Just what happens on the build-up to the Hankook 24H DUBAI? And how different might things be in 2021? Event veteran, and Dubai resident, Ricky Coomber discusses his experiences with CREVENTIC.
There’s a certain surrealism to all of this.
Tables and chairs have been set up on the main start-finish straight at the Dubai Autodrome for CREVENTIC’s annual welcome barbeque. The grandstands are deserted. 26 to 27-degree temperatures have cooled to a more clement 21 after sundown. Past the circuit’s blazing arc lights, kaleidoscopic LEDs silhouette the neighbouring Park Inn by Radisson behind turn 16. In a queue running parallel to the pitwall, and just below the grand marshall’s post, team members, drivers and event officials alike wait patiently as catering replenishes chicken fillets, rib racks and seasoned halloumi on the grill. In the air, there’s a babel of multi-lingual conversation and the aroma of fresh espresso. In the dozen or so Sacco chairs lined up along the Autodrome’s ‘stripe’, patrons that have finished their evening meal are engrossed in the live entertainment.
It’s staggeringly easy to forget that, in the morning, cars will start filtering down the pitlane for official Free Practice and, just 5.39km later, will flash across the start line for their first sighter laps of 2020. Later that afternoon, the GT and TCE packs, now at a brisker pace, will flash down the Autodrome’s main straight at upwards of 250kph and 220kph respectively to secure their spots on the grid for the Hankook 24H DUBAI. And one day later, this time before a packed grandstand, upwards of 60 cars will roar down the main straight in unison at 3pm sharp to get the Hankook 24H DUBAI underway.
One of the most hotly contested 24-hour events on the planet is less than 48 hours away, and there’s an almost tangible sense of calm at the Dubai Autodrome tonight. All too familiar in the build-up for some of the event’s more seasoned competitors…
“Every race is exciting, but [the Hankook 24H] Dubai has got something a little bit special about it,” Ricky Coomber explains to CREVENTIC. “There’s always an exciting vibe on the Wednesday and Thursday because everyone wants to be part of this 24-hour race. And that goes for everyone, from the person who makes you a cup of tea to the person changing the wheels and running the team. It’s always a good vibe because if it wasn’t, it would be stress and you wouldn’t want to be there!
“Let’s just put it this way: we never struggle for pit crew. We get crew get thrown at us from all angles, mostly because pit-crew always want to be part of this event.”
Of course, Ricky, a six-year veteran of the Hankook 24H DUBAI as both a driver and a team owner, is no stranger to the week-long build-up. In 2014, the RKC Motorsport principal made his first start aboard a Motorsport Services SEAT León Supercopa. Successfully too: having qualified 4th in the A3T class, Ricky, together with teammates Danny Stutterd, Aaron Harris and Devon Modell, went on to finish 2nd in-class on his first attempt. A feat the Maidstone native repeated on his next outing in Dubai in 2016 aboard an RKC/TGM-entered SEAT León Supercopa alongside Gavin Spencer, David Drinkwater, and William and Thomas Gannon (the aforementioned ‘TGM’).
Turns out a sizeable part of the build to Dubai is preparation…
“Personally, because I run a team, it’s more about getting everything ready to go: the car, the crew, the equipment, etc. Getting the pit crew organized is the hardest part, because you can save so much time in the pits compared with being on the track. So a large part of the build-up is just making sure you have everything in place for every eventuality and everything that might go wrong. That’s 24-hour racing basically. You don’t know what’s coming at you.
“In Dubai this year for example, I was in a brand now Aston Martin Vantage… and the thing just wouldn’t start properly! So we missed the race.” – Ricky teamed with Rodrigue Gillion, Paul Hill, Michael Stephen, and 2020 Overall GT Drivers’ champion-elect Nico Verdonck as part of the Newbridge Motorsport line-up, but the British squad’s Aston Martin Vantage GT4 failed to complete even a single lap. – “That’s disappointing, but it also sums up 24-hour racing: you have to be prepared for anything!
“In a weird way, driving is probably the easiest bit. From my point of view, I’ve already done six or seven years, so I actually don’t need to prepare myself too much during the build-up. I already know, mostly, what I’m in for.”
Luck then plays as big a role as meticulous preparation during the build-up to the Hankook 24H DUBAI. And unfortunately, 2020 was not the first time good fortune escaped Ricky in the UAE…
On his fourth outing at the Hankook 24H DUBAI in 2018 for example, RKC/TGM Motorsport became the first customer team worldwide to compete with the brand new, fifth generation Honda Civic Type-R, and started the weekend solidly with the 12th fastest TCR time in qualifying. Issues mounted quickly though for the J.A.S. Motorsport-built (and still very much in development) Civic with a full gearbox change required shortly after Night Practice. Much like its ‘FK2’ counterpart one year earlier, the ‘FK8’s weekend in 2018 was eventually derailed with a broken head gasket.
“The night before, you just want to make sure everything’s done, everything’s prepped and you have your strategy and your back-up plans in place. If that’s the case, there’s a great atmosphere in the garage. If you’re struggling – like the electrical hitches we had with the Aston – then things can get pretty stressful, because suddenly you’re on the clock. But you also want to be fresh and ready for the race too.
“That’s definitely not always the reality though. Definitely not! In the past, we’ve changed engines and gearboxes the night before thinking we’d be on the backfoot only to end up with a great result at the end of the 24. I’ve had brand new cars and we’ve not even started! So it works both ways.”
Few traditions are more synonymous with the Hankook 24H DUBAI though than the traditional one-hour grid walk, an occasion in which, crew required for up to 70 cars are joined by media representatives, photographers, drivers, event officials, UAE dignitaries, and guests from all over the world.
“The grid walk’s a great occasion. It’s always busy, and there’s always a lot of glitz and glamour to it. It really represents the [24H] series’ flagship race, because Dubai is the first race of the season where there’s no other racing going on around the world. It attracts a lot of teams purely because there’s nothing else going on, so you get a good mix of nationalities and teams from worldwide, and everyone is genuinely happy to be there.”
Sadly, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the full spectacle of the Hankook 24H DUBAI grid walk is unlikely to be realized in 2021, with health and safety, and thus social distancing, top of the priorities. A maximum of two cars will be allowed per garage, while up to 25 members will be permitted per team, including drivers and guests. Access to the paddock will be more closely moderated too, and competitors and event officials alike will be required to use the Dubai Autodrome’s myriad hand sanitizer stations on a regular basis. It’s somewhat inevitable that the customary “glitz” of the Hankook 24H DUBAI may take a whack in 2021.
That the event is going ahead at all though is a testament to actions by the Government of Dubai to limit the spread of Covid-19 in the region. As part of “one of the highest per-capita testing rates in the world” from August 1 onwards, all inbound and transit passengers are required to pass a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) swab test 96 hours before departure (as part of its initial phase, even UAE residents and visa holders needed approval from the Identity and Citizenship borough to return to Dubai). Since re-opening the Emirate to international visitors, PCR tests are still mandatory, but the Government of Dubai in the interim has upped sanitization and contactless check-in regulations at all hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and the Dubai International Airport.
The results speak for themselves: as of 9 December 2020, the United Arab Emirates has reported 178,837 cases in total compared with 2,309,621 in France, 1,757,394 in Italy, and 1,750,241 in the United Kingdom.
Certainly Hankook 24H DUBAI veteran Ricky, a Dubai resident for many years, is confident the build to the event, though arguably more cautious than any other year, will remain be a positive one. That’s not idle speculation either, as he is one of the few competitors to have already experienced the Dubai Autodrome under the new ‘Covid era’.
“The team has got things to a tea! They have a very good health and safety system in place at the best of times and they’ve just been improving on that more and more over the summer. They’re running things in a very professional manner and I have no qualms about competing there at all. Good as gold!
“Overall I think Dubai has reacted very well. There’s been a lot of testing going on, and lockdown has been policed very, very effectively. Everyone has to have a test, social distancing is in effect in all public areas, and if you get caught without a mask, you’ll get fined. I’ve been out here now for a while now and I feel safe.
“This whole situation is just being treated so professionally. Dubai has stood by what it said it was going to do, and that’s been reflected in the cases we’ve had out here, which are quite low when you compare them to France or Germany. Let’s hope it stays that way until January, because I’m ready to enjoy the 24!”
After two hours of food, celebration and live entertainment, the welcome barbeque crowd begins to disperse from the Dubai Autodrome start-finish straight. The grills are left to cool under the lights as chairs and tables begin to be packed away. The tangible calm is still there, but a sense of muted excitement has begun to creep in as talk turns to tomorrow’s Free Practice and Qualifying sessions, and the enormous amount of work still to do before the first 24H SERIES race of the season.
The calm before the storm.
Words – James Gent
Images – Petr Frýba, David Benson, and Tom Richardson