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Race preview: Argentine aces out to upstage WTCC title fighters

Girolami and Guerrieri bid for Termas de Río Hondo success

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By Olivier Ferret

9 July 2017 - 09:33
Race preview: Argentine aces out to (...)

The 2017 FIA World Touring Car Championship title race changes up another gear in South America next week when the second half of this wide-open season and enthralling battle for WTCC glory resumes with seven drivers covered by a mere 37 points.

Following his podium double on home soil in Portugal last month, Honda’s Tiago Monteiro tops the standings, albeit a mere four points in front of Thed Björk, who holds a six-point advantage over Nicky Catsburg. Norbert Michelisz, Mehdi Bennani, Tom Chilton and former champion Rob Huff are firmly in contention with all bar Huff taking at least one victory in 2017.

But it’s not just the prestigious world crown at stake when Termas de Río hosts WTCC Race of Argentina for the fifth time from 14-16 July. Having won in the Santiago del Estero region every year the WTCC has visited, triple champion José María López has chosen the FIA Formula E and World Endurance championships for his next motorsport challenge, paving the way for two of his hugely talented countrymen to forge their glowing reputations in the series.

As a double Súper TC2000 champion, Néstor Girolami needs no introduction and lines up for the factory Volvo team, Polestar Cyan Racing, less than a year after an impressive testing performance in Termas helped him to secure his factory chance.

Esteban Guerrieri set the fastest lap all weekend at WTCC Race of Argentina in 2016, his debut in the series, and won the opening event of this season in Morocco with Campos Racing. Having raced the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel earlier in his career, Guerrieri is highly rated and both he and Girolami will receive rapturous support from the Argentine fans with Girolami desperate for a change of fortune following a frustrating run of results.

“I feel I have the speed to be at the top but I have only had bad luck,” said Girolami. “So you need to be patient, be focused and do your best to help your team. We are fighting for two championships and it’s important I can help my team-mates. But it’s also time to reset, focus on the five races left and try to do my best and be on top in every race because this is my spirit.”

WTCC Race of Argentina features two races – the Opening Race and longer Main Race – and extensive live television coverage around the world on Sunday 16 July.

SZABÓ HANDED WTCC CHANCE WITH ZENGŐ

Zsolt Dávid Szabó’s impressive performances in the FIA European Touring Car Cup have been rewarded with a step up to the FIA World Touring Car Championship with Zengő Motorsport for WTCC Race of Argentina. Szabó follows Norbert Michelisz, the ex-Zengő driver turned factory Honda contender, as a former online racer to be handed a dream opportunity to race in the WTCC via a stint in the ETCC. He will make his global series debut at Termas de Río Hondo with fellow Zengő Motorsport young hopefuls Ferenc Ficza and Norbert Nagy expected to take it in turns to race the team’s second Honda Civic alongside their fellow Hungarian Dániel Nagy. Aurélien Panis, who has raced for Zengő in the WTCC since the start of the season, is leaving the team to continue his learning year in front-wheel-drive machinery and will race a Honda in the TCR International Series. Szabó, meanwhile, has been on impressive form in his rookie ETCC season, the 21-year-old taking his maiden victory in Vila Real last month after scoring his first podium at the Hungaroring in May in a Zengő-run SEAT.

Zengő Motorsport Team Principal Zoltán Zengő said: “Zsolt has impressed us with his pace and potential and ability to learn new tracks and adapt to new situations very quickly. As a team that takes pride from the work it has done in giving opportunities to young talents and nurturing their careers, we are very pleased to give Zsolt this opportunity in the WTCC and excited to watch him progress. It will be tough but there’s no better way to learn and he’ll be given all the help possible to aid his transition. While we are committed to running a second car alongside Dániel Nagy for the rest of the season, we are considering giving two of our other young drivers, Ferenc Ficza and Norbert Nagy, the chance to do a WTCC race and we’ll make an announcement on this in due course.”

WEEKEND HIGHLIGHTS

*Argentina’s fifth WTCC appearance comes at an exciting time for the championship with 37 points covering the leading seven drivers and just four points separating the top two at the halfway stage of the campaign.

*To further underline what is one of the most wide-open seasons for almost a decade, seven drivers have won races driving cars from four different makes, while 10 drivers have led for a lap or more.

*The WTCC Trophy for independent racers is also finely balanced with Rob Huff, Tom Chilton and Mehdi Bennani all in close combat.

*Argentine fans will have two home WTCC racers to cheer with Néstor Girolami and Esteban Guerrieri among the contenders for victory.

*The long-standing and hugely popular Turismo Nacional series tops the support bill at Termas de Río Hondo with six races for the class-based category scheduled over the weekend.

LATEST DRIVER NEWS

*Zsolt Dávid Szabó replaces Aurélien Panis at Zengő Motorsport for his WTCC debut. The 21-year-old Hungarian steps up to the world championship on the back of winning the second of two ETCC races at Vila Real last month.

*American Kevin Gleason prepared for WTCC Race of Argentina by confirming he will remain Yann Ehrlacher’s team-mate at RC Motorsport for the remainder of the season.

*Thed Björk will be spending time with royalty prior to heading to Argentina. The Polestar Cyan Racing driver is competing alongside Prince Carl Philip in the Falkenberg round of the Swedish GT championship this weekend.

*Esteban Guerrieri knows what it takes to win at Termas de Río Hondo having triumphed at the venue when the Argentine Súper TC2000 series visited in mid-June. After finishing second to Agustin Canapino in the first race of the weekend, Guerrieri went one better in the 60-minute second encounter driving for the Citroën importer team.

*Tom Chilton scored his first Termas win in 2016, one year after team boss Sébastien Loeb triumphed at the track.

*John Filippi also enjoyed plenty of attention in Argentina last season when he started the Opening Race from the reverse-grid pole position in his OSCARO-backed entry.

*Ryo Michigami joins, Ehrlacher, Gleason, Szabó as a Termas de Río Hondo rookie

*Tom Coronel will be back in action in Argentina after his ROAL Motorsport team rebuilt his badly damaged Chevrolet in the short gap following WTCC Race of Portugal in Vila Real.

GIROLAMI GETS HOME WTCC VICTORY BOOST

Néstor Girolami’s hopes of a maiden FIA World Touring Car Championship victory on home soil in Argentina have received a boost with confirmation that his Volvo S60 Polestar will be 20 kilograms lighter than in Portugal last month under the compensation weight system. Designed to equalise car performance in the WTCC, the FIA’s weight ruling uses a lap time-based calculation made following the last two events in Germany and Portugal. The three Volvo S60 Polestar racers in action at Termas de Río Hondo next week will run with 60 kilograms of success ballast, the same amount carried by the Honda Civic WTCC driven by title chasers Tiago Monteiro and Norbert Michelisz, among others. Girolami’s fellow Argentine, Esteban Guerrieri, is another driver to benefit from the latest round of weight adjustments with his Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1 running at the base weight of 1100 kilograms. While the LADA Vesta WTCC will also run without compensation weight, the Citroën C-Elysée WTCC will continue to run with the maximum 80 kilograms of success ballast.

The full compensation weight listing for Argentina is as follows: Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1: 0kg (-20kg); Citroën C-Elysée WTCC: 80kg (no change); Honda Civic WTCC: 60kg (+10kg); LADA Vesta WTCC: 0kg (no change); Volvo S60 Polestar: 60kg (-20kg)

THEY SAID WHAT?

Néstor Girolami (Polestar Cyan Racing): “It was one of my dreams to race in the WTCC in Argentina and it’s really important for me to be close to my fans. It will also be fantastic to share this weekend with my friend Esteban [Guerrieri] and our fans. We have been thinking about this for many years and fighting for it. Now we achieved it we deserve to enjoy the weekend. The last sector at the track is quite technical and people lock a lot the tyres in the last corner. This is one secret we have because we know how to set up the car so we don’t lock the tyres. This is really important and maybe we can take some advantage from this.”

Esteban Guerrieri (Campos Racing): “After such a good qualifying but a disappointing race it was a feeling like it was close but no cigar last year. But I believe things happen for a reason. It was an opportunity to really perform but I couldn’t wrap it up so that was a little bit of a bad feeling. Nevertheless, I got to know the WTCC and made a good impression by being fast. The goal was achieved because what happened in Argentina last year means we are here now. I will really enjoy this year’s race and I hope the people come to support me and also Bebu [Girolami]. I will approach the weekend like I do any other weekend but racing at home will give me an extra boost.”

WHAT HAPPENED IN 2016?

José María López strengthened his grip on a third FIA World Touring Car Championship title with WTCC Race of Argentina victory number five to surpass illustrious countryman, the late Juan Manual Fangio, in terms of world championship races won. El Maestro scored 27 wins in world championship events during his distinguished career: first place for Citroën driver López in the Main Race at Termas de Río Hondo was victory number 28 for the Argentine, who topped the WTCC standings by 117 points afterwards. “Comparisons are always a bit difficult,” said López. “He’s the greatest we ever had and everything we have in motor racing is because of him, but it’s a nice personal thing.” Despite the high of claiming the DHL pole, there was drama for López when the engine in his C-Elysée had to be replaced overnight, resulting in demotion to the back of the grid for the Opening Race. Undeterred, López charged through to finish fifth with Tom Chilton beating Rob Huff and Yvan Muller to victory. Starting from pole, López trailed the fast-starting Norbert Michelisz in the Main Race before making his move for the lead on lap seven. Michelisz dropped further back following contact with Muller, leaving Tom Coronel and Huff to complete the podium.

TRACK GUIDE IN 100 WORDS

Circuito Termas de Río Hondo has hosted WTCC Race of Argentina for four years running, with national hero and triple champion José María López dominating to the tune of five wins, including his debut WTCC triumph in 2013. With López trying FIA Formula E for size in 2017, the battle for victory will be wide open when the venue hosts the start of the WTCC’s overseas tour in July. Located in Argentina’s Santiago del Estero region, 1800 kilometres north of the capital Buenos Aires, Circuito Termas de Río Hondo stages a MotoGP race each season and also houses a museum.

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