Hard to believe that amidst the relaxed atmosphere at the Dubai Autodrome, there was a race weekend taking place. As the first Sportbike race screamed down the pit straight, participants of the headline UAE GT Championship caught some zzzs in the paddock or took a late lunch, timing monitors receiving only a fleeting glimpse every so often.
Easy to understand why though. Dwindling grid numbers have rendered outright Championship honours a moot point, with race victories now the sole priority.
And barring the hand of God striking down AUH Motorsport’s Ferrari 458 Italia, which has failed to win only one of the races it’s started, the result seemed inevitable.
Kinder to its tyres on the baking tarmac and with Rob Barff at the wheel, the Ferrari scampered away from pole position as the green flag fell. Given the GT’s colossal 15s per lap performance advantage over the Invitational Class Renault Clios and Honda Civic, time penalties were to be added post event: if Rafael Unzurrunzaga could keep his Mosler GT600 within 45s of the prancing horse, the scarlet rug would be comprehensively pulled. That the Italian was already a lap down when Leon Price took over from Barff made this scenario unlikely.
But such is the nature of the Autodrome’s flowing configurations that on-track action was still plentiful. For the final twenty minutes, a rejuvenated Unzurrunzaga – now lapping at the Ferrari’s pace – diced with Price to unlap himself, personal bests tumbling as the laps ticked down. So close was their battle that several times the AUH machine was nearly punted into the gravel. Baulked by traffic with seven minutes to run, Price – nursing a damaged hand – left the door to turn sixteen ajar, Unzurrunzaga sticking his boot in and squeezing the South African wide. Though back on the lead lap, the Italian’s 1m 30s deficit was too much to overhaul, and Price cruised to victory lane.
One lap further back, Gulf Racing overcame a torrid event at Abu Dhabi to take third. Gearbox issues on the Aston Martin Vantage finally remedied, ABS problems during qualifying was the only mechanical bump in the road, though the race did not run without problems. Having been unable to find his own, Yusif Basel was forced to borrow team-mate John Iossifidis’s HANS device at the driver change, the pair visibly struggling with the fidgety job in pit road.
In the Invitational Class, Ramzi Moutran in the Renault Clio began a two-horse battle for honours with Jonathan Mullan’s Honda Civic, engine problems in qualifying threatening the latter’s entry altogether. Though unable to match the Honda on the straights, Moutran’s Clio easily held its ground through the sweeping corners, and only an ambitious manoeuvre from Mullan as the leaders flew past denied Ramzi (and brother/team-mate Sammi) victory.
A jump-start for Willie Morrison post-pit stop left his Clio over 40s behind. With only ten minutes remaining, the Scot held a slim 1s advantage over Oliver Grimm, who had dropped down the field earlier when miscommunication saw him pit ahead of the allocated window. Understeer proved to be Morrison’s downfall, the Clio sliding wide out of the final turn and allowing Grimm – making his return to UAE National Racing after a full campaign last season – to slipstream past and take the final step of the class podium.
In the garages, scuffed alloys, stonechipped paintwork and budget-restrained bodywork repair demonstrated a fighting tenacity but also how far a product can fall from grace. Given the context of a seven-strong entry list, this seemed appropriate.
Shots by Pete West