Whilst I cannot compare the pain and suffering the good people of Emilia Romagna have recently endured, I’ve had two direct experiences of races that were cancelled due to rain.
Not so strange, some of you may think, until I explain that both of them occurred at the Dubai Autodrome! People don’t normally associate rain as an event hazard in the Arabian Gulf. Sun and scorching temperatures, yes, for sure, diluvian floods… not really.
The Dubai Autodrome first opened its doors in 2005. I’m proud to say that the morning after a huge opening party, I was delivering taxi laps to various guests and functionaries in a BMW M3.
I don’t remember who I had in the car, but I do recall the deep sand at the edge of the track in some critical places! The finishing touches were still being applied.
An anti-Tilke track
The Autodrome was designed by Clive Bowen, of Apex Circuit Design. The same man that devised the Miami Hard Rock Stadium. This, of course, was the era of the much-maligned “Tilke doodles” that were being erected across the globe.
Legend has it, that looking for something different, Clive asked a number of Formula 1 and other prominent drivers of the time what their favourite corners were. Having gathered the necessary input, he then glued the respective turns together, and lo, the Dubai Autodrome Grand Prix configuration was born.
Ok, ok, a simplistic explanation, but what he created is one of the finest Grade 1“drivers” tracks in the world. A circuit that could comfortably hang out with Spa, Suzuka, and Interlagos in terms of challenge.
Rain opens the flood gates
In 2008 the Inaugural GP2 Asia Championship kicked off, with the Autodrome holding two of the rounds. Romain Grosjean won both of the opening races in January, but on the Championship’s return visit in December, the heavens opened with a vengeance! The flooding was like nothing any circuit I’m aware of has witnessed before or since. Day two of the meeting was summarily cancelled.
The problems were numerous. Firstly, the camber of the main straight slants to the right towards a pitlane that is almost three meters lower than the track at its deepest point. It was all hands to the buckets in the pit boxes then, to try and get rid of the excess water that was flooding into the garages.
A pointless task as there was nowhere to get rid of it to. Water tankers were brought in, and in an ironic twist of fate for the region, they began to suck up the water rather than dispense it.
Meanwhile, a few mechanics from one of the teams had decided to take a damaged floor from a car and attempted to surf the length of the pitlane on it.
Jolly boating weather
More impressive though, were Turns 1, 2 and 17. In line with the old adage, all news is good news, photos were issued the following day of a jet skier and canoeist navigating the corners! With the water of course, came the mud and sand. It took nearly a week to bring the track back to a usable state.
Fast forward to the twenties
The next occasion was January 2020. This time I was more closely associated with the whole affair as the Safety Driver for the Hankook 24 hours of Dubai. Running since 2006 in partnership with Creventic, the event has seen many famous participants, including Adrian Newey and Toto Wolff. The latter racing for of all the Teams, Red Bull and winning the race!
Once more unto the breach
It wasn’t the first time the venue had delivered heavy rain at the 24-hour. Kicking off around five hours into the race, by 21:00, the Code 60 flag was hung out as the standing water began to build up at all the usual places.
By 10:10, I was circulating the track with co-pilot Kieron Salmons. Bouncing from one water lake to another with the rain hammering down, Race Control announced: “You’re looking for car 77, let us know when you’ve got him.”
We looked at each other… seriously? We couldn’t see sh!t! It then turned out that 77 had pitted, and 121 was now the race leader. Eventually, we picked the right car up and led the grid back to the start line, where they stopped under Parc Ferme conditions.
Seven of twenty-four
As the rain started to ease up, tankers were immediately deployed to perform their water vacuuming task. A couple of hours later, Clerk of the Course, Chris Norman, asked me to take him around for a “looksy”. We both knew the problem areas and eventually ended up back at Turn 1 again, reminiscing about the GP Asia race.
“What do you reckon Chris?” I asked, to which he responded: “Well, the tankers are doing a good job; I reckon we could look at a restart in about an hour.”
No sooner had those words left his mouth than the heavens opened up again in full force. Chris looked up, then looked at me and said: “Nah”. We were only seven hours in, and the 2020 Dubai 24 hours was already over.
Don’t float my boat
It takes time to declare a race finished in these circumstances. Concerned parties need to make sure they are not legally or financially liable before making the call official. On this occasion, it took until early morning the following day.
Sitting up in Race Control, with paperwork signed off, Chris [Norman] was collecting his documents together when we noticed people running from the hotel at Turn 16 racing towards the closest entrance to the track.
It turned out the Team personnel had observed movement in some of the cars, still parked on the start line. The reason for this then dawned on them as to why. The vehicles closest to the pit wall were actually floating on the accumulated water! Remember that camber to the right on the main straight.