The FIA World Touring Car Championship headed to Austria and the high speed Salzburgring for its next two races in the 2014 season where Citroen driver Jose Maria Lopez is beginning to start showing a grip on a championship where most people were expecting Yvan Muller to be running away with it by now.
Well in Austria, the status quo of Citroen domination remained except it was the Chevrolets that posed the biggest threat in qualifying and the races. In fact it was Munnich Motorsports Gianni Morbidelli who took Pole Position for race one ahead of Yvan Muller by less than a tenth of a second.
However, Morbidelli was later stripped of Pole and given a five place grid penalty as his time was set whilst yellow flags were out due to a slow moving John Filippi in his TC2 SEAT Leon. This handed Muller Pole and he was joined by Loeb on the front row with Coronel, Lopez and Chilton completing the top five. With Morbidelli in sixth, The Honda's of Monteiro, Bennani, Michelisz and Tarquini completed the top ten with Tarquini on Pole for the race two reverse grid.
Hugo Valente suffered in practice with a huge crash which damaged the Campos Racing Chevrolet and caused yellow flags whilst the TC1 car was cleared away. The Lada's suffered during Qualifying on the high speed track, with the short wheelbase TC1 Granta suffering. Thompson, Huff and Kozlovskiy lined up in 13th, 14th and 15th places behind Rene Munnich and Dusan Borkovic in the 2nd Campos Chevrolet. Borkovic suffered a near mirror accident in qualifying as hi team mate did leaving a lot of work for Campos. Franz Engstler continued his domination of TC2 by taking pole for his class.
Race One saw Muller make his typical excellent getaway ahead of Loeb who fell back due to a worse start that saw Lopez and Coronel leap ahead of him. In fact Coronel passed Lopez at the first chicane but was soon passed back by the Citroen driver on the back straight whilst Muller stretched his lead out front. Behind Coronel and the Citroen's, Morbidelli made a poor start and was swamped in the field as he dropped to tenth.
Unfortunately, one characteristic of the Salzburgring's high speed nature added to the new aerodynamic regs for TC1 meant that overtaking was difficult and very few moves took place. Valente made two places but later retired with mechanical issues stemming from his practice accident. His team mate Borkovic also pulled in with issues, sidelining both cars until race two.
The Honda's fought their own private battle due to the Civic not being quick enough to hassle the Citroens and Chevrolets but that didnt stop Tarquini passing Michelisz for eigth place on lap five. Meanwhile Coronel was doing his best to hassle Lopez for second and on lap eight, the argentine driver out braked himself going into the chicane and using the escape road to rejoin. This gifted Coronel second place and he went on the defensive as Lopez tried his best to pass the ROAL Chevrolet for the last six laps of the race.
Out front, Muller won by a margin of almost four seconds from Coronel, who had Lopez only four tenths of a second behind him. Loeb, Monteiro and Chilton followed whilst Bennani, Tarquini, Michelisz and Morbidelli completed the top ten points finishers.
Race two was a slightly different affair however...
At the race two start, Tarquini led away from pole position in his Honda, with Monteiro making one of his season long epic starts to grab second from Michelisz and Bennani.
Further behind however there was drama, with Muller making a great start and diving across to the outside of the track in an attempt to try and get a run on team mate Lopez into the first corner. Lopez however cut him off, and as Muller moved back, he ran into the side of Thompson’s Lada, who himself made a great start and who then crashed into the side of team mate Huff’s car, with the two Lada's spinning off into the barriers and out of the race.
Muller brought his Citroen into the pits at the end of the lap and the race was red flagged after further incidents taking place with Borkovic making contact with the rear of Chilton's Chevrolet putting both out of the race with damage. The race was stopped for 15 minutes as the cars were cleared from the track, with Tarquini restarting in the lead ahead of the three Hondas of Monteiro, Bennani and Michelisz, with Lopez having made his way from seventh up to fifth.
Lopez then went on to use the now trademark grunt and traction of the Citroen C-Elysee as he moved past the slower Hondas on each lap, passing Bennani on lap five, Michelisz on lap six and then Monteiro on lap eight and then began to hunt down race leader Tarquini.
On lap 11 the safety car came out after Munnich clambered across the first chicane, spilling gravel on the circuit. As the cars came past on the next lap, Coronel slid off on the gravel and this dropped the Dutchman behind Morbidelli. When the race restarted, Lopez launched himself into the lead on the first lap, going around the outside of Tarquini before Turn 9, again the traction and grip of the TC1 Citroen showing its superiority.
Trust me, its not every driver that can pull off a move around the outside of 2009 WTCC Champion Tarquini and get away with it...
Lopez went on to win the race by just under two seconds ahead of Tarquini and Monteiro. Michelisz, Coronel and Morbidelli followed with Loeb in seventh, Bennani dropping to eigth with tyre issues ahead of Munnich in ninth and Kozlovskiy scoring a point in tenth.
Lopez left Austria having extended his lead to 41 points over Muller in the drivers’ standings and he is now looking the stronger of the three Citroen drivers both in TC1 machinery and in the championship whilst Muller is taking longer to get to grips with the new TC1 regs. He has already made it clear about this issue and how his many years of Super 2000 experience cannot be easily transferred to TC1 Touring Cars.
The Honda's again looked slow compared to the pace setting Citroens and Tarquini has said how the team cannot compete still with the French Manufacturer and that there will be more aggressive development on the Civics before the fly away season kicks off after Spa.
Morbidelli seems to have found a sweetspot in the Chevrolet and is now looking as fast as Valente, Coronel and Chilton in the TC1 Cruze and this will add to the fight the independent Chevrolet teams are bringing to the races. Lada meanwhile are testing where they can in an effort to get all three cars on the pace with the lack of pre season testing really showing now how far they are behind.
The series now moves to Moscow for the next two WTCC races on the same weekend as the BTCC races due to take place at Oulton Park in its International Circuit...