Lifting the lid
Legendary portrait photographer Martin Schoeller is let loose on Porsche’s endurance drivers in the heat of battle
If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to fall out of a Porsche 919 Hybrid, half a stone lighter, heart pounding, gibbering with adrenaline, then ask photographer Martin Schoeller.
When Porsche’s top flight endurance racers pit for a driver change, fingers still twitching at an imaginary paddle shift, sweat-soaked and shaking, Schoeller’s snapshots capture the battering, emotional and physical, that the toughest discipline in motorsport will give you.
Schoeller is one of the great modern portrait photographers, with a portfolio that includes near untouchables like President Obama, George Clooney, Lady Gaga and Iggy Pop. What makes him special is his ability to get even the most private personalities to open up. Schoeller roots out what’s hidden, finds the real story behind the façade.
Work with big-name sportsmen like Lionel Messi and Usain Bolt spawned an interest in the visual responses to high stakes, high-adrenaline performance, to the peaks and troughs of winning and losing, the mental yo-yo of the super-skilled professional. And where better to see this in its purest form than at a race track?
Schoeller watched Porsche win at Le Mans in 2016, and became fascinated by what their drivers go through. The punishment of lengthy stints in daylight and dark, fighter jet G-forces and cockpits like bread ovens. He resolved to be embedded at the next race, camera poised, to freeze in time the exact moment when the driver clambers from the car and, after the barrage of heat and noise and heart-busting pressure, is suddenly still.
The results are pretty remarkable. Schoeller was given intimate trackside access at the Nürburgring, where Mark Webber, Brendan Hartley and Timo Bernhard were pressing to take back the top spot from Le Mans winners Marc Lieb, Romain Dumas and Neil Jani. The Nürburgring is famously challenging, a far cry from the open and relatively predictable straights of Le Sarthe, and the stresses were evident.
Webber’s car was hit early by a puncture, their teammates hit late by a backmarker. The lead was swapped and swapped again, with each driver change a choreographed panic to retake track position. The immediate aftermath of each pit was clinically depicted by Schoeller, un-posed and utterly raw, in the instant helmets came off.
Looking like he’s just had a bad cheese dream, Webber, veteran of Formula 1, puts it succinctly: “I’ve just driven an hour on a roller coaster – and suddenly the world is standing still. It’s more intense than anything I’ve ever experienced.”
Webber’s young Kiwi teammate Hartley has the sweaty, wild-eyed intensity of a teenager arrested at an illegal rave. “I braked from 250kph to 0 – you can’t decelerate any more than that.” A moot point of physics, but one that nicely underlines the immense demands of driving an LMP1 car at the limit among GT sportscars pulling half your average race pace.
Schoeller is absorbed by what’s written in their faces: “They have a look that is curious and questioning, but one that is also resolute and reflects the intensity of the race."
His portraits are powerful, insightful things, but what’s more absorbing, a true revelation about the physical and mental state of the professional racing driver, is just how much worse than this most of us look after eight hours sleep.
“I work to find that moment when people are completely present and reveal something open and intimate about themselves.” What Schoeller seems to have unearthed is that Porsche’s LMP1 line-up is ridiculously unflappable.