At the risk of making myself look stupid once again…this couldn’t really get any better, could it? I mean, when this all came about for the first time less than three years ago, many people were quick to dismiss it as an unnecessary addition to the world of touring car racing – in fact, some questioned whether it would even see the light of day – but motorsport has an uncanny knack of throwing up its fair share of surprises…and few could have predicted how this was going to take off. Granted, it might still fall short in terms of pedigree and prestige compared to most other global championships at the minute, but everything’s in place for it to become even bigger and more popular in the coming years – an ever-increasing number of top-level drivers, cars from a wide variety of manufacturers (with technical parity being maintained to ensure the closest racing) and the regulations spreading like wildfire to national and regional series around the world – and, to be honest, it’s hard to believe that it won’t happen. On paper, the 2017 TCR International Series looks to be shaping up as the closest of its short history so far…but there’s still one man that everyone will be trying to catch.
Regardless of the standard or level of the racing, for the vast majority of championships around the world, it generally doesn’t take much to work out who the favourites to emerge with the overall title at the end of the season are likely to be, but, when it comes to a brand new series such as this, the fact that everyone essentially starts from the same point means the apparent outsiders have as much chance to win as anyone else, and the inaugural season here was no exception, with unheralded Swiss racer Stefano Comini emerging with the crown after a titanic final weekend on the streets of Macau. Last year, however, a switch to drive for new team Leopard Racing in one of their Volkswagen Golfs initially seemed to backfire in the early stages, but a consistent run of results in the second half of the year ensured the champion was in contention heading into the final round, where a fourth place finish in the last race saw him retain his title in the most dramatic of circumstances, pipping nearest rival James Nash – who had led the way for much of the year – by a slender margin of just 2.5 points.
Over the off-season, the growth of the series has continued at pace, with Hyundai – complete with veteran Italian Gabriele Tarquini, a former British and World Touring Car champion and all-round legend of the sport, as their official test driver – the latest brand to announce their intentions to compete with a new version of their i30, but, while the number of brands and cars may be increasing, grid sizes haven’t really been at the same kind of level, with many race weekends having to be propped up by guest and wildcard appearances from national drivers. Make no mistake, I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing at the minute – after all, the whole idea of the TCR regulations is to allow them to be used around the world, and, if it gives drivers a chance to compete at the top level for a race or two to prove their worth, it shows that they’ve done the job properly – but, when you look at the points table at the end of the season, it doesn’t look quite as impressive to beat a field of part-season entries as it does to emerge on top against those entered for the full campaign, and so I, for one, hope this can be resolved in the near future.
The first round of the new season broke new ground for both the series itself and world motorsport in general, with the unfamiliar surroundings of Georgia and, more specifically, the Rustavi International Motopark providing the backdrop for the opening two races of the year, marking the first time that the former Soviet country had ever played host to an internationally-sanctioned race series. Having opened back in 1978, the 4.1km (2.5 miles) circuit quickly fell into disrepair in the late 1980s and was barely used at all for the best part of 20 years, but, following the purchase of the track by a new set of investors in 2009, a significant period of redevelopment saw the venue and its infrastructure brought back up to modern standards before series boss Marcello Lotti finally secured a deal to bring the championship to the country for the first time midway through last year.
Containing a mixture of 7 left-handers and 5 right-handers, a typical lap begins with a relatively long run down the pit straight – which actually doubles up as a drag strip – to the tight, 90-degree right-hander of Turn 1 that feeds almost immediately into the endlessly looping left-hander at Turn 2, with the drivers then able to stretch their legs down the first of several sizeable straights around the lap before sweeping through a much faster left-hander at Turn 3. From there, the track becomes a little more technical in the middle sector, with the double-apex right-hander of Turns 4 and 5 being followed by a slight climb to the right-left chicane – the first of two on the lap – at Turns 6 and 7 before a short straight takes the cars over a slight brow and into the braking zone for the left-hand hairpin at Turn 8. After another short blast to the second, noticeably tighter chicane of Turns 9 and 10, the speed then begins to pick up again in the final sector, with a pronounced drop downhill leading into the fast left-hand sweeper at Turn 11 before the similar final corner brings the cars back onto the pit straight.
With so little top-level racing having taken place here, it’s difficult to really pick out too many obvious places when it comes to the business of overtaking, but, at first glance, the best of the bunch appears to be on the brakes at the end of the first long straight into the first part of the double-apex right-hander at Turn 4, although a decent run out of the chicane at Turns 6 and 7 looks as if it could produce a potential passing place into the Turn 8 hairpin. Elsewhere, the late turn-in to the first corner may well invite the occasional lunge up the inside, but the fact the track narrows quite so dramatically coming off the pit straight makes it a somewhat risky move to attempt, while the relatively fast, flowing nature of the final sector could also allow a following car to dive through at the last corner with a good run through the preceding bend.
The opening rounds of the season 12 months ago saw the series head to the Middle East and, more specifically, Bahrain – the Gulf state hosting the second event of the year this time around – for the first of its three appearances as part of the support package for Formula One, where, despite being surprisingly outpaced in qualifying by Craft-Bamboo LUKOIL team-mate Sergey Afanasyev, an early move from 2015 series runner-up Pepe Oriola in Race 1 saw the Spanish hotshot assume control and go on to take victory ahead of veteran Italian Gianni Morbidelli in the West Coast Racing Honda Civic and new LUKOIL stable-mate Nash. It then got even better for the SEAT driver in Race 2 as he charged through from sixth on the reverse grid to double up with a second win of the weekend ahead of Nash and giant Serb Dusan Borkovic in his B3 Racing SEAT, but it proved to be a disastrous weekend for Comini on his first appearance in the VW as, after a disappointing qualifying yielded only a seventh place finish in Race 1, contact midway through the second race with new French team-mate Jean-Karl Vernay at Turn 1 saw both the Leopard Racing Golfs sustain enough damage to send the pair into retirement.
So, after defying expectations once again to successfully defend his title, could the reigning champion – who, after looking as though he was going to be absent from the field because of budget constraints, only secured a deal to get back on the grid at the 11th hour behind the wheel of an all-new Audi RS3 LMS for the equally-new Comtoyou Racing operation – continue where he left off and kick-start his attempts to complete a unique hat-trick by taking a third championship with a third different combination of team, car and brand, or, with perhaps the most competitive field to contend with this time around, would his rivals manage to both knock the Swiss ace off his perch and, in the process, mark themselves out as a potential champion from the outset? Well, I think it’s about time we found out – this is the story of the opening race weekend of the 2017 TCR International Series, Rounds 1 and 2 from Rustavi in Georgia…
The two weekend-opening free practice sessions provided the first real opportunity to see where everyone stood in the pecking order, and, initially at least, it looked to be a straightforward shoot-out between the two young Hungarians in the field, with 20 year old ex-World Touring Car Championship driver Ferenc Ficza striking first blood by more than a quarter of a second in FP1 in his Zele Racing SEAT Leon before 17 year old compatriot Attila Tassi topped the timesheets for the new M1RA Motorsport team in his Honda Civic by just over a tenth in FP2. However, when it came to the business of qualifying, the more experienced faces started to show their class, with veteran Italian Roberto Colciago posting the fastest time after the first 20 minute segment in the second of the M1RA Hondas, but, in the 10 minute scramble of Q2, a sensational turn of speed with around three minutes to go saw home hero Davit Kajaia send the local fans into raptures as he secured his first-ever TCR pole in the new-look GE-Force Alfa Romeo Giulietta by more than half a second, with Tassi joining the Georgian on the front row.
Behind, Ficza again showed good pace to be fastest of the SEATs in third ahead of the sole Leopard Racing Golf in the hands of 2016 title contender Vernay in fourth, with Colciago and Comini rounding out the top six – the champion happy to be in the mix after narrowly avoiding being knocked out in Q1 – ahead of Morbidelli’s brand-new West Coast Racing Volkswagen Golf and WTCC refugee Hugo Valente in the fastest of the three Craft-Bamboo LUKOIL SEATs, while, in terms of the reverse grid for Race 2, tenth place for West Coast Racing newcomer Giacomo Altoe saw the 16 year old Italian promoted onto pole ahead of a disgruntled Oriola. Elsewhere, Nash had to make do with a disappointing 11th ahead of former race winner Mat’o Homola in the faster of the two striking DG Sport Competition Opel Astras in 12th, while power steering issues saw an unhappy Borkovic consigned to a lowly 13th in his Alfa Romeo, with the 16 car field being rounded out by the Icarus Motorsport SEAT of American newcomer Duncan Ende and wildcard driver Shota Abkhazava – the owner of the circuit – in the third GE-Force Alfa Romeo.
Giacomo Altoe (ITA) – #21 West Coast Racing Volkswagen Golf
QUALIFYING RESULTS – TOP 10: 1st – Kajaia, 2nd – Tassi, 3rd – Ficza, 4th – Vernay, 5th – Colciago, 6th – Comini, 7th – Morbidelli, 8th – Valente, 9th – Oriola and 10th – Altoe (Reverse Pole)
Despite the arrival of another unknown element in the form of rain prior to the start of the opening race, when the lights went out, pole-sitter Kajaia got away well to lead the field down into Turn 1 for the first time, with Tassi just about able to repel the attentions of team-mate Colciago – the Italian having made perhaps the best start of all before leaving his braking too late for the first corner and running wide – to hang on to second, while behind, an aggressive move from Comini saw the reigning champion grab fourth after contact with the rear of former team-mate Vernay’s Volkswagen sent the Frenchman into a half-spin at Turn 2. At the front, however, the battle for second soon became interesting as Tassi started to come under increasing pressure from rapid compatriot Ficza’s SEAT, and, after several laps stuck behind the Honda, the Zele Racing SEAT finally found a way through into Turn 1 on lap 6 to take the position, with Comini also buying into the fight in fourth as the two young Hungarians squabbled amongst themselves.
As the race wore on, the conditions continued to play a part in proceedings, with Valente having a major moment on lap 6 when he caught the slippery kerb turning into the final corner and was fortunate not to slide off the road altogether, allowing both stable-mate Nash and Belgian stalwart Pierre-Yves Corthals in the second DG Sport Competition Opel to get through before the Frenchman’s race was brought to a premature conclusion when he was forced to pit not long afterwards with a problem. Further up the road, though, positions continued to change hands amongst the leading group, with Comini eventually getting the better of Tassi after the Honda – which seemed to be struggling for grip on the greasy track surface – slid wide on the exit of Turn 2 on lap 8 to get alongside before completing the pass on the sweep through Turn 3 to move the Audi up into a potential podium position on its series debut, with Colciago following through at Turn 1 on lap 9 to demote his 17 year-old team-mate back down into fifth.
However, as the rain continued to intensify, Ficza – who had shown strong speed having been released into clean air in second – rapidly began to slash Kajaia’s advantage in the later stages of the race, and, before long, was right underneath the rear wing of the Alfa Romeo – even making a touch of contact with a lap and a half to run – but, despite the increased pressure, the Georgian remained almost wheel-perfect to take the chequered flag and record both his and the Italian brand’s first victory in the championship, meaning Ficza had to settle for second, while Comini hung on to give the new Audi its maiden podium finish in third ahead of the two M1RA Hondas of Colciago and Tassi as just 1.7s separated the top five at the end of the race. Behind, having lost ground in the aftermath of his opening lap half-spin, Vernay was the best of the Volkswagens in sixth ahead of an equally frustrated Oriola in seventh, with teenager Altoe producing an impressive drive to finish eighth and secure points on his series debut, while Borkovic managed to recover to ninth in the second Alfa to finish ahead of the second West Coast Racing Golf of Morbidelli in tenth.
Race 2 (Reverse Grid):
There was drama even before the start of the second race of the weekend as, having complained about unseen contact with former team-mate Vernay on the slow-down lap of Race 1, extended repairs to Comini’s car meant the reigning champion was forced to start from the pit lane rather than his fifth place on the reverse grid, with pole-man Altoe making a solid start when the lights went out to hold onto the lead on the run down towards Turn 1, but it wasn’t long before the young Italian’s defences were breached as Oriola somehow managed to pull off an audacious move around the outside at Turn 9 to squeeze his way in front, with team-mate Valente also able to capitalise as the West Coast Racing Volkswagen was relegated back down into third. Behind, there was yet more first-lap chaos as Tassi – having made a searing start from ninth on the grid to shoot through – pitched himself into a half-spin after taking too much kerb on the inside of the first corner, yet somehow managed to recover and hang on to fourth, but worse was to follow towards the back as contact between Abkhazava’s Alfa and the Opel of Homola left the latter beached in the gravel, meaning the safety car had to be deployed.
On the restart, the two Craft-Bamboo LUKOIL SEATs wasted no time in putting the hammer down and opening out a gap, with Altoe proving to be something of a cork in the bottle as he desperately sought to hang on to third, but eventually, a slight mistake on the exit of the final corner from the Volkswagen gave Tassi an opportunity to get alongside and then sweep across in front on the brakes into Turn 1 to move into third, with the Italian then sliding off into the gravel at Turn 4 to drop out of contention altogether, but it was worse for the defending champion as, despite gaining places in the early laps, a return of his pre-race problems saw Comini forced to peel into the pits and retire the Audi on lap 7 of 17. As the gaps between the leading runners then began to spread out, the battle to watch turned out to be for the minor placings in the top 10, with Nash proving to be the man on the move as, after putting a good move on Morbidelli at Turn 8 for sixth as the Volkswagen started to struggle for pace, the SEAT quickly closed on fifth-placed Borkovic in the leading Alfa, but, when the Brit finally made his move into Turn 1 on lap 11, an ambitious lunge from Colciago saw the Honda run too deep and into the path of the SEAT, delaying the pair enough to allow the giant Serb to retain the position.
Out in the lead, however, nobody was capable of stopping Oriola as the Spaniard led throughout to score a comfortable first win of 2017, but there was drama behind for his team-mate as Valente was slapped with a 30 second post-race time penalty for overtaking under yellow flags that dropped him to ninth in the overall classification, meaning Tassi was promoted to second after a brilliant defensive drive to hold off the threatening Vernay, who took the final podium spot in his Leopard Volkswagen in third. Behind, Borkovic again drove superbly to take some solid points in fourth ahead of Nash in the third LUKOIL SEAT, with the Brit elevated to fifth after Colciago – who also got involved in contact with Ficza towards the end of the race that ultimately forced the young Hungarian to retire with steering damage – received a penalty for overtaking under yellows, leaving Race 1 winner Kajaia to round out the top six ahead of Morbidelli’s Volkswagen and the sole remaining Opel of Corthals in eighth, while, despite being shuffled back early on, Altoe benefitted from the penalties for those ahead to inherit the final point with tenth in his VW.
Davit Kajaia (GEO) – #16 GE-Force Alfa Romeo Giulietta
RACE RESULTS – TOP 10
Round 1: 1st – Kajaia, 2nd – Ficza, 3rd – Comini, 4th – Colciago, 5th – Tassi, 6th – Vernay, 7th – Oriola, 8th – Altoe, 9th – Borkovic and 10th – Morbidelli
Round 2: 1st – Oriola, 2nd – Tassi, 3rd – Vernay, 4th – Borkovic, 5th – Nash, 6th – Kajaia, 7th – Morbidelli, 8th – Corthals, 9th – Valente and 10th – Altoe
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Kajaia (GE-Force/Alfa Romeo) – 38pts
2. Tassi (M1RA/Honda) – 32pts
3. Oriola (Craft-Bamboo LUKOIL/SEAT) – 31pts
4. Vernay (Leopard Racing/VW) – 25pts
5. Ficza (Zele Racing/SEAT) – 21pts
6. Comini (Comtoyou Racing/Audi) – 15pts
7. Borkovic (GE-Force/Alfa Romeo) – 14pts
8. Colciago (M1RA/Honda) – 13pts
9. Nash (Craft-Bamboo LUKOIL/SEAT) – 10pts
10. Morbidelli (West Coast Racing/VW) – 7pts
Teams – Top 5:
1. GE-Force – 52pts
2. M1RA – 45pts
3. Craft-Bamboo LUKOIL – 41pts
4. Leopard Racing – 25pts
5. Zele Racing – 21pts
Model of the Year – Top 5:
1. SEAT Leon – 62pts
2. Alfa Romeo Giulietta – 52pts
3. Honda Civic Type-R – 47pts
4. Volkswagen Golf GTi – 35pts
5. Audi RS3 LMS – 15pts