If you told me in November as I left COTA that I’d be racing the opening round of the 2019 24H Series and Champion of the Continents championship I would have laughed. The crazy reality is we had no idea we’d be starting 2019 off in Dubai until December and I didn’t know I’d be driving a GT4 car until the week of the race itself as you'll see my last post I was scheduled to be in the TCR car.
This event was special for many reasons. Special doesn’t even title it correctly, it was monumental, it was a dream come true, it was an experience like nothing I have ever been through and a feeling I only want to continue to chase. The Dubai 24 Hours has been the official start of the international endurance racing calendar since 2006 and has quickly grown into a massive race. The race is popular for many reasons, one being the desert provides for a unique and warm start to the season while a majority of the world shivers through winter.
We arrived in Dubai very early Wednesday morning (3AM EST time or so) and immediately went to the hotel to try to get some rest before waking up to head to the track. We had some testing on Wednesday as well as seeing the car for the first time and gear tech.
Arriving to the track was special. It was our first-time seeing Dubai in sunlight and seeing that although there was a city, it was still very much the desert. The landscape and everything else was alien to us and it was exciting. I couldn’t help but continuously say out loud “we’re in Dubai to race cars.” It was exciting to see the Sorg Rennsport team, especially so soon after COTA as well. Everything happened so fast to get there!
Having never driven a GT4 car or having been to Dubai the brief testing we did on Wednesday was a good way to kick off the weekend. I had turned many laps on my GT Omega Racing simulator at home on the Dubai Autodrome circuit, so I generally knew where the track went but the car and the fine details of the track was all new. My first impressions of the car were great as it was very relaxed to drive. The brakes were far different than I am used to being a full race setup. The steering was fairly light and easy, it had good power, and it was cool to be passing cars versus always being passed such as in the Cup 1 class!
Our driver lineup for the race was top notch with Fidel Leib, Stephan Epp, Björn Simon, and Olaf Meyer driving with myself. All highly experienced German drivers. For qualifying Fidel did the driving for us and turned some great laps but the raw pace up front was too much and we ended up starting in last of GT4 out of thirteen cars. Our mission was to ignore qualifying and focus on race pace as we knew that pace up front was not possible over the course of twenty-four hours.
Friday came and I arrived to the track early to do the morning warm up. The anticipation grew as the day went on. Time was spent discussing strategy, taking team photos, and pacing back and forth chewing my nails down to the skin. The grid opened and Fidel took our car on track to lineup on the front straight which was open to fans. The anticipation started to grow more as the cars lined up, the grandstand started to fill, and the clock ticked ever closer to the start time.
The flag of the United Arab Emirates flew at 3:00PM to start the race. The huge field of 70+ cars roared past the grandstand and we were underway. Fidel got a great start and we started to move up a little through the GT4 field. Sadly, we did have a car to car contact not at the fault of ourselves which spun us around and caused us to lose some time. No problem though, plenty of time to catch up and four hours into the race we had moved from thirteenth in GT4 to third.
My first stint came in the dark and Dubai is very dark. I had a big job ahead of me to continue our forward momentum. In the car I felt great, it was handling well and fairly easy to drive. My times seemed ok with traffic, so I tried to maintain a consistency. It’s almost disorienting around the track at night. It’s pitch black but you have city lights and lights from nearby roads. All while trying to find little markers for your turn in points and what not. It’s an experience for sure, especially in heavy traffic.
My second stint came around 2:00AM I think it was. I was tired but excited to get back behind the wheel. We changed our lineup a little so that Fidel, Stephan, and I would do the night driving and Olaf and Björn would get in once the sun came up. My second stint started off ok but it was very frustrating. We had a long Code 60 when a Corvette had a heavy crash and then I kept getting in traffic and could not get the tires working. I had bad understeer and just had to patiently drive the car, on a clean lap I could do 2:14s but in traffic I lost a lot of time. It was extremely frustrating. When I got out I was a little angry with my performance but there was a long way to go and I knew we could still podium.
I was not sure I’d be getting back in the car and thought not since Olaf and Björn still had driving to do but in the late morning I was called back to duty. Now extremely tired having not slept at all aside from trying to close my eyes while laying on the garage floor and running on numerous cups of coffee, I geared up and got ready to go. I hopped in the car, now warmer than the night. The car has “A/C” but it was not working so we just had air blowing out. These GT4 cars also have fixed windows so they don’t roll down or anything. It makes for a toasty cockpit especially once the desert sun comes up. The stint started off well and I felt very good in the car and the car was handling very well. My lap times looked good, so I knew to just keep up that momentum but then once again the Code 60 came out, this time for a heavy crash involving a Porsche. I decided to take a quick drink, pushed the button, then felt water on my back! Somewhere there was a leak, so I had no drinking water and having only been living on coffee I was starting to feel bad.
In the slower Code 60 conditions I started to feel the heat and then the feeling of dehydration and heat stroke. I told the team immediately I was not feeling well, it was embarrassing to feel so bad especially since I train in the heat and live in the southeast of the U.S. which is ridiculously hot in the summer. I started to get very dizzy though and nauseous. I also started to get weak in the legs which was not good considering the amount of pressure needed to use the brakes in this car. For the sake of our result and the car I knew I needed to get out. After a bit I came in for a driver change. I got out, stumbled through the garage, and collapsed in our driver rest area. Followed by some things we don’t need to discuss here. Needless to say, I felt awful both physically and mentally with the thought that I let my team down. I eventually felt well enough to return to the garage to say sorry to everyone but also check the timing screens. It wasn’t over and we were still in the fight.
We all watched Fidel turn good laps and continue to keep us in the hunt. Drama came when a small mistake caused the car to make light contact with the barrier. The damage was mostly cosmetic and hurt our downforce a little but we were able to quickly recover. Fidel made our last pit stop handing the car over to Olaf who would take us to the finish. We were running third when drama struck the second-place car and we had the opportunity to pass them on the final lap due to the location of the leader. If we could cross the start-finish line before the leader took the checkered flag it would give us one more lap and the second-place car was now lapped taking the checker, thus giving us the advantage and giving us second place. Olaf pushed and kept ahead and clinched second place for us on the last lap! From starting thirteenth to finishing second in the Dubai 24 Hours was an experience like no other. We were hoping for a top five finish and here we stood on the second step of the podium. The emotion ran high and we celebrated as we securely and safely crossed the line. We waved our BMW Motorsport flags and laughed in excitement.
Walking into the podium room was very special. It started to hit me that I stood in Dubai walking to the podium for finishing second in the highly competitive GT4 class. I had to hold back the occasional tear of excitement and disbelief. Over the course of a few days the Sorg Rennsport team once again provided us with the equipment we needed and our team of drivers grew into a small family, though this one needs to continue to practice his German! It was an unbelievable feeling and I still am trying to process everything. It doesn’t even seem real as I type this or look at these photos. This sets up the 2019 season very well and also puts us in second place for the Champion of the Continents championship in GT4.
My season continues on U.S. soil next month back in the Casey Carden Motorsports Mazda MX-5 programs in WRL with a couple of one-off weekends in HSR and SCCA.