Prayers and cheers in Vettelheim

November 27, 2012

Heppenheim, southwestern Germany

By Kai Pfaffenbach

To watch a car race on television from a comfortable couch is fun, but to cover a Formula One Grand Prix as a photographer at the track is always thrilling. It is fast, exiting and produces nice pictures (most of the time). As I have covered quite a lot F1 races across Europe over the past 17 years with Reuters, I would never have imagined that my most exciting experience as a photographer in connection with F1 would be the public viewing of the last race of this season.

Germany’s Sebastian Vettel was leading the driver’s ranking 13 points ahead of his Spanish rival Fernando Alonso when the starting lights went green on the Interlagos circuit for the Grand Prix of Brazil in Sao Paulo. More than 2000 people were waiting for that moment in Heppenheim, the hometown of Red Bull driver Vettel, who has won the last two driver championships. The inhabitants of Heppenheim, also fondly known as Vettelheim, were in an easy mood when Vettel got ready in the fourth position on the starting grid, while Alonso started in eighth. Just a few seconds later emotions were turned upside down.

The German got off to a poor start and to make matters worse was in a collision with Brazilian Bruno Senna’s Williams that left him facing the wrong way with a damaged car. The cheering turned into praying…

Even the greatest optimists started to loose confidence. Everybody had simply expected just a big party to celebrate Vettel’s third consecutive Championship. As Red Bull team principal Christian Horner informed Sebastian via their radio that “There is visible damage, it is not the front wing, we cannot fix it,” some of the Vettel fans almost fainted!

Members of Vettel’s supporter’s club were holding hands, others closed their eyes – it seemed that his car would last only a few more rounds. Yet four laps later after being assured by the Red Bull technical head the data looked good, he drove faster and faster. Confidence gained. The public viewing room swelled with expectation and relief and the cheering went up again.

Despite the hoards of camera teams and photojournalists standing between the spectators and the huge viewing screen, with the people in the front row hardly being able to see the race, nobody got aggressive. I have covered similar public viewing sessions on soccer events and most people get very aggressive against members of the media, but the Formula One supporters understood our needs to cover their emotions which were changing from lap to lap.

The safety car came out for the first time, there were bungled pitstops, crashes, collisions, and constant uncertainty about the weather with black clouds overhead. The confidence of all Vettel supporters shifted from full to empty.

The safety car came out for a second period, and exactly when nobody expected it, it seemed like Vettel was driving on rail tracks – Heppenheim went ballistic!

It was clear, no overtaking was allowed, Alonso couldn’t win the race and Vettel took it home by securing his sixth place. There are few words to describe the relief of the people attending the public viewing. A few were not able to express their joy and just sat staring at the screen. Others were jumping onto each other and didn’t stop singing “We are the champions”.

After a wet and wild Brazilian Grand Prix rollercoaster and after what must have been one of the most nerve-racking races of his career, Sebastian Vettel became Formula One’s youngest triple world champion at the age of 25. Only two other drivers ever in history have managed to achieve three title in a row – the late Juan Manuel Fangio and Vettel’s compatriot seven-times champion Michael Schumacher.

I have to admit that it was pure fun to take pictures in this mayhem and I have never felt closer to any given assignment despite the fact I was thousands of miles away. Congratulations “finger boy”! You deserve this title hat-trick and I am looking forward to taking your photographs when you come for a party with your friends in “Vettelheim”!

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