Garage 59 raced its new pair of McLaren 720S GT3 cars for the first time this weekend, in the opening two rounds of the 2022 Asian Le Mans Series in Dubai. The #88 McLaren of Alexander West, Marvin Kirchhöfer and Frank Bird took fifth and eighth places respectively in the two season-opening races, while the #59 McLaren of Nicolai Kjærgaard, Manuel Maldonado and James Vowles raced to 19th and 14th places after a couple of issues on track.
As it was the first race meeting for the team with a new car the learning curve was steep. After switching marques just before Christmas, there was just enough time for a quick wet test in the UK before the two McLarens were put on the boat to Dubai. Going racing is the fastest way to learn a new car though and with some hard work on set ups and great support from McLaren Customer Racing, the team is happy with the Dubai result and already fired up for the next event.
In a couple of character-building qualifying sessions, the two McLarens took 14th and 19th positions on the grid for Race 1, with the #88 in the higher spot.
There is always an opportunity to make up positions at the beginning of a race so the team elected to start Frank Bird in the #88 McLaren and Nicolai Kjærgaard in the #59 – two fast Silver-rated drivers. This strategy paid off as during the opening stint, Bird was flying (sorry!) and went from 14th to second place, while Kjærgaard also had an impressive run from 19th to ninth.
The middle stint was the turn of the Bronze-rated drivers, whose job was to defend the positions gained. Alexander West did an incredible defensive job, holding onto third place for over half of his stint before the professionals found a way by, dropping him to eighth. In the #59 McLaren James Vowles also had his elbows out but also had to make way for the pros, dropping a few positions but not without a fight.
For the run to the chequered flag, Marvin Kirchhöfer jumped into the #88, joining the race in ninth position. The ever rapid German driver fought his way up to seventh and after post-race penalties had been applied to two competitors, the #88 McLaren took fifth place. A great result for the first race with a new car.
Manuel Maldonado took the wheel of the #59 for the final run, joining in 16th place. Despite a valiant effort he finished in 19th place due to a prolonged pit-stop while the team fixed a broken number light. Race 1 was Manuel’s first GT3 race and he was up against drivers with huge experience in that area so it was great to see him get faster and stronger with each stint.
The Bronze drivers started Race 2 on Sunday with West starting the #88 from 16th and Vowles in the #59 in 17th on the grid. This race started later than the first so it made sense for the Bronze drivers to have the best of the daytime running as they have less experience of night racing than the others.
West continued his performance from the previous day, moving up from 16th on the grid to break into the Top 10 by the end of the opening stint. Vowles had a good start in the #59 McLaren and was running well before he was hit by the #51 Ferrari, which received a drive through for the contact. James recovered well after being pushed right down to 22nd and was quickly up to speed again.
The next shift came from Bird in the #88 and Maldonado in the #59. Both drivers got stuck right in and carried on the charge. Race 2 was punctuated by a few caution periods and the first one fell badly for Garage 59, right after the first pit stop for the #88, which meant that car lost around a minute of track time.
After strong final stints for Kirchhöfer and Kjærgaard the Garage 59 McLarens finished Race 2 in eighth (#88) and 14th (#59) places.
Garage 59 Team Principal, Andrew Kirkaldy said: “Considering that was our first race meeting with a new car I’m very pleased with how it went. All of the crew and all six drivers did a great job throughout both races. Alex in particular has moved up to a new level and we all really enjoyed his defensive stint in Race 1. We could have finished higher in the #88 today but the first full course yellow put paid to that. We can’t complain though. We have learnt a lot this weekend and we’re looking forward to going again in Abu Dhabi in a few days.”