Barwell claims hard-earned fourth place finish in incident-packed Dubai 24 Hrs

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

After our successful podium run in the Abu Dhabi Gulf 12 Hours event last December, Barwell Motorsport returned to the U.A.E last week to contest the 24 Hours of Dubai for the first time. We were once again campaigning the Ascend Group-backed Aston Martin Vantage GT4, with car owner Jan Andersen and 'house' professional Tom Kimber-Smith being joined on the driving squad by Paul Whight and Chris Hyman. Despite Jan, Paul and Chris all being both Dubai and 24-hour race rookies, for the majority of the race we held third place in the highly-competitive SP3-GT4 class, and were in a battle for second position that raged all through the night. Unfortunately just as dawn broke after nearly 17 hours of racing, we were hit by a slower car and the resulting damage took over 20 minutes to repair in the pits. We then fought back to claim 4th in class and 24th overall (out of an incredible 82 car entry!), after great all-round performances from all the drivers and team crew.

The hugely popular Dubai event has many class divisions in its regulations, with GT3 cars being the fastest machines in the race. We were entered in the SP3 class, which is based on GT4 performance levels but cars do not have to run to their homologated GT4 specification. Instead the different cars are equalised in race performance through restricting the fuel tank capacity of the lighter ones, and having a 'minimum lap time' that they are not allowed to go faster than during the race. This helped to balance things up, but there were three cars in our class, a Lotus and two Nissans, that had the capability to lap nearly three seconds quicker than the 'minimum lap time'. This meant that their pro drivers could comfortably lap on the minimum time without pushing the car, and also that it was relatively much easier for their amateur drivers to get close to the minimum time. The 'real' GT4 homologated cars, such as the Aston Martins, Ginettas and BMWs, however, were only capable of hitting such times with their pros on board and driving hard, which put us on the back foot when it came to the average race pace across all of our drivers.

The results of Official Qualifying were thus fairly predictable (with the minimum time rule not applied here), as the Lotus and Nissans filled the top three spots in our class, but Tom did an absolutely cracking job to put us fourth/39th overall (and best homologated GT4), after setting the quickest ever Aston Martin Vantage GT4 qualifying lap time around the Dubai Autodrome by over two seconds! In doing so he also scored a 'pride point' over the Italian Nova team's Ginetta, which had set the pace during our earlier encounter in Abu Dhabi. He also beat fellow British pro (and ex-Barwell driver!) Joe Osborne in the Optimum Motorsport Ginetta which claimed the class win in last year's Dubai event.

In terms of race strategy and pit stops there were two factors which the Barwell engineers were relatively unaccustomed to, those being the 'Code 60' race neutralising procedure and having to re-fuel the car via a shared fuel pump station at the end of the pit lane. A lot of time could be gained or lost during the Code 60 periods, where instead of using a Safety Car to control the speed of the field after an on-track incident, all of the cars have to drive at an average of 60kmh during all three timing sectors of the circuit. Thus if the Code 60 flags were shown when you were at the start of a lap it took you over five minutes to complete the lap, whereas those cars in the last sector of the circuit could dive into the pits and take a 'free' fuel stop without losing any time. Meanwhile the fuel pump system could cost you a lot of time, if you arrived when all the pumps are full and had to queue up!

We adopted a conservative strategy on fuel for the opening stints of the race (which started at 2 o'clock on Friday afternoon), planning to stop Tom early after 50 minutes for a top up in order to secure a trouble-free run through the pumps. This put us slightly out of synch with the fuel strategy of our main rivals, but as Tom completed the first two hours of the race we held third place in class (33rd overall) behind the Cor Euser Lotus and the Optimum Ginetta. The expected pace-setting challenge from the Nissans had already been severely blunted as both cars had suffered on-track incidents and were down the order. Paul Whight then completed a very strong and trouble-free second daytime stint before Jan (competing in only his second ever modern GT race!) took over the reins and propelled the car into the night. By the time Chris got in for his first run we had reached the one quarter distance stage, and were holding third (27th overall) but were a couple of laps adrift of the Lotus and Ginetta after losing out during a few Code 60 periods.

The pattern of the race remained stable for the next few hours, with all of our rookie drivers having put in impeccable performances during their first runs and the engineers now stretching out the fuel strategy as the competitive level of the race stepped up a gear. Tom went back in the car for his second run just before 10 o'clock at night, and the race really started to intensify as we moved up to second in class after the Optimum Ginetta hit problems. Hot on our heels by this stage was the Bonk (!) Motorsport BMW, which had an experienced driver crew aboard and was setting consistently strong lap times. After another hour there was a Code 60 period which we took advantage of to bring Tom in and top up with fuel, but the Bonk car stayed out and thus we dropped back behind it by a lap. Just on the cusp of midnight (after 10 hours of racing) Tom came in to hand the controls back to Jan, who carried on the good work as he gained in confidence and

experience lap by lap. We knew that if the super-fast Lotus didn't have any problems then it was out of our reach to catch it, but we were now firmly ensconced in a battle for second with the BMW, and at the same time the spectre of the recovering lead Nissan was also looming. To add extra pressure to the equation the Nissan squad were simply not 'playing cricket', as they were just using their two pro drivers during the night, in order to maximise their attempts to join our top three party.

We knew that in the 11th hour the BMW owed us a fuel stop as it had not pitted under the earlier Code 60, and it was going to be close as to whether it came back out in front or behind us. As it turned out it rejoined the track just seven seconds ahead of Jan, and thus the battle for second recommenced in full view! This continued until just after the half way mark, when we took advantage of a perfectly timed Code 60 period to bring the car in for our scheduled necessary front brake discs and pads change. This worked out ideally as Chris rejoined the fray with the brake change having cost us just a single lap and still occupying third place in class and 24th overall. The wee hours of the morning passed by without incident, and after very strong stints from Chris and Tom we were back on the same lap as the BMW , having also moved up to an impressive 22nd overall and overtaken all but the leading faster Porsche 997 single-make class cars. Jan then kept up the good work and upped his pace considerably in the final night stint, seeing the skyscrapers of Dubai city reappear out of the dark as dawn began. However, with only a handful of laps left in his stint our hitherto trouble-free race was sadly torn apart, when a slower Touring Car class car turned into the front left corner of the Barwell Aston from nowhere and caused extensive damage. Amazingly Jan was able to carry on at a slightly abated speed, as the team instructed him to stay out and complete his scheduled timed stint until he pitted for his routine stop. The team was unaware of the full extent of the damage as all we could see from the pit wall side was that he had lost a left hand headlight.

As he slowed down to within a few metres of our pits box the Aston's engine stalled and it was clear that our poor Vantage had suffered much more than just a flesh wound. There was extensive damage to the front bodywork, splitter and inside the front wheel arch area, the key part of this being that the air intake had taken a big hit and the air flow sensor had been completely ripped off, thus affecting the clean running of the engine. With a headlight and a lot of bracketry inside the engine bay missing, the Barwell crew thus had to fashion some improvised repairs very quickly, as well as replace the missing sensor, and they did an amazing job to get the car back on the circuit after 23 minutes. Unfortunately by this stage we had lost 10 laps to the BMW which had enjoyed a completely incident-free run, and had also slipped back to fourth place behind the Nissan. Paul Whight then took over from the 'night-shift' driving crew, and set some very rapid lap times as our battle-scarred Aston charged on as if nothing had happened!

To get back into a podium finishing position we were now relying on some misfortune to hit our rivals ahead, however, but the Lotus, BMW and Nissan all kept on pounding round without a blip. Team principal Mark Lemmer commented with four hours to go that he was convinced there was one more twist of the storyline to come...but he wasn't sure which one of the major players it would concern....! Unfortunately two hours later we found out that he was right...and it was us! Tom turned into the first corner only to find that the left front wheel no longer wished to be part of the rest of the car, and as it departed stage left it was joined by the hub and part of the brake disc assembly! Tom then did an incredible job to nurse the car all the way round the rest of the 5km lap with just three wheels on his wagon, making it back to the pits for the mechanics to once again perform life-saving surgery! This hair-raising incident was caused by a failure of the wheel studs, which could well have been a knock-on effect of the earlier collision.

With an hour and a half of the race left we were thus feeling battered and bruised and also had the added frustration of our Abu Dhabi nemesis, the Nova team Ginetta, now threatening to take our hard-earned fourth position away from us. The Italian machine soon ran into further troubles of its own, however, and left Paul to complete his final stint unmolested and then hand over to Jan to nurse his sore Aston home over the final 35 minutes. The whole team crossed fingers and toes as the time ticked down to two o-clock on Saturday, and then there was elation and tears as Jan took the chequered flag to record a very well deserved debut finish in this extremely tough event.
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