Preview : Battle for second place take center stage

A good show ahead in Shanghai

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By Emmanuel Touzot

19 September 2016 - 20:38
Preview : Battle for second place (...)

The thrilling fight for second place in the FIA World Touring Car Championship will take centre stage when the WTCC stops off at the Shanghai International Circuit in China from 23-25 September. With José María López crowned provisional champion for a third time* the focus shifts to the fight for the runner-up spot between seven drivers, all race winners this season.

Tiago Monteiro and Yvan Muller are best placed of the group on 199 points with Rob Huff 21 points further back. Norbert Michelisz, who is six points down on Huff, Mehdi Bennani, Nicky Catsburg and Tom Chilton are also in contention with plenty of points still up for grabs.

“Tiago is my target in the championship,” said factory Citroën driver Muller, a four-time WTCC champion. “I am pleased we are equal on points and it will be a good fight between us for the rest of the season.” Works Honda racer Monteiro, who has two wins compared to Muller’s sole triumph in 2016, said: “We will fight for second and every point will count.”

China joined the WTCC roster in 2011 and with the world’s biggest population at more than 1.3 billion, the country represents an important marketplace for the championship, its stakeholders and manufacturers. They include Volvo – a wholly owned subsidiary of Zhejian Geely Holding Group of China – which is represented in the WTCC by performance brand Polestar.

Polestar Cyan Racing is at the beginning of its WTCC adventure but arrives in China buoyed by a strong showing in Japan where Thed Björk set the fastest lap in the Opening Race and battled for a podium place. “As a company with both Swedish and Chinese heritage, we hope to pick up some good results,” said Björk. “Japan was positive on several levels and I can’t wait for China.”

China also represents a significant market for Citroën, which can make it three WTCC Manufacturers’ championship titles in succession* by scoring two points. Meanwhile, Citroën privateers Mehdi Bennani and Tom Chilton are locked in combat for the WTCC Trophy.

CAN CHINA SUCCESS INSPIRE WTCC TROPHY CHASER BENNANI?

The Shanghai International Circuit is significant in more ways than one for Mehdi Bennani. While a strong weekend for the Moroccan and a below par performance from his Sébastien Loeb Racing team-mate Tom Chilton will make the WTCC Trophy his providing he leaves China 23 points ahead of his British rival, the track was the scene of his maiden WTCC victory back in 2014. By winning the second of two races in a privateer Honda, Bennani became the first Arabic driver to take victory in an FIA world championship motor race.

WTCC MAC3 TO DELIVER EVEN MORE TRACK ACTION IN CHINA

There will be more on-track drama in store on Saturday afternoon (24 September) when the Manufacturers Against the Clock team trial takes place. New for 2016 and timed by TAG Heuer, the WTCC’s Official Timing Partner, the Tour de France-inspired competition puts squads from Citroën, Honda and LADA against the clock over two timed laps of the Shanghai International Circuit. The three makes (Polestar will participate when it enters a third Volvo from 2017) nominate three drivers to take part in WTCC MAC3, which follows Qualifying Q3 once all cars have been refuelled and fitted with new Yokohama tyres. Running in reverse Manufacturers’ championship order, as soon as a team’s three cars leave the grid side by side, the clock starts and stops once the last car completes two flying laps. Failure to get all three cars over the line – or if the second or third car doesn’t finish within a maximum of 15 seconds after the first car – means no points. And in what is a team-based competition, a mistake by one member can have serious consequences for the rest of the squad, which proved to be the case for LADA in Russia earlier in the season when a jumped-start by Gabriele Tarquini cancelled out victory. And the competition in WTCC MAC3 has been close – even too close to call. After Citroën won the inaugural event in France by 0.030s, the spectacle was raised even further when it tied on time with Honda in Slovakia, meaning both makes picked up 10 points towards their Manufacturers’ championship totals. And Honda will be out for revenge in China after Citroën took the WTCC MAC3 honours in Japan earlier this month, its fourth outright triumph and fifth in total.

THEY SAID WHAT ?

Thed Björk (Polestar Cyan Racing): “I raced at Shanghai in 2013 and what hit me the first time I came to this track is the big arena. The corners aren’t so fast but the atmosphere is really good. The fans are really interested in the racing and I hope they enjoy watching the Volvo S60 Polestar TC1. China is obviously a very important race for us because Volvo is a company with Swedish but also Chinese heritage so we hope we make a good result. That would certainly be nice as we have lots of guests from Volvo coming to the race. It can be hot for sure in China but the last time I was here we had changeable conditions. However, if we have a lot of heat I say it won’t be so difficult because I experienced some really big heat in Vila Real.”

Nicky Catsburg (LADA Sport Rosneft): “Last year was my first time at the track. It’s pretty cool and we had some good results. You have this massively long straight and a really big braking zone where you can gain or lose a lot of time and also a lot of positions, which makes it a good track for racing. The weight of our car was a little bit biased by what happened in Russia [where we won] but having gone down quite a lot we should be able to fight for podiums again. I’m seventh in the championship and it’s still pretty close to the top five. That’s the target.”

Rob Huff (Castrol Honda World Touring Car Team): “I have mixed feelings because anyone can be fast on a modern Formula One track. When you can go out, out-brake yourself in every corner to find your limit and then try again, that’s not racing. Of course China is great for the brands and the manufacturers because market-wise it’s huge. Facility-wise it’s great and overtaking-wise the back straight provides a great opportunity for overtaking. The opening laps of the races are possibly the most exciting we have and it’s the same every year, possibly because the track is so wide and you can make a mistake and not be punished. You can go four wide before you get a problem and the situation explodes.”

José María López (Citroën Total WTCC): “My approach won’t be different to the last two years. I like what I do, I like to fight, I like to win. The Manufacturers’ championship is the main objective for us and, if I can, I will try to help Yvan to get second place in the championship as well.”

Mehdi Bennani (Sébastien Loeb Racing, WTCC Trophy, pictured): “We were fighting for the WTCC Trophy until the end last year but Norbert Michelisz was stronger than me for two points. It’s another big challenge this year because the private drivers are very strong in this championship. We need to improve but we’re not just fighting for the WTCC Trophy, we’re fighting for the general podium as well and we scored good points in Japan.”

LAP OF THE TRACK WITH THED BJORK

“The thing you notice the most when you come to the track is the big arena where you have all these grandstands and people. There are a lot of fans who are really happy to see the WTCC and it’s a nice feeling to be there because the atmosphere is really good.

“The first corner requires a fast entry but because it’s a long corner with a slow exit, it’s quite tricky. We go from sixth down to fourth gear and then down to second on the exit for Turn 3. It’s quite difficult at the start because everybody is going for it, trying to get positions and at the end it’s tightening and turning to the second part of the corner, which is where a lot of incidents happen because you run out of space.

“From Turn 3 it’s quite a short distance to the chicane so not a place where you can gain some speed, you just try to find the right line to line up for the chicane and be fast through it. It’s important you carry your speed through here so you have the momentum for the run to Turn 8 where you brake while turning in. It’s a nice braking point for Turn 8 and it’s possible to overtake into Turn 9 providing the competition doesn’t block you.

“You have to line up Turn 10 going through the previous left-hander at Turn 9. You need to get the momentum right so you can accelerate out for Turn 11, where we saw it was possible to overtake last year with some hard braking, but you also need for somebody to make a mistake coming out of Turn 10. If you lose the momentum exiting Turn 10 it will compromise your speed up to Turn 11.

“For me Turns 12 and 13 are the best on the track because you are accelerating through the gears from second to fifth gear for Turn 13 so it’s really fast and it’s crucial to get the right speed through here as you go onto the long straight, which must be the longest straight on a normal track.

“You have really hard braking into Turn 14 but before then you have to consider what you do on the straight. It’s touring car racing so you need to get into the slipstream of the car ahead. The problem is if they block you there is only a small chance to go around the outside into the hairpin, otherwise you have to wait to get on the brakes at Turn 14. So you are always thinking whether to slipstream or set up a late-braking manoeuvre if they are blocking you. The Volvo S60 Polestar TC1 has good speed on the straights but the competition knows we are fast so they try to block you when they see you are coming.

“It’s really, really important to get the braking right for Turn 14 because you are coming from sixth gear sometimes down to first gear when you are overtaking. From a top speed of 270kph, maybe, the braking is crucial for such a slow corner.

“You need to accelerate hard through Turn 15, which is nothing to think about but you need to make Turn 16 right for a good lap and to have the speed for the start/finish straight.”

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