Harris Irfan. Drivers Diary. ARM GT3. Rd3

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The recent acquisition of a 15 year old Lancia Delta integrale has been playing havoc with my race technique. This cheeky steroidal yellow acid-head likes to be grabbed by the scruff of its neck and hurled around, a technique completely at odds with the measured precision required for a Porsche GT3 race car. Like a tennis player dabbling with squash, I may be able to hit the ball, but I’ll need to reprogramme my muscle memory to become competitive again.Testing day proves much work is needed to find the GT3’s race pace: whilst Paul Denby in the 997 GT3 RS has been clocking 1:35s on the National Circuit, I’m struggling to break into the 1:36s. Martin Hope’s striking Ginetta is proving to be invincible, a good 2 seconds per lap quicker in testing than Paul’s Porsche in the GTB class. Is there any way the Ginetta will not romp away with P1 tomorrow?

Indeed after 40 minutes of on track frustration, I am feeling pretty depressed (something of a default demeanour for me after the last race debacle!). This configuration of the Dubai Autodrome is what is known as a technical circuit: horsepower is less of a consideration than solid technique, and mine is distinctly lacking as I struggle to find the rhythm and line needed for a series of complex turns.

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Khaleeji Porsche Cup car driver and ARM team mate, Tarek Elgammal, is my relationship counsellor today. He wants to bring car and driver back together and rekindle that race day one chemistry. It seems I don’t have enough faith in the considerable aero work my car is willing to do for me on this configuration, so that’s what I need to focus on.

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Turns 3 and 4 of the National Circuit are a long sweeping double apex right-hander exiting at 160-170 kph, followed by a short squirt of acceleration and a feathering of the throttle into a downhill chicane (careful not to bounce too hard off the kerb else you might unsettle the car at considerable speed when dabbing the brakes at the same time). Then head hard right and uphill again into a delicious banked left hander, allowing the angle of the turn to force the car into the tarmac and come back round on yourself for the long back straight. Get this whole section right, and not only will it be scary and satisfying in equal measure, but it will also have the greatest bearing on overall laptime for this circuit.

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The key is to trust the downforce over the front and back of the car to allow just the right amount of squat through the sweeping right hander (power, feather, power, power, power!). If you trust the aero, you can power out of this point of singularity on the other side in one piece, and stay right on the edge of control into the downhill S before braking. Don’t go for broke in the S: if you jump the kerbs on either side in a mad attempt to straightline it at the fastest possible speed, you will lose the correct entry into the subsequent hard right to set you up for the following straight.

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Thanks a million, Tarek. The old girl dances on tip-toes as she floats from side to side through the S, a gnat’s breadth away from annihilation, and I break a 1:35.3, the second fastest in GTB behind the Ginetta. I am delighted, and realise that I will sleep easy tonight without the perennial self doubt that plagues the racer. Let’s call it a day.

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Come race day, Paul is amusingly nervous. I say amusingly, as I know exactly what he is going through. He has been up all night replaying the corners of this circuit in his mind, knowing that he has created for himself an expectation of success. He now knows he is competitive, but he may be doubting his own racecraft, the cornerstone of success in wheel-to-wheel racing. His butterflies are compounded by doubts of his skills, his car, his mental toughness. How often have I been through the same process myself? I afford myself a chuckle until I begin to focus on my own race…

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I’m nervous as well. Actually I’m feeling massively under pressure. This is fun, right? It’s fun, of course it’s fun. Keep telling myself this. The depression of the last race has barely worn off, but the championship points speak for themselves: with two clean finishes, Paul is now the championship leader and he’s beginning to realise his pace is good enough to go all the way.

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Today could be the toughest race of the season. I desperately need to win to reassert my position at the top and anything less would be a failure. The guile of Steve Adams in his Frankenstein 944, the unpredictable raw speed of the two Mitsubishi Evos and now Paul’s new-found and impressive turn of speed, not forgetting a Ginetta that now looks unstoppable, leads me to suspect my season no longer looks like the stroll in the park suggested on race day one.

It’s showtime. Get your race face on, bonnet pins down and strap up. Radio on, flick the extinguisher toggle, race logger on, stuff the water tube up the helmet, window net up, tighten the belts and squeeze the throttle. Frighten the pit girls with a gratuitously loud wheel spin (they jump satisfyingly) and pull out for the formation lap.

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The formation is good, the lights go out, and bam! Martin’s Ginetta and Paul’s GT3 have the jump on me. Gah! I’m asleep. Stupid, stupid! Triple stupid – I’ve missed a gear halfway up the straight. What the hell is wrong with me?

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I’m still metaphorically slapping my head as we peel into turn 1. Whoah. Focus here fella. There are Cup cars in front teetering on a knife edge and pushing out wide on cold tyres. Plus a Ginetta intake swallowing my rear view mirror. It’s that scene from Jaws. Tun dun, tun dun, tun dun, tun dun, tad da DAA! Wherever I go, whatever line, whatever braking point, he’s right there, like a genetic experiment gone psycho. He’s going to make me spin, I can feel it, his thought rays burrowing into the back of my head.

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I take a defensive line for a couple of laps before the unfortunate Will Dew crashes his beautiful BMW M3 coming out of the bowl onto the back straight, triggering a code 60 safety period. I follow Paul at the mandatory 60 kph whilst the debris is cleared, with Martin right behind me, no doubt cursing the precious seconds ticking away. For what seems like an age, we cruise round in single file (passing the abandoned hull of Raed Hassan’s Mitsubishi, once again failing to complete the race). After 4 or 5 laps, Alex’s voice crackles over the radio warning us to be ready for the green flag. And then it happens. Alex calls it from the pit lane, having seen the marshals pull out their green flags, but Martin flattens his foot to the gas much faster than me. Proper racer, this chap. He’s made me look like a fool twice now.

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For the next few laps, the two GT3s and the Ginetta fight tooth and nail for GTB supremacy, swapping positions before Martin gets a clean break leaving me and Paul to scrap for P2. The code 60 has done both of us a huge favour though. Martin hasn’t been able to build a substantial lead on us and will soon be heading into a mandatory pitstop for his driver change.

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I’m in for mine as the pitstop time window opens, brakes on fire. It’s difficult to breathe in the cabin – the smoke pours in through the vents and open windows, and for a second I’m concerned that it might be more than just the brakes. But it’s OK, the pit crew are on standby with an extinguisher and there’s no need to use it.

I’m out after my 90 seconds, finding myself heading into turn 1 neck and neck with millions of years of evolution of killing machine. Ta da DAA! On cold tyres, I lose the upper hand to the Ginetta, but it looks as if they’ve already had their driver change, and I’m chasing down Eric Charles who, whilst an experienced racer in Radicals and other motorsport, has had less seat time than his partner in this car. The hunter has become the hunted.

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Paul is out at the same time and the three protagonists are reunited, but this time the Porsches are reeling in the Ginetta, yard by yard, until both Porsches bully their way past under braking into a terrifyingly off-camber turn 1. Phew.

As Paul and I scrap in an unseemly fashion for P1, I imagine if I could see the whites of his eyes, they would look berserk in the old Viking sense of the word, intense and psychotic, white knuckles wrapped in a death grip around alcantara wheels. We swap positions in the last few laps, Paul’s 997 finding astonishing pace in the downhill S after the long right hander, and my 996 catching him under braking in the bowl before the back straight. Indeed the pace he is finding between the kerbs in the S is deeply frightening – he tells me afterwards the car was on the edge of madness at this point, with the slightest error likely to result in total loss of control at high speed. I don’t know if it’s the wider track and rear rubber of the 997 aiding his entry into the S, or whether my subconscious sense of self preservation is holding me back, but I’m pretty sure I’m giving it everything I’ve got, and it’s just not enough.

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He’s also outsmarting me, I’m annoyed to say. My racing mantra is always smoothness, consistency and mechanical sympathy. I’m displaying none of these in a desperate effort either to fend him off or retake P1. We’ve both lost the classic racing line and conventional braking points in a desperate no-holds barred street fight, and nothing makes the point more vividly than the attempt to outbrake each other going into a high speed turn 1. We both overcook it, steer a straight line towards the outer edge of the track to prevent that huge mass at the rear fulfilling its destiny, regain control and rejoin the line.

A few laps from the end, I can feel my tyres are in a sorry state, the pads crying out for mercy, the car squirming horribly under braking, and corner entry and exit speeds accordingly reduced. Perhaps it may have been better to shadow Paul for a few laps and make a cerebral grandmaster move in the last two, as we have now allowed Eric’s Ginetta to creep up on us.

We needn’t worry, though, as in a last ditch attempt on the last lap to retake P2, Eric overcooks it on turn 1, and spins off. His race is over.

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Paul takes the chequered flag, but strangely I am not unhappy with P2. It was a tough race and half the cars in our class have fallen by the wayside for one reason or another. Just finishing and getting some points on the board after the last disastrous outing is an achievement, and I’m back in the hunt for the championship title.

Of course this means that with three consistently good finishes, Paul is now the championship leader, and a new target for all of us in GTB. No more excuses, Paul! You have now demonstrated your pace and your racecraft, and made clear your intentions for the championship. May the best man win…

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  1. I think Paul really knew how to exploit the 997 on this configuration – his pace through turns 5 and 6 was exceptional. It will be interesting to see if he can replicate his performance on all other configurations. No pressure Paul! 😉

    Oh, as for the Ginetta, there’s no way not being registered for points makes a jot of difference to me: that beast is absolutely pukka competition for GTB class and if I were to come second in a race but first in the points, that’s still second place!! Definitely worth obsessing over regardless of the points situation….

    Adrenaline is so much more than karting as there’s so much more at stake: rubbing is racing as they say, but whilst a nudge here and there is part and parcel of a kart race, at 220kph just past the Zuhour Kink I can do without the additional excitement of swapping paint with competitors… Would really like to get through a season with my panels intact and in full control of my bowels.

    As for the championship points, well if we apply the rule that the worst race is discounted in the overall points tally at the end of the season, then I guess I should be happy, but I can’t help feeling NRD2 might come back to haunt me next April.

  2. Superb writeup there.

    I noticed Pauls sudden increase in pace as well; don’t really know what to make of it but there you have it I suppose – it merely is, just another force of nature to be dealth with.

    Ginetta, while quick, not in it for points so why worry? 😉

    I love the sene of adrenaline that you evoke here; never felt it in tin tops or course but it reminds me soooo much of competitive karting…that adrenaline boost that can sometimes make you feel oddly frenzied and disconnected, leaving you cursing your every move on the circuit as you literally see every tiny mistake, every micron of momentum scrubbed away and so forth as you struggle to re-sync and close that infernal gap on the guy dancing in fromt, or build one on the maniac clinging to your tail in spite of your best efforts to shake him…

    Intersting how the points are working out but it’s still early in the game; I’d say just race your race, push ever more masochistically hard and don’t let others disrupt that famous rythym. Easy to say and easier said than done, I know.

    At the very least you’re one of the few lucky enough to be enjoying some truly competitve racing out there as opposed to a boring uncontested romp, or the heartbreak of expensive mechanical failures or racing incidents.

    Do not be deterred!