Photographer's Blog: MotoGP Story--The Catalan Follies

You don't get many chances to get an image like this, with the entire grid together on track. Some circuits don't have a good first couple of turns, or it's hard to get there from the grid in time for the shot, or a good plan to get there is ruined by some unforeseen problem like a broken down shuttle, V.I.P. traffic on the access road, etc.

And you have to grab a shot like this on the first lap because by the second the field is so spread out you're lucky if you can get three or four bikes in the same shot. Sometimes someone has gone on a flyer and is out far enough ahead that you can only get the second, third and fourth bikes together.

These factors help explain why shots like this are fairly rare. But Catalunya has this great opportunity because there's a big chicane at the end of the straight. Since the bikes start from half way down the straight, they get here at more or less the same time on the first lap.

So I wanted to make sure I was in position to get this photo last season, but I also wanted to do some grid work as that often yields the weekend's most interesting images. It's always a trade off if you're trying for a first lap, first corner shot. How long do you stay on the grid? How close do you cut it?

I was glad I did at least a few minutes of the grid because I got two images that I really liked. This one of Rossi waving to the crowd is one favorite. He was having a dismal first half of the season and still got this huge welcome from his fans when he pulled up to the grid. I'd not seen him acknowledge the crowd like this until then, but this image seemed a reminder that he was still Rossi, even though 2011 was turning into his first season without a win.

This is another of my favorites, one I like because of the attitude of Marco's head with all the grid mayhem going on around him. And now every good image of Sic is important, every shot that reminds us of some aspect of his personality is meaningful, and I'm grateful for each one I have. So looking back I'm even more pleased that I didn't completely sacrifice some grid work for the first corner image.

(A quick side note: the time when the bikes are on the grid passes VERY quickly when you're out there working. I think it's ten minutes on TV (unless you watch on Speed in the U.S. and you see none of the grid), but when you are out there looking for good images the time disappears. I leave my big lens leaned against the K-wall somewhere that I wont forget it, and I'm moving around trying not to get run over as the bikes move into position. Often the grid is already packed with team members, media, VIPs and so on, when a rider comes around from the sighting lap and is looking for his spot. They don't exactly defer to pedestrians, it's on us to get the hell out of their way. So I'm dodging the riders, trying not to back into Carmelo, or get glared at by the Dorna guys as they are trying to maintain order, and I've got to keep one eye on the clock while the other looks for images. But because there is so much going on, so many opportunities, the grid is one of my favorite parts of the weekend.)

To make sure I allow enough time to get into position for the MotoGP race, I generally practice my route for the 125 and Moto2 races. I know where I want to be for the first lap, and I see if I can get there after spending five minutes on the grid. Can I make it if I leave when they blow the 3 MINUTES horn? Maybe five minutes to travel is insufficient and I have to leave sooner.

As I was relying on the track's media shuttle to get me to the first corner in time, I knew from my 125 and Moto2 tests that I couldn't not stay on the grid for long. To Catalunya's credit, they changed the shuttle pick up spot for race day so that it was right at the end of pit lane. We didn't have to walk to the back of the paddock to catch the shuttle and then drive through the crowded paddock for five minutes to get to the track access road.

But as I was learning about the European rounds (especially those in Spain and Italy), resources are spread very thin. There are so many local journalists that even finding a seat in the media center is difficult if you don't arrive early enough. So I figured that a spot in the media shuttle would be hard to get if I wasn't there early.

After only a few minutes on the grid, I booked it down the pit lane to make sure I got a seat and was the second passenger, so I claimed the front seat. The van filled up right away, but we were just sitting there because the kid who was driving has instructions to wait until they told him on the radio to go. We're getting closer to the start and we all want to go, but the driver isn't allowed to leave until the message came over his radio.

Other photographers are zooming by on their scooters. We wait and wait. Finally, as they are just about to start the warm-up lap, the radio crackles and we can go. We start moving just as the bikes on the grid take off and the locals in the van are shouting in Catalan to go faster. But now there's all this foot traffic on the service road because the VIPs are meandering down there to watch the start of the race, and they're enjoying the race weekend so they're just strolling along as the shuttles and scooters are trying to get past.

Amid all the shouting in the shuttle, I'm thinking, I'm screwed. I wasted all that time sitting in the van and not shooting the grid, but now I'm not going to make it to my spot for the first lap, the bikes are already on track! This sucks! I did everything I could except steal a scooter and I'm going to be out of luck.

But the driver is going pretty fast when he gets a break between crowds. Then he has to slow down again for people to get out of the way, and it's just torture to be in this van. Each time we have to slow down the level of shouting goes up but the driver can't run the pedestrians over. Eventually we get to the first drop off area, about 100 yards from where I've planned to be. As I'm in the front seat, I open the door and start running toward the spot as others are struggling to get out behind me. We've all seen movies or TV shows where an emergency forces a lot of people out of a mall or something and this stampede of humanity trying to fit through a couple of doors ends up being its own kind of disaster. Imagine that scene in the back of a white passenger van, with 7 or 8 photographers with all their gear on are trying to fit through the one open door at the same time while shouting at each other to get out of the way.

It was being in the front seat that saved me. While that was going on behind me, I'm racing up the service road, all my gear is clanking as I run and I can hear the bikes coming around the final turn to grid up for the start, and I still have a long way to go. Should I try to salvage something by picking a spot closer?

Not an option. The inside of the chicane has a long advertising section. Dorna puts these big ad placards in the best spots so unless you're 15 feet tall you can't shoot there. I have to make it to the end of this section, and when I finally get there so that I can see the track again, I duck under the fence and bring the 500mm lens up and start looking at the camera settings.

Usually I like to be in position for the warm up lap so I can do a test run, since I only have one shot at this type of photograph. I can double check my camera settings, do a little rehearsal, get the focus just right, make any last second adjustments based on the lighting. But this time I'm still looking at the settings when I hear the bikes take off for Lap 1. I pick a spot on the track, right where Jorge is, and pre-focus on that spot. As the bikes come through, I wait until the leader is close to my spot and then fire 8.5 fps.

This is one of the few circumstances in which I use my cameras at their highest FPS setting, and for this situation I wish they did 15 or 20 frames per second, because it's still possible to miss the exact moment of focus you're after at 8.5 fps.

But this time I got lucky. Of the sequence, Lorenzo moves slowly into focus until he gets here, then moves out of focus again. But I get this one shot that's nearly perfect. Nearly perfect, because is anything ever perfectly perfect? There are a couple things that I wish were different about this photograph.

The first thing is that Dani and Colin aren't in it. Both missed Catalunya with broken collar bones. So my 2011 Season group track photograph is missing two guys. But that fact then becomes part of the story of this image, and years later will be a reminder about the Simoncelli-Pedrosa incident at Le Mans, and Colin's Friday accident, yet another of many cold tire crashes in 2011.

Also, if I feel like nitpicking, I wish Casey could've led instead of Jorge. Then the story would've been Casey leading to his second title, but instead the story is Casey right behind the reigning champ, about to pass him on his way to his second MotoGP title.  

Other than those two things, I was really lucky to make it to my spot and get a shot this good, given the circumstances.

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I sometimes have a visceral reaction when I see a photo of Simoncelli. Seeing his helmet and hair just gave me a shiver. I can't believe he's gone.

This has been, honestly, one of my favorite articles of the young season. For those of us that have been on racing grids before, or at a GP event in general, the scene can be pictured perfectly. Also, the chaos in the van could not have been described any better...conveyed excellently.

Race photos are among my favorite aspects of following motorcycle racing as closely as I do. There's just so much more than meets the eye to every picture...I have a huge collection of favorites and yours are many among them.

I'm glad so many are enjoying these stories, and I really appreciate the comments!

that Marco image is something very special.

Your stories are enlightening, and entertaining. Appreciated greatly. Thanks, Scott.

Your 3rd image is very poignant. What does his +0 signify?