Well, if ever they wanted a chance to prove what they can really do…this has got to be it, hasn’t it? I mean, yes, it’s not as if the potential wasn’t there before, but, in the world of motorsport, it’s amazing sometimes how easily even the very best teams and drivers can be made to look so incredibly ordinary when the pace-setters of a particular championship are producing such a high standard of performances that constantly forces them to play catch-up, and, when you look at the way things have turned out here over the last couple of years, it’s not exactly been much of a competition. However, things never stay the same for long in this business, and it’s nothing new for manufacturers to decide they want to try their hand at something different – or, in this case, go back to a familiar stomping ground – but, with the dominant force having departed at the height of their powers, there’s an open goal that needs filling…and there’s a fair few in contention to do just that. Despite everything that’s been going on away from the track, the 2017 FIA World Touring Car Championship is shaping up to be one of the most open in its history, and, to be honest, no one has any idea which way it’s going to go.
When the current TC1 specification cars were introduced to the championship ahead of the start of the 2014 season, it didn’t take much to work out that new-boys Citroen were going to be the ones to beat – after all, with no less than 18 months of testing under their belts and a formidable trio of drivers in their corner, it was hardly a surprising that so much was expected – and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before the silverware started to flood in, but, after three seasons of near-total domination, there wasn’t much left for the French marque to prove in the series, and so their decision to quit the sport in favour of a return to their old stomping ground in the World Rally Championship wasn’t quite as unexpected as it might have been. However, despite it being their farewell season, the pace-setters certainly didn’t take their eye off the ball – in fact, despite having to contend with the ever-growing threat of their rivals, the all-conquering factory C-Elysees continued to be the absolute class of the field, with Argentine ace and reigning double champion Jose Maria Lopez taking no fewer than eight race victories to comfortably secure a hat-trick of successive drivers’ titles with four races still to run.
However, the off-season has been a turbulent one to say the least, as, after seeing both Lopez and retiring veteran team-mate Yvan Muller leave the championship following Citroen’s exit, the somewhat surprising further withdrawal of Russian manufacturer LADA led to serious questions about whether or not the series would even manage to reach the minimum 16 car field to guarantee that races could go ahead. As far as I’m concerned, this all stems from the increasingly unsustainable nature of the regulations that make it difficult (particularly for some of the smaller independent operations) to justify continuing, and, while I don’t think there was ever really any danger of the championship being scrapped altogether, the growing popularity of the new TCR ruleset – which, ironically, was the brainchild of former WTCC boss Marcello Lotti – and the lack of any formal agreement on the best way to move forward (a possible adoption of the Class One regulations mooted for both the DTM in Germany and the Japanese SuperGT series could come as soon as 2019, but I highly doubt that’s going to happen), which means that – for the time being at least – the immediate future of the WTCC remains very much up in the air.
The opening rounds of the season – shortened from 12 events to just 10 for 2017 – saw the championship make its annual visit to North Africa and, more specifically, Morocco, with the tight confines of the Circuit Moulay El Hassan in Marrakech playing host to the curtain-raiser for the second time in four years. One of the few top-level motorsport venues in the entire continent, the track was originally built as a typical street circuit when it made its debut on the calendar back in 2009, but, under the terms of a new deal signed after the event was dropped just two seasons later on financial grounds, a dramatic redesign – overseen by revered F1 track designer Hermann Tilke – saw it transformed into a semi-permanent facility ahead of last year’s event.
Known as a ‘point-and-squirt’ circuit in its previous guise, with long straights punctuated by tight chicanes and hairpins, a lap of the new 3.0km (1.8 mile) configuration begins with a relatively short run down to the long, looping left-hander at Turn 1, with the drivers then able to stretch their legs through the fast right-hander of Turn 2 before braking around the bend into the slightly more open left hander at Turn 3, where the bumpy nature of the track surface can often result in cars locking up and running wide. From there, a short blast leads up towards the only remaining chicane on the lap – a left-right combination of Turns 4 and 5 – which in turn brings the cars out onto the back straight via the barely noticeable kink at Turn 6, with another heavy braking zone at the other end leading into the two virtually identical 90 degree right-handers of Turns 7 and 8. After sweeping around the wall of Turn 9 that feeds almost immediately into the tight left-hand hairpin at Turn 10, the cars then begin to pick up speed again as they head down another sizeable straight towards the penultimate corner – a tight left-hander that can often produce contact – before the final, slightly more open right-hander at Turn 12 brings the cars back onto the pit straight.
With so many blind corners and unforgiving concrete walls capable of catching out the unwary, it’s perhaps no surprise that overtaking opportunities are in short supply around the track, with the best appearing to be either into the first part of the chicane at Turn 4 – which generally only works if the following car can carry a tight line all the way through the previous corner and then tuck up the inside on the apex – or on the brakes at the end of the back straight into Turn 7. Elsewhere, while moves can be attempted into the hairpin at Turn 10, a late lunge down the inside on such a tight line can cost the passing car speed on the exit and leave them vulnerable to being repassed down the straight, while the bumpy braking zone means any potential passes into Turn 1 are also risky to attempt.
The corresponding pair of races here 12 months ago produced perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the season, as, after being brushed aside by the works Castrol Hondas in qualifying, with former champion Rob Huff leading a 1-2-3 on the grid for the Main Race with his first pole position for his new team, the Opening Race saw veteran Tom Coronel – who had been promoted onto the front row after qualifying back in ninth – benefit from the first-lap demise of pole-sitter James Thompson to inherit the lead and then somehow keep the marauding C-Elysees at bay in his aging ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet Cruze throughout to secure a sensational victory by just 0.3s ahead of Lopez and team-mate Muller. However, despite the unusual arrival of rain prior to the start of the Main Race, it did nothing to dampen the undoubted speed of the Hondas, with Huff produced a measured drive to lead from lights-to-flag to net his second win of the season ahead of now former stable-mates Norbert Michelisz and Tiago Monteiro as the Civics locked out the rostrum, but any joy for the Japanese manufacturer was short-lived when all four of their cars – including the independent Zengo Motorsport car of Ferenc Ficza – were excluded from the entire weekend for a technical infringement, handing Lopez yet another victory to further extend his burgeoning championship advantage.
So, with the factory C-Elysees out of the equation, just who would be able to step up to the mark and immediately throw their name into the fray as a potential successor – after several years spent in the shadow of Citroen, would 2017 finally be the year that Honda added their name to the championship’s roll of honour; with the smaller grid prompting a rethink in terms of their ambitions and long-term plan, could the expanded Volvo team come out firing and show that they were going to be in the mix from the outset, or would one of the familiar faces upset the factory operations and get their championship quest off to the best possible start? Well, it’s about time to find out – this is the story of the opening race weekend of the 2017 FIA World Touring Car Championship, Rounds 1 and 2 from Marrakech in Morocco…
Due to the nature of the circuit, the opening segment of the three-part qualifying session was extended from its normal 20 minutes to half an hour to give the field a little more time to get themselves up to speed, and the predictions of a much more open championship without the factory Citroens was apparent from the off as all five manufacturers were represented in the top seven early on, with Monteiro leading the way from Honda stable-mate Michelisz and the privateer Munnich Motorsport C-Elysee of Huff after their opening runs. However, with times continuing to improve as more rubber was laid down on the track, by the time the chequered flag was waved, it was the Hungarian that ended up on top by just over a tenth ahead of Polestar Volvo new boy Nicky Catsburg – the Dutchman impressing on his first competitive appearance in the S60 – with Monteiro and Huff dropping to third and fourth respectively, while Argentinian Nestor Girolami rounded out the top five in only his second race weekend for Volvo.
As ever, though, the purpose of Q1 was to decide which cars would make it into the top 12 that would progress through to the second stage of qualifying, meaning that, with such a threadbare entry list, only three cars would fail to go any further and would be locked into their grid positions for both races. Initially, it looked as though the venerable RML-prepared Chevrolet Cruzes were struggling for pace, with both former single-seater driver Esteban Guerrieri for Campos Racing – the Argentine taking part in only his second WTCC race weekend – and ROAL Motorsport’s Tom Coronel both finding themselves on the bubble, but a late improvement from the latter saw the veteran Dutchman grab the final spot in Q2 from under the nose of Hungarian teenager Daniel Nagy in his Zengo Motorsport Honda Civic, meaning the youngster joined new team-mate and touring car rookie Aurelien Panis – son of ex-Formula One driver Olivier Panis – and the Sebastien Loeb Racing Citroen of John Filippi in taking no further part in proceedings.
Eliminated in Q1: 13th – Nagy, 14th – Filippi and 15th – Panis
There were problems almost immediately at the start of the 15 minute Q2 as, in trying to respond to the early benchmark of Michelisz – the Honda man becoming the first driver to dip into the 1:21s – Catsburg lost the rear of his Volvo underbraking for the penultimate corner and, after sliding off the road into the tyres, was left stranded in the middle of the track as he tried to get going, meaning the red flags inevitably had to be deployed to bring the action to a halt. On the resumption, however, it proved business as usual for the Hondas as they continued to set the pace, with Monteiro finding even more speed than his team-mate to end the session at the top of the times by more than a tenth ahead of Michelisz, but it turned out to be a nervous final few minutes for Huff as, having elected to sit on his early effort and not venture out for a second run, improvements for both Girolami and home hero Mehdi Bennani in his Sebastien Loeb Racing Citroen saw the Brit pushed down to fifth and leave him vulnerable to being pushed out of a Q3 berth, but, with no one else able to improve, the Citroen man survived to scrape through.
Behind, having been allowed to continue in the session despite causing the earlier red flag, Catsburg narrowly missed out on making it two Volvos in the top five as he could only manage sixth on the Main Race grid, with team-mate Thed Bjork – the Swede being the sole driver retained from 2016 by the Polestar Cyan operation – just behind in seventh after failing in a last-gasp attempt to improve when he ran too deep on the brakes heading into the penultimate corner, while Tom Chilton had to make do with eighth in his Sebastien Loeb Racing Citroen. However, there was drama surrounding the identity of the reverse grid pole-sitter for the Opening Race, with WTCC new boy Yann Ehrlacher securing the spoils on track in his RC Motorsport Lada ahead of the third factory Honda of Japan’s Ryo Michigami, but, with the pair then having their times cancelled after failing to visit the weighbridge during the session, it was Coronel – who was initially slowest of the session in 12th – that inherited a somewhat fortuitous pole, with fellow Chevy driver Guerrieri joining him on the front row.
Eliminated in Q2: 6th – Catsburg, 7th – Bjork, 8th – Chilton, 9th – Guerrieri, 10th – Coronel (Reverse Pole), 11th – Michigami and 12th – Ehrlacher
With the single-lap shootout of Q3 taking place in reverse order of the positions from Q2, it was Huff that was first to post a time in his Citroen, and, despite a relatively clean lap that proved enough to get him ahead of local favourite Bennani by just over a tenth after the Moroccan had gone quicker in the first sector, it was never going to be enough to get the C-Elysee on pole for the Main Race as Girolami pulled out a sensational lap to go more than a quarter of a second faster than the Brit and put his Volvo in prime position to start from the front. However, the Hondas weren’t about to let the Argentinian have it all his own way, and, after Michelisz came within a whisker of snatching the top spot away from the S60 despite an early mistake when he missed the apex at Turn 3, team-mate Monteiro managed to deliver the goods with a superb effort to secure the first Main Race pole of the season by getting on for a quarter of a second, although Girolami was still clearly delighted to line up alongside on the front row.
The battle between Honda and Volvo – the only two full works teams remaining in the championship for 2017 – then continued into the MAC3 team time-trial, with the Swedish manufacturer entering for the first time having only run two cars last season, and, despite a couple of sizeable lock-ups from lead driver Girolami into Turn 3, their first effort was a solid one as they posted a 2:51.9s benchmark for their two laps. Honda then surprisingly allowed Michigami – who had been nominally selected as their ‘time setting driver’, meaning he would be the last to cross the line – to get ahead of the faster Michelisz away from the line, and it proved to be a decision that backfired as they could only muster a time some 0.7s slower than the S60s, meaning Polestar Cyan secured the maximum 12 bonus points towards their manufacturers tally, with the Castrol Hondas taking 8 points for second.
Q3 – Top 5: 1st – Monteiro, 2nd – Girolami, 3rd – Michelisz, 4th – Huff and 5th – Bennani
Esteban Guerrieri (ARG) – #86 Chevrolet Cruze (Campos Racing)
Race 1 (Opening Race):
When the lights went out to get the opening race of the season underway, pole-man Coronel made a good enough start to fend off the threat of Guerrieri and hold onto the lead on the relatively short run to Turn 1, with Bjork immediately moving up into third in the Volvo as Chilton bogged down horribly away from the line and rapidly tumbled down the order, while behind, Bennani and Catsburg wasted no time in trading paint as they ran side by side for fourth through the first series of corners before the home favourite emerged in front on the exit of Turn 6. However, further back, all hell broke loose as rookie Ehrlacher made contact with a slow-starting Filippi as he tried to dart out of the way, with the resultant contact leaving the damaged LADA stranded on the pit straight and the Citroen limping round to retire with broken front steering, meaning the safety car had to be called for even before the end of lap 1, and there was further drama during the interruption as Huff was forced out with a power steering issue, with several cars following the Citroen through the pit lane as they had done while the debris was cleared from the main straight.
On the restart, leader Coronel was unable to make much of a break as the chasing pack started to bottle up behind, and eventually, after several laps without any position changes within the leading group, a mistake from the Dutchman – who had previously complained over the radio about problems with his brakes – as he locked up and ran off the road on the exit of Turn 3 (narrowly avoiding the tyre barriers in the process) to allow Guerrieri through into the lead. From then on, the battle to watch turned out to be for the minor placings within the top 10, with Chilton proving to be a man on a mission as he first dived down the inside of Nagy for eighth into Turn 11 on lap 14 before pulling off another eye-catching move to snatch seventh away from former team-mate Coronel with just a handful of laps to go, but, having lost position to the charging Brit, worse was to follow not long afterwards for the Zengo Motorsport Honda as, within sight of his first overall WTCC points, Nagy ran wide coming out of Turn 8 and clattered into the wall on the outside to drop out of what would have been a career-best ninth.
However, back at the front, Guerrieri managed to use the narrow confines of the track to his advantage and held on through the remaining laps to record a somewhat surprise maiden WTCC victory for both himself and Campos Racing in only his third race in the championship, with Bjork forced to settle for second having been unable to find a way past the Argentinian, while Bennani sent the home fans into raptures as he secured a first podium on home soil in third. Behind, Catsburg marked his Volvo debut with a solid fourth ahead of the two Castrol Hondas of Michelisz and Monteiro, with Chilton escaping from the cars behind in the closing stages to take some points in seventh ahead of a rapidly fading Coronel in eighth, while Nagy’s late demise meant that Girolami – who also found himself out of position after failing to get away at the start – took ninth for Volvo ahead of series rookie Panis, with the former single-seater racer staying out of trouble on his debut to secure the final point in tenth.
Race 2 (Main Race):
There was major drama, though, ahead of the start of the second race of the weekend – now worth more points than the previous encounter – as Guerrieri’s Chevrolet failed to make it onto the grid, meaning the Argentinian was forced to start from the pit lane along with the repaired Zengo Motorsport Honda of Nagy, while Huff, Filippi and Ehrlacher all found themselves put to the back after their respective teams breached parc ferme regulations to complete the necessary repairs to their cars. When the lights eventually went out, pole-man Monteiro made a superb getaway to lead the field towards Turn 1, with team-mate Michelisz able to capitalise on another poor start from the Volvo of Girolami to squeeze his way through into second, while behind, Bennani was immediately in the thick of the action as, after finding himself forced out wide on the apex of the first corner, a slight tap on the rear of Catsburg’s S60 at Turn 3 opened the door for the Moroccan to move past before team-mate Chilton – who had also taken advantage of the Volvo running wide to get ahead – then ran wide on the exit of Turn 10 to allow the Dutchman back through.
The early laps saw the leading quartet quickly put the hammer down and establish a sizeable margin, although Monteiro was initally unable to shake off the attentions of Michelisz as the Hondas continued to lead the way, with Girolami and Bennani tagging along for the ride in third and fourth, while, further down the order, an entertaining battle saw the recovering Huff finally get the better of Michigami for ninth into the chicane on lap 5 of 21 after some admirable defence from the new Honda man, but there was bad news for another rookie as broken suspension saw Panis stop on track in his Civic, with the safety car being deployed as a result. On the restart, Monteiro wasted no time in leaping away as Michelisz was caught napping, but the Hungarian quickly responded to draw himself clear from the fight for third between Girolami and Bennani, with the local hero gradually beginning to lose ground and drop into the clutches of both Catsburg and Bjork as he looked to hang on to fourth, while further back, strong defence from Coronel prevented Huff from continuing his progress up the order as they diced for eighth.
From then on, with no one able to force a move, the race began to peter out as the gaps remained fairly stagnant, meaning Monteiro was able to click his way through the remaining laps to record his first win of 2017 and assume the early championship lead in the process, with Michelisz finishing right on the tail of his team-mate to complete a Honda 1-2 and Girolami holding on to pick up his maiden WTCC podium in third. Behind, however, a post-race penalty for Bennani after his first-lap contact with Catsburg meant the Dutchman was promoted up to fourth, with Chilton also gaining a place at the expense of his team-mate after snatching sixth from under the nose of Bjork on the run to the line, while further back, Coronel held off the race-long attentions of a clearly frustrated Huff – the Brit complaining over the radio about the Chevrolet constantly weaving across the road in an attempt to defend his position – to secure eighth, meaning the Citroen man had to settle for a disappointing ninth ahead of series rookie Michigami, who finished off his first weekend as a fully-fledged Honda works driver by taking home the final point in tenth.
Mehdi Bennani (MOR) – #25 Citroen C-Elysee (Sebastien Loeb Racing)
RACE RESULTS – TOP 10
Round 1 (Opening Race): 1st – Guerrieri, 2nd – Bjork, 3rd – Bennani, 4th – Catsburg, 5th – Michelisz, 6th – Monteiro, 7th – Chilton, 8th – Coronel, 9th – Girolami and 10th – Panis
Round 2 (Main Race): 1st – Monteiro, 2nd – Michelisz, 3rd – Girolami, 4th – Catsburg, 5th – Chilton, 6th – Bennani, 7th – Bjork, 8th – Coronel, 9th – Huff and 10th – Michigami
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Monteiro (Castrol Honda) – 43pts
2. Michelisz (Castrol Honda) – 36pts
3. Catsburg (Polestar Cyan/Volvo) – 28pts
4. Bennani (Sebastien Loeb Racing/Citroen) – 26pts
5. Guerrieri (Campos Racing/Chevrolet) – 25pts
6. Bjork (Polestar Cyan/Volvo) – 25pts
7. Girolami (Polestar Cyan/Volvo) – 25pts
8. Chilton (Sebastien Loeb Racing/Citroen) – 19pts
9. Coronel (ROAL Motorsport/Chevrolet) – 8pts
10. Huff (Munnich Motorsport/Citroen) – 4pts
1. Honda – 96pts
2. Polestar Volvo – 96pts
WTCC Trophy – Top 5:
1. Chilton (Sebastien Loeb Racing/Citroen) – 16pts
2. Bennani (Sebastien Loeb Racing/Citroen) – 16pts
3. Guerrieri (Campos Racing/Chevrolet) – 13pts
4. Coronel (ROAL Motorsport/Chevrolet) – 11pts
5. Huff (Munnich Motorsport/Citroen) – 6pts
WTCC Teams Trophy – Top 5:
1. Sebastien Loeb Racing – 32pts
2. Campos Racing – 13pts
3. ROAL Motorsport – 11pts
4. Zengo Motorsport – 9pts
5. Munnich Motorsport – 5pts