Preview: WTCC hours at stake as Qatar gets set for Friday night fever
Michelisz and Bennani in fight for Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy
The chase for FIA World Touring Car Championship success reaches its climax in Qatar next week when the curtain comes down on a 2015 season jam-packed with action, drama, excitement and the odd dose of controversy. And with Losail International Circuit staging the WTCC’s maiden night race and the championship’s first visit to the Middle East, an historic occasion awaits.
It’s been 264 days since José María López got his title defence off to a flying start with a popular home win in his native Argentina. By claiming his ninth victory of the campaign in Thailand earlier this month, the Citroën driver made it back-to-back WTCC crowns*. And another triumph in Qatar would equal his record of 10 wins in one season set in 2014. “Sometimes you need to put more pressure on yourself to get a bit more,” said López. “I am a little more relaxed now I have won the title but I don’t race for the records, I race to enjoy in a fantastic team with fantastic team-mates. It’s a new race for us and will be very interesting. I have seen the track from the MotoGP races and it looks nice. Hopefully we’ll have a great weekend and a fantastic fight once again.”
Two of his team-mates who will be among the drivers taking centre stage at the highly-acclaimed MotoGP venue on 27 November. Just five points separate Frenchmen Sébastien Loeb and Yvan Muller in the battle for second place in the final standings with Loeb, the nine-time world rally champion turned WTCC contender, in the ascendency. While Muller, a quadruple WTCC title-holder, faltered with two non-finishes in Thailand, Loeb inherited his fourth win of the year following Portuguese driver Tiago Monteiro’s exclusion due to a technical infringement. With a future in cross-country rallying planned, Qatar could be Loeb’s WTCC farewell.
Monteiro’s misfortune means he will face a tall order in WTCC DHL Race of Qatar if he’s to beat Gabriele Tarquini (Italy) and Norbert Michelisz to the honour of finishing 2015 as the leading Honda driver. Like Loeb and Muller, Michelisz is embroiled in a close fight for WTCC glory. The Hungarian is seven points ahead of Morocco’s Mehdi Bennani in the Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy. Although Michelisz has claimed two more class wins than Bennani, three of Bennani’s six triumphs have come in the last four races, while Michelisz hasn’t won since mid-September, increasing the prospect of a wide-open contest.
While Bennani and Michelisz will be focused on claiming the Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy, Ma Qing Hua is on course to finish fourth in the final table following the Chinese pilot’s podium brace in Thailand where the going proved tough for LADA. Although Briton Rob Huff produced two battling performances to snatch 16 points and climb to eighth in the title table, team-mates Nicky Catsburg (Netherlands) and Nicolas Lapierre (France) were eliminated – along with Dutchman Tom Coronel – in a first-corner clash in race one. Hugo Valente became embroiled in a separate incident on the opening lap in Thailand so will be hoping for better fortune in Qatar where he starts a solitary point behind fellow Chevrolet privateer Tom Chilton (Great Britain).
Chilton has sought advice from younger brother about racing at night: Chilton Jr took part in two Singapore Grands Prix, which was also run after hours and required drivers to adjust their body clocks.
Other drivers in action in Qatar include Frenchmen Grégoire Demoustier and John Filippi and Italy’s Stefano D’Aste, while home hero and Middle East sporting legend Nasser Al-Attiyah will make his WTCC debut in a privateer Chevolet. All four will be competing for Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy honours in their RML-built Chevrolet Cruze TC1s.
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