TCR International Series 2017 – Season Preview


Despite being a relatively recent addition to the world motorsport scene, the TCR International Series has rapidly grown to become one of the most popular and prestigious touring car series around – this is the 2016 field at the Imola circuit in Italy – so what does the new season have in store?

The novelty factor might be wearing off a little bit now…but it still doesn’t look an inch out of place, does it? I mean, in the cut-and-thrust world of motorsport, whenever a new championship arrives on the scene – particularly one that seems to have come completely out of left-field – it’s natural that expectations are going to remain pretty low for a while as it tries to find its feet, yet nobody seems to have got the memo here. Sure, it might not have been around all that long, but it delivers everything you’d expect of the more established touring car series around the world, and, at the minute, it just seems to be going from strength to strength. The TCR International Series has created more than its fair share of stories in its short history so far, and so, with the 2017 season preparing to fire up this weekend…it’s time to start writing the next chapter.

THE BASICS
First things first, though, I suspect many of you will be hearing of TCR – which was only developed back in 2014 by the ex-World Touring Car Championship series boss Marcello Lotti as a means of providing a cost-effective avenue into global tintop racing, with the first races taking place at the start of 2015 – for the very first time, and, as such, might not know too much about exactly how it works, so, before we go any further, here’s a quick run-down of some of the key rules and regulations, both in terms of the cars and the structure of a typical race weekend…

  1. The cars themselves – which are predominantly 4 or 5 door, front wheel drive hatchbacks (rear-wheel-drive not being permitted under the regulations) – are powered by various different sizes of 4 cylinder turbocharged engines of between 1.8 and 2.0 litres that develop around 330 brake horsepower, with most of the rest of the technical specifications being based on the SEAT Leon Eurocup car.
  2. In order to prevent one make or model from dominating the championship, a Balance of Performance (BoP) system is implemented before the start of the season, and can be adjusted during the year in three different ways – the overall weight of the car, the size of the restrictor on the turbocharger (which determines the amount of power the engine can produce) and the ride height level – depending on the results of individual races.
  3. The race weekend begins with two half-hour practice sessions before a 35-minute qualifying session made up of two parts – in the 20 minutes of Q1, all eligible cars take to the track, with the top 12 at the chequered flag going forward into Q2 while those from 13th on down are locked into their respective grid positions for both races. After a five minute break, the second session is a 10 minute sprint for the remaining runners, with the fastest driver qualifying on pole for Race 1, before the top 10 qualifiers are reversed for the second race of the weekend.
  4. Points are awarded on the same scale for both drivers’ and team’s titles, as well as the so-called ‘Model of the Year’ – which essentially crowns the most successful brand in the same way as manufacturers’ championships in other series – with 25 points being awarded to each race winner and passing down through 18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2 in line with the FIA’s global scoring system to 1 point for the driver finishing in 10th. There are also bonus points awarded in qualifying, with the top five on the grid at the end of Q2 receiving additional points on a scale of 5-4-3-2-1.

THE CALENDAR
So, having cleared all of that up, it’s probably about time we took a look at what’s coming up in the season ahead, starting with a much-changed championship calendar – which has been reduced from 11 events to 10 – for the third successive year, with many of the more established venues of the past couple of seasons being dropped in favour of some eye-catching additions. Perhaps the biggest story of all, though, is the absence of the anticipated races in support of the iconic Monaco Grand Prix that were initially announced on the provisional schedule, but were then later dropped following the sale of Formula One to Liberty Media, although a letter from the event organisers implied no negotiations had ever taken place.
In terms of what is there, the season kicks off in an all-new location for not only touring car racing, but world motorsport in general at the Rustavi International Motopark in Georgia, with the field then heading off to the Middle East for the first of its two appearances alongside Formula One in Bahrain before returning to Europe and, more specifically, Belgium at the beginning of May. From there, it’s on to some of the more familiar venues from the past couple of seasons, with trips to Italy – which was only added at the 11th hour after series organisers gave up on their hopes of racing at Monaco – and Austria being followed by the series’ first-ever visit to the Hungaroring near Budapest, before the European leg of the season comes to a close in early July in Germany. After a sizeable break of nearly two months, the championship then goes long-haul to the familiar setting of Thailand before visiting the all-new Zhejiang circuit in China, with the title battle then reaching its conclusion under the lights in Abu Dhabi, again in support of Formula One.

Here, then, is a look at the championship calendar for 2017 in a little more detail, complete with tracks and the dates of each race weekend…

  1. Georgia (Rustavi International Motopark) – 1st-2nd April (Rounds 1 and 2)
  2. Bahrain (Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir) – 15th-16 April (Rounds 3 and 4)
  3. Belgium (Spa-Francorchamps) – 6th-7th May (Rounds 5 and 6)
  4. Italy (Monza) – 13th-14th May (Rounds 7 and 8)
  5. Austria (Salzburgring) – 10th-11th June (Rounds 9 and 10)
  6. Hungary (Hungaroring) – 1st-2nd July (Rounds 11 and 12)
  7. Germany (Oschersleben) – 8th-9th July (Rounds 13 and 14)
  8. Thailand (Chang International Circuit, Buriram) – 2nd-3rd September (Rounds 15 and 16)
  9. China (Zhejiang International Circuit) – 7th-8th October (Rounds 17 and 18)
  10. Abu Dhabi (Yas Marina Circuit) – 26th-27th November (Rounds 19 and 20)

THE TEAMS AND DRIVERS
Even though this is only the third season in the championship’s history, the level of variety in terms of machinery on the grid is continuing to grow, with Hyundai the latest manufacturer to announce their intention to build a TCR car based on the i30, taking the number of brands that have competed (or are slated to in the near future) in the championship to 11. However,  with grid sizes still relatively small compared to other touring car series, there’s not actually that many teams taking part, so, with that in mind, here’s a guide to the drivers and the six brands (with a seventh to come) that have been confirmed so far…


SEAT LEON TCR

SEAT – As the manufacturer that effectively spawned the TCR regulations, it’s no surprise that the Leon remains the most popular car of choice in the championship, and, having lost out on the title last year, it’s clear that they’ll be out to put things right in 2017.
Leading the Spanish marque’s attack this time around are the returning Craft-Bamboo LUKOIL operation, who retain the services of 2015 series runner-up Pepe Oriola from Spain and Britain’s James Nash, who came agonisingly close to winning the title himself last year, with Frenchman Hugo Valente – a former factory LADA driver in the World Touring Car Championship – rejoining the series after a one-off appearance in 2015 to complete the team’s all-star line-up.
Elsewhere, new America team Icarus Motorsport will field a pair of Leons for team boss Duncan Ende and another as-yet unconfirmed driver, while Hungarian teenager Ferenc Ficza – who also competed in the WTCC last year – will also drive a SEAT for the first two rounds for the Austrian Zele Racing outfit.


AUDI RS3 LMS TCR

AUDI – Having announced their return to the championship with much fanfare after taking part in a few events in 2015 with the unconventional TT Cup car, the German marque mean business with their all-new RS3 LMS, and it’d be a surprise if they weren’t competing right at the front before long.
Despite this, only one team have chosen to run the car initially in the form of the new Comtoyou Racing operation from Belgium, but they certainly generated plenty of headlines when they secured the services of reigning two-time series champion Stefano Comini – the Swiss driver looking to take a hat-trick of titles in a third different car in 2017, having won for both SEAT and Volkswagen in the past – in a late deal to spearhead their attack, with a second car scheduled to arrive later on in the season.


VOLKSWAGEN GOLF TCR

VOLKSWAGEN – After dipping their toes in the TCR water towards the back end of 2015 – duly winning in only their second race in Austria – last season showed just how competitive the Golf was against its rivals, with Comini ultimately emerging as the champion after a slow start, and so hopes are high that the cars can continue to fight right at the front this time around.
Despite losing the services of the Swiss ace, the Leopard Racing team still have a potential championship contender on their hands in the form of Frenchman Jean-Karl Vernay, who finished third overall last year in what was his debut season in the category, and the team expect to run a second car later in the year. Joining them in running the Golfs in 2017 are regular contenders West Coast Racing, who make the switch after running Hondas in the first two years, with Italian Gianni Morbidelli returning for a third season with the team alongside compatriot and 16 year-old rookie stable-mate Giacomo Altoe.


ALFA ROMEO GIULIETTA TCR

ALFA ROMEO – Last season saw the return of Alfa Romeo to top-level touring car racing after a prolonged absence, and, although there were flashes of pace from the Giulietta, it wasn’t consistently fast enough to allow them to make a major championship push, but they look a much better prospect to challenge at the front in 2017.
As with Audi, only one team have chosen to run the cars this season, but, with support from the Romeo Ferraris team that built the cars, the new GE-Force team look like a real threat to the established names, having secured the services of giant Serb Dusan Borkovic – who was one of only two men to take more than one pole position in 2016 while with the departed B3 Racing team, but is still searching for his first win in the category – and Georgia’s Davit Kajaia, who was a consistent points scorer behind the wheel of an Engstler-run VW last season.


HONDA CIVIC TCR

HONDA – With the loss of West Coast Racing as their main customer, the Civics are somewhat scarce on the grid in 2017, but, having been one of the most consistent packages throughout the first few seasons, it would be a major surprise if their performance dropped off enough to keep them from putting in yet more strong performances.
The only team committing to running the cars at present for this season are the new M1RA operation from Hungary, which has been set up by current works Honda World Touring Car driver Norbert Michelisz, and there’s a mixture of youth and experience in their driver line-up, with 17 year-old Attila Tassi switching from B3 Racing for his second season in the championship to partner 48 year-old team-mate Roberto Colciago as the Italian returns to top-level competition after dominating his country’s national TCR series last year.


OPEL ASTRA TCR

OPEL – Having suffered from a string of problems during their first two stop-start years in the championship, there are hopes that the 2017 season will be the most competitive yet for the more well-developed Astras, and, while they might be something of an unknown quantity at this stage, don’t rule them out for some good results as the season goes on.
With the Campos Racing team that had run the cars in the past stepping back from the championship, the responsibility this year falls on the new DG Sport Competition operation that oversaw Belgian veteran Pierre-Yves Corthals’ charge to the runner-up position in the regional Benelux series last year, but most of the team’s hopes will rest with Slovakian youngster Mat’o Homola, who joins for his second season in TCR after a strong maiden campaign that saw him finish fifth overall behind the wheel of the third B3 Racing SEAT.

Also confirmed to join later in the year are a new brand to TCR in the form of KIA, with the STARD operation from Austria (run by former World Rally Championship driver Manfred Stohl) building two all-new C’eed TCR machines for the Zengo Motorsport team that has enjoyed success in the World Touring Car Championship in recent years. Ficza has already announced as one of their drivers, and will switch from the SEAT to lead their attack alongside an as-yet unconfirmed team-mate when the car makes its anticipated debut in Belgium.
Other manufacturers, too, were present at the Balance of Performance test at the Adria circuit in Italy, with the Subaru WRX STI, Ford Focus and Peugeot 308 Cup car all having appeared in the series in the past, and, despite not currently featuring on the entry list, there’s potential for each of these brands to rejoin the championship at some point during the year, increasing the variety of machinery on the grid further still.


KIA C’EED TCR

MY THOUGHTS
Despite being a little on the small side in terms of full-season entrants, it’s hard to dispute the level of quality amongst the 2017 field, with so many capable of producing a championship-winning campaign, but, after their near-misses in the last two seasons, it would be hard to bet against one of the Craft-Bamboo LUKOIL SEATs making it third time lucky for the team this time around. Oriola has the advantage of an extra year in the car compared to Nash, and so is probably the marginal favourite of the two, but Valente is equally as fast as his new team-mates, so it’ll be interesting to see how the team choose to manage such a strong trio of drivers over the course of the season.
The Volkswagens seem to be the closest challengers to the Leons, with Vernay looking particularly strong as one of the few drivers to maintain the same combination of team and car, while Morbidelli should be another to watch once his team get to grips with their new machinery. Elsewhere, Borkovic and Kajaia both look strong for Alfa Romeo, as does Colciago in the Honda, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Opel and (when it arrives) KIA perform with talented drivers like Homola and Ficza behind the wheel, while defending champion Comini is strangely something of an unknown quantity with his 11th hour deal, but, depending on how quickly the Audi gets up to speed, it’d be foolish to completely rule out the Swiss driver from making it three titles in a row.

So, that’s the way I see things, but I also want to get your thoughts on where the championship title might be headed this year – is it going to be business as usual for the reigning champion as Comini goes in search of a unique hat-trick; could another of the familiar faces from the last couple of years knock the Swiss driver off his perch, or might there be a surprise in store from one of the several new boys on show? Comment here, on Facebook or vote below, but, for now at least, there’s not much more that can be said – next stop, the unusual setting of Georgia…

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