This weekend sees the start of the 2014 FIA World Touring Car Championship in Marrakech, with the championship introducing a new set of rules and regulations and seeing a change in the looks of the new TC1 Touring Cars that will take part.
The cars will look more racy and aggressive this season with improved aerodynamics, more powerful engines and are lighter as well, allowing for plenty of development taking place and lots of close competition expected.
In the TC1 class, there are 17 entries from Citroen, Honda, LADA and RML-Chevrolet and heres a brief list of who is where in what...
Newcomers Citroen are running the C-Elysee with four time WTCC Champion Yvan Muller, nine time WRC Sebastien Loeb and Argentine TC2000 star Jose Maria Lopez for the full season with a fourth entry appearing at the Asian WTCC rounds in the hands of Ma Qing Hua. With over 100,000 kms of testing done in a six month period, Citroen are expected to lead the pack even though they are targetting only race wins...
Expect Muller to fight hard for supremacy against Loeb and Lopez...
Next up is Honda with four full time entries in TC1. Running an all new Civic to the new regulations, they kept on board Gabriele Tarquini and Tiago Montiero to maintain consistency and keep the good working relationship that began last year. However with the car not having run until January, they will be playing catchup. But to close that gap, they have setup a test team using a fifth Honda Civic chassis.
The other two Honda Civics are being used by Hungarian outfit Zengo Motorsport with Norbert Michelisz at the wheel whilst Italian outfit Scuderia ProTeam are changing from being a BMW Customer Team to a Honda Customer team, meaning the team runs a brand new car for the first time since 2006. Moroccan driver Mehdi Bennani remains with the team.
LADA expand to a three car operation this season, using an updated version of the Granta Sport used last season. 2012 Champion Rob Huff joins regular drivers James Thompson and Mikael Kozilovskiy which should add more talent to the development of the car. However the team missed the pre season test at Valencia and have done most of their testing at their base in Magny-Cours so they will be on the back foot at the seasons start...
But, expect some giant killing performances from the little Granta...
Finally, RML have built six Chevrolet Cruze's to be operated by Customer teams. With RML looking to make a return to the series in 2015 as a Works Outfit, they are supplying a service to the three teams running the TC1 Cruze.
First up is Campos Racing, who took over the SUNRED operation that ran the Customer SEAT operation for the past several years has bought two TC1 Cruzes for drivers Hugo Valente and WTCC Newcomer Dusan Borkovic. Frenchman Valente showed good speed last year whilst Borkovic was a strong driver in the ETCC whilst driving a Normally Aspirated Chevrolet Cruze. Campos is an experienced operation and Valente was quick again in the pre season Valencia Test.
Next up is ROAL Motorsport, another team that was a BMW Customer outfit. They have kept on Dutch star Tom Coronel and this will be the 3rd year of their association together. Joining the team is Tom Chilton, who brings backing from Capsicum along with a second Cruze that he owns. Chilton was the 2nd driver confirmed to purchase a Cruze from RML over the winter after Valente. Whilst Chilton has experience of the 2013 Cruze and working with RML, Coronel brings the experience of ROAL who are a fast capable team.
Expect these two to be the biggest threats to the Works Teams on the grid...
Finally, in a last minute deal, Munnich Motorsport return to the series after making their debut last year with three SEAT Leon's taking two wins through Rob Huff. Originally ordered by Bamboo Engineering, the two cars were purchased by Rene Munnich's outfit when Bamboo confirmed that they couldnt raise the budget to race on WTCC this season. However, even more impressive is the signing of Former F1 driver and four times Superstars V8 Champion Gianni Morbidelli to the team.
Morbidelli was spotted last year in the WTCC Paddock at Shanghai where rumours began of him looking for a move into WTCC. Well thats become true and in my opinion, once he's up to speed with the Cruze, Morbidelli could be a regular podium visitor and a real threat to the potential Citroen lock out expected.
There is also the TC2T class for older S2000 cars that were eligible from 2011 to 2013. There are 5 cars entered in this class, called The Yokohama Trophy.
Franz Engstler returns with his Engstler Motorsport outfit, running two BMW 320TC's for himself and former Bamboo driver Pasquale Di Sabatino. Campos Racing have signed John Fillippi and 2013 FIA European Touring Car Champion Petr Fulin to drive two SEAT Leon WTCC's with coaching from Pepe Oriola. For the Asian WTCC rounds, Oriola will be joined at Campos by younger brother Jordi Oriola. Finally Nika Racing return to the Trophy with a 2013 Honda Civic WTCC for Japanese driver Yukinori Taniguchi. The Nika Racing entry is pexcted to join later in the season.
Two other important changes are to the racing format and Qualifying. Both races will be 60kms long in durations whilst the rolling start has been scrapped to have standing starts in both races. With no Rear Wheel Drive cars in operation, this allows for a fair and equal start to both races.
Qualifying is now split into three parts:
Q1: All competitors will take part in Q1 looking to set a time quick enough to get into the top 12. Anyone in 13th place going down to last will start in that position for both races.
Q2: The top 12 set times quick enough to try to get into the top 5 for the Q3 Pole shootout. Anyone qualifying 11th and 12th will start in those positions for both races. The Top 10 in Q2 is reversed to produce the top 10 grid for race 2... Therefore 10th gets race 2 pole, 9th starts 2nd in race etc.
Q3: The top 5 Drivers from Q2 each go out and perform a single fast lap to determine the top 5 places for the race 1 grid. The Top 5 drivers also score points so its 5 points for Pole, 4 for 2nd place, 3 for 3rd place, 2 for 4th place and 1 point for 5th.
So we have in prospect a spectacular season ahead, which in my opinion must acheive two objectives:
1. It must show that the spectacle of the WTCC isnt hurt or diminshed in anyway with the new regulations in effect, providing the same exciting racing we have come to enjoy.
2. It must serve to entice more manufacturers into the series and allow for more cars to be available to allow the likes of Michel Nykjaer, Pepe Oriola and other well established WTCC stars a chance to return to further enhance that spectacle.
We'll know soon enough.