You hear them coming. You know it's them. It's the noise of thunder and lightning. The GT1 Nissan GT-Rs have a unique engine note that means you don't even have to look up to know one is coming. However, standing on the grid waiting for the 18 cars to slot into position it's always best to keep your eyes open. There's no place for bravado: last year at Silverstone I witnessed a driver knocked over by a car cruising into its start place – so when you're mostly looking through a lens the sound helps warn you that danger is approaching.
Yas Marina is the perfect place for GT1 cars: it's futuristic and extreme, and the high-sided grandstands reflect the sharp engine notes around the artificial valleys of the track, echoing strange doppler-effect whumps of V8 growls and V12 howls. Add in night-time, glowing lights, flaming exhausts and 18 GT1 cars and I can't think of many better places to be. I'm amazed that people think this place lacks atmosphere!
The Warm-up session on race-day was at a very agreeable midday, though there was no late start for the JRM and Sumo Power Nissan crews. The morning was soon swallowed up with yet more car prep and pit-stop practice – both real and simulated, the latter because it's the default experience to give to visiting media.
It's always a fun thing to watch, as the interviewers quickly realise just how pressurised something as simple as changing four wheels can be. The regular crew will get the job done in under 30 seconds – visitors struggle to hit 45.
The Nissans hit the track for a couple of installation laps during the 30 minutes: few of the GT1 teams turned more than half a dozen laps, save the ones with completely rookie line-ups. Once again Peter Dumbreck and Richard Westbrook in car #22 topped the time-sheets, but this was more about getting cars dialled in than setting blistering lap times: you could see that cars weren't pushing as hard.
With the late start to the day the Warm-up rolled straight into the grid formation for the Qualifying Race. Cars were quickly turned around in the pits and prepped for the hour-long race by half the team whilst the other half pushed and pulled tyre trolleys and kit out to the grid. Drivers tend to drive the cars out and then often disappear off the grid, but the eight GT-R drivers seem to enjoy hanging out together.
Although the heat was a lot less fierce than the previous day it was still in the 30s, and with a half-hour stint ahead there wasn't any point sitting in a boiling car until really necessary.
From the grid was a brisk walk down to the first corner where, again because of the F1-quality of the track, there's a big photographers platform giving a clear view down the start-straight and around to turn two. The first corner of the first race of the season, 10,000hp on tap and 18 drivers – a quarter of whom are new to the series. It was never going to work. Tomas Enge (who should know better) in the Young Driver Aston Martin made a late lunge down the inside, outbraked himself and spun, which then triggered a chain reaction down the field. He T-boned a Lamborghini, destroying the front of his car and putting the Murcielago out on the spot
Cars scattered to avoid the carnage, but then the DKR Corvette ploughed into the rotating Aston. It really was messy, and through a lens seemed strangely slow-motion – and inevitable. My first thought was how bad it was that it was a Corvette involved: only two of the promised four C6.Rs made it to this first round, so damage to one of the few cars left wasn't good news.
Somehow the remaining 15 cars made it through, with the trio of the surviving Aston, the #41 Ford GT and the #22 Nissan filling the top three places. The horizon at Yas Marina is awash with the combination of floodlights and palms, making a nice symmetry between the man-made and natural trees.
The quartet of Nissans were separated by only a couple of seconds, in third, fourth, fifth and seventh with just a Corvette interloper. Some nice formation flying – and appropriate signage!
The shortened track layout meant missing out the stadium hairpin and its inside-out Death Star look, but it was another good place to spectate as the cars struggled to get to the right of the track and slowed down enough to make the tight left. The only bad thing was that the curving approach meant it was almost impossible to line up an overtake here.
Back on the pitfall, Sumo Power GT team principal Andy Barnes was monitoring the position screens whilst keeping an eye on timing for the pit-stop. Was everyone ready? Team leaders and engineers run the race from the pit-wall, communicating by radio to the drivers and waiting mechanics in the garage.
Once again the pit-stops at halfway in the race proved several cars' undoing. The most notable casualty was the leading Aston: its front-left wheel wasn't properly secured, meaning it trailed round a miserable lap before retiring. But, this set up an amazing 20 minute battle to the flag between the #22 Nissan and the Marc VDS Ford GT. This was great to watch: the Nissan got so close to getting by on a couple of occasions…
…but just couldn't quite make a move stick! Still, second place for the #22 GT-R amidst the end of a sand-storm at the track.
Smiles weren't in short on the JRM pit-wall as next over the line was #23 in third, then #20 for Sumo Power.
A little way back in eighth was the final Nissan, the #20 David Brabham/Jamie Campbell-Walter GT-R.
With points in the Qualifying Race expanded from just the top three last year to the top six that meant a good points haul for Nissan. These TVs hanging in the pits are the main way the people in the pit garages keep up with what's going on: most teams have a pair of displays, one with the TV feed and another with the timing.
Drivers barely get out of their cars in Parc Fermé before the TV crew descends on them – their first thing to do before being interviewed is to ask their team-mate what actually happened in the race!
Whilst the drivers finished their media duties the JRM and Sumo Power mechanics waited to be given access to the cars – all the surviving cars would need to be pushed to scrutineering to go through technical checks. But at least that meant a short break for lunch for everyone, before having a couple of hours to sort out any damage and prep the cars for the evening Championship Race.
It's amazing how quickly time flies: more debriefs and team meetings, another autograph session for the drivers in the pit-lane, and then it was time to get the cars back out on the grid again. JCW had taken the start in the earlier race, and was pointing out some possible ways to approach the first corner. Presumably not locked-up, like the Aston…
The roof of #21 carries a hybrid Australian/Great Britain flag graphic for the two drivers. It's going to be interesting to find out how Brabham found driving with a roof over his head after being in an LMP1 prototype at Sebring just a week before.
#21 was carrying some damage after Brabs had tangled with a Lamborghini in the first race – that had been right in front of me, so I'd captured the whole sequence. I hadn't rushed to show him… The damage to the nose section was too heavy to repair, and the only spare was unpainted carbon – but I think this actually improves the look of the car!
First corner, take two: this time everyone actually made it through, maybe having learned the hard way earlier on in the day.
Enrique Bernoldi in #20 made a stunning start and burst through the pack to pull out an immediate lead. From this angle you can really see the quantity of floodlighting around the track.
After a couple of laps watching from the photographers platform I took up a position getting head-on shots of the cars coming straight down over the line. Much as the track is surrounded by catch-fencing, sometimes you can get great views by focussing right through it.
At the other end of that straight is the last corner, where you can get nice and close to the cars as they arc through the final two right-handers. There's unfortunately rarely a track radio channel that I can listen to when out shooting at tracks, so sometimes you have to guess what's happening, or quickly run into a garage to check a monitor if you're in the pits. Out here alone, I saw #21 dive into the pits early in the race – at first I was thinking it was a genius move, as they were down the order and the stop could catapult them up to the front. After the race I congratulated the engineer… It turned out they'd had a drive-through as Brabs had been taking liberties with the track limits. More proof that keeping quiet is often better.
At night you really see the forces on the car at work, with red-hot brake disks and crackling exhaust flame much more visible than during the day.
Further into the race and the pit-stops were imminent. For the drivers, as soon as their helmets are on they're divorced from the team radio chatter – it's not always clear what happening! Here Michael Krumm was gesturing to the engineers on the pit-wall, seemingly checking that the stop was due.
When the stops begin the pits become a frenzy of activity: cars are blasting in and out all round you, the noise deafening in the overhang of the pit garages and your vision a blur of rushing mechanics. Things had seemed to be going well for Nissan, but then more confusion for me: I thought #23 had been in already? It had, but that had been a puncture! Their real, second stop meant disaster in such a close-run race, and they dropped right to the back.
Things then got worse: the Brazilian GT-R had completed its driver change and was coming down the pit-lane on the limiter as the #41 Ford GT was released right into Ricardo Zonta's path. It was unbelievable to watch as the Ford smacked straight into the side of #20 and ran it the length of the pit-lane. The penalty? A drive-through for #41.
But for #20 it wasn't just bodywork damage and a cut tyre that delayed them: the on-board video from the incident showed Zonta tightening his belts – meaning he hadn't secured them properly at the stop. So, I then witnessed the school-teacher style penalty for #20, as two FIA officials brought the car to a stop and checked the harness. Zonta showed his displeasure by lighting up the rears on the way out, but the car would soon be back in the pits and retired for good with damage from the earlier collision.
With the stops – both planned and unplanned – complete, the mechanics job was done: there was nothing more for them to do except sit and watch their drivers battle to the end. The end of the main race is a strange time for them, a kind of limbo after all the frantic activity of the preceding days.
Up front were two pairs of Hexis Astons and JRM Nissans: the #4 Aston was being chased by the #23 GT-R of Michael Krumm and Lucas Luhr – but they were a lap down on the DBR9.
15 seconds ahead was the real battle: the Hexis crew had turned #3 round in lightning time and leapfrogged the car from third to first at the stops. Westbrook in #22 was right on the limit trying to find a way past: lap by lap the two cars passed me nose-to-tail.
But, like in the Qualifying Race, they couldn't quite make it – but that still meant two second places in one day for #22. A fine result for the JRM team, and something that made up for the problems that had befallen the other three GT-Rs.
After parking up their cars, JCW and Michael Krumm discussed their various misfortunes: they ended up ninth and 14th respectively.
I shadowed the top three driver pairings to the press conference, where they were trying a slightly strange two-deck interview system with the opening driver in the front row and the second driver at the rear.
Whilst most drivers got out of their suits, Michael Krumm immediately sat down with his race engineer to go through the data: ending up a lap down was not in his plan.
With the cars back in the garages, mechanics had to get straight to work packing everything up for the return to Europe: the cars and all the kit had to be crated up as soon as possible for shipping to the airport in the early hours of the morning. Packing crates and boxes appeared from storage and everything in the garages was stripped out.
This is the result of #20's collision with the Ford GT: there wasn't time for repairs on any cars that evening, so any damage would have to be sorted out when the cars were back at base.
The word Sabkahawa had been written on #22 by a visitor to the JRM pit garage: it seems to have brought the car a lot of good luck over the weekend, so I wonder if it will stay on there for round two in Zolder, Belgium in a week's time.
After last year the team have got packing up down to a fine art and the garages were soon emptied…
…as the crates got full. JRM mechanic Gareth Sandells swore he knew exactly what he was putting in each box when asked. I'm not sure I believed him…
Whilst the work went on, the trophies for second place were a nice reminder of a successful weekend. JRM and Sumo Power will be hoping for plenty more silverware this year! Be sure to check out the re-runs of the races and some of the behind the scenes video on the GT1 website.