When the FIA World Touring Car Championship arrives in Japan, it is always embraced fully by the fans and this is due to 2 reasons: Tom Coronel and the fact that the Japanese love their racing...
Well Tom certainly upped the ante this time!
Better get the kettle on before reading this one...
Just before the weekend though, Michel Nykjaer announced that he would no longer be racing for the Swedish Nika Racing team. Due to finances (the bain of all Touring Car drivers) Michel could not complete the season with the team. I can say happily that was a lot of support for the driver and I for one can say he was missed during the 2012 WTCC season and will be during the rest of this season.
Although Michel was part of the Chevrolet Motorsport Sweden team with swedish Touring Car legend Rickard Rydell as his team mate in 2012 in the Super 2000 Scandinavian Touring Car Championship, he had a great year and has made strides as a top line Touring Car driver this year. Hopefully he will return next year in the new look WTCC.
Also for the Japan WTCC weekend was the start of the Eurosort Asia Trophy with 9 drivers from Japan, China and Macau registered to take part. Big names racing over the weekend would include Hiroki Yoshimoto who would take Nykjaer's place at Nika Racing, former Honda and Bamboo Chevrolet driver Yukinori Taniguchi replaced Fredy Barth at Weichers-Sport in the BMW and Masaki Kano who would replace an unwell Franz Engstler for this weekend in the BMW 320TC.
This also marked the first anniversary of Honda entering the WTCC, where 12 months ago Tiago Monteiro entered a JAS Honda Civic built to Super 2000 regulations after enduring a tough year in the SUNRED SEAT Leon. So Honda decided to enter a 4th car or the weekend for Super GT driver Takuya Izawa to celebrate that fact.
However in what proved to be a very close Qualifying session, it would be the Zengo Motorsport Honda Civic of Norbert Michelisz that would take Pole Position on home ground, leaving the works JAS Honda's slightly confused as to where he found the pace from as Michelisz was fastest in Q1 and Q2, setting only one lap in both sessions. Tarquini and Monteiro were not amused...
There were a few surprises in Japan and one of them was Alex MacDowall's increased pace, where he qualified in 2nd place for race one next to Michelisz. Chilton and Muller were on the second row whilst Monteiro joined Nash on the third row or 5th and 6th. Oriola lined up 7th with Tarquini 8th and the BMW's took row 5 with Bennani 9th and Tom Coronel 10th and more importantly, on Pole for race two...
There was another entertaining episode of the "Rob & James Show" with Huff and Thompson fighting it out to get both of their cars into the top 12 for Q2. Both men were successful, however in Q2 Huffy would put his Munnich Motorsport SEAT Leon in 11th whilst Thommo would qualify the Lada Granta in 12th.
In the title race, all Muller needed to do to sew up the title would be to finish 4th or higher in race one, regardless of where Tarquini finished in that race. With Nykjaer out for the season, this meant that Tarquini could fight for 2nd in the title race with Chilton making strides in points after his Sonoma debut win.
In race one, Norbert ran off into the distance. He had pace from the rolling start and made sure he held a gap over the Chevrolets that pursued him. MacDowall managed to hold off Muller after the Frenchman had passed Chilton around the outside of turns 1 and 2.
However Monteiro had ideas on a good showing during the races and things were not to go his way. At the final corner, Tiago understeered and fell down the field to 8th. This would put him into the clutches of Pepe Oriola but more on that later...
Muller tried his best to reel in MacDowall and take 2nd, but the Bamboo driver held off the more experienced RML driver and took 2nd behind Michelisz with Muller 3rd and Chilton in 4th.
Behind them Tarquini retired with technical issues however that saved him from what was a frantic battle that involved Monteiro and Oriola in the Tuenti Racing Cruze. Pepe made it clear over several laps that he was the faster driver and Tiago defended well however it all ended badly as Oriola hit Monteiro at the final corner, causing the Honda driver to retire and the young Chevrolet driver handed a drive through penalty.
All this allowed James Nash to quietly take 5th position whilst James Thompson pulled off the defence of the weekend from a queue of cars behind that included Rob Huff, Tom Coronel, Marc Basseng in the 2nd Munnich Motorsport SEAT and Fernando Monje who made progress though the field to finish 10th. 6th place was the best place finish for a while for the Lada diver and showed that the Lada Granta was an agile car on this kind of circuit.
With his 3rd place finish, Yvan Muller sealed his 4th WTCC Title and beat Andy Priaulx into 2nd in the WTCC records by becoming the series first 4 time WTCC champion. He gave thanks to the RML Team or his title win as he later explained up until one month before the season started, they did not have a program in place. He also explained that from now on he would support Tom Chilton in trying to beat Tarquini to 2nd in the drivers title.
But wait!! That still leaves race two!!
With Bennani on Pole and Coronel alongside him race two was always going to be about which BMW driver had the best start and who would have the best defence. Coronel looked the better of the two as he had saved 2 sets of fresh tyres for the Japanese WTCC weekend.
This was also the 200th WTCC race since the championship started in 2005 and the first race that took place was also won by a BMW, in that case it was Jorg Muller at Monza.
Bennani made a cracking start and led Coronel into turn one as the rest of the field funnelled in behind. There were two casualties in this race as Michelisz made contact with Muller. Muller retired on the front straight cuasing a safety car whilst Michelisz limped home with a puncture and broken suspension.
At the re-start, Bennani led away from Coronel and the racing between the two BMW drivers was hard but fair and it took the Dutchman until lap 17 to pass the Moroccan who ran wide at turn 2. Coronel took the lead and went on to win the race from Bennani, making this the 3rd win for Coronel in the WTCC and also in Japan.
Mehdi Bennani is another driver who will soon win a WTCC race. he has had at least 3 2nd places this year, all in race two format, but he is fast and young and hopefully that win will come before the end of the season. Monteiro took 3rd for Honda whilst Tarquini made up for the race one retirement by taking 4th behind his team-mate.
James Nash finished in 5th with Tom Chilton not far behind him and keeping close company with the Bamboo driver during the race. Charles Ng took his best ever finish in the Engstler BMW by taking advantage of the tussle at the front and made his way up to finish 7th. Behind him was another frantic battle involving James Thompson in the Lada who at the start of the last lap was in 9th place and looking good for another points finish in the nimble Granta.
But this was not to be.
During the fight led by MacDowall who was defending from Thommo, Basseng, D'Aste, Darryl O'Young in the 2nd ROAL Motorsport BMW and Monje in the Campos SEAT Leon no quarter was given and none was asked. However Basseng gave Thompson a slight nudge and who in turn nudged MacDowall in the Bamboo Cruze leading to both Brits falling down the order.
In the end, the finishing order behind Huff in 8th was Basseng in 9th and D'Aste in 10th with O'Young taking 11th ahead of Thompson who beat MacDowall to 12th by 1/10th of a second.
So although the East Circuit is not one to the fans liking, yet again it showed that it can offer good racing on the shorter circuit. Lets hope next year that we get to race on the full Grand Prix circuit. I still maintain that the picture of the newer faster 2014 S2000 cars flying through the spectacular 130R corner is one that should happen.
So the series moves on to the Shanghai Grand Prix circuit at the start of November where last year the title race was on between the Works Chevrolet drivers of Huff, Menu and Muller and where Colin Turkington showed what he could do in a WSR run bright yellow Chevrolet Cruze.
This year the field will be joined by a one of appearence of the Polestar Volvo team who have confirmed that they are still interested in the WTCC and that the C30 entered will be driven by 2013 STCC Champion Thed Bjork. This is a "toe in the water" exercise as Volvo still see the WTCC as a viable future option so lets hope this leads to a possible 2015 entry by the Swedish Manufacturer...
Anyway with the next WTCC races not until the beginning of November, there is the small issue of the settling of the British Touring Car Championship, so I'll get started on those blogs in the coming weeks...
Until then, All the best!