The Dubai 24 Hours is the first major race of 2010 and its fifth running features multi-national teams running near to 80 cars spread over 10 classes, a dozen manufacturers and both petrol and diesel power. More and more professional teams are turning up, bringing top drivers with them, but the depth of the field means no one expects a clear run. Traffic is a killer, and closing speeds immense between the fastest GT cars and the slower diesel hatches. The crew of the Need For Speed Porsche made have already made their intentions clear: 'Open 24 Hours'. It's a hell of a way to kick off the New Year.
Major outfits such as Imsa Performance (GT2 Le Mans winners), Land Motorsport (overall Nurburgring winners), AF Corse (FIA GT2), JetAlliance (FIA GT1), SUNRED (World Touring Cars) and Volkswagen have pitched up to take on privateer and gentlemen-run teams. Drivers include drift legions Nobuteru Taniguchi and Manabu Orido (both in Petronas BMW Z4 M-Coupés), NASCAR's Michael Waltrip and many others from international championships. The Dubai 24 might not yet have Blue Riband status like Le Mans or the Nurburgring, but it's getting there.
Teams crate up their cars and gear in Europe, where all the kit is centrally sea-freighted to Dubai. The containers then become temporary home from homes for the teams: once the equipment is unloaded then beds, hammocks, kitchens, clothing and tools are moved in. it makes for a virtual shanty town behind the row of pit garages.
Speedhunters are following the Swedish-entered Team Need For Speed Porsche 997 Supercup, driven by a crew of four Swedes including Patrick Söderland.
The Speedhunters crew assembled in Dubai this week to tackle the gruelling event: I think we'll have a pretty good idea of what the teams go through by the end of this week. Speedhunters chief Rod Chong pilots the hire car to the track for the qualifying day. Fly Mondeo, fly!
In the back is the witch doctor of Drift filming, Will Roegge. Keep an eye out for his footage from the race coming soon.
Then we have Miss Formula D 2009, Miki Taka, who'll be fronting some of Will's work.
Dubai takes a bit of adjusting to: the Downtown area where the Speedhunters team is staying is a riot of towering skyscrapers and modern skylines; the stupidly tall Burj Khalifa dominates the town. 828 metres of crazy architectural showing off, it's jaw-droppingly impressive. But the town is littered with seemingly abandoned building sites: cranes are everywhere. Dubai's reported financial crisis in visible bare concrete form?
Even at the track the theme continues. What will eventually be an F1-style curving grandstand and entertainment building runs round the outside of Turn 1; the seats are all in place, but round the back the building is only half built, and its innards are on show like some kind of Geiger sculpture.
Of course, it's sand all the way. Dubai has reclaimed land to create the infamous off-shore Palm islands, but the desert is still very much visible all around you.
The track actually has a lot more elevation than expected, which makes it far more interesting for the drivers. This is the section running from Turn 1 through a deceptively tight left sweeper and up the hill onto the GP track extension.
Even the startline has a gentle slope: Turn 1 is basically blind as you blast over a crest before catching the apex.
Along with tyres of course, with 24 hours of running fuel is the biggest commodity. Because of the mix of cars there aren't any refuelling rigs in the pitlane; instead, there's a motorway service station-style refuelling area with street pumps for the different fuels. This makes the process a lot slower, but a lot safer, especially for teams not used to running endurance events.
This is the refuelling station during practice, when it's busy enough. Cars enter on the right, queue to fuel up and then exit back out on the left. During the race, choosing the right moment to refuel will be critical.
There are only two practice sessions for teams and drivers to get acclimatised to the track, then it's straight into qualifying.
This means track time is precious and the queue to get out on the circuit quickly builds up. Teams have between three and five drivers, with four being the norm, so it's tight to get everyone a decent amount of time in the car.
Work never stops for the teams: between sessions there are pads to be changed, engines to be checked, damage to be repaired.
Up close and personal brake work on the NFS Porsche.
The teams also run through checks on all their pit equipment. Along with fuel stops, tyre changes need to be carried out as quickly and efficiently as possible. Pit crew numbers here are a far fry from Formula One platoons: usually a team manager out front directing the stop and four or so guys doing the tyre changes and maintaining the car.
Each garage has full live timing: although the fastest cars naturally get up front in practice, come the race pit stop strategy will quickly confuse the situation.
Speedhunters video crew are already in business.
Seeing an iPhone in a cradle in the German-run Red Motorsport Lotus Exige was a surprise – is there really time to Twitter when you're hammering round the track. It turns out there's a GPS-based lap timer app that a lot of teams now use – there's truly an app for everything…
Out on track the action commences in practice. The WRC Developments Mitsubishi Evo is fast but heading for problems…
It's practice, but racing drivers and always racing drivers. In 10 minutes on just one stretch of track there are two tyre blow-outs, a couple of spins and a car in the wall. Practice for the cars means practice for the safety crews as well.
There are a couple of decent straights, but this one in the middle of the track is the longest. Leaning against the fence you feel the shockwaves of the cars firing by. It's another place for the faster cars to stretch their legs and get past slow traffic.
There are half a dozen Aston Martin Vantages in the field, in a separate class that has the Donkervoort and Lotus as the direct competition. They look and sound great, but are only mid-field overall in lap times.
There's a rare outing for the old-school GT2 style Porsche 964 entered by Japanese team 930 Rush. Already the splitter was looking a bit loose.
Patience is something that is obviously lacking on the track: drivers in search of their limits take no prisoners when coming up on slower cars, often making late lunges for apexes. The slower BMW 1 series and Clios are often scrabbling round the run-off of corners after being knocked wide.
It's bad enough when it's a GT car making a pass, but the Sakar GT Tdi hardly comes up to the window of even a Golf.
The Solution F touring cars belch flame into corners – two are entered by Gomez Competiton, a French team.
All the cars squirm on entry to turn one as they scrabble for grip into the corner.
The big Mustang is one of the fastest cars in a straight line, but predictably suffers in corners. It's up in the top 20 in practice though.
The Astons have throaty V8s, so are much more growling than the DBRS9 GT cars.
Spectators are thin on the ground for practice, and look rather lost in the main grandstand. Tickets are free for the race, so more people are expected. The fans who do turn up will be in for a great race!