For a relatively low-key event, this year's running of the Dubai 24 Hours has turned into a game of 'my dad's bigger than your dad'. This used to be a nice, gentle event – for gentlemen. Run what ya bring sort of thing. No pressure. But then that very lack pressure, combined with the attractiveness of the event (a bit of desert sun in January for anaemic European skin?) has gradually brought more and more professional entries since its inaugural running six years ago. Now things are getting serious. And fast. And silver.
This year numbers of top-class GT cars entries have almost doubled to 31 cars, and there's the usual spread of lower-spec GTs, Touring Cars and 24-hour specials filling out the 84-car grid.
Last year we watched French team IMSA Performance win in their Porsche 997 GT3 RSR. They were head and shoulders faster than the opposition. In 2011 we can't move for Porsches. They're everywhere. Open a garage door, there's another one of them. There are 12 alone in the top A6 class, and then another eight in a dedicated 997 class for older Cup 911s.
But it's not all going Weissach's way, even though Germany does seem to be the go-to place for endurance racers. Team Need For Speed have upped their game, replacing the Porsche Cup car they ran last year with the pair of BMW Z4 Coupés they've been running in the European FIA GT3 series this year.
Both cars have impressive line-ups: with Patrick Soderlund unable to drive, Edward Sandstrom has been joined by his FIA GT3 team-mate and race winner Claudia Hurtgen along with Brazilian World Touring Car driver Augusto Farfus and ALMS driver Tommy Milner. The second Z4 has an all-American line-up, with BMW marque specialist Bill Auberlain and NASCAR road course ringer Boris Said the stand-outs.
There are plenty of other interesting drivers on the entry list: whilst we were reading the latest list on the flight over to Dubai there was a constant flow of exclamations as we came across yet another well-known race driver. On top the top-line national-level professionals we'll be watching out for Peter Kox (stepping across from his Reiter GT1 Murcielago to a Gallardo for Dubai), FIA GT and multiple DTM champion Bernd Schneider, Porsche factory driver Sascha Maasen, the return of NASCAR's Michael Waltrip, and both sons of F1 legend Nigel Mansell: Leo and Greg, driving in the Lotus Evora.
The cars were sea-freighted out, so again I was greeted by the rows of empty containers when we arrived on the Wednesday. The teams were already unpacked, and the containers turned into offices, storage units, bedrooms, kitchens and whatever else the teams would need.
With space so tight – cars three deep in some garages – you do what you can to store your kit. This Porsche team lashed up bubble-wrapped spare panels to the roof!
Walking through the garages it was the same story everywhere: mechanics frantically preparing cars whilst the drivers prepared mentally for the earlier-than-expected track outing.
Cars would be going out a day early: it had been decided to open the track for two hours of free practice because of the sheer number of competitors and the lack of testing: most cars had been away from their home bases and in transit since before Christmas, so drivers needed to get their collective eyes in.
This extra time meant breaking out the old tyres: no point wasting fresh, expensive rubber just for learning the track. Best do the learning, then do the leaning on the new boots.
Some cars wouldn't be going out. I'm not sure if this was a scheduled change or not, but the Hong Kong entered Ginetta G50 was in the middle of a complete engine change. It didn't look like fun.
The Dubai Autodrome has a reasonable amount of lighting around the start-line, but the back of the track is very much in the dark during the night. Cars have sprouted enormous rally-style lighting packs.
Walking around the pits amongst the garish team kit and fluro vests, it could be easy to forget that were in the Middle East: Emirati locals in traditional dress ground the event, along with the Heritage Village area at the back of the paddock.
The day finished with the last couple of cars going through the scrutineering process: the cars in the 24 Hours are split across nine classes according to engine and car type, from 6.2L Mercedes Benz to 2L diesel BMW 1-Series, but each class is in turn balanced.
The next morning our hotel car park eye candy was this white SLS.
Approaching the track, we were then burned up by this Rolls Royce! He seemed to have no problem heeling round the loose surface of the perimeter road, and slowed down for the vicious speed bumps less than we did in our big US Ford SUV!
Parked up in the media car park, we liked the black versus white symmetry. A lot of cars in UAE are, of course, white. They've painted the windows in the media centre black, 'to cut down on distractions', but all it's done is turn the acres of glass into a massive radiator.
I took time out from being slow-roasted in the media centre to attend the teams' briefing, along with the hundreds of drivers and team bosses. A 20 minute lecture took care of the basics for the weekend, to reinforce the rules and regulations. Balance Of Performance changes are being applied to stop anyone running away in their class. One of the things this involves for the top GTs is the Best Possible Reference Lap Time: the notional fastest lap that a car can drive at. The idea of that is to stop GT3s sand-bagging during practice and then blasting out sub-2 minute laps at will during the race. Break that time and you'll be penalised.
Back out in the car park things were looking up: particularly with this all-carbon Ford GT.
A quite like flat black vinyl wraps, but pure carbon is the way to go. If you have a very large wallet. And don't live in a hot country maybe…
Also on display was this body-kit enhanced Ferrari 430 Scuderia.
This uprated version has mean-looking tunnels at the rear to complement its raked front aero pack.
But pretty soon it was time to get into the pit-lane to check out the morning's first Free Practice session. Along with the Donkervoort, the other unusual car is the Lotus 2-11. It's a popular trackday car in Europe, and a very quick car: it's one of the fastest in its SP3 class.
It might have only been Free Practice, but it was chaos out on track. The nine classes give nine different levels of performance. It's most obvious on the straights, and particularly on Dubai Autodrome's long run form turn 9 to 10. The GT3 would be forcing their way through, bursting through gaggles of tourers. This was whilst the TCs were having their own tussles: I was surprised to see the 130i come back and outdraw the M3 down the straight!
From this angle the Mosler MT900 looks like a classic mid-90s McLaren F1…
The 3.6L Brokernet Silversting might not have a name that rolls off the tongue, but it's plenty fast on track: it's in the mid-range SP2 class for one-off specials and modified cars that includes the Mosler and the silhouette racers.
This year a MINI Cooper S is being run by the German Besaplast team in the A2 class, alongside a 997 Cup Porsche.
One of my favourite cars to watch is the SEAT Leon Super Copa: there are seven Leons running, and I love their extreme body kits and three-wheeling through the corners.
The turn 12 hairpin is a good place to watch, as the uphill off-camber corner throws the cars off line and means the SEAT's start waggling their front wheels in the air! Not ideal with a front-wheel drive car.
The Dubai skyline dominates the track even this far out. There's been some building work since we were here last year – definitely some tidying up – but not that much actually finished… Cranes still litter the horizon.
Liveries can make or break a car. You would think you couldn't go wrong with a Ferrari in red, but I really don't think this scheme does the car justice. For every good looking car, it has to be said there are some appalling liveries. On principal I'm refusing to take pictures of the Jordans.nl trio of Audi R8, SEAT Leon and Saker Sportscar because of their revolting lime green and purple.
Compare that to the purity of the SLS teams, taking a lead from the classic Silver Arrows liveries of years gone by.
And then of course there's Andy Blackmore's stunning wireframe scheme on the Team Need For Speed BMWs. Here's a shot by the man himself – I'm looking forward to getting a good look at them during the night of the race!
Into the afternoon's qualifying it was the Dutch JR Motorsports BMW GTR that headed up the touring car classes, with 2:11.519s lap.
But up front was the Reiter Lamborghini Gallardo, posting a 2:00.753s lap – and right behind them was the Gulf Gallardo, making it an all-Lamborghini front row. The Mosler was next up, and Team Need For Speed's BMW Z4s claimed sixth and 10th – but it could well be that a lot of the GT3 teams are playing games with the lap reference point: we'll have to wait for tomorrow to find out!
The race starts at 2pm local tomorrow, and I'll be following Team Need For Speed's progress throughout the race. Their first problem will be repairing the #77 car: it's been heavily damaged in the night practice session with Boris Said at the wheel. He's okay, but that's more than can be said of the BMW…