The only member of WRT’s 2016 Dubai 24 Hour-winning quartet to return this year, Britain’s Stuart Leonard shares his secrets for success in the 24H Series season-opener.
1. Traffic management
More than at any other race in the world, cleanly negotiating traffic is imperative for success in the Dubai 24 Hours. Whilst the Nürburgring 24 has a larger entry – 158 cars took the start last year, 62% more than the 98 that will tackle Dubai – the fearsome Nordschleife is almost four times as long as the Dubai Autodrome, where drivers have little chance to catch their breath before weighing up their next pass. With all manner of machinery ranging from GT4s, to 3.0 litre BMWs and 1600 CC Renault Clios crewed by drivers of all abilities, the risk of incident is considerable, as Scuderia Praha’s Matteo Cressoni found out to his cost last year. The Czech team won the last Creventic-organised race of 2016 at Brno in October, but have not returned to the Middle East this year.
Leonard says: It’s quite a small circuit relative to the amount of cars on it, so after the first two laps at the start, you don’t have a clear lap for the whole 24 hours. The biggest deal is don’t hit anyone! It’s really hard, especially when you have a gent in another GT3 car. Often for reasons I don’t completely understand, you’re flashing them, letting them know that you’re coming past on the brakes and they just don’t look and carry on turning into you.
A lot of the drivers come from VLN and I can completely see why, because in VLN you have to do a lot of traffic management – not quite as much as Dubai, but it’s a very good warmup. Every lap you’re overtaking cars or you’re going off the circuit to avoid cars. It’s tough, because it’s quite dirty off-line and it can really affect you for the next three or four corners. That was a big shock last year in my first stint – the first time I had to go off-line around traffic, I was thinking ‘woah, what’s going on?’ It was like driving on slicks in the wet!
2. Refuelling strategy
Uniquely to the 24H Series, the process of driver and tyre changes are altogether removed from refuelling. Instead, cars must trundle down to the end of the pitlane before peeling off into a designated fuelling station. Under a Code 60, where there is significant strategic advantage to be had, teams are only permitted take on half a tank at a time. However, with only 10 pumps shared between the entire field, a poorly-timed stop can carry a major penalty.
Leonard says: We had a bit of a shock last year, because Mercedes could fuel on both sides of the rig, but the Audis were only able to fuel on one side, so it was a bit of a mess. In the first hour we made a blunder and we ended up a lap down after coming into the pits in the top two. It was a mistake we had to learn from the hard way, but fortunately it was at the start, so we were able to recover from it.
It’s literally like turning up at a petrol station, which is a bit strange, especially if you’re used to Blancpain with the flat-out pitstops and refuelling. The speed limit is only 20km/h, which was very difficult to keep to in the Audi, because you only have to tap the throttle and it wants to cough over the limit. It was a very jerky experience!
3. Adapting to the tyres
The 24H Series has a naming rights deal with South Korean tyre supplier Hankook, which have altogether different characteristics to the Pirellis used in the Blancpain GT Series and British GT Championship. Tyre heaters are also prohibited in the 24H Series, putting the emphasis squarely on the driver to bring the tyres up to their peak operating temperature.
Leonard says: There are no tyre heaters, so you’ve just got to be adaptable, although initially it’s a little bit of a shock. I remember the first time going out of the pitlane on the Hankooks, I whacked my foot down but they were stone cold and I ended up doing a full-on drift out of the pitlane. I didn’t mean to do it, but again it’s just a part of it and it’s a bit of a challenge.
Whereas the Pirellis tend to peak in the first two laps, the Hankook is just the same every time, I’d say it doesn’t change that much. It’s a more consistent tire, so probably more gent-friendly than the Pirelli.
4. Get rested up
Equally as important as the time spent in the car is how drivers use their time out of it. Keeping energy reserves in store for when they are needed is a critical skill in a top GT racer and can pay massive dividends during the long night in Dubai, as fatigue sets in. Different drivers have different methods for coping with the strain, but there’s no simple fix.
Leonard says: Sleep management is so important, if you don’t get enough rest then you can be in trouble through the night. I remember one year at Spa we had a camper van on the side of the road which was really noisy! In any 24 hour race you’re always fighting the urge to find out what’s going on versus trying to save yourself for later and rest up, but I think now after doing five or six 24 hour races I’ve gotten more used to that now. For anyone who is experiencing their first 24 hour race, I’d say don’t stay up all night!
At Spa you have three drivers and I actually quite liked double-stinting from the start because by the time I went to sleep I’d already done four hours in the car, so I was feeling pretty tired. When you have more than three, it really depends on how your time gets split up, but if you don’t do a lot at the start then it can be quite hard to get to sleep. Then you can find that you’ve been up all night when you haven’t been driving and then they ask you to get in, so you’ve just got to manage it as well as you can. At some point you have to step away and almost kid yourself into not caring and let them get on with it.
5. Be prepared for the heat (or lack of it!)
Although the race is held in the desert, the January temperatures in Dubai make conditions just about bearable, particularly as well over half the race is held under the cover of darkness. However, with cockpit temperatures in the high 40s around mid-day, drivers who pick the short straw to start and finish will need to be well-hydrated and hope their bosses opted for the air-conditioning option…
Leonard says: After the Sepang 12 Hours, anything felt cold! It wasn’t so bad last year in Dubai, I remember at night when one of the other guys was in the car, I had put on my thick winter jacket because I was cold – I only came to the circuit in shorts and a T-shirt, so heat-wise it wasn’t too bad. I didn’t even use any of the coolers or anything. During in the day towards the end of the race, there were one or two hotter stints, but still it wasn’t any worse than Paul Ricard in the summer.