"How IKEA would create a racetrack"
Dubai has an abundance of sun, sand, money and ambition. The one thing it doesn’t have in any great quantity is patience.
In England, Silverstone started out as a village which then gained an air force base during WWII which included a perimeter road that was subsequently used by fly boys for racing around. This ultimately lead to the racing circuit we know and love today.
In contrast, the emirate of Dubai decided to build a ready made town, race track and infrastructure in one go. Hence MotorCity Dubai has villas, apartments, restaurants, shops and an FIA grade 1 race track right outside the local supermarket. So as you pack your weekly shop into the back of your SUV you are as likely to hear V12s screaming as you are bored toddlers.
McLaren 650 Sprint
The GRRUK team were in Dubai to try out one of the Autodrome experiences offered at the track. There are a range to choose from allowing you to try out a 2 litre Audi TT right up to a full racing spec McLaren 650 sprint. With a free evening on our hands and a perfectly flood lit track at our disposal it seemed rude not to jump right in and try out the top of the range Sprint experience.
To make sure over ambitious newbies don’t stuff a race-spec super car into the wall on their first lap I was invited to spend 10 minutes learning the lines of the club circuit in a school TT. With 2 litres and front wheel drive I assumed the sighting laps would be a sedate lesson in spotting different colored cones and braking points. Not a chance. My instructor for the evening gave me a target of exceeding 120mph on the starting straight to prove I knew how to exit the last corner convincingly. With understeer under control and cones loosing top layers of paint as we skimmed past them, 120mph was routinely beaten just in time for the downhill braking phase into the first corner. The rest of the circuit has some fantastic sweeping corners which, if it wasn’t for the dashboard banging encouragement of my instructor, I would have taken at motorway speeds rather than the license losing speeds we actually achieved. All in a small non-modified Audi TT.
With the “training” car now pinging in the pit lane garage we were walked over to one of three bright yellow McLarens run by the Autodrome team. The car I was given belongs to a local racer and is race prepped by Dragon racing, a local team that feature heavily in the yearly Dubai 24 hours endurance race that kicks off the race season for a large number of visiting European drivers in January each year.
Having squeezed in under the scissor doors and through the roll cage I was faced with plenty of carbon fibre, 6 point race harnesses, a multi function steering wheel and rather unexpectedly, electric windows, air conditioning and road friendly traction control buttons. I didn’t spot a registration plate on the front of the car but it felt like I could have easily taken it for a spin around Dubai’s hotspots that night.
The guys at the Autodrome appreciate that these events are likely to be once-in-a-lifetime affairs and so they know that the drama is everything. So to ensure I felt like a proper racing driver I was shown how to start the car…….box in neutral and press the start button. Maybe not the most involved of starting procedures but the sound of the engine crackling into life right behind my head had me mentally working out the loan rates and repayments on the £150,000 required to get this model onto my drive.
Although I was offered full control of the gear box my instructor did advise that the car’s traction control would have to stay in full wet mode due to sand on the track which gave certain corners the feel of an English country lane in Winter with black ice.
As I pulled the paddle back to get first gear I realized that both paddles could be pushed or pulled and then remembered reading that this was exactly how the McLaren F1 cars also operate. Real “flappy paddles”!
The pit lane speed limit is 30mph and for a car able to easily double that in first gear it’s surprisingly difficult to maintain such a low speed. I assume that somewhere there’s a pit lane speed button but I wasn’t introduced to that so it remained off.
Easy as (humble) pie
To prevent me ruining someone else's evening in the first braking zone as we exited the pit lane I was instructed to gun the throttle as we passed the pit lane exit marker which was easy enough. The next bit will stick in my mind for a long, long time. Whilst trying to hit the brakes for the first corner I found a brick under my foot. It’s a cliché but that’s exactly what the brake pedal felt like. There was absolutely no give in the pedal at all and all I’d done is try to gently squeeze it. With no speed being lost and the corner approaching at a barely believable speed I panicked and stamped on the brick. I half expected a squeal of tyres and to be facing in the wrong direction within seconds but the exact opposite happened. The car stopped on the spot in a straight line within meters. I then had to re-apply the throttle just to reach the turn-in marker cone. A brutal and embarrassing lesson in the difference between road and race cars with ceramic brakes!
I quickly needed to ‘recalibrate my brain’ which is another road testing cliché but an absolutely accurate one for the McLaren. The TT had taught me the lines and shape of the circuit but the McLaren was now shrinking the circuit so that corners seemed so much closer together as it pulled me out of one almost immediately arriving at the next one
With the traction control in full “idiot driving the car’ mode the instructor had me applying the gas far earlier than I would have felt possible in corners. Here’s a typical excerpt coming from the passenger seat “Brake in a straight line, gears, turn in on a flat throttle, wait…..no don’t wait that long push push push”. And each time the McLaren just pulled us out of the corner like a fully sorted front wheel driver going at half the speed.
With more confidence and an understanding of the ceramic brake’s behaviour I felt more comfortable to really push. From technology induced understeer if a corner was taken too fast to lift off over steer to bring it back in line, the car and instructor had me driving far more technically than I ever had before, letting the car, physics and McLaren IT wizardry do the hard work.
I'll be back
I only had the opportunity to drive the McLaren for 5 laps before having to return it to the pit lane. I’d like to say that I could have carried on all evening but to be honest I needed to stop, rethink my driving style which was full of old muscle memory reactions and then have another go. Alas that second set of laps will have to wait but I’ll be back.
With Mrs GRRUK on the pit wall manually timing my laps we later calculated that the car had been lapping somewhere around track day Porsche GT3 times. So here was a full on GT race car capable of giving a Gentleman driver respectable lap times and a massive grin.