Since my promise of a WTCC Post, I've written a couple more posts and we've had two weekends worth of WTCC from Monza and Marrakech and the results have been somewhat interesting...
So I thought I'd share my thoughts with you...
First of all, a driver/team quick round up. Honda and Lada have gone full time, both with 2 car teams. Honda have Tarquini and Montiero, Lada have Thompson and now Koslovskiy. A lesson that Dudakalo has already learnt is never take out your team mate... You get fired...
Aon Ford have left and Chevrolet have gone as a works team but RML are back with arguably the best S2000 touring car out there. The Chevrolet Cruze. Muller has stayed with backing from Lukoil while Chilton arrives with Aon sponsorship. Chevrolet Stalwart Alain Menu has left for the Porsche Supercup as the team has scaled back to 2 cars with the loss of Works backing.
2012 WTCC Champion Huff has left Chevrolet and joined the ranks of SEAT with the FIA GT1 winning team All-Inkl.com running 3 cars. Marc Basseng and Team Boss Rene Munnich are in the other cars. Talking of SEAT, Oriola and Monje return with SUNRED who have merged with spanish motorsport team Campos Racing. Hugo Lavente will join later. Boardman runs on his own at his dad's team Special Tuning Racing.
BMW have the usual suspects in Coronel, Bennani, Engstler and Ng. O'Young joins Coronel at ROAL whilst Barth joins with Weichers-Sport.
With regards to the Chevrolet Independent Teams at Bamboo, MacDowall stays on with Nash joining him. Swedish Team NIKA Racing returns with Dane Michel Nykjaer. Nykjaer raced in the 2012 Swedish Touring Car Championship in a Cruze with the WTCC 1.6 litre turbo engine while MacDowall raced for Bamboo in 2012 so both men are already well versed in the Cruze's capabilities.
So... Whats changed?
Well for Muller not a lot. He began 2013 where he started in 2012: At a soaked weekend at Monza with his usual dominance and took Pole and 2 wins. The Ladas were ruled out after their Qualifying smash (Dudukalo hitting Thompson at the first chicane and wrecking Thompson's chassis in the process) and the Honda's needed more top speed. They showed well but couldn't live with the Chevrolet's in the wet conditions. So the Chevrolets ruled the roost in the speed traps and the track conditions.
What did I say about the Cruze being the best WTCC Car...
However there were sterling drives from Huffy and Basseng. Huffy drove from last on the grid to tenth in race one while Basseng was in the hunt for a podium in race 2. Something that shows promise for the rest of the season and possibly wins for both drivers perhaps.
So situation normal then after Monza with Muller leading the way in a Cruze with only one change. The livery. Chilton and Nash adapted well in their Chevrolet debuts, Chilton taking a podium in race 1 and 5th in race 2. Nash left Monza with the Independent Championship lead after a good weekend. Nykjaer showed good speed with a podium in race two. Another that has promise showing already as the season progresses.
In 2012, NIKA Racing ran 1998 BTCC Champion Rickard Rydell in a 2011 Cruze and Rydell was able to keep pace with the works cars of Mulker, Menu and Huff. So its no surprise Nykjaer had the pace of the RML Cruzes.
The similarities between Monza and Marrakech are quite a few. Both have long straights and chicanes. However Marrakech is a fast tight street circuit.
Cue the expensive repair bills...
Muller showed his usual speed, but Chilton was faster. Last year Chilton was fast in the Aon Ford Focus at Marrakech and his then team mate Nash led the 2nd race. However a mistimed exit by Monje killed his final sector. Pole was for the taking and Chilton knew it.
Honda improved with Tarquini taking pole followed by Nash, who seems to have gelled with the Cruze. Monteiro suffered with a shunt against the wall and would be on fightback duties during both races. Nykjaer too was near the front and poised to take his first WTCC win. He wouldn't be the only driver to do that over the weekend. He fought off both Nash and Tarquini for the win though. With Chilton pitting for damage to his front end, Muller took 4th.
But he had to fight Huffy for this and there was quarter given nor asked as they fought on the streets of Marrakech. The SEAT held its own but the speed of the Cruze soon told. The battle showed all the hallmarks of the battles from 2011 & 2012 when they both had equal machinery.
Besides the usual incidents with cars hitting walls and safety cars being deployed, Monje showed some brain fade and hit Thompson 4 times in 2 races, the final contact causing Jimmy to rightly lose his rag with the young spaniard. However the Lada again showed good speed. That car will win at least one race this year.
However the personal highlight for me was the race 2 winner. Pepe Oriola. Despite a safety car period caused by Tarquini hitting the kerbs hard and taking MacDowall with him, Pepe withstood pressure from Muller and Chilton. Not an easy task. Oriola took the lead from team mate Monje (when he was racing) and never looked back.
Now please understand I have never been a fan of SEAT. When I started watching WTCC I was an Andy Priaulx/BMW fan as statrd in a previous post. I wasnt happy with SEAT's decision to run diesels and the issues this caused. I was also upset that Rickard Rydell was always asked to support either Muller or Tarquini and never given the chance to fight for the title. But when Oriola appeared in WTCC with SUNRED, I saw a spark of talent I liked...
In 2011 he raced in the single format FIA European Touring Car Cup in a SEAT TDI against mutiple touring car champion Fabrizio Giovanardi in a Normally Aspirated Honda Accord Euro R and Nykjaer in a NIKA Racing Cruze. The ETCC was a 2 race event for non-works teams from all over Europe to race against each other in S2000, Super 1600 and Super Production cars. It can be quite fun and 2011 was...
Nykjaer and Giovanardi traded times in qualifying however Gio took pole. The Cruze and the Accord proving equal.
However race day was wet and Nykjaer had issues leaving him unable to start either race. This left Oriola pursuing Giovanardi in both races and he pressured the seasoned driver very hard. Oriola finished second to Giovanardi that day but he showed he could race against the best and hold his own, be it wet or dry.
Since that weekend Pepe's father made him a deal. If he won a race, his father would stop smoking. He almost gave up last year at Portimao where Oriola led race 2 and lost to Menu. So his first WTCC win was well deserved this year and will be the first of many. Not bad for an 18 year old. Lets hope a works team picks this young star up.
So Muller leads the standings as the circus heads to the Slovakiaring for rounds 5 and 6 which is no surprise. There are plenty of drivers who are not afraid to tackle the frenchman but that could also work to his advantage. If too many drivers take points from each other then Muller can pick up the pieces and extend his advantage.
Thats my theory for the championship this year.
However if the Honda improves further, expect a titanic battle between Muller and Tarquini. They may be the best of friends but Honda are pushing for the title this year and will take no prisoners. So while both will give each other respect and racing room on track, I expect an incident on track that will change this dynamic.
Nykjaer is second in the standings and with Nash and Chilton is showing good speed in the Cruze and that he can challenge Muller equally. His win will spur him on further. It wont be long before Muller will find that anyone will challenge him and wont be afraid to challenge him either.
If Andy Priaulx is seen as the "Michael Schumacher" of Touring Cars, then Yvan Muller is the "Sebastian Vettel" due to the fact that once he's in front he's damn near uncatchable and is not afraid of going bumper to bumper to defend his position...but that time maybe coming to an end...
Its amazing how going from Works driver to Independent Driver changes perspective...
However the Slovakiaring adds a new factor in the calendar. Twists and turns. It demands a setup that is fast but needs good mechanical grip for the long fast turns and the hairpins. This will favour the rear wheel drive BMW's and hurt the rest of the field which is front wheel drive. An interesting prospect.
Personally, I cant wait to see what happens...