24H Dubai: Reema Juffali takes podium at endurance debut, Zellers P3 in TCX
Saudi racer Reema Juffali made her GT3 debut by scoring an outstanding podium at the 24 Hours of Dubai - her first endurance race as well. Hanna Zellers also stood on the podium in TCX class, while Samantha Tan brought the BMW M4 GT3 to international debut, with promising pace.
The motor racing world is a big family and, as every family, it has its rituals.
With series' calendars increasingly extending into the months of November and December, the winter break is starting to feel less never-ending for racing enthusiasts - but the January 24H of Dubai remains one of the most anticipated events to kick off the calendar year.
A real tradition for fans and teams alike, the start of the CREVENTIC 24H Series represents a gathering for the world's top teams and drivers in endurance racing, preparing their season.
The 24H Series 2021 season had ended less than 2 months before at Sebring, where Canadian driver/owner Samantha Tan secured 6 titles at her first international campaign.
Samantha Tan Racing had in fact stormed to the GT4 and overall titles, and the young female racer had also claimed class and overall driver's titles, as well as Junior and Female Trophies. At Dubai, the reigning champions brought to international debut the brand-new BMW M4 GT3, as ST Racing switched to the GT3 platform for the first time.
Tan - at her first GT3 race - shared the stunning #1 car with Harry Gottsacker, Bryson Morris, Tyler Maxson and Anthony Lazzaro.
But, as in 24H Series tradition, female participation continued to be extensive throughout the field and included 2021 TCR class runner-up Jasmin Preisig - who remained at Autorama Motorsport, in the #111 VW Golf TCR entry - and a few very exciting debuts. Among them, Saudi racing star Reema Juffali, Hanna Zellers, Sophie Hofmann and Betty Chen.
Juffali - the first ever Saudi woman to hold a racing license - moved to the UK to pursue her racing career and competed in British F4 in 2019 and 2020, before stepping up to British F3 (then rebranded GB3) in 2021. She continued to make progress on the single-seater ladder and secured a P4 at Silverstone as a best result last year.
Reema entered her first ever GT3 and endurance race at Dubai, in the #20 SPS Automotive Performance Mercedes AMG shared with Valentin Pierburg, George Kurtz and John Loggie.
Sophie Hofmann was also taking the start in her very first endurance race, as the German made her racing debut in 2019 in the Audi R8 LMS Cup and then entered the 2021 DTM Trophy season with Heide-Motorsport.
Hofmann was announced as part of the Heide-Motorsport's squad for Dubai: "Endurance was always something I wanted to try, I just had no chances because of other race programmes until now", she told us before the event. "I feel really pleased and thankful to have this great opportunity now. And I am really excited to start this new experience."
American Hanna Zellers made her CREVENTIC debut behind the wheel of the BMW M2 CS Racing by Yeeti Motorsport alongside Domenico Solombrino, Phil Hill and Thomas Krebs in the TCX category.
Finally, Betty Chen, from Taiwan, made her GT3 debut in the #10 Leipert Motorsport Lamborghini, in a strong line up that included Leitch, Brunot, Li and Eriksson.
In Thursday's qualifying, the #1 ST Racing BMW set the third fastest time in GT3 ProAm in the aggregate classification - another promising starting point for the team's GT3 adventure. Unfortunately, a mechanical issue right at the start prevented Gottsacker from taking the start from the grid and had to start the race from the pitlane. In the hectic moments, the beautifully-liveried M4 GT3 rejoined the track under a red light at the end of the pitlane and received a 2-lap penalty. Despite the race being severely hampered from the start, Gottsacker had a strong first stint and made up many positions overall, after starting at the bottom of the 79 cars on track. John Loggie took the start in the #20 Mercedes in GT3Am, Brendon Leitch got behind the wheel of the #10 Lamborghini, Heinz Schmersal was the elected driver to start in the #411 Heide-Motorsport Audi GT4 and Solombrino took on driving duties in the #208 Yeeti Motorsport BMW, from 6th in GTX. Mies led Marciello and Stolz in the overall classification, but the Swiss driver chased the leader closely in the WRT Audi. There was early drama for the #91 Herberth Motorsport Porsche, who couldn't even make the start following a crash on Wednesday in practice. The first part of the race turned out to be a disrupted one, with many Code-60 interruptions - the first one after only 15 minutes of racing - for several cars stopping on track or contacts. When the sun went down over the horizon, we also witnessed some heavy impacts: the two Dinamic Motorsport Porsches were totalled in separate crashes, luckily with no injuries for the drivers. Matteo Cairoli was assessed by the medical centre and released after making contact with the #715 KTM of Robert Schiftner at Turn 9, while the #452 Sorg Rennsport BMW M4 GT4 of Joachim Thiess also was protagonist of a big crash at the same corner a few hours later and sparked a long Code-60 for barrier repair. In the first half of the race, 16 Code-60 made up for over 3 hours of Full Course Yellow. Reema Juffali got behind the wheel for her first stints and immediately proved to be the fastest of the #20 crew. The Saudi driver showed confidence and safely held the second position in GT3 Am class throughout the night.
Samantha Tan also had strong stints and, together with her teammates, she recovered to second in GT3 ProAm. The #1 crew was at one point leading its category despite the difficult start, but a few technical hiccups slowed down ST Racing in the night: a puncture first and a dislodged carbon diffuser during the morning put them back into third place - and a sudden power loss with a few hours to go further delayed their run. The car was sent back out in short time, thanks to the always brilliant work by the Canadian team, but the #1 BMW M4 GT3 could not do better than fifth in class across the finish line. While it was a slightly disappointing start of the season by Samantha Tan Racing, reliability of the new machine will likely improve with development and experience. Samantha herself did extremely well at her first race in GT3 machinery and showed great consistency. “We achieved what we came here to do: learn the new car and finish the race - which was a feat in itself considering there were 79 cars on track", commented Samantha. "Harry, Tyler, and Bryson all did stellar jobs during qualifying to put the car P3 in class and P15 overall." "We had a really strong start to the race and great pace throughout, but unfortunately, due to a few minor mechanical gremlins, it took us out of contention for the win. The car is potentially very competitive, but it needs more testing and development on our end", she continued. "Since we only received the car on Monday (straight from the factory), it was unable to reach that potential. That being said, the learning experiences we collectively gained were invaluable." "I’m honoured to have been one of the first drivers in the world to officially race the BMW M4 GT3 and compete against Le Mans winners, factory teams and factory drivers this weekend." The small outfit is certainly expanding, now running a two car operation, and will surely bounce back stronger from the 12H of Mugello.
Reema Juffali completed four stints in the #20 SPS Mercedes and kept improving her lap times while maintaining second place in class. At one point, Juffali took the lead before her final driver change stop and handed over to John Loggie, before George Kurtz brought it across the finish line in second place in GT3Am.
Arguably, Juffali was the star of the race and demonstrated outstanding abilities in her first endurance race. "I honestly don’t have the words", wrote Juffali, who finished on the podium in class and ninth overall. "I’m beyond happy! An incredible weekend."
"Had to get my head around traffic, pit stops and driving at night. It doesn’t happen without hard work and a great team, so a big thanks to SPS automotive-performance and my fellow drivers."
Juffali now targets a full time seat in GT racing, which would realistically see her making more progress towards her goal of one day racing at Le Mans. "During my time in single seaters, I put myself against the best of the young rising stars to learn as quickly as possible and learn the hard way with some tough racing", said Reema via a blog post.
"I knew there would be a greater reward in the long run. For me, this race is a testament to that".
Sophie Hofmann also had a solid endurance debut and ran two good stints in the #411 Audi, learning traffic and multi-class racing. Starting from 9th place in GT4, the team had climbed to eighth when Cabell Fisher had a big off and impacted the barriers, causing significant damage to the rear of the car. Unfortunately, that would be the end of Heide-Motorsport's race, with approximately 5 hours left in the competition.
Nevertheless, Hofmann described it as the "best experience of her career".
Betty Chen started her only stint with 6 hours and 30 minutes to go and climbed in the #10 Leipert Lamborghini. The Taiwanese had a spin and brushed the wall, luckily to no significant damage and soon rejoined the race. After a 56-minute driving shift, she handed over to Joel Eriksson from eighth place in GT3.
TCR class specialist Jasmin Preisig had a troubled start of the race, as the #111 entry was soon facing fuel pressure issues that dropped them back in the TCE order.
Preisig had four strong stints and recovered to third in class. Unfortunately, they would slip to fourth in the final hour - in a rather unlucky race marked by a few technical gremlins.
But there was more success for the #208 Yeeti Motorsport BMW, as Hanna Zellers and her teammates achieved a podium finish in TCX and a fifth place in the TCE division.
They ran a solid race and finished less than 40 seconds behind the second placed #255 Cogemo/TLRT BMW in TCX.
Zellers thus ended her first 24H Series race with a podium, and will be back in the US this weekend for the first round of the IMSA Prototype Challenge at Daytona, where she will also be contesting the full season.
Team WRT took a 1-2 in the overall standings, as Saud Fahad Al Saud, Axcil Jefferies, Dries Vanthoor, Christopher Mies and Thomas Neubauer took a controlled victory, having led from the early hours. Racing under the Saudi banner of MS7, it was the first win for a Saudi team.
The #7 car was followed by the sister WRT Audi of Benjamin Goethe, Arnold Robin, Maxime Robin, Jean-Baptiste Simmenauer and Frédéric Vervisch, who had leap-frogged the #4 HRT Abu Dhabi Racing Mercedes (Hubert Haupt / Khaled Al Qubaisi / Raffaele Marciello / Manuel Metzger) as the latter went for an alternate strategy during a Code60.
Marciello lost third in the very closing minutes, when the HRT Mercedes was passed by the #75 SPS Automotive Performance Mercedes while on fuel saving. Kenny Habul, Mikaël Grenier, Maro Engel and Jules Gounon thus clinched the podium by 7 seconds.
Thailand's BBR team clinched its maiden win in the 24H Series in TCR, having led from the half-race point. Kantadhee Kusiri, Kantasak Kusiri, Anusorn Asiralertsir, Tanart Sathienthirakul and Pasarit Promsombat took the lead when the AC Motorsport Audi RS3 LMS DGS hit trouble during the night and lost several laps due to a suspension issue.
The CREVENTIC 24H Series will be back on track in a few day's time, for the non-championship 6 Hours of Abu Dhabi. Most of the female racers in the championship, though, will be back at the 12H of Mugello, scheduled for 25-26 March in Tuscany.
The field will nevertheless have a female competitor, as Dutchwoman Stéphane Kox is set to race in the #48 Porsche 911 GT3 R run by Saalocin by KoxRacing.
Kox, who also raced in the GT4-based DTM Trophy in 2021, is preparing her Asian Le Mans Series campaign.