Sure, you wouldn’t exactly call this a new era just yet, but, when you look at it…this really does feel different, doesn’t it? I mean, when it gets to an international level such as this, one of the great things about motorsport is the fierce competition between fully-funded, manufacturer-backed teams, but sometimes, you get a situation that’s the complete opposite, with one particular outfit constantly holding the advantage, and so, as daft as it might sound, it’s sometimes best to let them go. Of course, there’s always a chance that some of the world’s top driving talent might be left with nowhere to go if this happens – and, really, that’s exactly what’s happened here – but, while that doesn’t say much about the general appeal of the series, it does at least give the rest of the field a chance to move out of their shadow and take up the mantle of being the ones to catch…and that surely can’t be a bad thing, can it? The 2017 FIA World Touring Car Championship might not look quite as strong on paper as it has in the recent past…but it already looks as though it could be the closest season for a while.
In truth, though, making the action closer was hardly going to be difficult given the pattern of the WTCC in the past few seasons, with the arrival of the new TC1 regulations playing right into the hands of series new boys Citroen after their much-publicised arrival from the World Rally Championship, and, as many had expected, the French marque wasted no time in establishing themselves as the team to beat, with Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – who had previously made his name in single-seaters – making a seamless and spectacular transition to saloon car racing as he swept to three straight drivers’ titles. However, at the end of last season, the series’ dominant force announced they were to return to the stages of the WRC at the expense of their circuit racing programme, and, with Russian marque LADA surprisingly pulling their factory team from the sport as well, the main topic of conversation lips ahead of the season opener in Marrakech in Morocco last time out surrounded who would be able to step up and take over at the head of the reduced field. The answer? Well, as you’d probably expect at this early stage…no one knows just yet.
Initially, it looked as though the nearest rivals to Citroen for the past few years were going to get their moment in the spotlight, with Portugal’s Tiago Monteiro – the highest placed returning driver from last year following the departure of Lopez back to open-wheel racing in Formula E and the retirement of team-mate and touring car legend Yvan Muller – delivering the goods in qualifying to grab pole for the Main Race in his Castrol-sponsored Honda Civic, but there was a surprise in store for the leading contenders when it came to the reverse-grid Opening Race as Campos Racing’s Esteban Guerrieri – another Argentinian to come out of single-seaters – produced a superb display to convert pole into his maiden victory in the championship in his Chevrolet Cruze ahead of the leading Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo S60 of Swede Thed Bjork and home favourite Mehdi Bennani in his Sebastien Loeb Racing Citroen C-Elysee. The pre-season favourites, though, struck back straight away in the Main Race, with Monteiro comfortably able to manage his advantage on his way to taking both victory and the early lead in the championship standings, with Hungarian team-mate Norbert Michelisz close behind in second to complete a 1-2 for the Japanese marque ahead of Volvo new boy Nestor Girolami as the Argentine took his first WTCC podium in third on what was only his second appearance with the team.
After the tight twists and turns of Marrakech, there was a distinct change of scene for the second event of the season as the championship rocked up at one of the most historic and iconic tracks anywhere in the world, with the Monza circuit in Italy (situated just over 20km north of Milan) providing a very different challenge for cars and drivers compared to that seen at the curtain-raiser. First opened way back in 1922, the track – which is famous nowadays for its long-standing position as the host venue for the Formula One Italian Grand Prix – played host to the very first round of the current WTCC when it was relaunched in 2005, with German Dirk Muller (BMW) and Brit James Thompson (Alfa Romeo) sharing the spoils, and remained an ever-present part of the schedule up until 2013 before being replaced, but, with races in France and Russia having now been dropped after the departure of Citroen and LADA’s manufacturer efforts respectively, a deal was eventually struck to return the event to the calendar for 2017.
Measuring in at 5.7km (3.6 miles) and containing a mixture of 8 right-handers and just 4 lefts, a typical lap begins with a long run down the pit straight towards the first of three chicanes – known as the Variante del Rettifilo – designed to restrict the track’s high average speed, with the right-left-right sequence of bends feeding almost immediately into the flat-out right-hander of Curva Grande that in turn leads the cars up to the slightly more open second chicane at the Variante della Roggia. From there, the cars have to negotiate the two similar Lesmo corners at the far side of the circuit – the first being cambered more towards the inside, allowing drivers to carry extra speed on entry, while the much shorter apex at the second part leaves very little margin for error on the exit – before emerging onto the long back straight that takes them underneath the fearsome banking of the old ‘oval’ circuit (which was last used in 1969) towards the high speed, right-left-right sequence known as the Ascari chicane, which then leads onto yet another long straight and down to the final corner at the Parabolica, a fast, 180-degree corner that tightens in the middle before opening out on the exit to bring the cars back onto the pit straight.
With such a high average speed and relatively few heavy braking zones, overtaking opportunities around here often depend on the ability of a following car to pick up the tow from their rival in front and then dive past on the brakes, with the best places to try and make a pass stick tending to be either at the end of the pit straight into the Rettifilo chicane – although any pass at this point can be dangerous when the field is close together – or heading down the back straight towards Ascari, where holding the inside almost always results in a successful move as the racing line takes the cars towards the outside in the mid-part. Elsewhere, moves can sometimes be made on the brakes into the Variante della Roggia, but the presence of big kerbs on the inside mean it’s almost impossible to go side-by-side all the way through, with the car on the outside often being forced down the escape road, while, despite not being an overtaking place in itself, a good run out of the Parabolica can often set up a move along the pit straight.
The last time the championship arrived in Italy was for the 2013 season-opener, and, despite horrendous conditions forcing the first race to be started behind the safety car, it proved to be business as usual at the front of the field as the RML-prepared Chevrolet Cruzes – now being run as an independent operation following the American marque’s withdrawal at the end of 2012 after clinching the previous three drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles – dominated right from the start, with Muller leading a Chevy 1-2-3 in qualifying ahead of team-mate Tom Chilton and fellow Brit Alex MacDowall’s Bamboo Engineering machine before taking the chequered flag by just over a second in Race 1 as the same trio completed the podium. The veteran Frenchman, though, wasn’t finished there, and, despite being forced to start from ninth due to the reverse grid for Race 2, duly carved his way through the field to take victory ahead of Dane Michel Nykjaer in his NIKA Racing Cruze, with series stalwart and former champion Gabriele Tarquini holding on to secure his first podium as a factory Honda driver in third.
So, with all that in mind, would the factory Hondas maintain their status at the head of the pack, with Monteiro and Michelisz both starting well in their respective quests for a long-overdue first drivers’ title; after stating their intention to challenge for the overall championship in just their second full season as a works operation, could the rapid Polestar Volvos start to show their hand as genuine contenders after a solid if unspectacular start in North Africa, or would some of the big names in the independent ranks be able to take the fight to the factory-backed teams as the season started to get into its stride? Well, it’s about time to find out – this is the story of the second race weekend of the 2017 FIA World Touring Car Championship, Rounds 3 and 4 from Monza in Italy…
The opening segment of qualifying immediately saw the field split into smaller groups as drivers looked to make use of the tow generated by following another car to increase their straight line speed, but, in the early stages at least, it was business as usual at the top of the timesheets as championship leader Monteiro dipped straight into the 1:52s on his second flying lap to set the initial pace by more than three-tenths ahead of team-mate Michelisz, with the leading Volvo of Dutchman Nicky Catsburg in third – albeit the better part of 0.6s off the pace – and Bennani the best of the Citroens in fourth after the opening runs. However, as the track continued to rubber in and get even quicker, a sensational time from 2012 champion Rob Huff – who had left it later than many others after aborting his first effort – saw the Brit move to the top in his Munnich Motorsport Citroen by over a tenth ahead of the two Hondas, but there was more improvements in store late on as the three Volvos worked together in the closing minutes to end up top of the pile when the chequered flag was produced, with Girolami benefitting from a double tow to outpace Bjork by just 0.066s and Catsburg by just under two tenths.
However, the main focus of the session was to find the four cars that would take no further part and be locked into their grid positions for both races, with Marrakech winner Guerrieri initially finding himself in trouble after having two laps disallowed for exceeding track limits on the exit of Ascari – the Campos Chevrolet looking somewhat unstable through the high-speed corners – but a late improvement saw the Argentine rise up to sixth by the time the chequered flag came out, meaning young Frenchman John Filippi found himself edged out of the top 12 in his Sebastien Loeb Racing Citroen by just 0.015s and was forced to settle for 13th on the grid. Also missing out were the two privateer Zengo Motorsport Hondas of single-seater convert Aurelien Panis and Hungarian teenager Daniel Nagy, with the latter then being relegated to the bottom of the timesheets in the dying seconds after a last-ditch improvement from WTCC debutant Kevin Gleason – the American a front-runner in the TCR International Series in recent years – in his RC Motorsport LADA Vesta.
Eliminated in Q1: 13th – Filippi, 14th – Panis, 15th – Gleason and 16th – Nagy
The pattern continued into the opening stages of the 10 minute sprint in Q2 as the three S60s again went out line astern, with Bjork – despite looking as though he was too far away from his team-mates to benefit from any kind of slipstream – able to find speed in the final sector to go quickest of all, but, with the rest of the field all playing the same game, it didn’t last for the Swede as Monteiro then found even more speed to move to the top of the timesheets by a miniscule 0.018s – the top six being separated by less than a quarter of a second after the opening runs – before the Volvo man responded in the dying seconds to go back ahead at the chequered flag. Behind the leading pair, a last-ditch improvement from Catsburg saw the Dutchman consolidate his position in the top five that would go through as he moved up to third, with Volvo stable-mate Girolami and the Citroen of Huff also securing their respective Q3 berths despite electing not to venture out for a second run.
Behind, however, it wasn’t all going Honda’s way as a misjudgement from the pit wall ended with Michelisz (despite being dragged along by team-mate Monteiro) failing to get to the line in time to start a proper flying lap, forcing the Hungarian to make do with sixth on the grid ahead of Chilton’s Citroen in seventh, while Guerrieri again improved late on to move up to eighth. Further back, though, the battle to secure the all-important tenth place and thus pole for the Opening Race went right down to the wire, with ROAL Motorsport’s Tom Coronel – who had already messed up his opening effort after losing the rear of his Chevrolet underbraking for the della Roggia chicane – producing a superb last-ditch lap to move up to ninth before an improvement from the Citroen of Bennani (which had looked all set to grab the top spot) promoted the veteran Dutchman onto the reverse grid pole ahead of the Moroccan, leaving the third factory Honda of Japan’s Ryo Michigami and young Frenchman Yann Ehrlacher in the second RC Motorsport LADA locked into 11th and 12th respectively for both races.
Eliminated in Q2: 6th – Michelisz, 7th – Chilton, 8th – Guerrieri, 9th – Bennani, 10th – Coronel, 11th – Michigami and 12th – Ehrlacher
With the top five going out to battle for pole in reverse order of their Q2 times, it was lone ranger Huff that set the initial benchmark in his C-Elysee with an extremely tidy lap, and, after Girolami threw away his chance of the top spot when he dropped a wheel onto the grass underbraking for the second chicane before bouncing across the kerbs on the inside as he tried to recover the slide, the Brit’s pace was underlined as Catsburg – despite being up in the first two sectors – fell narrowly short of unseating the Citroen by just 0.045s after running slightly wide on the exit of the second Lesmo. Eventually, though, Monteiro managed to find enough speed to move to the top of the timesheets by more than a tenth and a half despite putting all four wheels over the white line on the exit of Ascari, but the Portuguese driver’s time at the front proved short-lived as the rapid Bjork then produced a perfect lap to take his maiden WTCC pole position by more than 0.3s.
The Honda/Volvo fight for supremacy then continued into the team time-trial of MAC3, with the performance advantage of the S60s obvious from the word go as they produced a near-perfect run of 3:53.4s even despite Girolami – who was forced to settle for being the ‘time-setting’ driver after getting too much wheelspin away from the standing start – dropping back on the second lap, and, as was the case in Morocco, it proved too much for the Civic trio to match as they ended up more than 2 seconds slower despite producing a tidy run, meaning the Swedish marque secured the 12 point bonus towards their manufacturers’ championship tally, with Honda having to make do with 8 extra points for finishing second.
Q3 – Top 5: 1st – Bjork, 2nd – Monteiro, 3rd – Huff, 4th – Catsburg and 5th – Girolami
Kevin Gleason (USA) – #24 LADA Vesta (RC Motorsport)
Race 1 (Opening Race):
However, after getting himself into a position to start from the front, pole-man Coronel undid all his hard work from qualifying when the lights went out for the start of the Opening Race as the ROAL Chevrolet – which had already struggled to get off the line on the formation lap – stalled altogether on the grid, allowing Bennani a clear route through into the lead on the long run down towards the Rettifilo chicane for the first time, with Citroen team-mate Chilton slotting in behind in second ahead of the fast-starting Michelisz in the best of the Hondas in third, while, further back, Huff aggressively muscled his way through past Catsburg’s Volvo for sixth on the exit of the corner before Monteiro also took advantage to sweep around the outside heading towards Curva Grande. Up at the front, though, the effect of the slipstream was immediately obvious as the leading quartet began to squabble for the advantage, with Michelisz able to tuck in behind Bennani heading down the pit straight and then outbraking Chilton around the outside for Turn 1 on lap 2 to claim second, with the leading Volvo of Girolami also able to squeeze past the Citroen to move up into third, but almost instantly, disaster struck for the Argentine as he was forced out of the race when his S60’s right front suspension broke on the exit of the della Roggia chicane on lap 2 of 9.
Despite inheriting the lead in the opening moments, though, Bennani was unable to make any kind of a break in the early stages as the rapid Michelisz continued to pile the pressure on – the Hungarian even showing his nose on a couple of occasions – but, when the Honda man eventually made a committed move down the inside into the Parabolica at the end of lap 3, contact between the pair as the Citroen driver tried to close the door sent both cars off the road and out of contention, handing Chilton a somewhat surprise lead ahead of Marrakech victor Guerrieri and an increasingly hungry-looking Huff. Behind, Bjork – who had found himself bottled up behind Ehrlacher and Filippi on the opening lap after making an average start – was also starting to look racy as he continued to hassle Monteiro for what had become sixth, with the pair somehow able to run side-by-side through the Ascari before the Swede backed out of certain contact on the apex, but the battle was soon on further up the road as Huff finally managed to get an overlap against Guerrieri heading down the pit straight onto lap 5 before sliding up the inside on the brakes into the Rettifilo to grab second.
As the race entered its closing stages, having been passed by Monteiro down the pit straight for fourth, Catsburg – who had also reported damage to his front splitter – elected to play the team game for Volvo and let team-mate Bjork past as well to go chasing after the Honda, but ahead, despite never really looking comfortable in the lead, Chilton was able to hang on for the remaining laps to take the chequered flag for his first victory of the season, with Huff just over 0.3s back in second as the Citroens finished 1-2 ahead of a hard-charging Monteiro for Honda in third. Behind, a thrilling late fight between Bjork and Guerrieri saw the Volvo driver finally grab fourth on the run to the line by a mere tenth of a second, leaving the Campos driver to settle for fifth ahead of a recovering Coronel in the other Chevy in sixth and Filippi’s Citroen in seventh after both got the better of a fading Catsburg in the final laps – the Dutchman eventually finishing a distant eighth – with newcomer Gleason benefitting from a 10-second time penalty handed to LADA team-mate Ehrlacher to score on his debut in ninth ahead of Nagy, who also secured his first point in the WTCC in tenth.
Race 2 (Main Race):
The curse of the pole-sitter seemed to continue into the start of the Main Race as an average getaway from pole-sitter Bjork saw Monteiro shoot ahead into the lead on the run down towards the Rettifilo, with Huff – who made an even better start from third on the grid – almost able to sweep around the outside of the Volvo for second before the Swede shut the door on the brakes, forcing the Brit to concentrate on defending third from Catsburg as the field powered through Curva Grande and up to the della Roggia chicane for the first time. Behind, having lost a position off the line, Girolami was soon back on the case in the third of the Volvos as he looked to regain fifth away from Michelisz – the Argentine almost getting the job done around the outside at the Rettifilo on lap 2 of 11 before the Honda driver squeezed back in front underbraking – while further back, Michigami (who had missed the first race altogether with an engine problem) produced an audacious pass around the outside of Curva Grande to move the JAS-sponsored Honda up into the top 10 at the expense of earlier pole-sitter Coronel.
Up ahead, though, despite posting impressive sector times in the early stages, Monteiro was unable to shake Bjork off his tail as the leading pair started to break clear of the chasing group, and, sure enough, the Volvo driver eventually managed to use the slipstream down the back straight to get alongside before sweeping around the outside heading through the Parabolica on lap 3 to take over the lead, with Huff initially able to capitalise and latch onto the tail of the Honda in third, but it wasn’t long before the Brit was again forced to focus on his mirrors as a rejuvenated Catsburg started to put the pressure on in the second of the Volvos. After a brief interruption just beyond half-distance when the safety car was called for after Chilton stopped on track in the middle of the Ascari chicane with a broken driveshaft on his Citroen, Bjork immediately began to break clear on the resumption as Monteiro continued to focus his attentions on the charging Huff behind, but the drama wasn’t over further back as, after Nagy’s Honda stopped on the exit of the third chicane, Coronel ran wide coming out of the second Lesmo on lap 8 to drop behind Filippi’s Citroen and out of the points-paying positions.
From then on, the race gradually began to wind down as the leading contenders all appeared content to stay where they were and not throw away hard-earned points, with Bjork able to extend his slender margin at the restart into a much more manageable 2.1s cushion at the flag as he secured Volvo’s first victory of 2017 ahead of Monteiro in second – the Honda man maintaining his position at the head of the points after another solid result – and Huff, who completed an excellent weekend for Munnich Motorsport and Citroen with a second podium finish in third. Behind, Catsburg took fourth to secure some points after what had been a relatively mixed weekend ahead of team-mate Girolami, who snatched fifth away from Michelisz on the run to the line by a barely measurable 0.001s to leave the Hungarian forced to settle for sixth in the second Honda, with Bennani some way adrift in a fairly lonely seventh, while an entertaining fight for the minor placings in the top 10 saw Guerrieri hold off the attentions of the hard-charging Ehrlacher to take eighth by just over 0.3s ahead of the LADA, with Filippi also holding off Coronel to secure the final point in tenth.
Thed Bjork (SWE) – #62 Volvo S60 (Polestar Cyan Racing)
RACE RESULTS – TOP 10
Round 3 (Opening Race): 1st – Chilton, 2nd – Huff, 3rd – Monteiro, 4th – Guerrieri, 5th – Bjork, 6th – Coronel, 7th – Filippi, 8th – Catsburg, 9th – Gleason and 10th – Nagy
Round 4 (Main Race): 1st – Bjork, 2nd – Monteiro, 3rd – Huff, 4th – Catsburg, 5th – Girolami, 6th – Michelisz, 7th – Bennani, 8th – Guerrieri, 9th – Ehrlacher and 10th – Filippi
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Monteiro (Castrol Honda) – 85pts
2. Bjork (Polestar Cyan/Volvo) – 70pts
3. Catsburg (Polestar Cyan/Volvo) – 50pts
4. Michelisz (Castrol Honda) – 46pts
5. Chilton (Sebastien Loeb Racing/Citroen) – 44pts
6. Huff (Munnich Motorsport/Citroen) – 44pts
7. Guerrieri (Campos Racing/Chevrolet) – 41pts
8. Girolami (Polestar Cyan/Volvo) – 39pts
9. Bennani (Sebastien Loeb Racing/Citroen) – 33pts
10. Coronel (ROAL Motorsport/Chevrolet) – 16pts
1. Polestar Volvo – 198pts
2. Honda – 186pts
WTCC Trophy – Top 5:
1. Huff (Munnich/Citroen) – 27pts
2. Chilton (SLR/Citroen) – 26pts
3. Guerrieri (Campos/Chevrolet) – 25pts
4. Bennani (SLR/Citroen) – 24pts
5. Coronel (ROAL/Chevrolet) – 19pts
WTCC Teams Trophy – Top 5:
1. Sebastien Loeb Racing – 36pts
2. Campos Racing – 26pts
3. Munnich Motorsport – 24pts
4. ROAL Motorsport – 23pts
5. Zengo Motorsport – 14pts