Emirati Khaled Al Qubaisi joined up with Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, from Saudi Arabia, and Ferrari regular Andrea Bertolini to take his racing experience to a whole new level, Damien Reid reports from Le Mans.
24 Hours of Le Mans: Emirati Khaled Al Qubaisi mixes it with the big boys
The 24 Hours of Le Mans entered a new era when it welcomed its first Emirati driver and Arab pairing in its 90-year history.
The double Dubai 24 Hour winner Khaled Al Qubaisi joined forces with long time on-track rival and off-track friend, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, from Saudi Arabia, along with the Ferrari regular Andrea Bertolini to take on the famed French endurance race.
"I was very happy to team up with Prince Abdulaziz as we've raced against each other for many years, so although we've been rivals we're good friends," Al Qubaisi said.
"This was the first time we've driven together and it's Al Faisal's third time, so I got a lot of advice from him as well."
The 90th running of Le Mans went down as one of the most unpredictable due to constantly changing weather and the largest number of safety-car periods in memory.
Al Qubaisi's two victories at the Dubai Autodrome came behind the wheel of an AMG Mercedes SLS GT3. He switched to Ferrari power in the 458 Italia as he raced for the JMW Motorsport team, sponsored by Emirates Aluminium and backed by Abu Dhabi Racing.
The Ferrari was quicker but more fragile.
"It's lighter and more nimble than the Mercedes but you have to treat it a bit more carefully, and being in the GT2 class it doesn't have [anti-lock braking systems] so if you flat-spot the tyre, you could be in big trouble," he said.
Both Arab drivers conceded that in the Dubai race they have been the big fish in a small pond. At Le Mans, they were very much the little guys and needed to constantly check their mirrors for the fast-approaching cars from the top two prototype classes, LMP1 and LMP2.
"It's so intimidating you don't realise how tough it is until you get behind the wheel for the first time," Al Faisal said.
Al Qubaisi added: "The prototypes were flying by and it was quite intense but it's something you have to get used to."
The Le Mans weekend is like no other for race preparation and is steeped in tradition.
A drivers' parade in old open-topped cars through the French city kicked off the party atmosphere early in the week before the race was waved off at 3pm local time (5pm UAE) on Saturday.
The national anthem of each driver is played before the start so for the first time the UAE's anthem rang around the 13.63-kilometre circuit to a capacity crowd of more than 250,000 people.
By the halfway stage, JMW Motorsport had endured its share of niggling setbacks but stayed true to a plan and was content with a slight improvement from their 54th qualifying position.
"The speed is good but it's really tough," a weary looking Al Qubaisi said as he prepped for his 1am driving shift.
"A car hit Abdulaziz and he spun and as soon as I went out I was hit by an LMP2 car who just dived down and turned me around. Some drivers just don't care for the little classes."
During the night, the team suffered a drive-through penalty for a pit lane infringement, although they continued to remain upbeat.
"When I got out of the car, I collected some tyre [debris] out of the Porsche curves which caused a lot of vibration, but what an experience it has been," Al Qubaisi said.
"At night, it was difficult to notice the prototypes just by the headlights when they come up behind you in the mirrors, but it's all great experience for next year."
As the clock ticked past 9am, 18 hours had been run but that left the equivalent of three Formula One grands prix to contend with after the team survived heavy rain during the night and clawed its way up to 41st outright.
"This morning was great," said Al Qubaisi. "I got into a rhythm and the prototypes were spread out more than last night which made traffic easier."
After one of the many safety-car periods, the Rebellion Racing LMP1 car in front of Al Qubaisi spun and crashed heavily, nearly taking the Ferrari out of the race with just a few hours remaining.
"I stuck right behind him after the restart and on the exit of the chicane he must have blown a tyre, spun and crashed right in front of me," said Al Qubaisi.
"It's fourth gear, so you're doing nearly 200 kph and his tyre hit my car, damaging the headlight, but luckily we didn't need to pit to repair it. So we were very lucky."
As the chequered flag came down, they were chasing two other cars in their class on the same lap. They finished 35th outright and 10th in the GTE Pro class.
"My plan wasn't to be the first Emirati to race here, as I always wanted this, but seeing the exposure Abu Dhabi has received has been invaluable," Al Qubaisi said. "I got more exposure from this race than I have in the past four years of racing.
"Hopefully, this will open some eyes when it comes to Emiratis and circuit racing because as a region we have to invest in this sport and if we do, we will achieve a lot."
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