Touring Cars at Donington, August 2020

Quietly racing back to the new normal

So four months later than I expected, on Saturday I walked through the gates of Donington Park, to start a British Touring Car Championship season and to release the big pause button that has been pressed on the automotive side of my career for what seems like ages. Life is getting back to normal – but is it? Is it really?

The opening meeting was bound to be nothing like we were used to, with Covid-19 restrictions everywhere, all conversations conducted through fabric with the inevitable lack of understanding, or even hearing, on all sides, and of course significant restrictions on the number of people who would be present.

Two days before the event, all that ramped up further when the UK Government decided that Donington owners MSV would not be permitted to let in even a limited number of spectators. Nope, the order was no-one in, and this BTCC weekend (plus at least the following couple) would take place behind closed doors.

Qualifying restart, Donington BTCC

Pitlane restarts following practice session red flags remain as impressive as ever, but with no-one to see them…

I’ve no doubt that in normal times BTCC boss Alan Gow would have been delighted to have his championship designated ‘Elite Sport’ by the Government. But knowing as I do how much Mr Gow’s motorsport mantra revolves around entertaining the fans first, everything else after that, he must have been frustrated that there would not be any of the championship’s hugely passionate fan base at Donington.

A quick scan across the web emphasised the irony. These are truly strange times when the UK’s biggest motorsport series shares the same date as the British Grand Prix (the last time it did was in 1996, and then the Touring Cars supported the F1 stars at Silverstone), and a third major UK motorsport series, the British GT Championship, runs on the same day. And it was almost surprising that down at Oulton Park the GT boys, fond in the past of having a social media pop at the BTCC, didn’t tweet that their series had more spectators present than the Touring Cars or the F1…

So what was it like to be one of the few who were allowed to be there? Distinctly odd, right from the start… Traditionally being a member of the resident BTCC media pack has meant getting into the circuit at the crack of dawn on race day, unless you want to sit in a queue of traffic. Once inside every time you stepped out of the media centre to do an interview or get a story you usually have had to battle your way through hordes of fans milling around the paddock. You couldn’t even escape the crowds by posing on the grid before the start, which of course I’ve never done – much…

Donington paddock BTCC 2020

Back of the Donington pits – normally a heaving mass of activity…

On race day at Donington, I could have had a lie-in and rolled up to the circuit any time before the 11.10am start of BTCC race one. Once I arrived, well… There is nothing more odd than walking through a BTCC paddock in which the only presence is race teams doing their best to keep far apart from each other – no hospitality, no hangers-on, and of course no spectators.

In fact the scene took me back 25 years, to the Super Touring era, when I would attend a lot of midweek testing – this certainly felt much more like such a test than a race meeting… And as an aside, it got more confusing when I entered the media centre to find one Marcus Simmons sitting there penning words for Autosport magazine. The last time we both regularly worked in the same media centre was in the mid 1990s when we were part of a core BTCC media pack of less than a dozen…

If I’d wanted to, I couldn’t have gone on the grid – no-one could, aside from the five team members allocated to each car. The usual ‘tents’ on the pit wall from which the team managers would normally follow the action on monitors were not permitted, and when a car took the chequered flag for victory, there would be no cheering team members on the fence, or hugs of congratulation in Parc Ferme.

Donington BTCC grid 2020

Just five people per car on the grid, and no-one else, not even the ITV interview crew…

The slashing of numbers of course extended to the media pack, even us who are lucky enough to be considered eligible for TOCA full-season passes. The BTCC media is its own little family – everyone getting to know each other despite only meeting up for six months of the year. The media centre on a race weekend is typically a hive of journos, snappers, snacks of very wide varieties and a lot of jovial banter.

Not this time. Those of us who remained (and I was pleased and admittedly a little surprised to still be among their number), sat at tables that had all been separated up, with a maximum of two per each. We got on with our work, and it was oh so quiet.

In fact the whole circuit was quiet. No crowds obviously, which means no need for a commentator. On Saturday when the cars in each race disappeared behind the bank at Redgate corner we had no idea what was happening until they reappeared in front of us at the end of the lap – on Sunday we were very grateful for the ITV cameras.  BTCC pitlane reporter Alan Hyde did his best to fill in the gaps but he had no more resources at his disposal than the rest of us. Between races virtual silence reigned.

Don’t get me wrong, I was so glad to be there, back to work, watching the one thing that doesn’t change with the BTCC, superb racing. And I fully realise how lucky I was compared to the hugely frustrated fans (and indeed, fellow media) forced to watch it on TV at home – for one of my photographer colleagues it was the first BTCC race meeting he wasn’t at in 15 years…

BTCC Donington 2020, qualifying off

One thing that doesn’t change – the racing, and the extremes of fortune across the grid…

We all of course fully understand why there must be measures such as we saw at the weekend – nothing is more important than putting an end to the virus that has devastated so many lives in recent months and we must all follow any restriction that might hasten the demise of Covid-19.

You do, however, wonder at the sense of a rule that prevented Donington from spreading similar numbers of spectators around its 2.5 miles as were allowed at Oulton Park, simply because the cars at Donington were more recognisable, more ‘famous’. And all this at a time when people are allowed to sit on beaches and in pubs and restaurants at a lot closer distance than they could be at Donington…

Yes, I am so glad to be back writing about cars again – but I’ll be even happier when I do have to be out the door in the early hours to watch dawn break over the circuit, when I have to wait to interview drivers because fans are having selfies taken with them, and when a winner taking the chequered flag will be accompanied by roars from the spectator banks. That really will be back to normal.

BTCC podium ceremony, Donington 2020

At no point are the current strange times more keenly emphasised than in the podium ceremonies…

Pregnant Guppy transport plane

How a Pregnant Guppy got me a career…

The very ordinary photo above of an extraordinary aircraft is to me highly significant. Obviously I didn’t know it at the time, but this picture steered me towards the magnificent career I’ve had for the past 30-plus years.

It was taken at Gatwick Airport on 10th March 1982, four years after I’d discovered photography, when forced to do an O-level in it to ensure I had enough lessons to fill my week in sixth form. My mate Alan Taylor encouraged me behind the camera, as he was doing the O-level, reckoned it would be easy and we would “have a laugh.”

That was in the September – by Christmas that year my parents couldn’t get into their bathroom as I was printing pictures in it and I wasn’t going to be a design draftsman any more (I never really knew why I was going on that career path), I was going to be a photographer. And having made that decision I of course didn’t take the obvious route of going to college to study photography. No, I was fed up with learning so I got a job on the photo and electrical counter of TV & Radio Services, also my home town’s most popular record shop – many stories can be told of that place, but perhaps another time…

An unusual arrival

Anyway, back to 1981. It’s my day off, the phone rings and it’s my dad, who worked for British Airways down the road at Gatwick Airport. “We’ve got a Pregnant Guppy in, you’ve got to come and get some pictures of it,” he says.

Pregnant Guppy three-quarter

This was one big-headed plane…

Being a bit of a plane nerd at the time, I knew all about the Pregnant Guppy. It was a version of the Boeing Stratocruiser airliner, on which the first two thirds of the fuselage had been blown up like a balloon to create a cavernous cargo space. The idea for this ridiculous looking plane was originally NASA’s, for carrying bits of Saturn 5 rockets about, but by this time one was being used by Airbus to carry bits of planes between the various factories. Its regular beat was Manchester so one turning up at Gatwick was very unusual.

On asking dad how I would be able to get to the plane to photograph it, he replied “meet me under the terminal in half an hour.” So having grabbed my camera and charged down the useful footpath that went from our housing estate all the way to the airport, 30 minutes later I was under the terminal (in those days Gatwick only had one…).

Guppy plane fron

From the front this plane was even more dramatic…

Dad duly drew up in one of the huge tugs they used for towing aircraft and told me to hop in. Whereupon we headed for the security gate, he waved a bit of paper at the people in the booth, up went the barrier and suddenly we were airside, I getting a very different view of the airport as we drove down a row of aircraft parked at their standards.

Later I would learn that the bit of paper was an authorisation form claiming that I was on a familiarisation visit prior to joining British Airways Ground Operations! My much-missed dad did sail close to the wind on occasions…

The Guppy was parked at the furthest end of the airport and having dodged taxiing planes while driving over to it, even dad knew it would be pushing his luck to let me out onto the tarmac. So he simply dropped the window of the tug and drove round the Guppy a couple of times while I took pictures.

Gatwick tug

Of course once we had the Guppy pics in the bag dad was happy to let me out to capture the clever things his tug’s cab could do…

Once back home, I wondered what to do with the pics. Then I remembered a new local free newspaper had launched in Reigate, just five miles away, and according to the freelance photographers’ newsletter I subscribed to it paid for pictures – very unusual for a local paper!

Money game

So I printed off a couple of shots and popped them in the post. The paper was called The Independent – the national newspaper was still five years in the future – and when the next issue came out on the following Thursday my pictures were in it. Even better, a week or two later a cheque for £12.50 arrived in the post! Remarkably in today’s money that’s just under £50…

Guppy story

I make the press…

Bouyed by this, I soon found another picture story, a friend of dad’s who had a steam roller, and the Indy used that too. Then I got a phone call from the editor, my first contact with John Woodward, an old-style newsman who later I would consider one of the most formative influences on my career. He asked me if I might be available to carry out commissioned photo jobs on evenings, and of course I didn’t refuse.

So began an enjoyable time of photographing prize givings, awards ceremonies, theatre photo calls – later that year I had my first experience of attending the press night for a play at our local theatre, rushing home, developing the film, running off a print and delivering it to the paper in time to catch the deadline the following day. Piece of cake in today’s digital world, slightly more involved back then…

A year or so later the Indy decided it was established enough to employ a photo-journalist. Of course I applied and had an interview with John that was so positive I basically waited for the letter giving me a start date.

Thanks but no…

Instead I got an apologetic letter from John, and unlike most rejection letters it actually sounded sincere. They’d employed another applicant who had previous newspaper experience, and in such a small team as was at the Indy that was understandable. “I hope we can still use you in the future,” John added; “but obviously now we have our own photographer that will be less likely…”

I wasn’t having that. I think the new photographer was called Jane Wilson – I started working out the jobs she was likely to be going on, and I found other jobs and sent them in on spec. I also had my entire family and friends keeping an ear open for stories, which I also sent in.

Inde front page

Tree plantings, plaque unveilings, I photographed all the big events…

Within months I was effectively Jane’s deputy – whenever she went on holiday I had a very busy couple of weeks! And then one day another letter came from John; “Jane Wilson has today submitted her notice and will be leaving in two weeks. If you still want to join us please get in touch with me as soon as possible…”

So in May 1985, my media career began as a photo journalist at the soon to be Reigate Post & Independent (the national newspaper was on its way…). Not a photographer – though that was my prime role, as the team was so small I was expected to muck in on everything. Just how small I realised in the first week when the chief reporter went on holiday and the paper was basically put together by John and myself…

By now the Indy was part of a major regional publisher, the Croydon Advertiser Group. Because I could clearly write, John decided I needed some qualifications and put me on the in-house NCTJ training scheme. Over the next few years I worked under six chief reporters – like any local paper the Indy was basically a staging post for ambitious young journos on their way to something bigger and better.

When the sixth chief reporter resigned John called me into his office and asked me to apply for her job. Instead of following a career path as a photographer, my career turned in a slightly different direction as a journalist. And the rest, as they say…

Reigate Independent front page

As the credit shows, we did it all on the Indy…