The eighth edition of the Dunlop 24 Hours of Dubai has come and gone. Yet again it delivered an epic contest and will be long remembered for the triumph over adversity which saw the Emirati driver Khalid Al Qubaisi win the event for the second year running. This time it was a tale of sheer guts and determination that led to victory.
Al Qubaisi – along with teammates Sean Edwards, Bernd Schneider and Jeroen Bleekemolen – won the race despite crashing heavily, destroying their race car, and almost packing up their bags and leaving.
The Wednesday before the race, teams had the option of partaking in an afternoon of free practice as part of preparation for the weekend’s race. With Al Qubaisi at the wheel, the car went off track on Turn 3 and slammed the wall first with the back end and then the front. The Team Abu Dhabi by Black Falcons Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG car was damaged beyond repair.
Al Qubaisi takes up the story: “After we saw the damage and realised it was major I was not happy. I really thought that was it, we could not make the race. But an hour later we made the decision not to give up and find a way back into the race.”
It so happened that in garage number one the British Preci-Spark outfit had a spare SLS AMG in their arsenal. In true motorsport style a deal was done, and Wednesday night the Black Falcons crew pushed their newly acquired car to their pit garage whereupon they proceeded to convert it to the Dunlop 24 Hours endurance regulations while adapting it to Black Falcons specifications.
None of their mechanics slept for the next 24 hours as they toiled to get the car ready for qualifying. Then Bleekemolen did the business to claim pole position.
The Dutchman said afterwards, “They put the engine, the gearbox, the fuel tank, the suspension and many other parts from our original car in and really did an amazing job, because the car felt great. The fact that I was able to claim pole on what was only my third lap of the weekend at the Dubai Autodrome is almost unbelievable.”
Thereafter the team grafted hard to get the car into endurance mode, with the last bolt being tightened on the grid a few minutes before the 82-car field was let loose at 2.00 pm on Friday.
What transpired next will go down in Dubai Autodrome folklore, as the race delivered almost non-stop drama. With numerous incidents and a major fight – not only for top honours but also among the several classes that made up the race. But really all eyes were at the front and the battle for the overall lead.
Al Qubaisi recalled afterwards, “The Code 60 situations cost us more than three laps. The flags would come out as we passed the pit entry, or just after we had pitted, Code 60s when we didn’t need them and it all seemed to favour the other teams. Things like that. This really kept us on our nerves. But then around middle distance the race started to come to us again.”
While racing with an untested and brand new car, Team Abu Dhabi managed to cross the line after 24 hours, completing 600 laps of Dubai Autodrome and becoming the first team ever to win the race twice in a row.
“I don’t even remember being on the podium,” said Al Qubaisi. “It was really very, very emotional for me. I have never felt like this ever in my life.
“I can’t explain it. Afterwards I had to go and rest a bit, calm down and I really needed a few minutes on my own for this to sink in. The medics gave me a check-up, checked my vital signs and everything was normal.”
The UAE driver was visibly exhausted, overwhelmed by the magnitude and manner of the victory on home soil. The interview a newspaper reporter and I conducted with him was akin to similar post-race interviews I witnessed with Ayrton Senna, in the manner it was delivered by Al Qubaisi.
I have a permanent image etched in my mind’s eye, standing there in front of the diminutive Al Qubaisi, recorders thrust in front of him, his eyes lowered and him quietly, intensely delivering his heartfelt and emotion-packed summary of the race. From the heart, intense and awe-inspiring.
“I have to dedicate this [victory] to Abu Dhabi… my sponsors. Abu Dhabi Racing. If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be here. Thanks to them for putting together this team, for putting us in a great car. We just need more of these to happen,” the driver added.
The final word must go to German ace Bernd Schneider, a four-time DTM champion, who was full of admiration for his teammate, “I only met Khalid [Al Qubaisi] for the first time this weekend and I can say I am really impressed with how focused and very determined he is. Without him we could not have won this race.”