After what felt like an eternity since our last outing at Barcelona in the FIA 24 Hour Series, come January, it was time to head out to Dubai for Round 1 of the 2016 campaign, for my second ever 24 Hour car race.
Driving again for Preptech UK in their Class A2 Gen III Renault Clio Cup car, we’d made several improvements to the car since last round, and were hoping not only to finish the race, but to show a positive increase in pace too.
The driver lineup remained the same as Barcelona, except with an exciting addition in the form of 16-year-old Alex Sedgwick, the youngest driver on the grid. Alongside myself and Alex, would again be Cody Hill and Andrew Gordon-Colebrooke.
The 2016 edition of the 24 Hours of Dubai was growing in excitement notably due to the huge grid, with a capacity 100 cars entered – so the circuit was sure to be busy!
We arrived at the circuit on Tuesday, with enough time to get car and equipment scrutineered, and also a track walk for the four of us in the evening. That back straight really is as long as it looks..
Wednesday – Testing
Wednesday morning would bring our first laps around Dubai Autodrome in the Clio. I was out first in the car, to run-in our new engine, which so far had done zero miles. My job therefore was to follow running in instructions and to monitor oil pressures etc. to ensure all was ok.
This was all on a damp circuit, with rain (!) having been falling throughout the course of the day. Despite running the engine in, we were one of the quickest cars on circuit – all that wet weather in the UK proving to be an advantage after all, though the rain wouldn’t last for the weekend.
The rest of the day allowed the four of us to get used to the circuit with 99 other cars also circulating.
As early as Wednesday, we’d lost one of the BMW Cup cars into a barrier, so down to just the 98 cars to negotiate!
Thursday – Qualifying
On Wednesday I didn’t get much opportunity to actually test the car in dry conditions, so Thursday morning practice was given to me to learn the circuit in the dry. With a few laps, it was clear that our engine upgrade since Barcelona was a good idea, with the pace being noticeably improved.
I was happy with the car, but kept getting traffic in poor areas of the circuit, so could never put in a ‘quick’ lap. I’m never keen on pushing on practice days anyway; but the one clear-ish lap I did have, I made a mistake running wide through Turn 11, which effectively ruined my lap.
By the end of Thursday it looked on paper as if I was off the pace of team mates Cody and Alex, but in my head I knew the pace was there if given the opportunity.
Cody took to qualifying with the Clio, and put us a highly credible 5th (out of 13) in class.
Friday – Race Day (Qualified 5th in Class)
Early on Friday, we arrived to the heat and sun which we’d expect from Dubai, and decided on our driver rotation for the race.
Alex was to start the race, having shown great pace in practice, and despite his age, has great experience with hectic race starts too.
My stint was to be the third for our team, with our order being Alex Sedgwick, Andrew Gordon-Colebrooke, myself, and then Cody Hill.
First Stint (6pm – 8pm)
As Andrew came into the pits, all seemed normal, until we tried to start the car again for me to leave the pit lane – to no response. The dash was also showing no data whatsoever, and no amount of button pushing and turning things on and off resolved the issue. Into the garage for an early race problem, then!
We eventually found the problem to be a failed ECU, not great considering this was brand new! The only other ECU we had available was for a standard (rather than our upgraded) Clio Cup engine (our spare engine), so we swapped this in, and decided to run the engine anyway, and see if it was driveable.
I took to the circuit, just about able to pull away with what was clearly a very-wrong ECU for our engine. At least this meant we could circulate, while the team tried to locate a proper ECU for our different engine. Pace was bad, about 8-10 seconds off the pace, with the engine being just about driveable and with some real oddities at certain points of the circuit.
Thankfully about 5-6 laps later, we found Team Sally Racing, who had a spare ECU and were willing to lend it to us. Thanks so much to you guys, without your assistance our race would effectively have been run by this stage! It says a lot about the championship, that a team is willing to help a direct competitor to get them back to full pace.
With the ECU swapped over, we could continue at full race pace, albeit having lost 7 laps and dropping to P11 in the process of all of this.
Second Stint (2am – 4am)
Coming out of the pits, on the opening few laps the car felt awesome, really well balanced, and despite the darkness, I was able to push on.
We were still pushing to find lost time from earlier in the race, and were now up to P7 and catching the others in our class. Pace was clearly very good.
Traffic was really difficult during the night, with distance being difficult to judge, only being able to see other car’s lights – so with 98 other cars on circuit, we were getting traffic virtually every single corner.
In relatively clear-air, I was able to get down to a 2:23 lap time, with our best at this stage having been Alex’s 2:23.222 early in the race. One lap after the other, the car felt incredible and I was able to place it exactly where I wanted, corner after corner.
7 laps one after the other of 2:23 lap times, and I felt really comfortable and consistent with the car. During this stage I was to set our team’s fastest lap time of the race, a 2:23.172, despite the 3am darkness! Given the car during daylight I’m sure we could have run 2:22s consistently.
We were now up to P5, 4 laps away from a podium position, and we were the leading Clio Cup car – a feat we also managed back in Barcelona. With our pace, a top three was definitely still on the cards!
Third Stint (10am – 12pm)
My final stint, but unfortunately during the time between these two stints, we had a car failure which was to spell the end for our podium push. During Andrew Gordon-Colebrooke’s stint, the Alternator had failed, resulting in zero electrical power and the car needing to be towed back from the circuit. Again this was a brand new component, so really frustrating and poor luck for two brand-new parts to fail.
We were now just looking to finish the race; easier said than done with the amount of accidents going on around us and amount of cars to negotiate!
By now we were back down to P9, several laps away from most of the others in our class, so the final few stints were just about us pushing to see where we could end up.
My final stint was fairly uneventful, the way it ought to be in endurance racing; with pace remaining good, although the front tyres in this stint were a used set, so nothing like the pace of my earlier stint.
Race Result (7th in Class, 55th Overall)
My final stint was followed by Cody and then Alex to finish the race – both did a great job again, with Alex taking P7 in the final 20 minutes of the race. 7th, and 55th overall, was a fantastic position considering all that had gone on for us in the race.
The car had really been faultless apart from two unfortunate electrical issues, so once again a big thanks to Preptech UK for superb preparation and running of the car during the event – the whole team worked so well as a unit, we really deserved a lot more than we got!
A huge thank you to Paul at Sunniva Carpeting – without your support, I would not be able to compete in this events, so a big thank you.
We now look ahead to other events on the FIA 24 Hour Series calendar, with Dubai just the start of the 2016 endurance campaign!