It's been an eventful race so far out here in Dubai, with the most exciting news being that Team Need For Speed are out in the lead. The #76 BMW Z4 Coupé took the lead in the fourth hour – and hasn't looked like losing it yet. As rival cars fortunes have ebbed and flowed, #76 has been setting a blistering pace. But there's still a long way to go…
Despite starting at 2pm the race quickly descends into long shadows and twilight, and there would only be four hours of racing before sunset.
As soon as night falls, the race seems to completely change character: the concentration needed by every driver is phenomenal, with over 80s cars of varying speeds vying for the same piece of track.
Earlier in the day the grid formation was pretty much like any other – cars, mechanics, grid girls. The difference was the sheer length of the grid: I needed a taxi to get get me from one end to the other!
#76 had qualified in sixth position – there wouldn't be many cars in front of them for the rolling start.
Everyone seemed pretty relaxed: it wasn't half as hectic as grids in FIA GT for instance. Drivers took their time getting ready.
The big silver elephant in the room is Mercedes. Their trio of SLS coupés set solid times in the top class, but you just got the feeling that they would be in the running when it counts.
For the Speedhunters team, the priority was getting to the first corner in time: that meant cutting short our grid tour and sprinting for the SUV. We headed for the grandstands at the end of the start-straight.
From there you had a good choice of positions: either down low by the fence, on the steps or in the grandstands themselves. Will and I took top cover whilst Rod hunkered down by the fence.
The grandstands back onto yet another half-completed building at the Autodrome: the skeletal structure at least has glazing at this end, which provided some interesting reflections if not the shops, restaurants and hotel it will eventually contain…
It's the waiting… And wondering if you've picked a good spot.
Photographers were evenly spread above and below: no angle left uncovered it would seem!
After two formation laps the field took off. After the initial first corner melée – which everyone actually got through without incident – the cars settled down into three big gaggles: GT3s up front, GTs in the middle and then tourers at the back, with just a few stragglers making their way through from the back. Out in front were the two Lamborghinis, with the #83 Gulf car out-dragging the black Reiter Gallardo into the first corner.
After a cautious start, Claudia Hurtgen in #76 maintained position for a couple of laps before attacking: she quickly moved up to second and hunted down the leading Gallardo, chasing it through the back-markers. But after just one lap we'd seen the first of the race's Code 60s, neutralising the pack: Code 60s are virtual safety car periods, where the cars have to maintain an average 60kph speed, ensuring they slowly circulate on five-minute laps whilst incidents are cleared up.
The cause of the Code 60 was a horrific crash for the #32 Jet Alliance Porsche: it smashed into the barriers at the far end of the track, flattening a corner of the car.
During the shuffling the #15 Reiter Gallardo took the lead – despite having to deal with safety cars and even a sweeper truck – and held it to the end of the first hour. But as everyone expected, the car was fast but fragile – it was rolled back into the garage in the second hour.
The numerically strong and always reliable Porsches were always going to figure one way or another. At the end of the second hour the German #43 Land GT3R was leading with the #1 De Lorenzi GT3 Cup S in third.
It had seemed inevitable that the SLS contingent would run strong, but in fact it was just the #9 car featuring Bernd Schneider that was running well, holding second at this stage whilst its two team-mates had fallen outside the top 20.
A big problem for everyone was the sand. The perimeter roads around the track are covered in sand, which not only got in eyes, cameras and clothes, but you could also see it blowing onto the track as marshals and media drove round!
The warm colours of the setting sun soon bathed the track.
The #77 Team Need For Speed BMW caught up to the #76 car in its second stint, and the two cars circulated together for a couple of laps: but by the end of the third hour #77 was leading!
Porsches took over again in hour four, but Team Need For Speed's BMWs would have a pit-stop in hand. Then the final rays disappeared as the sun sunk beneath the horizon: the cars had already run the equivalent of four regular FIA GT3 races!
Night meant fun for me… I love the sensory overload of night racing, with the colours and sounds fighting the darkness.
Fun for me, but not for all the teams. By early evening there were plenty of cars stuck in the pits, like one of the AF Corsa Ferraris.
Of concern to Team Need For Speed were crankshaft problems for the #19 Liqui Moly Z4… They had the same spec Z4s…
In the pits Boris Said got ready for his stint in #77.
At the back of the garage, there was the contrast between Tommy Milner – next up in #76 – and a relaxing Claudia Hurtgen, not due back in the car until around midnight.
Still the casualties mounted: there have been a number of small fires, mostly from hot brakes, but this conflagration for the #99 Hermes Attempto Porsche GT3R looked particularly nasty.
The fire was extinguished, and the car pushed out back of the garages for a clean-up operation.
That's the great thing about 24 Hour races: it's the Herculean efforts teams put into getting their cars back on track, even when any kind of decent result has pretty much gone. It becomes about survival: defeating the race itself and getting to the finish.
To do that sometimes requires desperate measures. The Track Torque Ginetta team had brought a spare chassis with them, that was already being stripped of parts. I remember last year a street Porsche donating parts to a 911 race car!
The Lamborginis were down, but not all out. The #83 was also waiting for parts, but once it was bolted back together would be another returnee.
The open shipping containers in the paddock continued to provide refuge for team-members, whilst also on 24-hour duty were tyre suppliers Dunlop: their marquee was a hive of activity with the constant call for new rubber.
But out on track everything seemed fine with #76 as the hours ticked by. 9pm. 10pm. 11pm. #76 had now been out front for four hours and the lead kept growing. Four laps ahead by midnight – could they keep it up through the night?