You might not know it, but as well as the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the UAE hosts one other world-class motorsports competition – and it’s rather more gruelling than a 90 minute whizz round Yas.
Compared in style to the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Dubai 24 Hour will see 80 cars line up on the starting grid at Dubai Autodrome at 2pm on Friday January 10, to be driven by 300 drivers and manned by more than 1,000 crew.
Now in its ninth year, the race has come to be seen as the traditional GT season opener. But for one team the race is an extra special event – the UAE’s very own Dragon Racing, who are based at the Autodrome and are the only local team competing.
We sat down with Dragon Racing’s pro drivers, at the team sponsor Centro Barsha, to find out ten things you need to about the 24 hour showstopping test of endurance.
Dragon Racing will be fielding two Ferrari 458 GT3 Italias with a top speed of 280kph. Why? ‘It’s a Ferrari,’ says UAE-based driver Jordan Grogor simply. ‘There’s a lot of history in waiting here.’
The engine is the same as a standard Ferrari 458 but is chip tuned to produce more power, the gear box and suspension are upgraded, the interior is stripped out to reduce weight and there are aerodynamic enhancements to the car like the large spoiler to increase downforce.
Each car has a team of four drivers, who alternate who’s in the hot seat at every pit stop – typically somewhere between 20-24 times throughout the race, although the exact number is a tightly guarded strategic secret. While the Dragon Racing team say there’s a pre-defined order, this can be changed at any moment. Meanwhile there’s a team of 20 garage staff in the pits for each car.
Driver Khaled Al-Mudaf, 34, of Kuwait, said: ‘We’re going all out, we’re competing with the world class, we don’t cut corners – we’re representing Middle East motorsport’
How do you keep your body going, and functioning at such a high level? Energy drinks?
‘Sugar is a big no,’ says Al-Mudaf. ‘You crash.’ Instead they rely on electrolyte blends to rehydrate more efficiently. It’s normal for drivers to nap between shifts, but the main thing that keeps them going is carbohydrates – with drivers burning between 1,000 and 1,500 calories an hour. ‘You can’t eat enough,’ adds Grogor.
Inside the car
During the race inside temperatures go up to anywhere from 50 to 70 degrees, while the driver’s heart rate rises to 140 beats per second. But it’s still a thrill for some. ‘It’s the greatest feeling in the world,’ says Al-Mudaf. His team mate Grogor disagrees. ‘It’s like training for triathlon – the build up is amazing, the excitement is amazing – but when you’re out there on the track you keep asking yourself “Why am I doing this?”.’
With endurance racing the biggest problem is just making sure you complete the full 24 hours, with around half of teams typically retiring before the race is out. ‘It’s hardest when people retire at the very beginning, or the very end,’ says Dragon Racing’s director of racing and coaching, Rob Barff, admitting a fate likely to hit at least one of the team’s cars.
‘Most of the people who do this race will encounter some kind of trouble – they key to endurance racing is to minimise the amount of time you’re in trouble. A key trick is: Drive the car like it’s made of glass.’
It’s the third time Dragon Racing has competed in the Dubai 24 Hour, this year entering two cars numbered, 88 and 888. The later will be first car to field a complete team of GCC drivers, with members from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE.
‘Middle Eastern motorsport is still in infancy,’ adds Grogor, 32, ‘this is our opportunity create a brand and show the world what a top level team [from the GCC] can do.’
The secret of success
Grogor is says the formula for success is simple: ‘Consistency, reliability, good luck – and team work. You can’t be selfish in Endurance racing.’
‘Endurance racing is like a game of chess – Formula 1 is like a sprint,’ adds Al-Mudaf, ‘[endurance racing] is not racing as fast as you can, it’s not driving at 100 percent – it’s driving at 97 percent.’
Popular folklore holds that Dragon Racing moniker was inspired by team owner Leon Price’s love for the Far East. But there are other benefits, say the drivers. ‘We’re the rebels,’ says Al-Mudaf simply with a smile.
‘Our philosophy is professionally but not serious,’ adds Grogor, ‘we only go racing to win!’
Lots of little boys grow up dreaming of being racing car drivers. With a team made up of pro and semi-pro racers, what’s it actually like to say you race cars for a living, we ask?
‘When you meet women and you say racing car driver is your job, they never believe you,’ laughs Grogor. ‘Thankfully, there’s Google,’ adds Al-Mudaf with a grin.
The Dunlop 24H Dubai 2014 takes place at Dubai Autodrome from 2pm on Friday January 10, and will end on Saturday January 12. Entry to spectators is free. Find out more at www.24hdubai.com. Find out more about Dragon Racing at www.dragonracing88.com.