Hankook Dubai 24 Hours 2017
Team BLACK FALCON have emerged from 24 hours of racing in the gruelling desert heat of Dubai with a fantastic podium finish overall plus victory in the hotly contested Porsche 991 class.
The #3 Mercedes-AMG GT3 finished third, less than two minutes behind second, after 578 laps of the Formula 1-grade Dubai Autodrome.
The Mercedes was pushed to its limits by Abdulaziz Al Faisal (Saudi Arabia), Hubert Haupt (Germany), Yelmer Buurman (Netherlands), Michal Broniszewski (Poland) and Maro Engel (Germany). Not far behind, the #68 BLACK FALCON Team TMD Friction Porsche absolutely dominated the class for 991 Cups, taking not just the class win but also finishing 12th overall, right in the thick of the faster GT3 specification cars of the A6 class. The driver line-up of Saud Al Faisal (Saudi Arabia), Anders Fjordbach (Denmark), Saeed Al Mouri (Saudi Arabia) and Alexander Toril (Spain) put in a superlative performance across the 24 hours, in a race where neither they nor their incredible pit crew put a foot wrong.
The Hankook 24 Hours Dubai not only marks the start of the endurance racing season but is a blue riband event in its own right. The near-on one hundred car entry comprised cars of massive power differences and driver experience, from small hatch backs to the powerful GT3 cars in A6, putting enormous pressure on all the teams. There would be no rest in the midst of such a large and varied field. Team BLACK FALCON entered five cars across three classes for this opening race of the Creventic 24H Series, with a pair each of Mercedes-AMG GT3s and Porsche 991 Cups alongside a Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport. In addition to the #3 entry, the team’s second GT3-specification, 6.2-litre Mercedes-AMG GT3 featured local driver Khaled Al Qubaisi (United Arab Emirates), Jeroen Bleekemolen (Netherlands), Patrick Assenheimer (Germany) and Manuel Metzger (Germany) in #2. The Porsches were entered under the BLACK FALCON Team TMD Friction banner, all carrying the black, white and gold racing colours of the team. Running alongside #68 in the 991 class, the sister Porsche #69 carried Burkard Kaiser (Germany), Sören Spreng (Germany), Miguel Toril (Spain) and Bandar Alesayi (Saudi Arabia), whilst VLN specialists Aurel Schoeller (Germany) and Fidel Leib (Germany) shared the #243 Cayman GT4 with Mustafa Mehmet Kaya (Turkey) and Gabriele Piana (Italy).
The team shone in qualifying, and were the quickest by far of the seven Mercedes entered in the race. Jeroen in #2 was second fastest in Free Practice before acing qualifying to put his Mercedes on pole position with the quickest time set by any car over the week. The #3 crew were barely slower, but so tight was the A6 pack that they had to be content with starting fifth. In the 991 class, #69 would line up third in class (29th overall) with #68 fifth (31st overall) – both barely a second off the class pole – and #243 would line up in a solid 59th place of 95 starters, around the middle of the SP3-GT4 class.
There were typically hot and balmy conditions for the start of the race; sunglasses very much the order of the day. With the impressive backdrop of the Dubai metropolis skyline and the incredible Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel dominating the skyline, the long snake of cars made its way around the two formation laps on a track that which was slick with sand from a dust storm that hit during the mid morning. The 92 starters quickly stretched out to fill over half the track before being bunched up for the rolling start. Jeroen blasted away at the start to lead cleanly into turn 1; Yelmer in the second Mercedes was immediately pushing to challenge the fourth-placed Porsche ahead on the long run to the first corner. The entire field got through the start unscathed; within two laps Jeroen had stretched out a two second lead, setting a lap time which would stand as the quickest for 317 laps – and even then only be beaten by Yelmer in the sister car early the next morning. On the next lap Jeroen reached the back markers, and traffic would be the primary concern from then on for the next 575 laps.
The surprisingly clean opening period soon turned to more traditional 24-hour race fare, and the first casualties of contact and punctures began to stagger into the pits within the first 30 minutes. This set the scene for the rest of the race and gave the Team BLACK FALCON drivers yet more challenges to deal with on top of the immediate class opposition around them. The #3 car’s first issue was a slow puncture that forced them to pit just 36 minutes in. Soon the first Code 60 safety car period was called to recover a stranded touring car: this neutralised the race, with all cars limited to 60kph. Anders in #68 and Bandar in #69 had quickly made their way forward in 991, and were already up to second and third in class as the end of the first hour approached, whilst Gabriele had moved #243 inexorably up the order in the SP3-GT4 class, from 10th in class at the start to sixth as the second hour ticked round
Jeroen in #2 stretched his opening drive well into the second hour, maximising the pressure before diving into the pits at 15:20 after an impressive 80-minute stint for a perfect stop executed by the Team BLACK FALCON mechanics. Manuel took over the wheel, immediately steering the Mercedes into the busy in-field refuelling area before rejoining the fray. The third hour breached during a long Code 60 period caused by a flaming Lamborghini; Manuel battled back into the top 10 after the car’s long first stint, into eighth at the top of the second hour before rapidly making his way up to fifth within 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Yelmer’s Mercedes was coming on strong, #3 running in seventh after having dropped down into the 20s after their forced early stop, before stopping in the pits to hand #3 over to Hubert. The team’s two Porsches were still circulating together right on the bubble of the top 20, with Burkard in 20th and Alexander in 21st, still second and third in the 991 class; Fidel had taken over the #243 Cayman to continue that car’s progress.
Yet another Code 60 interrupted the race at the top of the following hour: you could almost tell the time by when they were happening. Both Mercedes pitted for a full service, changed drivers and tyres and then refuelled. Manuel jumped out of #2 to allow Jeroen to be strapped back in; #3 picked up a penalty it had to serve before pitting, which delayed the changeover from Hubert to Abdulaziz. In 991, the two BLACK FALCON Team TMD Friction were circulating as though on rails: Alexander was right on the tail of the class leader, still around 20th overall, before he handed over to Saud.
Almost the entire third hour was lost to consecutive Code 60 periods; no sooner had one ended than three cars collided in a serious smash, neutralising the field once again. As the sun set over the Dubai Autodrome and the Code 60 finally ended, Jeroen pounced straight away and grabbed second position overall, then set to work on bridging the gap to first place; he closed inexorably and took the overall lead at 18:48. A lap back, Abdulaziz brought #3 back up to fifth and then fourth. Both Team BLACK FALCON drivers were easily the fastest cars on track at this point. Saud also vanquished the leader in 991 to put #68 first place in class, 19th overall, with Sören in #69 third, 27th overall. From this point on #68 would control the 991 class. Yet more Code 60 interventions hurt Team BLACK FALCON as the sun set over the Autodrome, interfering with the cars’ planned stops. Manuel in #2 dropped to third and had to redo the hard work all over again, whilst Michal in #3 emerged from the pits in sixth. Saud consolidated the 991 class lead, a lap ahead, with Miguel claiming second in #69.
The sun falls like a stone in Dubai, and the track was quickly smothered in the dark of night. There’s little illumination around the Dubai circuit, so after the explosions of fireworks at 20:00 drivers’ eyes had to peer through the glare of headlights to pick lines and breaking points. It’s the point where 24-hour races come alive, and where the cream of the drivers rise to the top. Patrick in #2 and Maro in #3 stayed well in touch with the head of the race; Anders continued #68’s domination of 991 as Bandar was seeing off a gaggle of 991s battling him for second. But then the first problem of the race hit the team: at 20:44 #69 suddenly stopped on track – Bandar recycled the power, but the Porsche wouldn’t move and had to be towed back to the pits, losing many places in the process. Overheating was diagnosed: a broken drive belt the cause, which was quickly changed by the excellent pit crew, allowing #69 to rejoin the fray.
During the night and further disruptive Code 60s, the two Team BLACK FALCON Mercedes circulated relentlessly in the top five, continuing to pressurise the cars in front. The #68 Porsche moved within striking distance of the top 10 overall, the drivers demonstrating utter commitment on every lap to battle with the GT3 cars around them, but unfortunately the team’s Cayman was forced to retire at the race’s midpoint.
Daybreak revealed what the night had obscured: many cars had suffered accident damage and were now held together by tape or trailing bodywork, but the Team BLACK FALCON cars were still looking strong and in fighting condition. But then disaster struck the then second–placed #2 car. Just 10 laps into his stint, Khaled was involved in an incident with a slower car that caused irreparable damage and the Mercedes was forced to retire, to the enormous disappointment of the #2 crew. #3 continued to battle on, with Abdulaziz setting a stunning pace in the early morning, but the time lost earlier on meant that the gap was too much to surmount. Maro brought #3 home, closing all the time on second place, and a podium finish was the reward for their efforts.
Not far behind, the two BLACK FALCON Team TMD Friction Porsche 991s took the flag after excellent performances by both driver squads. Saud brought #68 across the line in a simply amazing 11th overall, a lap ahead of their opposition, whilst Miguel finished fifth in class, 23rd overall, after a great recovery drive. Both Porsches looked like they could just be given a quick wash and then rolled straight into the next race, such was the quality of the drivers and performance of the mechanics.
The opening blast of a 24-hour race can be misleading: it can look like the start of any other sprint race, but the possibilities of what can happen during a round-the-clock race are myriad. As ever, Team BLACK FALCON put their all into the race and although they weren’t able to add to their already impressive tally of victories in Dubai, the podium and class win trophies will be proudly added to their collection.
Image source: Akl Yazbeck / Sportscode Images