Monday, 6 February 2012

Reflecting on Dubai and Daytona

January. Usually a pretty quiet month, motor-racing-wise. If I don’t go to the NEC for the Autosport show, then there’s usually not much reason to worry about motor-racing things. This normally means that I can devote myself to family matters, and the panic that goes with having a son whose birthday is three weeks after Christmas. This year has been different, though. First of all, I was asked if I would attend the Dubai 24 hour race, and this was swiftly followed by an invitation to the Daytona 24 hours, covering both as part of the Radio Le Mans team, which would be broadcasting for the Motors TV coverage of these events in Europe, as well as other outlets, too numerous for me to keep track of.

Luckily, my dear wife expressed little objection to my flying off to both these events – although to be fair I think she would have rather have me stay at home, but understands my passion for the sport, and knows how grumpy I would be if I would have stayed at home. And I never like to turn down an invitation.

Dubai and Daytona lie roughly on the same line of latitude - Dubai is about four degrees further south than Daytona, which is roughly the same amount that Le Mans is south of Silverstone. The Dunlop Dubai 24 hours is organised by the Dutch Creventic organisation, and encourages the participation of amateur, privateer, drivers and teams. These days, the Rolex Daytona 24 hours is a Grand-Am race, and is in many ways a pale shadow of the race that I first visited in 1990, which was then a full-blooded prototype rehearsal for Le Mans.

Despite now taking place for the seventh time, Dubai suffers from not having the same heritage as other 24 hour races that I attend. Even the Silverstone 24 hours has echoes of Willhire races of the 1980’s. And I would also suggest that, despite having a climate that makes being out-of-doors a far more pleasant experience in January than it would be in England, Dubai’s location is not really appealing.

I had never visited any part of the Middle East before, so everything was new to me. On arrival, I had an open mind, and the welcome was warm in all senses. But the Gulf of Arabia is bordered by not much more than desert. As one of the ‘Emirates’ in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Dubai shares the same motor racing history as Bahrain or Abu Dhabi. In other words, very little heritage and lots of inherited wealth. There was a certain overt opulence about the place that was somehow tasteless, and materialistic poverty was never far out of sight. It was probably little different from the discomfort I would feel if I would attend a parent’s evening for students at Eton college, but that may be as much a reflection of a xenophobia on my part as anything else.

I think the location of the circuit, a little way away from the city centre might have also a part to play in my lack of enthusiasm for the place. The drive from hotel to track was through half-completed building projects, some seemingly abandoned, along roads still under construction. And at the circuit, many buildings are also as yet incomplete, giving the place a somewhat unready feel. Despite the warmth of the temperature, looking out across the desolate landscape didn’t do anything for the soul.

Daytona, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. I do like Florida, having been many times, for business, pleasure, and to visit the Daytona International Speedway – where I have now seen five twenty-four hour races, and once (in 1993) the Daytona 500 Winston Cup race. Although I prefer the Gulf (west) coast of Florida to the Atlantic side, I know of few places more pleasant in the early months of the year to go, in order to escape from grey, dreary and damp England.

Daytona has history, in racing terms. From tales of land speed record attempts on the beach to legends like ‘King’ Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and ‘Fireball’ Roberts, images of cars racing past a blurred ‘Daytona USA’ wall appeared in Boys’ Own annuals of my youth. Arriving at Daytona for the first time and seeing the towering main grandstand rates as high in my memory as my first visit to Monza, Monte Carlo or Le Mans.

Those with good memories will recall that I wrote some “Rumblings” following last year’s Daytona 24 hours. (It’s here if you want to remind yourself). My issue then, as now, is more with the race than with the place. As with the geography, so with the races at Dubai and Daytona: there are some similarities and there are some significant differences.

The 24 hour races at both Dubai and Daytona have some rather artificial rules, which may detract from the purity, but each in their own way add to the strategy and interest of the race and the entertainment it provides. In Dubai, there was the concept of ‘minimum reference lap time’, which was the lap time, faster than which you were not supposed to go. Ten ‘exception laps’ were allowed, but after that, drive-through penalties were handed out. As a consequence, once you had fallen behind, it was mighty difficult to catch up again, especially as the cars with the fastest ‘reference lap time’ fell out of the race early on.

On the other hand, at Daytona, arcane safety car procedures meant that catching up with the leader was merely a matter of waiting for the next full course caution period, when the leading cars (in each class) would be lined up nose-to-tail for the restart. Unless you were in a situation where you were about to fall off the lead lap, or in a position to unlap yourself from the leader in order to get back onto the lead lap, there was little point in trying to really go for it and establish an advantage. Much better to hold station, play follow-my-leader, and save the big effort for the final dash to the flag.

Both formats required sharp minds on the pit wall making the tactical decisions, and in both races the winners deserved the spoils of victory, in my view. Crucially, though, both races held the spectators’ interest throughout. The fact that cars which stopped out on the circuit could be brought back to the garages to be worked on; the fact that, at Daytona, you could benefit from the ‘free pass’, or ‘lucky dog’ to get back onto the lead lap, all meant that there was always action on the track, and a race result that was uncertain until the very end of the race.

Opening up a race in this way may seem unfair on teams which spend most of the time dominating, but it ensures that runaway victories do not happen, which in turn reduces the number of fans that leave before the end of the race, and keeps the competitors and drivers happy.

What made both events especially enjoyable, though, was hosts who genuinely wanted to make their guests feel welcome. Whether the guests were spectators, entrants, drivers or media, one could not mistake the helpful attitude and the eagerness to make a good impression. Despite its heritage, its atmosphere, and all the other things that go to make Le Mans the greatest race in the world, it is a lesson that one day might need to be learnt. Times change.

1 comment:

  1. It was great having you at both events!

    I must admit, endurance races don't seem right without the voice of endurance racing!!