One of the toughest forms of motorsport is endurance racing, and that too races that run for 24 hours at a stretch. So, to witness a full days worth of orderly chaos, we headed to our favourite neighbouring endurance race – the 24 Hours of Dubai.
Endurance, it’s a word that we take rather lightly in our daily lives. We think that most of us are inherently capable of excellent endurance – based on the fact that we happen to survive a nine-to-five job everyday, five days a week, for years at a stretch. Plus, of course, there’s the occasional spike in our endurance limits over the weekend – thanks to some heavy partying!
If we truly introspect, however, it becomes clear that this routine isn’t exactly ideal preparation for a marathon, for instance. To think that people run marathons for fun is incomprehensible anyway. Pushing the envelope to test our endurance limits is simply something that most of us are either too uncomfortable or too lazy to do.
And that brings me to the subject of endurance racing, in which pretty much any normal measures of fitness and endurance are thrown out of the window. Like extreme marathoners, here are racing drivers – and more importantly racing teams – who are ready to share the responsibility of keeping a racing car running as fast as they can for 24 hours straight in a quest to make it to the end, and possibly even receive a deserving trophy at the end of it all.
Most racing teams have at least three racing drivers per car – meaning they effectively end up driving about 8-hours in a 24-hour period. Now, having done some pretty long stretches on the public roads for many years now I can tell you that this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sure, a racetrack is a controlled environment, and there’s no chance of a pedestrian crossing your path – but there’s a lot more to it than that. Not only are racing cars intensely physical beasts, but the drivers have to be at full concentration from the moment they step into the cockpit until they get out once again after several hours. Even a momentary lapse in concentration at speed on a track can lead to disaster.
Of course, racing presents its own sets of challenges. Consider these, for instance – staying on the pace, while constantly trying to be faster than the competition, overtaking slower moving cars, balancing your inputs to ensure you save the car while staying competitive, monitoring fluid & temperature levels, and all this over multiple stints in the car that last hours at a time.
The most important thing in an endurance race is to ensure that you reach the finish line. And so while you’re balancing staying ahead of the competition with saving the car, first and foremost you have to ensure that you keep fatigue at bay and don’t end up having a shunt. As the saying goes, “to finish first, you have to first finish.”
And let’s not even get into the details of the preparation that goes into readying a machine for a race like these – the mental and physical endurance aside, setting up the car to suit the race track, formulating the strategy for the race, and then, of course, executing it, is a mammoth task for both teams and drivers. After all, nothing destroys the peace like a twenty-four hour race.
For the engineers, it’s anything but a cakewalk. After all, when you have to prepare a car to suit the driving style of three to four drivers with minimal room for changes and modifications, it’s not an easy task. Especially when you consider that your first priority – as an engineer – is to not only make sure the car is quick, but also reliable.
So, when we turned up on qualifying day at the 10th edition of the 24 Hours of Dubai, the scene in front of us was pretty much as expected. To our untrained eyes, it seemed like there was chaos descending in the pit-lane of the Dubai Autodrome – whereas, for the teams and their mechanics, it was business as usual. The line-up of cars present at the event was quite impressive – there were about 89 cars starting the race across various classes, and some of them were quite interesting. From the usual gaggle of Porsche 911’s – which seems to be the most popular endurance racing car in the world – there were a few SLS AMG GT3’s, along with a few Aston Martin Vantage’s, Ferrari 458’s, and a solitary Corvette featuring a rather pleasing V8 baritone – sounding about as American as a V8 gets. There was also a solitary Nissan GT-R GT3 car being run by the winners of the 2014 Nissan GT Academy competition, basically rookie drivers who’ve been groomed and trained by the GT Academy to become professional racing drivers.
The qualifying session itself was pretty eventful, with the race favourites being upset by the #12 Fach Auto Tech team Porsche 911 GT3 R – piloted by Austrian driver Martin Ragginger – taking the lead with a lap time of 1:57.5. Following in second place were one of the clear favourites, the #2 Mercedes AMG SLS GT3 of the Black Falcon team, three-tenths of a second behind the leader, while third place went to last years winner – the #1 Porsche 911 of Stadler Motorsport.
But, at least in the 24H series, there is also a less glamorous (and slightly more affordable) side to racing, which feature smaller cars such as the Renault Clio – seemingly a favourite with many gentleman drivers – and the Honda Jazz. And its easy to see that in these classes of racing cars, the atmosphere is much more relaxed compared to the more professional racing teams in the higher classes – who seem to take things very seriously. So, competitors in these classes are often accompanied by their families and children, and are much more approachable. They tend to approach their racing weekend as more of an adventure, rather than just looking at it as a serious competition. And this was clearly visible in the pits, and on the track, before the start of the race – it seemed less of a race and more of a carnival, with none of the stifling seriousness that’s visible in high-profile series like Formula 1 for instance, where it’s all business and no fun.
But once the festivities were over, it was time to go racing. And it proved to be an eventful start to the 24 Hours of Dubai. On the first lap itself, cars are flashed the ‘Code 60’ sign – which means they can’t exceed 60km/h on track – as one of the Ginetta’s had spilled oil onto the track and come to a stop on the track itself. This trend continued throughout the night, with the race seeing a high level of attrition. Many cars retired due to mechanical issues, and the race lead changed 12 times during the 24 hours.
As the racing progressed, it was easy to see just how much stress and fatigue you have to deal with when participating in a twenty-four hour race. There were various incidents of suspension and mechanical failure, not to mention human error leading to cars getting damaged – in many cases, spelling the end of their race.
As the 24 hours of racing – replete with incident – came to an end, the winner’s crown went to a strong favourite, the #2 SLS AMG of the Black Falcon team piloted by Oliver Webb, Yelmer Buurman, Abdulaziz Al Faisal and Hubert Haupt. This win marked the third victory for the team in the 24 Hours of Dubai, as well as the third win for the Mercedes SLS AMG. Unfortunately, despite having battled valiantly, the top qualifying #12 Porsche retired due to radiator and undertray damage.
Second place went to the #30 Ram Racing SLS AMG, piloted by Tom Onslow-Cole, Adam Christodoulou, Thomas Jager and Cheerag Arya, and bringing up third was the #88 Dragon Racing team Ferrari 458. Special mention must also go to the Nissan GT Academy Team RJN entry of Florian Strauss, Ricardo Sanchez, Ahmed Bin Khanen, Nick Hammann and Gaetan Paletou – who finished fifth overall.
The Dubai 24 Hour race is the perfect place to learn about the trials and toil of endurance racing – the racing is ultra competitive and, yet, the atmosphere is relaxed.
From this year onwards, the 24H series of races spread across the world will receive FIA International Series status – which means that the Dubai race will only continue to grow in competition and stature. So, now that we’ve witnessed the race twice, I think it’s time to request Dubai Tourism to give us a race seat so that we can properly report on just what it takes to compete in a 24-hour race. We’ll start a training routine just in case…