The motor racing season – or at least, the GT season – shouldn’t really be called a ‘season’ anymore.
Thanks to the revelation of Middle Eastern track-building, it’s now possible to run races throughout the European winter at venues like Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain International Circuit and the 3.3 mile Dubai Autodrome.
That means the GT teams are kept busy pretty much all year round, with the last major race of 2016 ( the Gulf 12 Hours) taking place on December 15 and the opening round of the 2017 season occurring this weekend at Dubai (January 13-14)…. not that we’re complaining!
Since its inauguration as a predominantly touring car-based event in 2006, the Dubai 24 Hours has become a trusted curtain raiser for the calendar year. Now part of Creventic’s globe-trotting 24H Series, it’s also become a hot-bet for GT3 competition, attracting some of the best drivers in the world who want to get straight to work on their new year’s resolutions (winning races, we imagine).
Not to lose sight of its tin-top origins, the race also features a healthy grid of ‘TCR’, ‘A3’, ‘CUP1’ and ‘A2’ class cars in which you’ll find Renault Clios, Honda Integras and even a Peugeot 208 GTI mingling with the gristly GT3 machinery.
This year’s entry list features a massive 98 cars, a step up of 29 from the first race 11 years ago.
A total of 13 cars are listed in A6-Pro, the top category for GT3 teams. Defending race winner WRT is back with a single-car effort, although Stuart Leonard is the only driver from that victorious 2016 lineup to retain his seat for this edition. Leonard will share the #4 Audi R8 LMS with Blancpain Sprint champions Christopher Mies and Enzo Ide, while Robin Frijns and Ruben Maes are also included in the competitive-looking quintet.
Audi’s customer programme is also set for Dubai, with Optimum Motorsport running a single R8 LMS. Factory driver Christopher Haase should be one to watch at the top of the timesheets, and with British team members Joe Osbourne, Ryan Ratcliffe and Flick Haigh on board the Optimum squad could give the works entry a run for its money if it stays out of trouble
In addition to WRT, several other Blancpain Series regulars will be out in force this weekend, notably the two Black Falcon Mercedes AMG GT3s containing five previous winners of the Dubai 24 Hours. Khaled Al-Qubaisi and Jeroen Bleekemolen are joined by Patrick Assenheimer and Manuel Metzger in the #2 car, while the #3 Merc features three-quarters of the 2015 winning lineup with Abdulaziz Al-Faisal, Hubert Haupt and Yelmer Buurman being joined by Maro Engel and Michal Broniszewski.
No manufacturer hailing from outside Germany has won the Dubai 24 Hours overall (it’s currently Audi: 1 victory, Mercedes: 3, BMW: 3, Porsche: 4) so GRT Grasser Racing will be ultra-keen to make its mark on the race with a pair of proven Lamborghini Huracans. Mirko Bortolotti spearheads the charge in the #963 car alongside Christian Engelhardt, Rik Breukers, Rolf Ineichen and Mark Ineichen, while Rolf and Engelhardt are also listed in the sister car with Ezequiel Companc and Adrian Amstutz. The other customer Huracans run by Konrad Motorsport and HB Racing – the latter featuring British GT ace Sam Tordoff – could also find their way into the mix, but coming up against teams with the factory might of WRT or Black Falcon will be a tough ask.
Another A6-Pro entry to look out for is the Renault RS.01 entered by UAE-based outfit GP Extreme. Ex-Formula One driver Jean-Eric Vergne is marked down to make his 24 hour debut, alongside renowned GT racer Nicky Pastorelli, 19-year-old GP2 protege Louis Deletraz, and former Dubai A6-Am class winner Jordan Grogor. With both experience and youthful fervour in the GP Extreme camp, the oddball Renault could stand a chance of a high finish if reliability can be achieved.
Of the Porsche contingent, there are three 991 GT3-Rs represented on the entry list, including one for Manthey Racing.
Olaf Manthey’s team includes a recently signed Porsche factory driver in Sven Mueller, who is on his first race duty since receiving the call up in December. Also slated to drive the #12 car are Matteo Cairoli (another member of the Porsche system) and German drivers Otto Klohn and Jochen Krumbach.
Two other Porsches entered by IMSA Performance and Herberth Motorsport – the latter featuring 2015 World Endurance Champion Brendon Hartley – complete the impressive A6-Pro entry.
In the A6-Am category, which also permits GT3 cars but incorporates a ‘minimum lap time’ rule to regulate the competition. Drivers deemed be to be too quick for their allotted benchmark will come under the behest of the stewards, although some leniency is afforded for the first couple of offences.
The WRT squad leads the 11-car entry in A6-Am, with former Audi LMP1 star Marcel Fassler taking the reigns of the #5 R8 LMS. Joining Fassler will be Michael Vergers, who won the Le Mans Series LMP2 class back in 2006, plus Saudi Arabian drivers Mohammed Bin Saud Al Saud and Mohammed Bin Faisal Al Saud.
Three-time Le Mans winner Fassler isn’t the only big name in the Am ranks, either. Robert Kubica, once a star of Formula One and now seeking to ply his trade in sportscar racing, will get behind the wheel of a Porsche 991 GT3-R with Porsche GT factory driver Wolf Henzler plus Robert Lukas, Marcin Jedlinski and Santiago Creel.
Looking further down the entry list outside the GT3-oriented classes, there are several jump-out names that are worth a mention.
In SPX, ByKolles LMP1 driver Oliver Webb is listed alongside a Lamborghini Super Trofeo.
Former Corvette Racing star Andy Pilgrim, who plied his trade at Le Mans in the early 2000s before racing for Cadillac, will take part in the spec Porsche 991 Cup class. Pilgrim’s last race appearances came in the GTD class of the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship last year.
BMW works driver Jens Klingmann is to also get behind the wheel of a Porsche 991 Cup, sharing the seat with Jorg Muller and last season’s British Formula 3 runner up Ricky Collard.
Inaugural GT Academy winner Jann Mardenborough will be assisting the latest cohort of Nissan and Playstation’s virtual-to-reality driver programme in a Nissan 370Z-GT4. The Dubai 24 Hours will be the first 24 hour race for 2016 winner Johnny Guindi (who made his debut in October at a British club meeting), whilst previous victors Romain Sarazin and Ricardo Sanchez also get the nod to drive.
And finally, German outfit Reiter Engineering will run a KTM X-BOW in the same category for GT4 cars.
You can view a full entry list for the race here.
The 2016 edition of the Dubai 24 Hours takes place this weekend (January 13-15), with the race set to begin under a rolling start at 14:00 local time.
This year’s event is supported by the new-for-2016 Creventic Protoype series for LMP3, G57 and CN cars, plus the TCR Cup Middle East.