Race preview: Street fighters set for a (Vila) real challenge
Iconic street track marks a step into the unknown for all WTCC drivers
The challenge never stops in the FIA World Touring Car Championship. Having mastered three purpose-built tracks in quick succession in Russia, Slovakia and France, the WTCC drivers will take on the iconic Vila Real street circuit in Portugal next week for an historical step into the unknown.
Despite hosting its inaugural car race in 1931, OSCARO.com WTCC Race of Portugal will be the first FIA world championship event to take place in Vila Real, a picturesque city in northern Portugal 100 kilometres east of Porto. And it will be a street race with a difference with the 4.775-kilometre layout featuring an exciting blend of twists, turns, climbs and descents. While a handful of chicanes have been installed for safety reasons, the spectacle remains with top speeds of 240kph expected on the final downhill section.
One driver in particular aiming to go as fast as possible in Vila Real will be Tiago Monteiro. The Porto resident is a WTCC race winner and Formula One podium finisher and heads the Honda challenge alongside Gabriele Tarquini from Italy. Monteiro has a strong record on street circuits and came within a handful of laps of winning in the former Portuguese enclave of Macau last November only for a mechanical failure to lead to heartbreak. After a collision dropped him out of the podium battle in France, Monteiro will be anxious for a change of fortune on home soil. Although the 38-year-old watched racing in Vila Real as a child, like his WTCC rivals, he has no experience of the demanding street circuit, known as the ‘Nürburgring of the South’ due to its similarities to the famous Nordschleife in Germany.
With 14 rounds run in 2015, the chase for WTCC success remains tightly poised. José María López might top the standings by an increased margin of 39 points following his fifth victory of 2015 in France last weekend, but French Citroën team-mates Sébastien Loeb and Yvan Muller have done plenty of winning this season and will again provide formidable opposition to Argentina’s reigning world champion. Muller was one of two winners when Portugal last hosted the WTCC in 2013 at the Boavista street circuit in Porto.
Ma Qing Hua from China completes the factory Citroën line-up while Mehdi Bennani will pilot a privateer C-Eylsée WTCC and will be eager to make up for his mistake at Circuit Paul Ricard. Lining up in pole position for race two, the Moroccan accidentally jumped the start and received a drive-through penalty for his troubles.
Briton Rob Huff, the 2012 WTCC champion, has forged a reputation as the ultimate street racer with 10 round-the-houses victories to his name. After a tough outing in France, the LADA driver will be hoping for a return to form in Portugal where he enjoyed WTCC success in 2011. Dutch pair Nicky Catsburg and Jaap van Lagen complete the LADA attack. Hungarian Norbert Michelisz will be a contender in his Zengő Motorsport Honda, while Argentina’s Néstor Girolami is back on WTCC duty having scored on his debut in Slovakia for Honda Racing team Sweden.
ROAL Motorsport drivers Tom Chilton and Tom Coronel arrive in Portugal on the back of an in-season test at Paul Ricard in their Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1s. Grégoire Demoustier, Stefano D’Aste, John Filippi and Hugo Valente also rely on Chevrolet power and will target Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy success.
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