INTERVIEW. 2013 24H DUBAI… 10 years on

News | January 10, 2023

A shunt during Free Practice suggests Abu Dhabi Racing by Black Falcon, the 2012 winner of the 24H DUBAI, may already be out of the 2013 race before it’s even begun. It’s just the start of an incredible recovery drive, one that the UAE’s own Khaled Al Qubaisi relives with CREVENTIC.


Words – James Gent

Images – Eric Teeken

Just 17 laps into Wednesday’s first Free Practice sessions, Khaled Al Qubaisi has hit the wall at turn five. Though visibly shaken, the Emirati driver fortunately emerges unhurt from the shunt. But as he turns to look at the severely bent Mercedes SLS AMG GT3 nestled in the Dubai Autodrome barriers, relief quickly turns to horror. 


There’s still two days to go before the green flag flies for the 24H DUBAI in 2013. And incredibly, reigning 2012 winner Abu Dhabi Racing by Black Falcon already looks to be out.


“I think we went into the event as favourites, and that put the pressure on us right from the first practice sessions,” Khaled explains to CREVENTIC. “So we were already going hard in testing – maybe being a bit overconfident – and the track didn’t have that much grip yet. And it just happened.


“Under straight-line braking, one side gripped more than the other, and the car just veered to the left. And you don’t have much room to the barrier at those speeds. I think it was maybe two, three seconds before I hit the wall. And that felt like a long, long time! 


“After the crash, it was like a nightmare. I couldn’t comprehend what had just happened. I didn’t know what to think. I was just overwhelmed.”


The ‘race,’ metaphorically at least, is now on for Abu Dhabi Racing by Black Falcon to find a replacement SLS for the now-crestfallen Khaled, fellow 2012 event winners Sean Edwards and Jeroen Bleekemolen, and DTM legend Bernd Schneider. Ironically, the German team already has a second SLS on the ground in Dubai, albeit as an official second entry for Khaled, Sergei Afanasiev, Simon Knap, Steve Jans, and FIA GT Series champion-elect Andreas Simonsen. So that’s a no-go. Discussions are had with the Yas Marina Circuit – an hour down the road – about leasing one of the race school’s track cars, and Black Falcon even weighs up the possibility of flying a replacement SLS in from Germany overnight.


In the background meanwhile, second Free Practice at the Autodrome comes and goes, with AF Corse’s works Ferrari 458 Italia (#16), the first of Saudi Falcons’ two BMW Z4 GT3s (#24), and Aston Martin Racing customer Craft Racing AMR (#15) grabbing the top spots. 

Salvation is eventually found just three pit garages down. To help prepare for its upcoming British GT Championship campaign, Preci-Spark, though only planning to race one SLS AMG in Dubai, has brought a second – #300 – to act as a test mule for Jones brothers David, Godfrey, Morgan, Philip and Gareth on their collective debuts. In true #ThisIsEndurance spirit of competition, a deal is struck. 


So, now it’s just a case of bolting a driver into the re-numbered #300 bucket seat and swapping over a few sponsor stickers… right…?


“No!” Khaled laughs. “We had to strip everything from the car we got from [Preci-Spark]. It was actually one of the first Mercedes SLS racecars produced in 2011, so we really had to work hard to upgrade it with all the bits and pieces that the team had brought for our original car: we fitted our engine; our gearbox; our suspension; our endurance-spec fuel tank. And we had to get all of that done before we could qualify.”


Against seemingly insurmountable odds, Black Falcon’s mechanics get the new silver-and-barely-stickered ‘#1’ prepared and fired up in-time for Thursday afternoon’s qualifying session. And that’s not all: after a few sighter laps from Bernd Schneider, the #1 Mercedes is handed over to Jeroen Bleekemolen, who, on only his third flying lap (mercifully one without traffic), sets pole position. Even more incredibly, the Dutchman does so with a 1m 59.104s, the first pole lap to ever dip below the two-minute mark for the 24H DUBAI.


“We didn’t even take part in the practice sessions. Then Jeroen goes out in qualifying, and gets pole position! It was a wonderful moment. Really uplifting for the whole team.” 


Even after the mechanics’ herculean efforts though, Black Falcon is far from out of the woods. Impressive as it is, Jeroen’s pole time is just three-tenths quicker than that posted by fellow front row starter Attempto Racing (#26), and the top seven on the grid are split by less than one second, suggesting the Mercedes’ superiority of one-year prior has dwindled. On top of that, though the #1 Mercedes is successfully cobbled together in time for qualifying – unlike Leipert Motorsport’s Lamborghini Gallardo LP600, which had also suffered irreparable damage during Free Practice – another sleepless night beckons for Black Falcon as final race prep is completed.

“There was still a lot of work to do on the car after qualifying: the car had to be stickered fully as well before it went out to race. Even if I wanted to go to sleep, I couldn’t, because I felt so bad about what had happened. For most of those evenings, I stayed with the team, and then when I did go [for some rest], I probably only slept one or two hours.”


The following afternoon, the P1 slot is conspicuously empty as the 82-car grid starts assembling, and the collectively frayed nerves of Khaled, Bleekemolen, Edwards and Schneider are only reprieved when the now-liveried-though-still-very-much-silver #1 Mercedes, having skipped morning warm-up altogether, emerges from its garage with only moments to spare. 


With limited time to warm his tyres and bed-in the brakes, Bleekemolen is comfortably beaten into turn one by future two-time LMGTE Pro World Endurance Champion Nicki Thiim in the Attempto Racing Porsche 997 GT3 R. An equally determined Claudia Hürtgen in Saudi Falcon’s #24 BMW meanwhile has already jumped from 4th to 3rd and, down the back straight, divests Bleekemolen of 2nd as well. 


Three laps later, the #1 Mercedes now looks to have the legs on the pursuing Craft Racing Aston Martin Vantage, Saudi Falcon’s second Z4 (#12), Lapidus Racing’s McLaren 12C GT3 (#17) – the latter three months on from its outright win at the 24H BARCELONA – and the AF Corse Ferrari. Few have an answer for the Attempto Porsche at the front however, despite a robust move by Hürtgen 15 minutes in: with Thiim briefly baulked by traffic, the BMW dives down the inside at turn 16 to take the lead, though the sheer power of the Porsche’s flat-six means Thiim is already back in front when the pair hit turn one. One lap later, the Dane has added a further 1.5 seconds to his lead.


On lap 17 though, disaster strikes as the Attempto Porsche crawls to a stop on-track. An oil leak has sparked an engine fire, and the damage is terminal. Incredibly, less than one hour into the 2013 24H DUBAI, the early pacesetter is out.

Debris dropped by DUWO Racing’s BMW M3 – now sans its rear apron – sparks the event’s first Code 60 shortly afterwards, and in a brutal bit of bad luck, the purple flags are brought out just as Claudia Hürtgen rounds the final corner. While the Saudi Falcon BMW is forced to complete a full lap at 60 kph, the pursuing Black Falcon Mercedes and Craft Racing Aston are first into the refuelling area. By the time Hürtgen has made it back to the pits, the #24 BMW has dropped to 3rd, leapfrogged by the #16 Aston and the now-leading #1 Mercedes. 


Admittedly, the Code 60s don’t all go Black Falcon’s way. Second time around (MRS GT-Racing’s McLaren brings out the purple flags 25 minutes later, with an off at ‘the bowl’), Bleekemolen is forced to queue for one of only 10 pumps in the refuelling area, and has just started his top-up when the race goes green again. In a further blow, Bleekemolen, having missed the first purple flag at turn 16, is handed a time penalty for speeding, dropping the #1 from 1st to 9th as the second hour ticks by.


“The Code 60s played a big role, and there was a bad couple in a row for us. The second or third dropped us, I think, three laps back, and after that we had to push hard all the way.”


With both Saudi Falcons also held up in the refuelling area, Stadler Motorsport (#20) emerges as the unlikely frontrunner – from 19th on the grid no less – having opted for ‘hypermiling’ over raw pace. It’s a strategy that keeps the Porsche 997 GT3 R at the head of the field until the end of hour eight, and, one year later in 2014, secures the Swiss team its first 24H DUBAI win.


With the #1 Mercedes still recovering from its earlier pit delay (with, ironically, the sister #2 Black Falcon now its closest rival on-track), Stadler’s main opposition during the race’s first quarter is the Saudi Falcons. Operated by 2011 event winner Schubert Motorsport, the blisteringly quick #24 BMW Z4 GT3, in the hands of Hürtgen, Abdulaziz AIFaisal and Jörg Müller keeping the ‘Am’-entered Stadler Porsche honest. To keep competition tight, a revised regulation for 2013 means the ‘Pro’ entries are working with increased ride height, 30kg of additional ballast, and a 5-litre refuelling deficit compared with their ‘Am’ category rivals, the caveat being that the Pros can run as fast as they like while the Ams are restricted to laptimes no faster than 2m 05s with only 10 ‘joker’ laps permitted. The Falcons’ relentless pursuit is aided further by the #24 ‘works’ chassis testing development aero components at the event. 


“We went into that race knowing the Saudi Falcons were our main contenders. And I think, at that time, it was great for the 24H DUBAI! Black Falcon vs. Saudi Falcons. Both regional teams going for an overall win, and both put in a really good effort with strong teams and driver line-ups. That really raised the competition because we were really well-matched: they had two cars and we had two cars. Our second car wasn’t quite as strong as the first car, but was a very good back-up in case something went wrong. But Saudi Falcons had two strong cars with two strong line-ups. It was super competitive between us.”

Admittedly, by the sixth hour, the Saudi Falcons is starting to hit problems. Quite literally in Dominik Baumann’s case. 


In a bizarre incident just after the event’s fifth Code 60, the then-reigning FIA GT3 European champion, at the wheel of the Saudi Falcons’ #12 BMW, is struck by RAM Racing’s Johnny Mowlem when the latter, having seen a green flag on the back straight, started accelerating just as the former, still seeing purple flags, was busy warming his tyres. Replacing the BMW’s front left steering arm costs the Falcons half an hour in the pits, and drops the #12 from 7th to 39th. A punctured exhaust header eventually leads to the BMW’s retirement one hour later. 


Up front, the Saudi Falcons’ sole-remaining #24 BMW finally moves past the Stadler Porsche into the lead during the ninth hour. The #1 Mercedes meanwhile, now just one lap adrift, is up to 4th behind surprise podium contender, Dragon Racing (#88), the UAE team making full use of the Ferrari 488 GT3’s surprisingly strong fuel efficiency to work around a loss of power steering. In contrast, Black Falcon’s rise through the field is down the team’s ‘secret weapon’…


“I remember Bernd from 2012 when he was competing against us in two cars” – Heico Motorsport’s two Mercedes SLS AMG GT3s – “and every time he was in the car, the laptimes were so fast! He was just catching, catching, catching. Especially during the night. We used to call him ‘the night monster!’ 


“But whether it’s the day, whether it’s the night, or in traffic, his laps were always the same. They just didn’t change! So I was very happy to have him as part of our team [in 2013] because he was easily one of the biggest threats we had! And he’s a legend, with so many DTM wins, and his endurance wins since then. He just came in, did an amazing job, and delivered great lap times as fast as any ‘Pro’ driver, if not faster. He was really key to us winning that race.”


So impressive is Schneider’s run during the night – a consistency that later secured the endurance racing legend his first 24-hour race wins at the Nürburgring and Spa-Francorchamps later that same year – that by the 10th hour, the #1 Mercedes is up to 2nd behind the Saudi Falcons. The sister #2, with Khaled at the wheel, dutifully follows suit in 3rd. 


With original plans for Khaled to have equal driving time across the #1 and #2 Mercedes now scrapped – even with nearly half the race gone, tweaks are still being made to the “more aggressive” setup on the #1 Mercedes – the race is nevertheless going well for the Emirati driver. Even despite the intricacies involved with driving two identical-but-different SLS AMGs…

“The idea is always to get as much track time as you can, and get more comfortable. But to be honest, two cars that are apparently the same, like our SLS’… they’re not exactly the same when you drive them. So, when you get used to one, you need to adjust to the other: they don’t always behave the same way because the chassis is set up for different drivers. That makes it a little more difficult, but when you get used to the traffic and the track conditions, that eases you in. So, when I got into the #1, that factor is eliminated. 


“So, driving two cars does help in that way, but, to be honest, nowadays, I prefer to stick with one car.”


Sadly, Black Falcon’s hopes of a strong result for the #2 came to naught during the night when a puncture causes a surprising amount of damage to the rear bodywork, dropping the #2 SLS back to 7th at the flag. 


Issues were also starting to affect the Saudi Falcons too, given the BMW’s insatiable appetite for brake discs. So much so in fact that, with Dragon Racing’s power steering issues eventually proving terminal, it was Italy’s AF Corse that had quietly worked its way into the lead come half-distance with Formula 1 veteran Mika Salo at the helm. Not that this intimidated a determined Claudia Hürtgen of course: during the night, the 2011 24H DUBAI winner becomes the first of only two drivers to lap below the two-minute mark as she reels the Ferrari back in again. As the 12th hour ticks by, the lead pair are split by only two seconds.


Brutally, neither the BMW nor the Ferrari hold the lead as sunlight returns to the Dubai Autodrome. Minor contact and a puncture costs the Ferrari an unscheduled pit stop shortly before dawn, and by two-thirds distance, the BMW had eaten through its brakes once again. A well-deserved podium however was not to be: with just five hours remaining, an oil warning light appears on the dash during Jörg Müller’s final stint in the #24 BMW, a precursor to inevitable engine failure. Just like that, a bulldozing run from the Saudi Falcons is over.

With a gearbox gremlin having already dropped Stadler Motorsport out of the top 10 – the Swiss team eventually recovers to 9th – the #1 Mercedes goes into the closing stages of the 2013 24H DUBAI, a race that had appeared all but over before it had even begun, in the lead.


As Khaled Al Qubaisi steps aboard for the final stint in the #1, he is two laps ahead of AF Corse. When he collects the chequered flag 26 laps later, he, like Sean Edwards and Jeroen Bleekemolen, is a two-time winner, only the 3rd, 4th and 5th drivers to do so since 2006. 


“It was hard to describe then, and it’s even harder to describe now! I actually broke down at the end of the race because I was just so tired, physically and emotionally.


“Winning the 24H DUBAI for the first time was a huge achievement, and a huge moment for me personally as I’d only come into the sport recently at that time. And that second win… it just cemented the fact that the first one wasn’t luck! To win the 24H DUBAI back-to-back shows you have a really good team and that you’re clearly doing everything right. And, to be honest, that 2013 race really pushed me later on to bigger things like the World Endurance Championship and Le Mans.”


Behind a tearful Khaled, further drama is unfolding for 3rd place between FACH AUTO TECH and Craft Racing AMR. The German team’s #8 Porsche, having employed the same ‘hypermiling’ strategy as Stadler, has emerged as an unlikely podium contender during the night, a refuelling delay early on for the Craft Racing Aston aiding FACH’s charge. The sheer pace of the #15 Vantage though in the hands of then-Aston Martin factory driver Stefan Mücke, plus a surprisingly barren period of Code 60 caution periods, means the FACH Auto Porsche is being reeled in by seconds per lap as the race enters the final hour. With the event’s new fastest lap under his belt, Mücke is soon on the tail of FACH AUTO’s Martin Ragginger – the latter still hobbled by his 2m 05s laptime ‘handicap’ – and the Austrian can do nothing to stop the Aston roaring into 3rd place, barely 50 minutes from home. 


Though Craft Racing ultimately secures the only overall podium finish for an Aston Martin, to-date, at the 24H DUBAI, a scintillating performance from 4th-placed FACH nevertheless secures the German outfit A6-Am class victory. One place further back, and perhaps in karmic recompense for gifting its spare SLS to Black Falcon earlier that weekend, Preci-Spark and the Jones brothers finish their 24H DUBAI debut an impressive 5th overall.

For Khaled al Qubaisi though, who would go on to take a record third event win in 2020 along with Jeroen Bleekemolen and new team boss Hubert Haupt, there’s little doubt that the 2013 24H DUBAI has been the toughest endurance race of the lot. 


“If I look at it overall – emotionally, physically, the stress involved, and so on – I’d say, definitely, yes! I can’t remember another race where I went through all of these challenges in 24 hours. So, yeah, definitely, the toughest. And I guess, because, it’s the toughest, it’s probably my most precious win too.”

2013 24H DUBAI - Overall Results

1.     Abu Dhabi by Black Falcon (#1, Mercedes SLS AMG GT3) – 600 laps

2.     AF Corse (#16, Ferrari 458 Italia) – 598 laps

3.     Craft Racing AMR (#15, Aston Martin Vantage GT3) – 594 laps

4.     FACH AUTO TECH 2 (#8, Porsche 997 GT3 R) – +56.582s

5.     Preci-Spark (#25, Mercedes SLS AMG GT3) – 587 laps

6.     FACH AUTO TECH 1 (#7, Porsche 997 GT3 R) – 582 laps

7.     Abu Dhabi by Black Falcon (#2, Mercedes SLS AMG GT3) – 580 laps

8.     JLOC (#19, Lamborghini Gallardo LP600) – 579 laps

9.     Stadler Motorsport (#20, Porsche 997 GT3 R) – 568 laps

10.  Lapidus Racing (#17, McLaren 12C GT3) – 565 laps

2013 24H DUBAI - Class winners

A6-Pro – Abu Dhabi by Black Falcon (#1, Mercedes-AMG GT3) – 600 laps

A6-Am – FACH AUTO TECH 2 (#8, Porsche 997 GT3 R) – 594 laps

997 – Crubile Sport (#41, Porsche 997 Cup) – 549 laps

SP2-GT3A – Equipe Verschuur 1 (#98, Renault Megane Trophy) – 549 laps

SP3-GT4A – Cor Euser Racing (#148, Lotus Evora GT4) – 547 laps

A5 – JR Motorsport (#63, BMW E46 GTR) – 546 laps

A4 – Kuepper Racing (#62, BMW E46 Coupe) – 485 laps

A3T – Racing Divas Team Schubert (#121, BMW 320D) – 517 laps

A2 – LAP57 Racing Team (#57, Honda ‘Saloon’) – 498 laps

D1 – SVDP Racing (#115, BMW 120D) – 476 laps

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