Thursday, 17 January 2013

A trip into the desert

Back from Dubai, then, where I thoroughly enjoyed covering the Dunlop-sponsored 24 hour race as part of the crew. Having now also completed the analysis for, where you can read about average lap times and the like, the time has come for me to update my blog.

The trip began at 9:30am on Tuesday morning - fellow commentator Bruce Jones kindly gave me a lift to Heathrow (in his VW Golf). His excuse that he lived in the country surely didn't sufficiently explain how disgracefully dirty the car was, but as a means of transport it sufficed, and we parked in the long term parking and headed off to terminal 5 to check in for BA flight 107. Once there, we met up with Nick Daman and before long Jim Roller showed up too. Jim had landed that morning from the USA and his first port of call was somewhere to get changed, as it seemed someone had emptied a cup of tea over him on his transatlantic crossing, and in addition to the scald, he also lost the use of a good shirt.

The flight, six and a half hours, was reasonably pleasant although it was gone midnight by the time we had cleared immigration and customs in Dubai, met up with John Hindhaugh and set off through the dark streets to find our hotel. Don't ask me how, but John had managed to persuade Porsche Middle East to lend him a Panamera +4S: luckily Nick managed to keep up in the hired Toyota Previa, and we eventually rolled into the underground car park of the Holiday Inn Express, to get to bed sometime around 2am local time.

Up at 7:30am on Wednesday morning, and off to the track: John and Eve leading the way in the Porsche; Jim, Bruce and I hanging on as Nick weaved through the traffic in pursuit. First stop after the media centre was a meeting with the TV company that was providing the pictures for the event, who needed to know our requirements, just as we needed to know theirs. Then after a quick lunch, it was up to the commentary box, from where we were to cover the Optional Private Test session, which would run from 1pm until 5pm.

Obviously, given its location overlooking the Arabian Gulf, Dubai is pretty much a desert location. I am told that, a hundred years ago, it was merely a creek, where the sea made an inroad into the peninsula on which the emirate now sits, and I can well believe it. The last fifty years have seen a frenzy of building projects, many of which are still underway, and many others of which seem to have been simply abandoned, incomplete.

The track sits in the region known as Motor City, a zone intended to promote the car industry. It was originally intended to attract an F1 Grand Prix, but it seems that the money ran out before all the auxiliary buildings could be completed. Once inside the confines of the track, though, this becomes less obvious, as you are distracted by the paraphernalia of all that a modern international motor race entails. The organisation of the event is first-class; you are made to feel extraordinarily welcome wherever you go and even though there are no support races, you still feel quite busy the whole time.

The commentary booth is ideally positioned on the outside of the circuit, providing a great view of almost all the circuit. It is only the contours of the place that cause cars to disappear out of view at various points. A good view is also afforded of the pits and podium, and a good pair of binoculars is required to see the detail of the further reaches of the place. Of course the drawback of being on the outside of the circuit is that it is a bit of a trek back to the paddock, media centre or catering facilities.

The commentary box itself is well-appointed, with a really effective air-conditioning system, requiring the use of jumper and fleece overnight as the thermostat setting on the wall was beyond any of our abilities to adjust!

On Wednesday evening, the organisers laid on a "Welcome Barbecue Party", which provided enough burgers, kebabs and sausages to keep more than 500 guests happy. There was even a bouncy castle.

On Thursday we concentrated on practice and qualifying - a full day in which there were two free practice sessions, three qualification sessions and night qualifying, running to 8pm. Catering for the event is provided by Marriott Courtyard, which does a fine job, supplying a wide variety of mainly western food for team members, media and race officials. Although this is a great way to keep from getting hungry, it does mean that I am still slightly curious (and completely ignorant) of the local cuisine.

Friday morning - raceday - dawned cloudy, with a bit of a chill in the air. Not that it was catch-your-breath cold, just that you really needed at least a jacket on. Warm-up was at 10:30am, but we still had an early start as we were checking out of the hotel that morning, which meant packing everything into the suitcase and into the back of the Previa. After the warm-up, it was time for another visit to the timekeepers to ensure that I understood how they would be keeping us updated - and keep us updated they certainly did, so if you're reading this, thanks very much!

I found the early stages of the race hard-going, I must admit. Repeated use of the Code-60, and the fall down the field in the early stages of obvious front-runners, meant that there was more to keep track of than I could manage. As darkness fell, and the race settled into its rhythm, though, I was happy enough - and we ended up with a jolly good race, one which held my attention to the end.

But then I am an unashamed fan of 24 hour racing - Dubai was the 53rd 24 hour race I've been at - and I find that the more I go to, the faster they seem to go by. Maybe it's a sign of my age!

Anyway, race over, we uninstalled all our equipment from the booth, packed it all into the bags, and set off for the airport. Nick was flying out a bit earlier, as he was going to join his girlfriend in Goa, while the rest of us had a rather drowsy wait until our flight departed at 2:55am local time. Once in the air, it was time for some serious sleeping, as the BA 747 took us back to temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius, landing at Heathrow shortly after 06:30am. Once again, I was grateful to Bruce Jones for providing me with a lift home, and the family just waking up for a quiet Sunday at home.

A great trip, a super race and some splendid people along the way. Thanks to you all. And an especially big thank-you to my wife, for allowing me the space in our calendar to make the journey. Next stop, the Bathurst 12 hours!