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.
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.