The art of Zolder

There are many racetracks that leave a lasting impression on you after only visiting the place just once. I’m going to be honest with you, a good three years ago I didn’t feel these immediate admirations for the Circuit Zolder in Belgium. I never considered it a bad or boring track, but it just never left a lasting impression on me. However, during the weekend of the 24h race of Zolder, my vision and opinion of it turned 180 degrees – I think I just might love this track now!


When I was preparing myself for this race and my assignment I realised that I’ve never actually captured a race in Belgium. Out of all places, Belgium is my second home, yet I’ve never actually been trackside here.


This was going to be a long weekend for us all – not only to serve the full 24 hours but everything around it must not be forgotten. We had a day of practice and qualifications on the Thursday before the race.


I decided to shoot this day aswell to get some practice and preparation in before the main race. It was good to catch up with my fellow shooter Patrick Visser, who I accompanied to shoot for the 24HoZ book. We both thought we were prepared for what lied ahead, but nothing really prepared us for the rain we had to endure.


Being a photographer is fun and all, even when you’re just shooting as a hobby, but days like these are terrible in my opinion. You need to brush those feelings aside and just sit in the rain and use it to your advantage to fire off some unique shots.


We already had a long day, but the race was still 2 days away. I had gained a clearer idea of the track layout and discovered some interesting spots for cool compositions. I mainly shoot using only prime lenses and that can be a little tricky at times, but actually that’s half the fun. It was also a good preparation to be on your feet for a good 16 hours just to get a little taste of what was about to come.


Saturday couldn’t come quicker, as I drove to my regular studio day job I was almost sad that I wasn’t driving the other way to the Zolder racetrack. I was so excited to go out there and get through the full 24 hours, which would in fact be around 40 hours of no sleep. How cool!


We got everything sorted at the media center, set up our desk and secured a locker to put our gear in and went trackside right away. Saturday morning was all about practice and qualifications – I decided to take a nice morning walk on the outside of the track and started pulling the trigger.


Saturday was also the day with the team presentations, briefings and autograph sessions. I rarely attend these kinds of activities, but it was good to capture it for once. I always like to observe a little bit and capture the drivers in the most genuine and relaxed way possible.


I’m not really a fan of posed situations either, I always try and stay in the background and capture the situation from a slightly more voyeuristic perspective. Not in the weird way you’re probably thinking, but I’m just not the person to stage situations for a shot – I’d rather see it evolve spontaneously.


The gridwalk. This is a complete madhouse to be honest! Spectators have the opportunity to experience the drivers and the cars up-close and take a few photos themselves. It’s kind of hard to navigate through this kind of overcrowding and capture spontaneous photos.


As the last moments before the race starts are spent on the starting grid which is a special experience. After this it’s all serious business. Serious business but still with happy faces because the moment we’ve all been waiting for was so close – the start of 24 hours of non-stop racing.


Drivers get in the cars, the last stressful moments of preparation go by before the fun can start.


It’s on now. Everybody seemed on their toes with getting the best first couple of shots of the race. The start is pretty much a stressful affair for everyone, including the photographers and film-makers.


I don’t know why that’s the case – in fact because people sometimes choose the same spots to shoot from every single time, and that’s very sad because certain shots become so predictable. That’s not the meaning of photography in my opinion.


I like to think that I’m anywhere but the most predictable and popular photo spot of a track. Of course I’m at the known spots as well, but I never catch myself being in those spots for very long.


As long as I’m not being called back by marshalls, I’ll continue my path trackside until I find a spot I feel like shooting for a few minutes. It’s also relaxing to be on your own and have nobody following your every step. I’ve always loved going to events with fellow photographers, but when I’m trackside I’m just better off on my own.


One thing I was really looking forward to was the sun setting over Zolder. I simply love seeing light fade away slowly and it completely makes you shoot differently and pay attention to how the light is behaving.


Unfortunately this light never lasts too long, but that’s actually half the fun of it all. It gives you a short time frame to get more unique shots – if you like to shoot in that sort of light of course. I found it pretty calming next to the track at times.


The sun decided to disappear behind the clouds or the clouds decided to cover the sun, it depends how you look at it. Either way that gorgeous gold light didn’t last too long and it didn’t take too much time before it was completely dark.


I wasn’t too bothered about all of that, because it allowed me to change my game again and get different shots. I love to have some variation when I get back to the media center and go through my shots of the previous few hours.


When your auto-focus starts to act annoying when your shooting in complete darkness you can always see that as a limitation. On the other hand, it also creates the possibility to capture the unusual and register certain scenes a little bit more abstract.


We’re creative human beings after all, so we have to act like it every now and then. These shots might not be the most exciting action shots but I like them to give a little bit more context to the various light situations I found myself in during a 24 hour race.


I never use a flash for a reason, because if you simply take the time to look a little longer you’ll find your highlights to focus on. This creates a far more natural looking image than when using an artificial external light.


I was surprised that there were barely any photographers trackside during the night. Well in their defence, I’m not capturing a 24 hour race on a regular basis, so my energy was probably a bit more level so I could continue in the night.


Of course the fatigue kicks in at some point, so I decided to head back to the pit and paddock area and browse around for an hour before heading back to the media center, which I found nearly abandoned. We had a couple of hours before the sun would rise again and I wanted to be trackside for that of course.


I can’t sit still for too long, so I went back out for an hour or more and lingered around for a while. A calm pit lane is kind of nice to shoot especially during the night. It allows you just to sit and stare to get a nice shot instead of running around in a hurry with 20 photographers around you.


The sun would slowly start to rise not long after these moments so Patrick and I both decided to go to different parts of the track so that we would not have similar shots.


The sunrise wasn’t that breathtaking because of some clouds that were in the way. So I didn’t get the shots I had in mind but it was still good to be trackside and to have captured these moments.


The morning slowly passed and after breakfast I got this feeling of an after dinner dip. Only a 100 times worse because you’re just exhausted from the past 30 hours or so that you’ve been awake.


I basically was finishing up shooting, backing up my last couple of memory cards on my laptop in the media center and went out for the last hour of the race. I made sure I could capture the last battles that were going on and I wanted to be close to the podium for some close up portraiture.


It was pretty clear who was going to take podium in the different groups. We had some close calls and some unfortunate and unexpected eliminations but that’s exactly what racing is all about. The battle isn’t over until the very last second.


It’s always hard to define if you really did get all your shots but then again it’s also good to miss a few shots and revise after the event so you can learn a few things. After all, nobody is perfect. That makes you thrive to perform better in the future.


With victory comes celebration and celebration is highly needed after completing a 24 hour race for anyone. Wether you’re a driver, mechanic, promotor, marshal, photographer, journalist or a die hard visitor who was awake for the entire race, we all celebrate in some way. I was celebrating that it was over to be honest. I was exhausted and I wanted to go home to get some sleep because the next day would start early. Back to the studio to shoot some more. Living life to the fullest. You should try it!


Read more 24 hour race coverage:

Silverstone 24H race

Nürburgring 24H race

Project24 Oschersleben 24H race