• Mark Sutton - Life Through a Lens

Lights, cameras, action

Mark Sutton
September 28, 2010
Singapore is a unique event for photographers © Sutton Images

It was a great weekend but a very long one. I'm sure you've read that the F1 paddock stays on European time over the weekend, which is a pretty big challenge in itself, but we went one step further and decided to jump between the two.

I arrived on Wednesday morning and immediately had to acclimatise to +8 GMT as my brother Keith and I were doing a couple of seminars about the agency and its work with Canon. We did countless interviews and it was a bit like being driver, where you have to tell the same story over and over again. So I was knackered even before the action started on Friday and I then had to switch back to European time to fit in with the rest of the paddock.

But because it's a night race, Singapore is always special and the selection of photos is unique. On Friday you can get some brilliant shots in the first session as the sun goes down but it means you have to be on your game right away. However, my most spectacular shot came at the end of the race when Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus burst into flames just 50 metres in front of me.

Mark Sutton's sequence of shots shows the Williams crew getting involved © Sutton Images
I was doing the chequered-flag shot on the outside of the circuit and at the time I was just trying to get my angle lined up to avoid getting blocked by other photographers. You have to get your head through a gap in the fencing, which makes it very difficult to shoot so it's worth a couple of practice shots. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the flaming Lotus on the big screen and immediately prepared to focus on that.

As he came down the pit straight the fire got worse and he eventually stopped across the track from me. It was one of the easiest photos I have taken all season but without doubt one of the most dramatic. It was like a dream come true, I couldn't have been in a better place.

The fire just got bigger and bigger, which is something we rarely see in Formula One nowadays. We've had a few pit fires in recent years, and of course Jos Verstappen's fireball at Hockenheim in 1994, but I haven't taken a shot of a car on fire like that since the 1990s, if memory serves. One photo that sticks in the mind was of Gerhard Berger in a Ferrari, again at Hockenheim, when he came down the pit straight with a massive flame coming out the back.

The Lotus fire was reminiscent of Gerhard Berger's in 1995 © Sutton Images
The Singapore fire certainly matched that and made for a great sequence of photos. But it also brought home how dangerous this sport can be, especially as there was a bit of a misunderstanding among the marshals and they were very slow to act.

On the TV it looked like Kovalainen put the flames out himself, but in fact it was a guy from Williams who did most of the hard work with a giant hydrant the team has kept since the refuelling days. It was very brave of Heikki to try and put it out, but the real hero is a chap called Nigel - a huge guy with lots of tattoos who I know from his Super Aguri days. He used to work on the fuel hose during pit stops so he's no stranger to that kind of action.

It's lucky that he acted so quickly because there was no way Kovalainen's extinguisher was going to do the job on its own. In the photo you can see the hose poking through the fence just before it popped and sprayed the car down.

Keith Sutton's view of the action © Sutton Images
I was talking to one guy from Williams who told me how dangerous some of the materials on an F1 car can be when they catch fire. He said they become very potent the more they burn and certain bits can get so hot that they would burn through your skin and into your bones. There are also gases that are lethal over certain temperatures and Williams takes an antidote to each race just in case someone inhales it. It's a real eye-opener and something that we need to consider in the future when looking at the quality and availability of fire marshals at certain circuits.

I saw Heikki later that evening and told him that I'd got the full sequence of photos. He said he was fine but admitted he was pretty scared at the time. My brother Keith also down there on the pit wall and he managed to get some close up shots through the fence. To be honest he probably got in the way a bit, but he assured me that it was very, very hot down there and he also admitted to being bit scared about it blowing up.

So it was a long race, but the work doesn't stop for us at the chequered flag. I got a tip from our UK office to go to Parc Ferme and check Mark Webber's front tyre, which had almost come off the rim. When I got down there I saw the McLaren engineers Jonathan Neale and Phil Prew taking a look at it and checking the legality with the FIA... I suppose the work never stops for them either.

Jonathan Neale and Phil Prew take a closer look at the Red Bull © Sutton Images
After that I wondered down to the McLaren garage and saw a number of engineers and mechanics looking at the back of Lewis Hamilton's car where the suspension had cracked due to the contact with Webber. As a photographer you have to stay on the ball in those situations, and be prepared to capture images right up until the moment you leave the track because they all tell a story.

When I was finally off duty I went to the Amber Lounge late in the evening to check out the post-race celebrations. It was a great evening and Fernando Alonso was there celebrating with the Ferrari guys and quite a few other drivers. There was a brilliant moment when they put a special song on and Alonso got on one of the chairs and started spraying champagne around the room. He was on very good form and it was great to see a driver relax a bit. He wasn't drunk or anything like that, he was just enjoying himself, and who can blame him after a performance like that. Unfortunately I didn't have a camera in there but it makes for a good story.

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