Now established as the traditional curtain-raiser to the GT calendar year, the Dubai 24 Hours is far from your average ‘back to school’ day. Indeed, with a colossal 98- car entry set to share the Dubai Autodrome’s 5.39 km track, the 24H Series premiere is as true a test of mental and mechanical endurance as any other endurance race on the planet. Ahead of the 12th running of the event, Racing.GT editor James Newbold takes you through the five major talking points.
1. Ex-F1 racers make 24 hour debuts
This year’s entry list is filled with more glittering names than ever before and none will be more recognised than the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix winner Robert Kubica. The Pole’s story is well-known – his burgeoning F1 career was cut short by a nasty rally accident which left his right forearm partially severed and required two years of surgery.
After a stint in rallying, Kubica has been actively exploring a return to circuit racing and has made one-off appearances in the Mugello 12 Hours, Renault Sport Trophy and the 6 Hours of Rome at Vallelunga, however this will be his first foray into 24 hour racing. The 32-year-old will join Porsche factory ace Wolf Henzler in the Forch Racing 911 GT3-R, although as an A6-Am entry, they will have to keep to a minimum laptime delta.
Fellow F1-refugee Jean-Eric Vergne is in a similar boat as a 24 hour racing rookie, but has even less experience than Kubica, having never previously raced with a roof over his head. The Frenchman made an instant impression on his last foray into a new category, taking pole position for the Punta del Este e-Prix in 2014, although that could be partly explained by the other Formula E teams still getting to grips with their brand-new machinery.
That obviously won’t be the case in Dubai, but it would take a brave man to discount Vergne altogether, particularly with a strong set of team-mates alongside him in the GP Extreme Renault RS01. Highly-rated Renault junior Louis Deletraz and Renault Sport Trophy regulars Nicky Pastorelli and Jordan Grogor, both of whom will already be familiar with the car, complete the line-up.
— Louis Delétraz (@LouisDeletraz) January 7, 2017
2. WRT and Leonard back to defend their title
In the absence of Laurens Vanthoor, Michael Meadows and Alain Ferte, Stuart Leonard is the one of last year’s winning quartet to defend his title, but the WRT driver roster is arguably just as strong as before. The Briton will be joined by Christopher Mies, Robin Frijns, Blancpain Sprint Cup champion Enzo Ide and the Belgian’s Bronze-rated former co-driver Ruben Maes.
For his part, Leonard has benefitted from having a full season under his belt in the Audi R8 GT3 and is confident of hitting the ground running, having been testing at the Dubai Autodrome since Saturday.
— Audi Middle East (@AudiMiddleEast) January 7, 2017
“I had a bit of a confusing start because I started on the Yokohamas, then went to Hankooks, then did Pirellis in Blancpain and the confidential Michelins on the Nordschleife,” the Briton explained. “It was quite hard because every time I got in the car it would behave quite differently depending on what tyres you had it on – for example, the stability on braking was very good on Yokohamas, but on the Pirellis it was not so good.
“Generally the first year with the new car is always a bit of a learning curve and when you have so many different drivers who each drive the car differently, it’s quite easy to get lost in that. It was only really by the end of the year that I felt like I got to grips with what I need in the car, but this year I would say I do have more confidence coming into it. I’ve worked now with Robin for a year, so we know more or less what each other need and we are able to put the pie together and hopefully it should help us going forward to get there quicker in free practice ready for the race.”
Dubai will also be Ide’s first outing since confirming his surprise title in Barcelona and Leonard was full of praise for his achievement.
“It’s a really good line-up, Enzo was really impressive last year when you look into his driving and his times. Being in the WRT camp I can see everyone across all the cars and I have to say he’s been very impressive, so I think we’re in a very good place with the Silver drivers. I don’t even have to go into Robin [Frijns] and Mies, they’re definitely two of the best.”
3. Hartley headlines strong Porsche factory contingent
Having missed out on victory to Audi in both the FIA GT World Cup and Sepang 12 Hours at the tail end of 2016, Porsche’s their determination to start 2017 on a high note is clear for all to see, with several works drivers populating the entry list.
— Racing GT (@RacingGT) January 3, 2017
Among them is former FIA World Endurance Champion Brendon Hartley, who will share the Herberth Motorsport 911 with brothers Robert and Alfred Renauer, Daniel Allemann and Ralf Bohn. It will be the Kiwi’s first appearance in a GT car since he contested the Bathurst 12 Hours in a United Autosport Audi in 2013, but his team-mates certainly have good form, as dominant winners of the Zandvoort 12 Hours, Paul Ricard 24 Hours and Barcelona 24 Hours last season.
Newly-promoted works driver Sven Mueller and Matteo Cairoli fought out the Porsche Supercup between them last season, with the title going the way of the German after a rare mechanical failure thwarted Cairoli in COTA. The pair will need to put any lingering tensions to bed when they team up in the A6-Pro Manthey 911 alongside Jochen Krumbach and Otto Klohs.
Just like Cairoli, Mathieu Jaminet – who won three out of the last four Supercup races as a rookie last year – will also be making his 24 hour debut, joining Spa 24 Pro-Am winners Maxime Jousse, Raymond Narac and Thierry Cornac in an all-French line-up at IMSA Performance.
4. Tordoff getting Lamborghini mileage
Sam Tordoff is set for a busy 2017 after switching over from the British Touring Car Championship and is using Dubai to gain some valuable mileage in the Lamborghini Huracan ahead of his British GT foray with Barwell Motorsport. Throughout his time in touring car racing, the Yorkshireman was praised for his clean and methodical style of racing, which should serve him well in Dubai, where good judgement in traffic is a prized quality.
— Sam Tordoff (@samtordoff) January 10, 2017
Tordoff will team up with the Austrian HB Racing squad led by the ultra-versatile Norbert Siedler, whose father sadly passed away in the build-up to the event. GT Masters regular Florian Spengler and gentleman driver Herbert Handlos complete the team.
Siedler is one of 20 drivers set to compete in both the Dubai and Daytona 24 Hours later this month. Three teams, including Manthey and fellow Lamborghini entrants Grasser Racing and Konrad Motorsport, will also do both events.
5. BMW M4 GT4 in competition debut
Away from the battle for outright victory, there are numerous developing subplots in the SP3 class for GT4 machinery, not least the competition debut of BMW’s new M4 GT4. The car, which will be entered by Schubert Motorsport for BMW stalwarts Jorg Mueller and Jens Klingmann, plus BRDC British F3 graduate Ricky Collard, will be developed extensively during the 2017 season and made available for customers in 2018.
— Jorg Müller (@JorgMueller) January 8, 2017
There will be plenty of British interest in the class too, with Nissan GT Academy Team RJN running a 350Z for Jann Mardenborough, Ricardo Sanchez, Gaetan Sarazin and the latest GT Academy International Champion, 22-year-old Mexican Johnny Guindi. A trio of strong Ginettas from Century Motorsport, Optimum Motorsport and CWS will each be hoping to launch a challenge, as will the track-club Lotus Evora featuring British GT regular Jamie Stanley.
KTM are also represented, courtesy of an all-female line-up from Reiter Engineering. 19-year-old Reiter Young Stars winner Caitlin Wood from Australia will contest the Blancpain Sprint Cup with the team this season and will have her first taste of 24 hour racing alongside Norway’s Anna Rathe, Naomi Schiff of South Africa and Swiss Marylin Niederhauser.