This 24 Hour race lark seems simple enough to me. Take a few drivers, fast but sensible, a well sorted and prepared car, say some sort of 911, and a bunch of guys to work on it who are experienced and organised, not much to it really. So why does it seem so difficult when you arrive at the track and have to put the plan into action?
Actually it is that simple. Just make a plan and stick to it. Sort the car out to maximise the potential while making it as user friendly as possible. Work out the optimum pace that combines speed, economy and looking after the car. Finally get the drivers' egos under control and avoid contact with either other competitors or the barriers. Then go out and get a box of lucky heather or four leafed clover or rabbits' feet and hope for a big dollop of luck.
The NFS SpeedHunters' Porsche at Dubai was run by Hubert Bergh and it was clear that his years of experience had taught him to follow the general principles outlined above. The aim was a top ten finish with the dream a top six place. The car was giving away over 100bhp to some of its younger class rivals, so a trouble free run, minimising pit lane time would be the strategy while setting an average lap speed of 2:10 to 2:15. This would allow it to run for almost two hours on one tank of petrol, a big advantage with the complicated and slow refuelling procedures in place for the Dubai 24.
The driver line up was three experienced Porsche Cup competitors,(Magnus Ohman, Johan Stursson and Hubert himself) plus a 24 hour race rookie, Patrick Soderlund. The Thursday practice and qualifying sessions were used first to get the car up to speed, a change of shock absorbers meant re-dialling in the suspension. Next up was the task of getting Patrick acclimatised to the the track and then racing in traffic at night. By the time the flag dropped to end the night session he had managed to get down to really competitive times, so things were looking promising.
The start and the first stint of the race was to be taken by Hubert. It is true to say that you can't win a 24 Hour race on the first lap but you sure as hell can lose it. And so it proved when the two second row cars collided on lap 2, both sustaining punctures and suffering a whole lap crawling back to the pits at a walking pace. The 997 SuperCup set off at a conservative pace for the first lap or three and then got into the groove.
For several laps the Porsche had a spirited duel with the Khaleji Motorsport Ferrari F430 GT. The red car was an ex ALMS Risi Competitzione model and the crack North American squad was drafted in to run the car for the new owner. It was being driven at the time by F1 Red Bull designer, Adrian Newey. In the end the Ferrari ran out of fuel before the end of Adrian's time behind the wheel, losing several laps in the recovery process. Later he stuffed it into the pitwall while leaving the refuelling area and broke the steering rack.
Back in the pits the team was on the edge of their seats, like coiled springs ready for action…………..actually no, the job of the crew and the drivers back in the Box is to conserve energy and wait for the call to arms. This is especially important in long distance races where the interval between proper time asleep can be in the 40 to 50 hour range. Of course those on the outside think that motorsport is always glamourous and so it may be in Formula One. In this sector of the sport everything is much more modest, if no less professional. So its crisps and a BBQ rather than Haute Cusine and Champagne.
Soon enough the clock ticks round and it is time to prepare for action. Amazingly at around 1:40 into the race the timing screens show our heroes running in second place overall, unbelievable. The team look at each other nervously, OK, this situation will change when the car comes in for a stop but continue on like this and the dream of a top six place might, just might, be possible. Meanwhile Patrick prepares to take on the job of leading the charge and yet he seems calm enough………..
Then with around 10 minutes to go before the two hour point Hubert has contact with the Ebbing Motorsport Volvo and as it almost time for the first stop the team calls him in to check over for damage.
A new driver and fresh tyres are the order of the day.
Then a quick look to assess any damage and make sure that nothing will either snag the wheel or block the cooling system and then it is away down the pit lane to the refuelling station.
As luck would have it there was a bay free but bad timing on this part of the pit stop could be costly as it takes 3 to 4 minutes to fill the tank, so to be stuck in the queue could negate all the gains made on track. So it is a tank of 5 star and back out on track for hopefully another 2 hours of trouble free motoring.
As Patrick built up confidence and speed in the first part of his drive, he got into the target zone of laptimes that the team were running the race to. All was going to plan when one of the other cars lost control coming out of the last turn and hit the first part of the pit wall bursting open two access gates, bring the first period of running at 60kmph. It was clear that the only way to fix the gates during track action and make them secure was to weld them, this was going to take at least 30 to 40 minutes. The optimum course of action for the team was to delay the pitstop till the last possible moment while the field ran under caution to minimise the time lost taking on fuel and tyres. So Hubert with his team mangers' hat on kept an eye on the progress being made with the welding torches and then made the call to bring Patrick in just in the nick of time.
By the time the field was shown the Green Flag to get racing again darkness had fallen.
Working as a team Hubert gives the benefit of his experience to Patrick, who is about to go out and race in the dark for the first time. So the nerves are jangling just a bit but not too much.
The clock ticks on and the 997 is on the way into the pits.
New boots and new driver………………..
Check the vital statistics……………keeping the fluid levels up is as important to the car as the driver.
Back to the fuel depot for another tank…………
Then blasting off into the night……………..
This procedure is repeated as the laps are completed and the clock runs down towards the target of 2.00pm Saturday.
The crew try and rest as best as they can, while keeping alert in case of any trouble.
The drivers' log tell its own tale with the team managing to stick to their plan of running as close to two hours per session but taking advantage of any caution periods that happen along.
At just past 7.00am the Sun climbs unsteadily through the haze and morning mist and the team is still running in the top half dozen.
There is still six hours to go but the light brings a new sense of purpose and revives tired limbs.
The Dubai skyline is on display in all its majesty with a set of skyscrapers to rival anywhere on the planet even if the sand in the wind obscures them from Motor City Dubai.
Patrick winds on the pace in the early morning while on his last drive of the race, as with under five hours to go his team mates will complete the journey to the chequered flag, or so they hope.
As the mist clears even more of Dubai becomes visible.
Even the Burj Al Arab……………
Bearing scars of contact during the race the Porsche makes a steady progress with an fifth place overall on the horizon.
Then it is almost 2.00pm and onto the last lap…………….
Round and round till all that is left is the downhill right hander that forms the last turn on the Dubai Autodrome.
And then across the line to finish in fith place overall a fantastic achievement, the team are almost overwhelmed by the scale of what they have done.
566 laps in 24 hours, 3,050 kilometres or 1,895 miles in old money, just some 10 minutes behind the eventual winner. Speaking to Hubert afterwards there were only two problems encountered in the whole event. An issue with the fuel pump meant that for that last quarter of the race the time that could be run on a tank of fuel was restricted to one hour 40 minutes………….oh and a penalty for speeding in the refuelling area…………..
The whole team had done a fantastic job but there was little time for immediate celebration as the container had to be packed ready for shipping back to Europe, though later in the evening they may have toasted their performance in the traditional Swedish manner……..I never did find that bit out………….