WTCC 2017 – Season Preview


While some of its global appeal may have been lost, as one of the best tintop series around, the FIA World Touring Car Championship still has a reputation for incredibly close action – this is the field at the start of the Main Race in Russia in 2016 – but, with the dominant force of recent years now out of the way…who’s going to step up and steal the glory in 2017?

I don’t want this to sound negative…but it doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence, does it? Granted, things never stand still for too long in the world of motorsport, and this even extends to championships themselves, with new categories popping up all the time at the expense of other, more well-established series, but you tend to expect, don’t you, that major international championships would be immune from the threat of being scrapped, and yet that’s exactly the situation we’ve got here. I mean, for years, it’s hardly been much of a contest in terms of the destination of the overall title – indeed, it was sometimes clear for everyone to see even before a wheel had been turned – and, as a result, it was inevitable that there were going to have consequences sooner or later in terms of either the size of the grid or the variety of the machinery on show (two absolute essentials for a good saloon car series) and, after years of predictions that this might happen…we’re now starting to see the results. The 2017 FIA World Touring Car Championship kicks off this weekend with some major questions being asked about its future, and, at present…it doesn’t seem as though anyone has the answers.

THE BASICS
Before we get into any of that, though, there’s been a fair few changes over the winter to get used to – including one or two that might come as something of a surprise – so, if you’re new to the WTCC and don’t really know how it all works, here’s a handy brief guide (OK, maybe not THAT handy) to the key rules and regulations, both in terms of the cars themselves and the conventional structure of the race weekend…

  1. The cars – which are all built to the TC1 specifications that were introduced in 2014 as an evolution of the old Super2000 regulations – are powered by turbocharged 1.6 litre engines that develop around 380 brake horsepower, while bigger aerodynamic packages – which include, amongst other things, longer splitters at the front and larger rear wings – mean they also look much more spectacular than the machinery of the previous regulations.
  2. After the first two race weekends, series organisers begin to add what is known as ‘compensation ballast’ to the most successful models of car in order to keep performance levels equal and the racing close, with anything from 0kg to a massive 80kg potentially being added based on their results of the previous three rounds.
  3. In a change for 2017 to condense all the racing action from a weekend into two days as opposed to three, the opening free practice sessions have been extended from 30 to 45 minutes, before a two-part qualifying session sets the grid for the ‘Main Race’, which is now two laps longer than the reverse-grid ‘Opening Race’:
    – In Q1, all cars are eligible to take part, with the top 12 at the end of the session going through while those qualifying 13th and back are locked into their position for both races.
    – In Q2, the remaining runners return to the track for another 10 minute blast, after which the top five go forward to fight for pole in the final one-lap, single-car shootout of Q3, with the rest of the field set in their positions for the ‘Main Race’.
    – However, in terms of the ‘Opening Race’, the reverse grid element means the driver qualifying in 10th at the end of Q2 is elevated onto pole for the first race of the weekend, while, of those that make it into Q3, the eventual ‘Main Race’ pole-sitter (still with me here?) will start back in 10th for the ‘Opening Race’.
  4. Following the conclusion of qualifying, it’s on to the unique, Tour de France-style team time trial known as MAC3 (Manufacturers Against the Clock), where three cars from each marque – sometimes including privateer entries – complete a two-lap run of the circuit, with the fastest team at the end receiving 12 bonus points towards their manufacturers’ tally, while 8 points go the way of the team in second.
  5. The points system has also changed slightly for 2017 – while the ‘Opening Race’ continues to adopt the FIA’s regular system of 25 points for the winner, then down through 18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2 to just a solitary 1 point for the driver in tenth, the ‘Main Race’ (because of its longer duration) awards more points, with the winner now receiving 30 points, dropping through 23-19-16-13-10-7-4-2 to 1 point for 10th place.

Perhaps the biggest and, arguably, most controversial change of the off-season, though, is the decision to include so-called ‘joker’ laps around the street circuits on the calendar, which force the cars to take an alternative and, often, slower route on one lap of both races.
While they work well in the World Rallycross Championship, where the races are much shorter and the decision as to when to take the ‘joker’ can have a major impact on the outcome of a race, I think this is an innovation too far for the WTCC – let’s face it, one of the backbones of good quality touring car racing is the closeness of the cars in racing situations, and, as far as I’m concerned, it takes something away from the on-track action if a race can be decided by something as artificial as this.
In any case, there’s plenty of gimmicky, artificial elements to tintop racing these days anyway, but, while some things like success ballast to equalise performance and reverse grids that allow different drivers a chance to start from the front have been received positively, and while series organisers have said they initially intend to restrict it just to street circuits – where overtaking is often more difficult – I just think it’s a sign of how desperate series organisers are to improve things…and, to be honest, I’m not sure it’s going to work.

THE CALENDAR
So, with all that now taken care of, it’s probably about time to take a look at the calendar for the upcoming season, which has seen a fair few changes in terms of both the number of events (which has been reduced from 12 to 10 as a means of cutting costs) and their specific locations, with France and Russia both dropping off the calendar following the exits of two major manufacturers – more of which later – along with a third European round in Slovakia.
After the opening rounds in the heat of North Africa and Morocco, the championship makes a welcome return to Italy for the first time since 2013 before returning to more some familiar venues in Central Europe, with the Hungarian round being followed by one of the season’s showpiece events around the notorious Nurburgring Nordschleife in Germany at the back end of May. From there, a trip to the streets of Vila Real in Portugal precedes the annual hop across the Atlantic for the series’ sole visit of the year to South America and, more specifically, Argentina, before a three-month summer break ends in mid-October at the all-new Ningbo International Circuit in China.
The cars then remain in the Far East for two further rounds in Japan and around the iconic street circuit in Macau – which returns to the schedule after a couple of years’ absence that saw the event taken up by rival series TCR – before the championship battle reaches its conclusion under the lights with a pair of night races in Qatar at the beginning of December, with both having to be staged on the Friday to avoid a clash with the finale of Formula One in Abu Dhabi.

Here, then, is a look at the complete 10 event calendar in more detail, complete with race dates and venues…

  1. Race of Morocco (Circuit Moulay El Hassan, Marrakech) – 9th April (Rounds 1-2)
  2. Race of Italy (Monza) – 30th April (Rounds 3-4)
  3. Race of Hungary (Hungaroring, Budapest) – 14th May (Rounds 5-6)
  4. Race of Germany (Nurburgring Nordschleife) – 27th May (Rounds 7-8)
  5. Race of Portugal (Vila Real) – 25th June (Rounds 9-10)
  6. Race of Argentina (Autodromo Termas de Rio Hondo) – 16th July (Rounds 11-12)
  7. Race of China (Ningbo International Circuit) – 15th October (Rounds 13-14)
  8. Race of Japan (Twin Ring Motegi) – 29th October (Rounds 15-16)
  9. Race of Macau (Guia Circuit) – 19th November (Rounds 17-18)
  10. Race of Qatar (Losail International Circuit) – 1st December (Rounds 19-20)

THE TEAMS AND DRIVERS
After three successive seasons of almost total domination, the end of 2016 marked the end of Citroen’s brief spell as a manufacturer team in the WTCC, as well as the departure to Formula E of three-time reigning world champion Jose Maria Lopez and the retirement of his veteran French team-mate Yvan Muller, and this, coupled with the surprise withdrawal of the LADA factory team as well, means that just 15 cars will take to the track this year, so, with that in mind, here’s a run-down of the runners and riders at this stage…


CITROEN C-ELYSEE

CITROEN
While the manufacturer team may have gone, the marque still remains a potent force on the grid with no fewer than four of the all-conquering C-Elysees entered for the full season, and, despite now being in independent hands, it would be a massive surprise if the cars weren’t in championship contention by the end of the year.
Leading the charge are German outfit Munnich Motorsport, who finally make the switch from their aging Chevrolet Cruze to the car that took Muller to second in the championship last year, with former world champion Rob Huff returning after three years away from the team to get behind the wheel, but the Brit will have to keep an eye on the similarly rapid trio of Citroens run by Sebastien Loeb Racing. Experienced Moroccan Mehdi Bennani was a regular front-runner on his way to two victories in 2016, and returns alongside regular team-mate Tom Chilton, who will be looking to complete a unique double this year as he dovetails his WTCC campaign with his commitments in the Power Maxed Racing Vauxhall Astra in the British Touring Car Championship, while young Frenchman John Filippi moves over after three years with Campos Racing to complete their line-up.


HONDA CIVIC

HONDA
The loss of Citroen as a works team opens the door for their nearest rivals to assume their position as the WTCC’s dominant force, and, having shown that they were more than a match for the French marque on multiple occasions in 2016 despite only recording three victories, they can only improve their position heading into the new season.
Following the departures of both Lopez and Muller, the factory Castrol Honda team enter 2017 with the two highest placed returning drivers from last year, and both will be expected to challenge for what would be a maiden series title for either – Portugal’s Tiago Monteiro is now one of the most experienced drivers on the grid, but he’ll have to be on his toes to guard against the threat of stable-mate Norbert Michelisz, who finished only one point further back in fourth in the overall standings last season, and will be looking to make yet more progress in his second season as a works driver. The team’s line-up is completed by experienced Japanese GT racer Ryo Michigami, who replaces Huff for a full season after making his championship debut at his home round in 2016, while independent team Zengo Motorsport will also field a pair of Civics for young Hungarian Daniel Nagy and single-seater convert Aurelien Panis, the son of former Monaco Grand Prix winner Olivier.


VOLVO S60 (and no, your eyes are not deceiving you – despite announcing his full-time retirement at the end of last season, Muller joined the Polestar team in an advisory capacity ahead of the start of 2017, and stood in for new boy Catsburg at the championship launch test at Monza)

VOLVO
It was an eye-catching return to the championship for the Swedish manufacturer last season, with occasional stand-out performances in the latter stages going some way to making up for what was an awful start with the brand-new S60, but, having initially stated that their aim was to win the title within three years, the size of the grid has led to a change in expectations, and, with such a strong line-up of drivers, they can be regarded as major title threats.
Having persevered with only fielding Swedish drivers in 2016, there’s a much more international flavour to the Polestar team’s three car attack this time around, with the returning Thed Bjork – who scored the team’s first-ever victory in the WTCC when he took the chequered flag in the Opening Race in China – being joined by former Super TC2000 champion Nestor Girolami, who made a starring one-off appearance in place of Robert Dahlgren in Japan last year, and will be looking to emulate the achievements of compatriot Lopez having finally signed up for a full campaign, while Dutchman Nicky Catsburg – having found himself without a seat despite a breakthrough season that saw him stand on the podium seven times, including his maiden victory in the series in Russia, following the surprise exit of LADA from the championship – makes the switch to complete their line-up.


CHEVROLET CRUZE

CHEVROLET
They’ve certainly been around a fair bit now – indeed, the car first appeared in the championship way back in 2009 before being updated to the current regulations when they were introduced in 2014 – but, in the right hands, the RML-prepared Cruzes are still a seriously strong package that remains capable of taking victories outright, and so it would be something of a surprise if they weren’t stood on the top step again this time around.
With the sudden influx of second-hand Citroens onto the market, the number of Chevrolets on the grid – which was already dwindling anyway – has continued to drop during the off-season, and, at present, only two are scheduled to start the season, with veteran Dutchman Tom Coronel (now the only man to have competed in every single WTCC season since it was re-launched in 2005) back behind the wheel of the ROAL Motorsport Cruze for a fourth successive season, while a late deal saw Argentinian Esteban Guerrieri – who made an incredible impression in a one-off appearance at his home event last season by taking a stunning pole position before having it snatched away post-session for leaving the pit-lane while the red light was on – agree to return to Campos Racing for five events, although negotiations are still taking place with the hope of allowing the former single-seater racer to drive for the full campaign.

Completing the field is new team RC Motorsport, who have picked up the remains of the ex-LADA works team to run a pair of Vestas in their debut season in the championship, but the 11th-hour nature of the deal means that only French rookie Yann Ehrlacher – who, interestingly, is the nephew of former world champion Muller – will be entered for the opening round while the team search for a second driver to join later in the season.


LADA Vesta

MY THOUGHTS
While everyone’s been running around shouting about the demise of the WTCC, I actually think that the 2017 season could turn out to be the most open and unpredictable championship of recent years, with several teams and drivers putting forward viable cases as to why they’ll be the ones celebrating come season’s end.
I mean, there is such a phrase as having ‘quality over quantity’, and, while it’s natural to want both at the same time, sometimes it’s important to be realistic, and the same is true here – yes, the grid might be small, but it’s certainly competitive, and, in truth, it’s genuinely hard to pick a winner. The Hondas of Monteiro and Michelisz may well be the best package on paper – certainly if last season was anything to go by) – and might just start as the favourites, but it was Huff and the Munnich-run Citroen that was quickest at the season launch, prompting the Brit to state that no one could catch him if the car worked properly, and, while I’m not sure that’s the case, the former champion will be a major contender.
Of the rest, the dark horses (if you can call a manufacturer entry such a thing) are going to be the Volvos of particularly Girolami and Catsburg, as well as Bennani and Chilton in the Sebastien Loeb Citroens and perhaps even Guerrieri – if his full-season deal comes off – and Coronel in their privateer Chevrolets, while it’ll be interesting to see where the youngsters fit into all this as well, with Nagy, Panis and Ehrlacher all desperate to prove themselves against some of the best touring car drivers in the world.

That’s what I think’s going to happen, but, as with any of these previews, I want to get some input from elsewhere, and that’s where you lot come in with your opinions as to where the championship title is going – will it be fought out between the expected front-runners, or can one of the chasing pack force their way into the mix to claim ultimate glory? Comment here, on Facebook at Straight from the Motormouth or vote in the poll below – the new World Touring Car Championship season is almost here…and it’s anyone’s guess what’s going to happen next.

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