In June 2020, the Hankook 24H PORTIMAO was held for the fourth time, but the first as CREVENTIC’s European season-opener. The event remains one of the most significant in 24H SERIES history.
Words – James Gent
Images – Petr Frýba
At 12.00 hrs local time on Saturday 13 June 2020, the green flag fell for the fourth time at the Hankook 24H PORTIMAO, simultaneously marking the first time the field had been waved away for an official CREVENTIC event since the Hankook 24H DUBAI in half a year.
Indeed, for the thousands of race fans tuning in to watch the live stream, each of whom were unable to attend the race live, this was the first real-world motor race to be held anywhere in Europe in more than three months, such had been the unrelenting grip worldwide of Covid-19.
With the severity of the virus increasing, by early March, unprecedented moves in the motoring world were announced in quick succession. Health and safety concerns meant the Geneva Motor Show, originally slated for 5-15 March, was quickly canned, and with its annual Members’ Meeting having already been pushed to April 2021, organizers at Goodwood confirmed in mid-May that the vaunted Festival of Speed would be cancelled altogether for 2020 (the three-day event would eventually be run in October). Shortly afterwards, with Formula 1’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix having also been cancelled on the eve of the event, the 24 Hours of Le Mans was postponed until September, the first time the event had not run in June since 1968. By month’s end, the Indy 500 had also been shuffled from its traditional May timeslot for the first time since its inauguration in 1911.
Like most organizing bodies around the world, CREVENTIC, gearing up for its first European race of the season on 27-28 March – the inaugural Hankook 12H MONZA – was also keeping a sharp eye on the situation as it developed, open communication between the Dutch promoter and circuit management at the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza more crucial than ever before.
“The Covid outbreak and lockdown that followed just hit everyone by complete surprise,” explains CREVENTIC’s Ole Dörlemann. “This was a situation that none of us had experienced before, which meant we needed to act spontaneously as nobody knew how long this would last. Being in close-to-daily exchanges with partners, circuits and teams at the time in a situation like that is critical, because everyone had to be kept up-to-date.”
With cases on the rise in Italy, the decision is made on 4 March to postpone the Hankook 12H MONZA until the health and safety of competitors can be assured, with plans quickly put in-place to move the first European round of the year to Circuito do Estoril in Portugal. Unorthodox, yes, but not unprecedented on a CREVENTIC calendar: having announced events at the Anneau du Rhin in France and the Nürburgring for June and July respectively the previous September, logistical problems meant both venues had been already been replaced by the returning Autódromo Internacional do Algarve in Portimão and Circuit Paul Ricard by December. Indeed, a necessary tweak to the calendar didn’t seem to impact competitor enthusiasm…
“We were on the run-up to the Hankook 12H MONZA with over 60 cars registered when we first started to consider relocating,” Ole continues. “We were shocked when we realized we had to cancel the event altogether: Covid was rapidly shutting down everything in Lombardia, so that was the only sensible decision to make. Portugal at the time though didn’t seem to be too affected, so we spoke with our contacts at Estoril about moving the event there instead. Roughly half of the cars that would have come to Monza confirmed their commitment, so everything was starting to look okay. Of course in the end, Portugal went into lockdown before we could really get the event off the ground.”
With motor racing, across (almost) all shapes and forms, on hiatus for 2020, but with the competitive itch still niggling, the virtual world of e-racing was soon enjoying unprecedented levels of interest by early April, the nationally televised eNASCAR series having proven that drivers, at-home with their own simulators, could keep a baying motorsport fanbase – or the majority of it at least – entertained with E-SPORTS on-track action.
With a growing e-sports program already under its belt with NEO Endurance, CREVENTIC soon followed suit, announcing that the 12H MONZA E-SPORTS, dedicated to past and present 24H SERIES competitors, would be hosted on 23 May as a thank you for their continued support. Almost immediately, close to 50 entries with access to a racing SIM and a copy of iRacing, signed up for the event, which was dutifully won in a virtual masterclass by Team WRT.
Feedback from the virtual event proved so positive in fact that CREVENTIC soon established ‘24H SERIES Virtual,’ a three-race calendar in 2020 – with championships at-stake – that continues to run to this day.
“We already had an in-house eSports division when the lockdown started, and we wanted to find a way to bring our real-world teams together for an online event of some kind. We even held a quiz night at one stage.” – We do encourage you to check that out on the official 24H SERIES YouTube channel. Ole’s jacket alone is worth it! – “Then we started discussing a four-race-event series primarily aimed at our real-life drivers. The initial race – the 12H MONZA E-SPORTS – was joined by many of our regular teams and drivers, with each class winner receiving a free set of tires from Hankook for a real event in the future.
“Organizing that race was very different than a real-life race, because everything is happening digitally instead of on-site: race-control; briefings; promotion; TV stream, etc. It was fun, but very different from what we usually do.”
By June, with lockdowns, vaccinations and rigorous health and safety mandates having significantly slowed the curve, talk of real-world motorsport returning starts to build momentum. Indeed, having already confirmed that F1’s first Grand Prix of 2020 would take place on 5 July, the FIA was already hyping a 15-18-strong revised calendar, confirming the first eight events shortly afterwards. Though public safety remained a priority, the reality of a real-world motor race seemed higher than ever.
“We were burning to get out on-track again for a real-life event, so we started looking at venues where we stood a high chance of hosting a race safely. Portugal was the first to appear on our radar, and circuit management at Portimão was very helpful and happy to welcome the 24H SERIES back. A lot of teams and drivers were still a bit reluctant to go out again for racing, but a solid few gathered to make this race possible.”
With government and provincial approval granted, it was announced on 29 May that CREVENTIC’s European season would finally get underway at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, as originally planned, on 12-13-14 June. If held successfully, the 2020 Hankook 24H PORTIMAO would become the first real-world, international motor race to be held since lockdown had begun. Albeit with a herculean amount of planning and preparation to do in the ‘Covid era’ when health and safety had never been more important and travel restrictions were more uncompromising than ever.
“We were facing so many challenges on the way to Portimão. Just getting there was tricky enough: there was nearly no plane going at all, until we received official government approval for the race. And even that didn’t come in until the Monday of race week.
“We were at one point considering chartering a jet ourselves and leaving from a location in central Europe to fly there together. Luckily, from The Netherlands and Germany a few planes were flying to Portugal: the KLM jet we were in was filled with only people related to our race!
“It was definitely one of the hardest races we have ever organized. We always kept believing in the event though: it just felt like the time was right for it to happen. The uncertain feeling that anything could happen, and that we could be parachuted back into lockdown was always in the back of our minds. But in the entire process, whatever challenge we faced, we always managed to find solutions.”
Few could deny though that the interest was there: while unable to replicate the 60-strong provisional entry list for Monza three months earlier (the Hankook 12H MONZA would eventually feature 25 entrants when its inaugural event finally took place on 10-11 July), 15 cars on the Portimão starting grid was still a huge shot in the arm for the 24H SERIES.
Allowing supporters into the grandstands or the paddock was, of course, out of the question: even the radiolemans.com team, back to provide live commentary, could only do so remotely, meaning socially-distanced interviews on the grid thus had to be conducted by CREVENTIC’s Ole Dörlemann and Peter Freij directly. All whilst assuring that everyone on-site – team and media personnel, and drivers alike – were abiding by mask mandates and provincial health and safety regulations. Failure to do so could land a team a one-lap penalty during the race, or an individual suspension from future 24H SERIES events. It was a change to the normally family-orientated paddock of which the Dutch promoter has been proud since its early days.
“Social distancing changed the atmosphere in the paddock a lot. While it has always been part of CREVENTIC’s DNA to bring people together, now it was our job to keep them separated. Nonetheless we managed to make the best of it and the atmosphere, even given the circumstances, was great. After a few months of complete silence, you could feel the need for something to start again. And being the first organization to initiate the relaunch of motorsport in Europe fills us with pride.”
An enormous amount of work and dedication finally pays off when, at 13.00 hrs local time Friday 12 June, 15 cars venture out on-track for Free Practice, the first time the 24H SERIES logo has been seen on anything other than a digital door panel since a sodden red flag was flown at the Hankook 24H DUBAI back in January. By 17.15 hrs later that afternoon, the live stream for Qualifying has begun…
“We are getting ready for the return of full metal, real-life, full-size, multi-class endurance racing,” are the first reassuring words uttered by radiolemans.com’s John Hindhaugh, albeit remotely from his home studio in the north of England. “It’s time to start those engines, put those rubber tyres back on the track, and go racing again in 2020. After the big pause, the long yellow – call it what you will – the 24H SERIES is about to get things back underway at Portimão.”
In the paddock, though an incredibly fraught weekend has barely begun, there’s a sigh of relief at CREVENTIC.
“It was great to hear the sound of racing again: it was a feeling comparable to seeing a long-lost friend again. The sound of the engines, the speed rushing by. It was a challenge, but it was also an honour.”
The following day at 11.00 hrs local time, 15 cars line up on the grid for the fourth annual Hankook 24H PORTIMAO. One hour later, the green flag finally flows, the first-time a real-world motor race, organized by CREVENTIC, is underway in more than six months.
Far from the most competitive event CREVENTIC has ever hosted – Herberth Motorsport walked to victory after setbacks for early leader HTP Motorsport (see sidebar) – the 2020 Hankook 24H PORTIMAO will nevertheless be remembered as one of the most significant in 24H SERIES history. And as the day racing “in the metal” finally returned to Europe in 2020.