After a hectic week in Abu Dhabi of performance balancing, testing and set-up, the late start for on-track action on race day meant that teams had a little bit of extra breathing space to prepare for the pair of hour-long races. It also helped counter the fact that the working days were ending so late at the track: night-time races might have that extra magic but they also mean more pressure over an extended time for the mechanics. Also at the back of everyone's mind was the Icelandic volcano: all the teams had made it out to Abu Dhabi, but could they make it back?
The first race – the qualifier for the main race – would be at 4pm, followed by an almost three-hour gap until the night race. Despite being on pole position, the Chevy Corvette of Phoenix/Carsport driven by Andreas Zuber (ex-GP2) and Marc Hennerici (ex-GT3) would be on the back foot, as all the Vettes had been penalised and would suffer a 10-place grid drop. 11th for the main race would be the best they could achieve.
The first thing filtering around the paddock in the morning was good news about Matech Ford GT driver Natacha Gachnang: her qualifying accident had resulted in a double-compound fracture of her right leg but she was recovering in a local hospital. The team reported that the rear brakes failed, but that Gachnang's foot touched the accelerator whilst she was trying to push the brake hard. With only the front brakes working she went straight to the scene of the accident. This is Natacha on her way out to her short-lived qualifying effort…
The Nissan GT-R teams of Sumo Power and SRT were still smarting from the penalty slapped on them in the Balance Of Performance testing during the week: at the front of the pack then, they were now mired in the midfield. Was it really fair, as one of the only manufacturers to make a truly current, 2010-rules car?
For team managers and PRs there was some herding to do before racing started, with a drivers' photo session on the start-line and some team promo photos to organise.
The former is something the drivers know they have to do; the latter is something the mechanics seem to universally dislike. Pushing cars around the pit-lane when there's limited time to work on them is never their idea of fun.
A 'get well soon' panel for Gachnang had been put together for the drivers to sign after their photos.
The brief warm-up session at 1.30pm was almost exclusively used for live pitstop practice. Drivers practising changeovers battled with their own wheelmen to get their job done first.
The blaring warning siren of cars coming into the pitlane was almost constant, making the pitlane an even more disorientating place. Mechanics operate in their own little world, plugged into the team radio net.
Ex-F1 man Mika Salo has been showing well in sportscars and would be starting on the third row in the qualifying race: however, his was not to be a happy race…
Sumo Power managed an encouraging second and fourth with the Warren Hughes/Jamie Campbell-Walter #22 car and Michael Krumm/Peter Dumbreck #23 respectively, and both Ford GTs were in the top five – however, times were over a second slower than the best in qualifying, with laps ranging from 2:08 to 2:15s: pole in qualifying was a 2:06.780 for the #13 Corvette.
After another dose of the local touring cars, it was time for the main qualifying race: the first race of the new global GT1 championship. The result would set the grid for the second, feature race at night. From 3.30pm the cars started to leave the pit-lane and form up on the packed grid.
4pm: blast off. At the rolling start the two-by-two formation immediately dissolved into a four-wide horde as the pack screamed towards turn one. Would they all make it through?
Of course not. The second-placed #2 Vitaphone Maserati was tipped into a gentle spin that soon caused carnage behind: with 22 cars coming up fast they scattered in an effort to get past, but the #7 Yound Driver AMR Aston of Tomas Enge clipped the rear of #2. Both cars limped back to the pits, the Aston trailing smoke and the MC12 with its rear in tatters. Salo's #12 also got caught up and stopped out on the track; this, along with the #34 Triple-H Maserati stalling and the #41 Ford GT left stranded in the pits with a clutch problem meant we were down to 18 runners already.
The Safety Car was immediately deployed and the track neutralised as the marshals ran onto the track to clear the debris. The majority of marshals were regulars from British tracks, supplementing the local crews.
As the #24 Lambo began to slip back from its strong start, Romain Grosjean in the #5 Matech Ford GT was going in the other direction: after starting 11th he scythed through the field and grabbed the lead when #13 Vette of Zuber/Hennerici pitted.
Also on the move was the #8 DB9: Stefan Mücke was making rapid progress up from 20th at the start after taking advantage of the first corner mayhem.
After the last driver changes had taken place, the #13 was back in front, with a comfortable cushion between Zuber and Mutsch in the following #5. The #22 Sumo Power car had started near the back but JCW closed up to his sister cars in the midfield by mid-race.
Fire from the side good; smoke from the rear bad. There was heartbreak for the #11 Mad Croc Chevy at the hands of Xavier Maassen as it belched smoke on the last lap and rolled to a halt at the far end of the circuit, losing a certain fourth place.
The Sumo Power and SRT GT-Rs finished clustered together from 9th to 13th, with a Reiter Lamborghini in the middle of a Nissan sandwich.
At the flag the #13 Corvette was shadowed home by the #5 Matech Ford GT and #1 Vitaphone Maseratie (Bertonlini/Bartels). #13 were obviously pleased at winning the inaugural race in GT1, but will still start only 11th: with the mass Corvette penalty this meant pole for Mutsch and Grosjean in the Ford.
The heat at the track took its toll: drivers were soaked in sweat as they got out of the cars. Cockpit temperatures had been over 40 degrees, and drivers found any fan or air-con unit they could to try and cool down. With another race to go, it was going to be a tough: the evening temperatures hardly drop and the humidity goes up. The cars were cordoned off in their garages under Parc Fermé conditions, which wouldn't be lifted until 7.10pm: only 35 minutes before the main race.
7.15 and the pit-lane opened. As cars began to rumble out, the crew of the #40 Marc VDS Ford GT were frantically trying to fix something under the front of the car… Not the start they wanted. Further up the pit-lane, the Young Driver AMR mechanics were clearing up an oil spill.
Out on the grid, as usual it was a fight between the mechanics trying to carry out last minute prep and the throng of people walking the grid as guests, photographers, PR teams and local dignitaries ebbed and flowed around the cars. Right at the back of the grid was a trio of three Corvettes, all relegated 10 places from the qualifying race.
7.45pm and the cars were rounding the final turn for another rolling start: again the order of the two-by-two start formation self-destructed as soon as they crossed the line and the lights went green.
Yet another first corner clash eliminated the #8 Aston and had the #4 SRT Nissan of Seiji Ara and Max Nilsson crawl round a lap into retirement.
Other first lap casualties included Dumbreck in the #23 Sumo Power Nissan: he'd been turned round at turn 8, the corner at the end of the long back straight, and followed the #4 sister Nissan into the pits, Luckily Dumbreck only had a puncture and would be back out quickly, but a good result was now out of the question.
The chaotic start had shaken up the order: the #25 Reiter Lamborghin was up to fourth from 10th. Ricardo Zonta and Rafael Daniel would make the most of this advantage and managed fifth at the end.
The other great thing about night racing is that you get more of an idea about how cars are working, particularly on the brake bias: the front disks of the #24 Lamborghini were always alight, whereas the #25 seemed more balanced to the rear.
Coming up to the pitstops the top three were glued together: the #5 Matech Ford GT with Mutsch at the wheel, pursued by Bertolini in the #1 Maserati and Zuber in the #13 Corvette.
Zuber fought his way past Bertolini; with Mutsch pitting soon after this meant the Corvette now led!
All four Maseratis were all in the top 10, as were the two Reiter Lamborghinis.
Grosjean was now at the helm of #5, and relentlessly hunted down the #13: when it pitted, Grosjean crossed the line into a lead he wouldn't lose: he put the hammer down and was gaining seconds on his pursuers every lap.
Mike Hezemans is a long-time GT entrant, and he was on fire after getting caught up in the first corner accident: he dragged his damaged #14 Corvette up to 8th by the seventh lap, with the two Mad Croc Chevys not far behind. When Piccini took over at the stop, and monstered the #14 up to an incredible third place after taking the #1 MC12.
It was a poor result for the Aston and Nissan teams: both Hexis Astons retiring and the highest place Nissan the #22 Sumo car in 12th. No points for either team, just plenty of frustration at the Balance Of Performance penalties.
But for Grosjean, the disappointment of losing his seat in F1 must have been slightly tempered by this debut victory – and on his birthday as well! This puts him and team-mate Thomas Mutsch into a five-point lead at the top of the GT1 championship table, from the #13 Zuber/Hennerici 'Vette and #1 Bartels/Bertolini MC12. Round two is at Silverstone in two weeks. The question is, will the cars and teams be able to get back to Europe in time? All flights are cancelled. 24 GT1 cars are sitting in containers at the local airport, and around a thousand team and series personnel are crammed into the local hotels. This Speedhunter, along with everyone else, may be in Abu Dhabi for some time…