cars, women and Brazil. In return, he would stay at my house when he raced at Oulton Park. I celebrated with him when he won his junior formulae championships and he invited me to Brazil for his first F1 race, paying for the airfare and the hotel.
He was very professional and focused from the outset, and knew exactly what he had to do to make it into F1. Fundamentally though, it was his undoubted talent that made him stand out. He was on the pace instantly in pretty much anything he sat in.
ec: Senna seemed ahead of the game early on, how did those early press releases start up? It was rare to see one about a driver at the top, let alone the first step of the ladder.
KS: Ayrton was acutely aware of the importance of self-promotion. He was keen to have his PR in English, as he figured that to gain the attention of those that count–the F1 team owners and managers–the majority would be English-speaking. He asked me to write them.
We would send these releases to all the F1 team managers and 30 international motorsport magazines to keep them informed of how Senna was performing. He also had them translated and sent to Brazil, as it was important for his Brazilian sponsors and their media to be aware of his rising fortunes.
It was from these releases that I began receiving phone calls from Bernie Ecclestone, Peter Warr and Frank Williams enquiring about this young Brazilian. To be honest, I was too young and inexperienced to know how to handle them, so I passed them onto Ayrton. But it was clear the releases had achieved the desired result.
ec: F1 used to move along at slow pace where even a two- or three-year-old car could still win races. When did you see the pace develop and who would you credit?
KS: I disagree. Certainly there have been cars like the Lotus 72 or the McLaren M23 in the ’70s that raced with great success for many seasons. But it’s wrong to think the cars remained unchanged from season to season, or even race to race. Formula One has always been about relentless development–the drive to provide the most powerful engine or the most efficient aerodynamic package. The McLaren M23 Denny Hulme debuted in 1973 was a very different beast under the skin from the one Hunt and Mass drove in 1977. Going back through our archive from the late David Phipps, it’s clear that developments in the 1960s and 1970s were brought on-stream with as much, if not more, regularity than now. Look at Lotus’ four-wheel-drive car of the late ’60s or their turbine car of 1971, Tyrrell’s six-wheeled car from 1976, the tall wings from the late ’60s developed almost from session to session, experiments with brakes, suspensions, fuel tanks and so on. There was greater freedom within the rules then to be radical, so new ideas were tried more frequently, something I think is sadly missing in F1 now.
ec: How did you view the turbo era of F1? Which team and driver made the most impression on you?
KS: The turbo era coincided with my burgeoning exploits in becoming a professional photographer, so I look back at that era with fond memories. Personally, it was a tale of working hard to establish myself in the F1 paddock, making personal and financial sacrifices to work my way up the ladder. For instance, I remember hitching a ride in the back of a McLaren truck from England to Monza for the Italian GP, as air travel was still expensive, especially for a young lad from Manchester.
I also see the turbo era as a time of great fun. The paddock was a more relaxed place and the things we used to get up to with fellow photographers, journalists, team members and drivers–most of it is unrepeatable. There were fewer demands on us then. I used to joke that, at some races, I was on the beach within 30 minutes of qualifying ending.
We were also lucky to have a group of truly exceptional drivers–Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet, Rosberg, and so on–who were using their talents to drive increasingly powerful cars, far more so than we have now and likely to ever have again. It made for great racing and great opportunities for photography.
ec: The F1 establishment seemed to change in the mid ’90s, with a more managed and staged event. F1 has drowned out many other championships with its self-importance and coverage is difficult to come by. Do you see this continuing? Can sports cars make a return to the front page–other than Le Mans?
KS: Our company will always be indebted to sports car racing, thanks to an introduction by John Brooks to Castrol in 1989, which led to us working for Jaguar, Toyota and Dunlop in the World Sports Car Championship through to its demise in 1991. The relationship with Castrol we forged in those years led to us securing our first F1 team contract with Castrol and Lotus in 1992.
Le Mans is a wonderful event, with an atmosphere unique in motorsport, but it remains the only sports car event familiar to the general public. But this `problem’ is true in many other sports. Take cycling. Ask the general public to name a cycling race and they’ll nearly all say the Tour de France, and struggle to name another, despite great races throughout the year. It’s the same with sports car racing. It has many great events, a great championship and a legion of dedicated followers, but it suffers, and is always likely to, from the `one great event’ syndrome.
With the internet and multi-channel TV, sports car racing has the chance to offer its product to a far wider audience than it ever could in its `glory’ days of the ’60s through to the ’80s. And while I don’t think it could ever compete with F1, it has the opportunity to claim the prize of the second most followed motorsport.
ec: Many ex-F1 people have lamented changes in the circuits. Although these have been done in the name of safety, they must have an effect on how you cover a race. How have you dealt with this?
KS: It’s true that the freedom to shoot from anywhere on the circuit was diminishing in my time compared to the ’60s and ’70s, and has continued. Our biggest problem now is that the newer circuits have run-off areas so vast that even with our biggest lenses we’re struggling to capture a full-in-the-frame image. We’re also more restricted with the number of red zones (forbidden areas) increasing year on year. Long gone are the days of standing on the outside of Tarzan on the first lap and crossing over to the inside for lap two. Because fences effectively line the circuits, we are restricted to shooting in designated areas where holes have been cut for us. That’s a massive restriction in opportunities to be creative and shoot something different from our competitors.
We have to accept some shots are not possible because we cannot stand in the `dangerous’ positions we once could. On the other hand, advances in cameras and lens technology mean we can zoom in further, closer, and shoot cars at a higher speed than was possible 20 to 30 years ago. It’s a case of doing the best you can with what is available.
We still have circuits, like Monaco, that retain most of the wonderful chances to shoot as close up as we used to. This year, we’re visiting the street circuits of Valencia and the night race in Singapore, which will hopefully provide some pleasing photo opportunities as opposed to many of the bland modern circuit constructions.
One of my biggest laments is shooting in the pit lane. When I started, we had near-free access and for every car there would be only a handful of mechanics around it. The driver would often be out in the pit lane, sitting on the car, chatting in full view of a handful of photographers around him. Now we have 50 to 60 photographers clamoring behind a barrier in front of a garage to shoot a driver who is hidden at the back. Frankly, it doesn’t make for inspiring photography.
ec: How many photographers do you have at any given F1 race ?
KS: Typically we will use four to five photographers and a technician, whose job it is to select and edit digital images. At any session other than the race itself, we will have two photographers in the pits and the rest out on the circuit. We plan our positions before the event to ensure that all angles are covered over the weekend.
ec: No doubt many of our readers will want to know what gear you use.
KS: The company has traditionally used Canon. We currently have a mixture of Canon 1D Mk IIIs, 1D Mk IIs and Mk IINs. We were one of the first to embrace digital technology and stopped shooting on film in 2005. Naturally, we have a full complement of pro lenses, from wide angles to 600mm.
ec: As a pro, your own feelings of film versus digital?
KS: We’ve seen overwhelming benefits of the digital format in terms of cost, flexibility, distribution and immediacy. The first incarnation of our website dates back as far as 1996 and it was this early pioneering of hosting an archive of images that has enabled us to have over 480,000 of our 4,000,000 images fully searchable on-line.
However, as a photographer who has used film for the vast majority of his professional career, there is one aspect of the medium I preferred–the thrill of developing your own film and eagerly awaiting the results. We used to develop our own images, either in our makeshift darkroom at our small house near Silverstone, or our state-of-the-art E6 processor that filled an entire room at company headquarters.
Whereas an image can now be seen instantly, our first opportunity to see the fruits of our labor when shooting film would come after a weekend of shooting, when we would rush back from whatever country the race was held, on the first available flight, back to our office. While I don’t miss those mornings after the race where we would often stay up all night processing, ready for selection and dispatch to our clients the following day, there was always a sense of trepidation to see how well shots had come out, especially if there was a `special’ shot among them. With the immediacy of digital, that trepidation is all but lost now.
I remember on a few occasions the shot was so potentially impressive that I couldn’t wait until we traveled home and would have it developed at the circuit in one of the special dark rooms they had back then. I remember my shot of Ralf Schumacher crashing into the barrier at the Canadian GP in 1997. I was shooting on a long exposure time when the crash happened. I knew I shot a sequence of the crash, but wasn’t sure if I caught the impact. I had to have the film developed there and then. Seeing him hit the barrier in perfect clarity was immensely satisfying.
ec: How about your own top three of F1 races you’ve witnessed?
KS: I’ll pick a race from each of the three decades I’ve covered F1. I have many other favorites, but if I can only choose three, I offer these:
1. Australian GP. 1986. It was the decider to end all deciders, with four drivers battling for the title–Senna, Prost, Mansell and Piquet. I love Adelaide, it’s been my favorite venue and is much missed. The race is best remembered for the sensational tire blowout for Nigel, one of the most memorable images in sport. I was the only freelance photographer to capture that moment. It was a dramatic end to my first full season in F1 and crowned one of the best years of my life, living the dream of traveling the world doing something I loved and getting paid to do it.
2. British GP, 1995. I’m a good friend of Johnny Herbert. He was a guest at my wedding just weeks before the British GP and his support and strength helped me come to terms with losing good friends Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at Imola the previous year. He was halfway though his big break season with Benetton, and when his teammate Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill knocked each other out of the race, it was clear he’d never have a better chance of winning a GP. Johnny kept his cool and won. I could hardly contain my emotion when shooting the podium. There can’t have been a nicer, more genuine guy to have graced the F1 paddock who deserved a home victory as much as Johnny.
I had to wait hours after the race to grab a moment with him. He had countless interviews with the media. I wanted to take him back to the podium, take a shot of him wrapped in the Union Jack. To our delight and surprise, as we both climbed on the podium, there were thousand of fans who had stayed long after the finish to continue celebrating Johnny’s win. It was a wonderful moment.
3. Japanese GP 2007. Japan is a favorite country. The fans are so enthusiastic and passionate that they make each visit something to savor. The tumultuous title battle was heading to a conclusion in the closing rounds, with animosity between McLaren and Ferrari, Hamilton and Alonso. The notorious Fuji weather played its role over the weekend. We faced the prospect of seeing the race first not take place at all, then the duration of it behind the safety car as conditions proved impossible.
When the drivers were set free to race, we saw F1 at its chaotic and unpredictable best–Hamilton winning under immense pressure, but with an element of controversy. Alonso crashing out dramatically, Kimi battling fearlessly for every point he could grab, Massa and Kubica fighting it out in the closing laps just like Villeneuve and Jabouille back at Dijon in ’79, and the heartbreak of Mark Webber losing out on a potential first win thanks to the `kid’ Vettel.
Not every race can be as exciting as that. In recent years we,’ve had too many monotonous races. But when F1 has a good race, or a great one, there is still no other sport on earth that can touch it.
ec: How do you answer that age-old question: “How do I get to be a race snapper?”
KS: Practice, practice, practice. Use national races to build up a portfolio. Don,’t be afraid to send your portfolio to many different people, but be prepared for rejection. Also, don,’t expect to leap straight into F1. Like most other professions, it,’s nearly always a case of starting at the bottom and working your way up. And the bottom rung may not even be working as a photographer. Be prepared to bide your time and learn the industry before progressing.
ec: Do you still attend most rounds of the F1 circus, or is it more rewarding handling business affairs?
KS: I still like to attend as many races as possible, as my passion for the sport is undiminished. I don’t shoot as much as I used to. The running of the company means that role is better left to my staff. My work in the paddock is securing the contacts and the business that keeps the company running. Most of our business is still done in the paddock.
That said, I still get the same buzz on race day. I miss morning warm-up–the light was invariably perfect–but the rest of the day remains the same. The paddock atmosphere building in intensity as the race start approaches, the grid with the palpable tension among the teams and drivers, the ferocious energy of the start and the thrill of capturing any incidents that may come your way during the race, the finish and the podium celebrations,–they’re all just as thrilling and inspiring as I approach my 400th GP.
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