As the sun began to rise over the Dubai Autodrome race the state of the surviving cars became clearer. The nights are always hard in endurance racing. Drivers are pushed to the limit by the concentration required to keep going at maximum pace over their stints. Of the 75 cars that started, over a third had hit trouble (or something more solid) over the course of the race and were out of contention.
6:50am. The Speedhunters team had been up for almost 21 hours but the cameras kept clicking, the video kept recording. Sleep was off the agenda with 7 hours left to run and the finish due at 2pm. The sun burned away the darkness and lit the cars up with a glorious orange glow.
The night had clearly been challenging at the Dubai 24 Hours. All the surviving cars now bore some kind of battle scars and were streaked with tyre debris and dirt from the track. Panels were missing, hanging off or kept in place by tape. Up front the #66 Imsa Performance Porsche 997 RSR was being kept honest by the trio of BMW Z4 M-Coupés – they were all within 10 laps of the leader after 16 hours, so not an insurmountable gap if the leader hit trouble.
And there was still plenty of trouble on offer. Punctures were frequent occurrences. Although there are no gravel run-off at the Dubai track the curbs are sharp and the Clios and BMWs seemed to suffer more than the GTs, who were staying off the curbs where possible. Some managed to limp back to the pits on their own, whilst others required the efficient safety teams to deploy and tow or carry them back to the paddock for repairs.
17 hours of racing hadn't calmed on-track aggression either. GT cars still buzzed the middleweight touring cars who in turn hustled the diesels and compacts. In front of this Honda/SEAT/Porsche trio is the short downhill drop to the final right turn onto the long start straight. From the screeching that echoed back up the hill to me, it sounded like they didn't all make it through.
Our spirits have been raised by the fact that the Speedhunters-sponsored Porsche was up to an impressive fifth overall. Having started 16th, the car slipped back to a low of 22nd in the second hour before rapidly climbing up the order again. The 997 Supercup was seventh by 6pm and then maintained position in the leading pack all the way through the night, even making it to fourth at midnight.
Right up with the Imsa Porsche at daybreak were the two Petronas Syntium BMW Z4s, but the #41 car with Orido on the roster started to fall back after being hit from behind.
This left the #40 car with Nobuteru Taniguchi to take the fight to Imsa, but they also had to contend with the similar Al Faisal Racing Z4 only three laps behind. Exhausts burned as they powered up the hill from the horseshoe hairpin towards the end of the lap.
The Saudi Arabian Al Faisal Z4 finished second in last year's running of the race, so was looking to at least match that.
The RED Motorsport Lotus Exige with its oversized diffuser continued to circulate, but was back in 59th place – almost 200 laps behind the Imsa car which had completed 421 laps by 7am.
Back in the SP3 class the Aston Martins had been split into two groups. As in qualifying the #125 Nicholas Mee Racing N24 didn't have the luck of its sister car, #124, which was up in 23rd place at daybreak on 377 laps. #125 was sporting a lot of damage on the front right from contact with another car and was stuck back in 58th, only a couple of laps up from the Lotus.
As mid-morning came round the #41 Z4 looked more and more like it was about to fall apart.
Imsa Performance just kept circulating though – or at least, their leading #66 car did. The amateur-driver crew in the #65 sister car seemed to absorb any bad luck for the team, and their RSR was retired with over-heating and clutch problems at about 7.30am.
Lap 57's Honda Civic Type R had been on the back of a recovery truck at sunrise, but was patched up, given a quick wash and back out on track soon after.
Smoke billows from the front-left corner of the Jaco's Paddock BMW M3.
Car problems were compounded by mistakes. This is the Australian #72 SEAT Leon Supercopa getting the braking point at the end of the main straight completely wrong.
The straight is another great spot for spectating: cars run flat out three and even four abreast as they slipstream down to the following right-hander. The building work for the Formula One hospitality and hotels are in the background.
Team Black Falcon had two BMWs entered in different classes: a Z4 in A4 and this M3 in SP2. The team has won the German endurance series based at the Nurburgring for the last two years, and their entrance in Dubai would meet with similar success.
Gearbox problems just before midday lost our NFS Porsche 10 laps on the leaders and five positions, but the team were fighting back.
Even though there were now only 20 minutes left the pits continued to be hectic. Final stops for tyres or fuel were still happening, and cars were being nursed along by their drivers. Every rattle and bang would seem louder and every engine misfire worse. Would the car make it to the end?
Some cars were now looking distinctly second-hand. The Team Rush Porsche had been short of parts after a crash just an hour into the race. Spares had to be found from a local Porsche dealer and from cannibalizing bits of road cars – a common event up and down the pitlane. A Clio sat in the pitlane minus its front end and an Aston Martin were up on jacks.
The diesel-powered BMW 120Ds in the D1 and D2 classes were about 20 seconds a lap slower than the top GTs, but a combination of fuel efficiency and, in the case of the BMW Hungary #33, excellent reliability meant the chance for some giant killing. The #33 120D was up to a stunning 12th place overall with an hour to go – only 44 laps behind #66 with 580. The next BMW 120D (in the smaller engine category admittedly) was 80 laps back in 34th!
With 8 minutes to go, the second place #40 Z4 with Taniguchi at the wheel darted into the pitlane for a final checkover, which a two lap lead over the Al Faisal Z4 just allowed to be done safely. Will Roegge and I watched the final laps play out from the pitlane entrance.
But even if your car hasn't managed the whole distance there's always the desperation at 24 hour races to cross the line under your own power, to at least record a finish and make the effort worthwhile. The British WRC Developments Evo X had suffered appalling bad luck from the go, but the crew managed to get the car back out for a few laps at the end. Mark Lemmer, team boss of Barwell Motorsport who we recently featured on Speedhunters, was on the driving squad, but ironically ended up driving the Ginetta of a rival team for more laps than the Evo.
Saturday morning had been tough on the #61 BMW 130i of the Czech K&K Racing team: a broken driveshaft before 6am, then a big crash at 9am with the low-line Sakar had caused heavy damage to both cars. In practice it had been clear that the Sakar was difficult to see from most other cars… Finally engine problems caused the BMW to stop at midday, but the team persevered and the car struggled round for a final few laps at the end.
So after 24 hours, 1 minute 24.668 seconds the #66 Imsa Performance 997 GT3 RSR took the checkered flag, having pretty much controlled the whole race.
Second and third places followed each other across the line, albeit a couple of laps apart on the chart. The BMWs provided worthy competition to the Imsa car, even though they were never really able to match the speed of the Porsche.
The remaining cars then streamed over the line. It's another typical sight in enduros, when cars are often separated by many laps and at the end group together behind the leader to save having to complete more laps. One more lap could just mean that problem you've been battling wins out and you fail to finish.
In the silhouette SP1 class the Hungarian Bovi Silver Sting won, finishing a creditable 13th overall. The two Solution F Touring Cups finished some way back, #171 second in class and 40 laps back.
Whatever it takes, however it looks, crossing the line is the important thing. The #74 SUNRED Leon led a 1-2 in the A3T petrol turbo class ahead of its sister Supercopa in 20th and 21st positions overall – a great result against the GT cars.
At the end of such a long race, there's always a great outpouring of emotion. Drivers, team members, press, fans – everyone is caught up in enormity of completing the event. 24 hours is very long time. Even coming second in class is worth celebrating, as the driver of the #90 Clio shows. Next to him is the A4 class-winning Z4 of Team Black Falcon. The Black Falcon M3 #111 also won its class.
Lukas Motorsport managed a great result with their GT3 Cup, finishing fifth overall just behind the Land team in a similar Porsche.
Almost 60 cars made it across the line: a very good result for an around-the-clock race, especially one with so many teams that are not full-time. Team Need For Speed fought back to seventh at the flag, a good result.
The top three cars were lined up underneath the podium, awaiting the winning crews.
The lead drivers for each car turned up on camels! A traditional Arabic band played them in as they got down by their cars, where they were then presented with traditional hunting falcons.
Finally joining their co-drivers on the podium, the crews could look back at a hard-fought 24 hours. If they compete once, teams seem to return to this race, and each year it gets more quality entries. It'll be interesting to see how it looks in 2011: whether the surrounding building sites are completed and the track's dream of hosting a Formula One race happens. Me, I'll be happy seeing another great 24 hour race like this one. But I'm looking forward to some sleep before then. We'll have more behind-the-scenes Speedhunting from Dubai later this week.