There’s an early morning freshness in the air and the deserted start/finish straight has that musky asphalt smell that is uniquely Yas Marina. At first seeming a touch sterile, slightly clinical, the circuit is overlooked by the Yas Hotel, a Stanley Kubrikesque creation set half on land, half on water, more 3001 than 2001.
Perhaps the track’s designer, Hermann Tilke, envisioned drivers and teams entering the circuit in slow-mo through airlocks into a hermetically sealed environment, where pit garages are pristinely presented in space age white to house their zero emission denizens.
Thankfully that day has not yet arrived. Noise, heat and smell still dominate motorsport and Yas is no exception. Today the garages see row upon row of Suzuki Swift Cup cars (hilarious, buzzy), touring cars (raucous, angry), and GT cars (gleaming, sophisticated uber-techfests).
As the test day kicks off, I spend a few minutes chatting motorsport with Rob Barff. I’m surprised how hard it is to make a living out of the sport even if you’re as well known and as talented as Rob. The common perception is that racing drivers have glamorous, lavishly funded lifestyles. The reality is they work very hard, multi-task, have to bring a lot of sponsor money to the table and get lucky.
Rob spends much of his time on international race circuits helping customers set up race teams and test cars for manufacturers. He once drove a Porsche 550A Spyder at the Le Mans Classic on behalf of a well-heeled customer, winning the coveted ‘Index of Performance’ and promptly ratcheting up the price of that particular car by an astonishing amount (which prudence says I cannot repeat). Not a bad day’s investment by his lucky client, though just another day’s work for a pro driver.
Rob kindly gives me some tips for the forthcoming Dunlop 24 Hours of Dubai, at which I will be sharing a drive with Paul and a motley crew of hardcore Dubai-based racers in a BMW 120d (yes, it’s a diesel!). “Preserve momentum,” he tells me, “it won’t react like your Porsche. You can still trail brake but not like a 911 – you must carry speed into the corner.”
A quick squint at the circuit layout on this, the North circuit, means we are missing out the corkscrew and the marina, my two favourite parts of the Yas layout.
Paul and I spend a few minutes with Phil Quaife, who is guest driving with Simmo in the MSW Racing 997 Cup. Like Rob, Phil is an experienced British pro, and has tested on this circuit before. Phil suggests the fastest lap will be a function of finding the greatest time on the two big straights by attacking the preceding sequence of corners in the right manner.
Treat a couple of corners like a technical section of an autocross circuit (the S and the hairpin before the back straight, where Schumi wiped out at this year’s Grand Prix, and the double left followed by a right after the long back straight leading onto the start/finish straight.) Be cool, shed speed quickly, don’t get on the power too early, and you will find max speed for the long straights where the game will be won and lost. Useful stuff, thanks Phil.
Testing is a disaster: on my first flying lap, the car jack-knifes into the tight left hander after the longest straight in Formula 1, the radiator having split and blowing its contents liberally over the contact patches.
In the limited time available, the pit crew improvises and seals up the rad in time for the second session for Paul, though an incorrectly installed hose means it blows again, also on Paul’s very first flying lap.
Rats. We’ve barely even learnt the layout of the circuit and are sitting very firmly last out of 19 cars on the timing screen.
We’ve also ended up delaying our fellow competitors whilst our car was towed off the circuit twice. “I bet they all hate you,” says Alex, though frankly right now, I don’t care. I’m more concerned about being forced to learn the circuit and find a compromise set up in a 15 minute practice session tomorrow.
We had intended to analyse bump, rebound and anti-roll bar settings, but our well laid plans have been quashed. We will have to fly by the seat of our pants tomorrow. One thing we do know: since last year, the long back straight has become increasingly and alarmingly bumpy on the brakes going into the tight left hander. So much so, that I noticed a lot of drivers moving across too early to the apex in the braking zone, obviously concerned that their pogoing 260kph missile may go terminal under the Yas Hotel in front of them. Let’s see who’s brave enough tomorrow to master it.
The next morning’s pre-race practice session has become particularly critical for us to get right. Thankfully the rad holds together and I nail a few reasonable laps in the mid 1:16s which compares at the top end of GTC. Phew.
Paul, too, finds similar pace in qualifying, and we end up P4 on the grid. We can breathe again.
Back in the pits, I catch up with Ginetta driver Khaled Al Mudhaaf, and we discuss his drive in the Porsche GT3 Middle East Cup. He’s finding it tough going in that series, and like Simmo in the MSW Porsche in this series, is being forced to learn a new way of driving. Having previously participated in fringe events like the Gumball rally, Khaled has discovered motorsport relatively recently and found that driving at the limits of car and man’s ability is way beyond anything that can be achieved on the public roads or even at track days.
Despite his strong improvement over the past year behind the wheel of a Ginetta in the GT Championship, he has found the 2011 Porsche Cup car a handful – massively quick in a straight line, but really tough to quell its natural reluctance to turn in with exaggerated trail braking, and unnaturally early throttle out of the apex. Ultra-smooth actions at each of the driver interfaces (accelerator, brake, clutch, ‘box and steering) are imperative in the Cup, as is finding the hair trigger balance between waiting for the car to settle into the apex, and putting the power down out of it.
Simmo, on the other hand, appears to have finally found the elixir to rear engined dynamics management, which is great to hear. Qualifying finds him at the top of the GTB class in the MSW Porsche. It must be immensely satisfying especially as he has even managed to pip Phil Quaife’s earlier lap times. Maybe today is MSW’s day?
Lunch break. Time to relax, read the paper and gather my thoughts. I step out the back of the pit garages to the marina side of the Yas circuit. It’s a fabulously serene setting: the contrasting frenzy of the pit garages and main straight shielded by the team buildings on this side of the track.
A perfect December sun bathes the gently rippling surface of the marina, and the boats berthed within bob appreciatively. An Etihad Airbus 340 sweeps over Yas. There is birdsong on this side of the water. Suddenly Yas does not seem so sterile anymore – alive, organic maybe.
And the race itself? Total carnage.
“It was mayhem out there,” says Saif Al Assam, sharing a drive in the Khaleeji Motorsports Ferrari 430. Straight from the lights, Saif’s Gulf blue Ferrari arcs gracefully sideways across the track at the off camber left handed turn 3, forcing the following pack to filter either side of him as he lies broadside.
In the moments which follow, I find myself picking off cars one by one, and then notice that some cars are slowing down. Finding myself sitting on P1 overall, I have absolutely no idea what is going on. In and of itself, Saif’s slide should not be cause for a red flag, and I do not see red lights displayed on any of the numerous electronic signs I pass. I’m in half a mind to continue at full tilt, reasoning that everyone else must be off their rocker for assuming this is a red flag event.
Still, let’s not take a chance, we’ve had enough rotten luck for the season. Fearing a black flag, I decide to proceed briskly instead to the start/finish line (still in P1), where the gantry lights are indeed red. Way to go, Race Control. That was truly unnecessary and shambolic.
Shortly after the restart, Saif and I have a coming together in the braking zone of the long back straight as his brakes go soft on him and he finds himself braking earlier and earlier. After the race, Saif is embarrassed as he smiles and apologises for the contact, but he has no need to – with the brakes causing no end of problem for him, there’s nothing he could have done, eventually retiring when they can take no more.
A hectic and crowded race results in a second moment of contact for me: this time it’s the cockroach black KTM X-Bow, apparently miffed that I outbrake him after the long back straight, followed by a futile attempt to retake position by banging his front bumper into my door. A bit of stupid but harmless contact, hopefully.
As we approach the pit stop window, I am P2, with Cregan’s Maserati very much in sight, and apparently throttling back a little: I seem to be reeling him in at a couple of yards a lap, and Paul radios me to let me know this is perfect. Unless, this is a deliberate strategy on Cregan’s part to preserve tyres and brakes, a class win may be possible. Via the handicap system, Cregan’s pit stop duration will be longer than ours, and mathematically we should now exit the pits a few seconds ahead of him.
Alex radios me in. Hard right into the pit entrance, pump the brake to bring the speed down to 60kph, right hand punches the dashboard stopwatch, check the speedo again to ensure I’m good for the speed gun, yank on the side strap to loosen it, other side strap, shoulder strap, other shoulder strap, twist to unbuckle, dip the clutch, slam on the brakes to stop in the box (is this the right box?!), gearstick neutral, push the seat back on its runners and open the door.
Open the door.
OPEN THE BLEEDIN’ DOOR! COME ON!
Arse, it really is jammed solid and no amount of kicking the carbon fibre door from the inside (in case you’re wondering, kicking an expensively woven carbon panel feels sickening), whilst Paul desperately pulls on the handle from outside, is helping. One of the pit crew dives in from the passenger side to try his luck, but the door handle comes off in his hands and I decide to bail from the passenger side, from where Paul clambers in.
Our well rehearsed pit stop is now a clumsy and chaotic affair, punctuated by banging of fists against hard objects and screaming for attention. By the time Paul is installed and strapped in, we have lost a huge chunk of time, enough to put us out of contention for a podium – my earlier contact with the Cockroach was not as harmless as it appeared.
In the violent scramble to get in and out, no-one has connected Paul’s radio, and he somehow manages to reach round above his left shoulder at 200kph on the back straight to do the necessary.
It gets worse (of course it does, you wouldn’t expect anything less by now, right?). Paul’s desperate jack rabbit start nets us a pit lane speeding infringement, necessitating another drive through penalty.
And then worse still. With Paul back in the groove after the drive through penalty, now rapidly and efficiently picking off his opponents to put us back in the points, one of the Astons beaches itself between turns 2 and 3 resulting in a code 60.
As fate would have it, orange number 40 is now paired with the Cockroach for the code 60 rolling restart. And the Cockroach delivers again…
This particular gentleman seems to be developing something of a reputation for rash aggression – I recall Simmo bollocking him in the pit garage at the last race for a halfwit manoeuvre during a test session. It seems the wrath of Simmo was not enough.
At the green flag, Paul gets the jump on him, and he subsequently uses Paul as a brake when the Porsche turns into the first apex, neatly taking out our front left wheel and ending our race.
Though Paul is spitting mad at the driver, it’s worth noting that the incident might not have happened if Yas’s sign boards had been operating correctly: during the code 60, Paul and GTA driver Bassam Kronfli in the MSW Ginetta both pass a green sign board after turn 7, accelerate past the black KTM, then discover a code 60 signboard two corners later, forcing Paul to concede the position to the KTM again (who clearly takes umbrage at the apparent breach of protocol).
I think the DAMC has some serious post mortem work to be done after this race, though thankfully I’m not talking about a literal post mortem. I hope someone from Yas is reading this. For a Formula 1 circuit, this is unacceptable. Comments invited below in the forum…
As the podium ceremony is due to start, Paul’s wife, Debbie, advises me to get ready for a punch up. It’s Paul, and he wants blood. It doesn’t help that I’ve just heard the stewards want to see us regarding the incident with the KTM earlier, and the last thing I want is to add fuel to the fire by participating in a brawl.
I arrive in the middle of an altercation, but thankfully Paul is merely giving the KTM driver an ear bashing. He’s convinced the driver deliberately used him as a brake instead of acknowledging the Porsche was already in front and committed to the corner. Ironically, Paul had said before the race start, wouldn’t it be great to have someone else pick up the tab? You could really let rip and never concede on a 50/50. Preservation would not be important, only the win.
Paul concedes the harsh reality after the race that we didn’t do ourselves justice this weekend. “Prior to the weekend, I had said I thought we had the car for this event provided that the car, the drivers and the team all worked correctly together, and as it turned out all three didn’t quite work as they should.” Playing catch up all weekend after our two radiator failures and the events on the track meant that we were always struggling.
“In the race we made contact with other cars on four occasions and that is simply too many,” continues Paul. “Regardless of what the other cars do we need to preserve the car and make 100% sure we are inside the rules. Above all else, that is what I have taken away as a driver from this weekend.”
Fraser says he will look into the incident though pragmatically suggests that we should have expected the KTM driver to hit us through the corner and make allowances. My own concern is more the consistently poor attitude of that particular team rather than the specifics of one incident.
It’s a depressing end to a day in which we had high hopes. Our expectations are always to at least make the podium, if not to win, and indeed a national championship is what we have always been gunning for all season. Our best laid plans seem to be unravelling at an alarming rate.
Both Paul and I know we have the driving skills and the racecraft to compete at the front of the pack, to know when to pick and choose our fights on track, and yet perhaps in this regard we have let ourselves down today.
In ARM, we know we have an excellent crew behind us despite the hiccup in testing, and a car that in the right hands can hold its own against the latest GT4 machinery, if not quite match the outright pace of the Cregan/Maserati dream pairing.
But it seems every round something has conspired against us – it might be a gremlin on our seven year old car that ends our race, or a daft infringement by us, or an even dafter move by another competitor. We have got to improve.
I’m feeling sick to the stomach as I stand below the podium. It’s incredibly hard to be happy at this point, even when we share a crew and garage with Simmo’s popular Motorsport Wheels team who get a huge cheer for class wins in GTA and GTB (as well as a class 1 win in touring cars). What a day it’s been for them.
All is not despair though. For a brief few minutes as the sun sets on Yas, Paul and I bask in the reflected glory of our pit garage, where the ARM supported MSW cars are lined up with their respective drivers for a photoshoot orchestrated by Darren Rycroft. Watching him work the crowd in his own inimitable cheeky chappie style lifts my mood for long enough that I can feel genuinely pleased for Simmo’s boys.
When the crowd disperses and the moment passes, my mood blackens again. I wonder what it says about my character to be thinking “it should have been me” instead of “well done lads, I’m really happy for you”? And realising that I might have a bitter and selfish streak makes me all the more miserable for being miserable. “It’s the taking part that counts” is not a philosophy I understand, though I imagine most of the front running drivers will feel the same.
Congrats to MSW on their remarkable triple win today, to Saad Salman and Jordan Grogor in the orange Sayel Racing KTM once again for making the podium (they seem to be turning into real championship contenders), and to Robert Cregan – yes, he did do it again. I’d love to know what it’s like up front – perhaps he’d like to let us know? (come on Rob – ed) Judging from the frosty looks in the pitlane, I reckon Robert and his parents are regular readers of this column…