Like any 12-year old, the Hankook 24 Hours of Dubai is reaching a crossroads as it grows into its teenage years and judging by some rumblings around the pits over the weekend, there appears to be some angst brewing.
I’ve been a part of every race and I’ve watched it develop from a family-friendly, club-style event into something that still maintains its childhood innocence but now also takes on a larger, more globally important role.
For a year or two now, some drivers at the pointy end have said they’re not happy with the amount of overtaking required and the number of slow cars which make up the field; even calling for a separate event that will take the tiny tots into a race of their own.
With 92 cars on the grid it’s one of the biggest motor racing fields in the world and you could argue that case for them when you see the quickest GT3 Porsche 911s, Mercedes GTs and Audi R8s monstering the helpless Honda Integras and Peugeot 208s, lapping them before they’ve even completed the second of what will be nearly 600 tours of the Autodrome.
The speed of the outright contenders is nothing short of phenomenal as these thinly disguised, purpose-built race cars cover the 5.34km circuit, 17 and a half seconds quicker than the back markers every lap. At the end of Saturday’s race that equated to an 82 lap difference between the winning Porsche and the Peugeot 208GTI in 46th position. Eighty two laps!
But asking for them to leave and race on someone else’s lawn is not the answer. Far from it, it’s precisely this factor which makes the Dubai 24-Hour one of the most entertaining races of the year, anywhere in the world.
This year we were lucky enough to have former Formula One drivers Jean-Eric Vergne and Robert Kubica as well as 2015 World Endurance Champion and factory Porsche 919 driver Brendon Hartley choosing to race with us.
While from a manufacturer perspective, AudiSport’s new CEO, Stephan Winkelmann flew out and spent the two full days in Audi’s hospitality so he could witness the world debut of its new RS3 LMS car. The RS3 will be campaigned around the globe this year in the new TCS championship and Audi chose Dubai to show it off to the world and hopefully get a few sales from gentleman racers.
Right now, the Dubai 24-Hour is a brilliant combination between the haves and the have nots, all racing together, sharing the same track. When you’re racing a slow car against faster machinery, the general rule is to hold your line and let the faster guy find a way through.
He always will. And that’s as true in the Dubai 24-Hour as it is for Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes trying to lap Felipe Nasr’s Sauber in an F1 GP. A quick driver will find a way past using a combination of speed and race craft. Perhaps that is something the whingers lack.
A lot of horsepower under the right foot doesn’t make you a fast driver. Being able to place your car accurately and safely to maneuver your way past slower cars who are in their own class battles is what makes a champion driver and a race winner.
Let’s leave the Dubai 24-Hour as it is, with its wonderfully full grid of diverse cars and diverse budgets, where family-run teams who live a few kms from the track and prepare their cars in Al Quoz garages can mix it with F1 stars, LeMans winners and the best and biggest budgets from Stuttgart, Ingolstadt, or Sant‘agata.
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In the 12th edition of the event, drivers Daniel Allemann, Ralf Bohn, Robert Renauer, Alfred Renauer and Brendon Hartley racked up a total of 578 laps of the 5.399 kilometres long Dubai Autodrome.
For Porsche, it was the fifth victory in the Hankook 24H Dubai after earlier wins in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2014.
This time, it was even a 1-2 for the German manufacturer as the Manthey Racing Porsche finished second, two laps down on the winning entry.
A three times’ Dubai race winner, the Black Falcon team saw its Mercedes-AMG GT3 finish third and the team posted the fastest lap of the race.
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An expanded 12th edition of the event is expected to see a record high of 100 cars across 13 classes take
to Dubai Autodrome from 14:00 on Friday. This packed field will contain vehicles which operate at different performance levels with both amateur and professional drivers behind the wheel, raising the possibility of an action packed start to the opening round of the 2017 24H Endurance Series.
Team Abu Dhabi Racing Black Falcon competitor Al Qubaisi’s last two attempts have ended with crashes, in contrast to his consecutive wins during 2012 and 2013. At the wheel of his new Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the A6-Pro category, he spoke confidently of having the pace to make it a hat-trick as long as his four-man team manages to survive the hazardous conditions.
“I am feeling very good,” said Al Qubaisi, who won both the Mexico and Bahrain events with Abu Dhabi-Proton Racing during the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship. “We have been waiting a long time for this.
“It is my home race, it is a great race – one of the best events here alongside Formula One (the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix).
“It has been in the works for the last three years (to win again). But we have always had bad luck.
“We have always been the fastest and the team to beat. But incidents, trouble and accidents didn’t let us.
“That is an important thing here at Dubai 24H. We really need to take care and stay out of trouble as much as possible.
“In 2015, I crashed out. In 2016, Jeroen [Bleekemolen] crashed out.
“I gave myself a beating for crashing out and Jeroen is one of the top GT drivers, so it shows this is a very tough race to stay out of trouble.
“It is my sixth year racing with Black Falcon. We have a very good relationship with them and Mercedes, great support and great team.
“We always have the fastest car, but it is a matter of surviving.”
Joining Al Qubaisi in the sister Black Falcon car is Saudi Arabia’s Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Saud. The 33-year-old competitor has also tasted success at Motor City, storming to victory two years ago.
They will take the fight to holders Belgian Audi Club WRT, who have retained just Englishman Stuart Leonard from 2016’s roster.
The Middle Easterners will be driving an updated model of the AMG GT3, which was unveiled this week. Prince Abdulaziz was convinced the teething issues of the prior vehicle have been eliminated.
“I am glad we are here again for my 11th year,” said the Red Bull-sponsored athlete. “Hopefully, it ends in a good place and good position.
“They ask me after I won it [in 2015] what will I do? I replied: ‘I’ll keep coming.’
“For me, I enjoy racing and love it. Winning doesn’t mean I have to stop. The car feels really good. We had a test here last weekend, trying some parts and set-ups.
“We were bedding in the driveshafts and the front brakes. You cannot really push until after 10 laps.
“The traffic will be chaotic, but you get used to it.”
The opening running in 2006 of Dubai 24H was a privateers’ racing event, contained no Arab drivers or teams and was restricted to 67 entrants. The field has now ballooned to a maximum of 100, with lustre added by being given full FIA-approved international endurance series status.
“I don’t call it a race, I call it a phenomenon,” said Mohammed bin Sulayem, president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and FIA vice president. “I saw this event when it was tiny.