If last year's 24 Hours of Dubai is anything to go by, spectators - who can head to the Autodrome today and watch the race free - are likely to be in for an exciting finish as the clock nears 2pm this afternoon, when the chequered flag will be waved. Last January, after a full 24 hours of action, a mere 49.7 seconds separated the winning Porsche 911 from a hard-charging BMW Z4 in second place.
This time around, there is no sign of the economic slowdown having affected interest in the event, with a bumper entry list of 80 cars representing teams and drivers from the four corners of the globe. "That's the phenomenal thing, the surprising thing," said Paul Velasco, communications manager at Dubai Autodrome. While some similar races in Europe only attracted half this number of entries, Velasco said the Dubai meeting was popular with drivers and mechanics who had enjoyed "such a good time" racing here last year.
There are about 400 drivers and, with each team fielding about 10 mechanics and other staff, close to 1,000 crew and marshals. More than three dozen nationalities are represented. "It's a mix of veterans and young wannabe GT drivers. That's what makes it quite interesting," said Velasco. "You will find the veterans teaming up with a lot of the younger drivers." About 150 tonnes of equipment descended on Dubai in the run-up to the race, brought in by teams coming from countries as diverse as Spain, Luxembourg, Australia, the Netherlands, Japan, China, Poland and Germany.
But the numbers tell just part of the story. The quality of the driver line-up also gives an indication of how high-powered this weekend's event is. Among those on the entry list is Marcos Ambrose, a double winner of the Australian V8 Supercars series and now a competitor in the Sprint Cup Series, the top tier of Nascar racing. He's joining the two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, a veteran Nascar competitor. They'll be piloting a Ferrari F430.
Many Emirati and other UAE-based drivers are mixing it with the top international talent, and they are taking the challenge seriously. No driver is more determined than Mohammed al Owais, a 27-year-old Emirati driving a Honda Civic for the Lap 57 team. For the past two months, the Sharjah driver, who is the reigning UAE Touring Car champion, has stopped eating junk food and has been to the gym twice a day. His punishing training regime has been all but essential because getting through a 24-hour race is no easy task, even when driving duties are shared between four of you.
"People think it's easy - you do two hours, then you go back - but it's a lot of work," al Owais said. "You have to be very focused. It's your responsibility to bring the car back for the other guy. If you destroy it, you destroy it for the whole team. "There's been no McDonald's, just healthy food, and the gym in the morning and the evening." Al Owais, who is also competing in this season's Chevrolet Supercars Middle East Championship, is sharing the Civic with his elder brother Omran, Umair Khan from Pakistan and Saeed al Mehairi from the UAE.
"We purposely built it for this," al Owais said of the 2009 model Type R Civic the quartet are racing. Just as the drivers have to prepare carefully and pace themselves during the event, so the cars are set up with endurance in mind. The focus is on efficiency, reliability and drive-ability rather than outright speed. That means the specifications for the engine, suspension and tyres are different to those for a sprint race.
"With the set-up of the car, you don't go very aggressive," al Owais said. "You need to keep the car very neutral so all four drivers are very comfortable." But while everyone has been hoping to get through the 24 hours without problems, each driver has been determined to put in a good showing. Al Owais and his teammates, who hope to enter their Civic into races at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Malaysia and even in Europe, are looking to drive off with top honours in their A2 class.
"We see the potential," he said. "That's the aim - first, not second or third. We're aiming for the win." firstname.lastname@example.org