Seven seconds. That was all that stood between Costas Papantonis and victory as he entered the penultimate corner of the 2011/2012 UAE Touring Car Championship. Two laps earlier, the Grecian held a near-7s gap back to Class 1 rival Nader Zuhour in second place. Defeat seemed impossible.
Then with one lap left, Papantonis’ laptimes started to tumble and the Gulf Petrochem SEAT began cruising rather than tearing down the main straight. Something was clearly very wrong. And Zuhour was catching. Fast.
Surely not again! The paddock was abuzz. Race one had been all about Papantonis stealing a march over the field and disappearing into the distance after a rocket start from pole position. Then, just three laps from home, the SEAT Leon coasted to a halt on the main straight, drive gone and nothing the Grecian could do to stop Zuhour sweeping through for victory.
Papantonis would eventually get going again, but second in class – plus double points as a one-time offer for this, the final round of the season – meant only a DNF for his main rival would tilt the Championship balance back in his direction.
Race two: with half the final lap completed, Papantonis’ lead had plummeted from 6.9s to just shy of 3s as Jonathan Mullan un-lapped itself. A blown engine had destroyed his weekend last time out in Abu Dhabi, but the Brit was on a charge at the Autodrome.
A consistent albeit quiet run in race one brought Mullan third in-class behind the similarly Honda-powered Rupesh Chanaka. Countryman Mike Scott, back in the Championship for the end of year hurrah, followed home for fourth in-class in the opening gambit, but ended his day on pit road.
A striking contrast to Mullan, who came alive in the second affair. A poor start for race two left him trailing at the Class 2 tail end, but once up to speed, Mullan diced lap after lap with Chanaka down the main straight: no quarter asked, no quarter given. Squeezing the Sri Lankan at turn one, Mullan finally made it stick, and cruised home for Class 2 runners-up honours.
Unsurprisingly Umair Khan, a couple of seconds down the road in both outings, dominated Class 2 proceedings, his 2011/2012 title completing a championship hat-trick after success in 2009/2010 and 2010/2011. That’s another sticker in the rear window for next year.
Race two: Back at the front, recently crowned Renault Clio Cup winner Alexandros Annivas – in the sister Gulf Petrochem entry – scrambled past to unlap himself. Papantonis was short-shifting, fearing to push the ‘box for fear it would fail altogether. Entering the final sweeping right-hander, Zuhour was right with him.
Papantonis hugged the inside line: if the Jordanian was coming past, it would be the long way round. Maybe, just maybe, Zuhour’s tyres would skate for grip off-line, backing out of the throttle the only fail-safe. A small reprieve, but it might be enough. Right foot mashed and the drive likely to go at any second, surely Zuhour wouldn’t steal this at the flag. The circuit commentator was out of his seat.
Spectators in the stands strained to see, the rooftops of each SEAT line-astern disappearing behind parc ferme. Half a corner left. Who would be in front? Papantonis or Zuhour? Blue and white, or black and orange?
The clock hit zero, and one second later the leader flashed past, the Class 1 Championship in his pocket. Few would deny that Zuhour’s sprint around the outside of Papantonis at the final corner to steal victory was an unbelievably exciting climax to the season. Double winner Zuhour was jubilant, and – no question – a deserving Champion.
Papantonis, so cruelly fated twice in one weekend, was pragmatic in defeat, and received his well-earned plaudits. One wondered what would might have been if reliability had not given out at the worst possible moments. Seven seconds. Dwindled grid numbers didn’t stop this fight going down to the wire >>>
Shots courtesy of Darren Rycroft