WTCC 2017 - Race of Morocco preview

New season prepares for lift-off in Marrakech

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By Olivier Ferret

31 March 2017 - 14:40
WTCC 2017 - Race of Morocco preview

The eagerly-awaited 2017 FIA World Touring Car Championship gets underway on the streets of Marrakech next week (7-9 April) when the North African city hosts WTCC AFRIQUIA Race of Morocco for the eighth time as one of the most open WTCC seasons for nearly a decade begins.

With two WTCC dominators of recent times, José María López and Yvan Muller, taking on new challenges and the pacesetting factory Citroën squad having completed its planned three-year WTCC stint, picking their successors will be a very close call as several potential title winners prepare for on-track battle. They include:

 Mehdi Bennani: WTCC Trophy champion tipped for big things by Sébastien Loeb
 Thed Björk: Swift Swede has race-winning pedigree with Volvo’s factory team
 Nicky Catsburg: Endurance racer proved he can be a slick sprinter too
 Tom Chilton: Chil will aim to thrill during second season with Sébastien Loeb Racing
 Néstor Girolami: López’s former nemesis is a double Argentine touring car champ
 Rob Huff: Briton gets a Citroën in his pursuit of second world crown
 Norbert Michelisz: Can the gamer turned racer be Hungary’s first world champion?
 Tiago Monteiro: He raced in F1 and wants to be world number one in touring cars

As well as the wide-open nature of the championship fight, an emerging pack of rookie racers, including Yvan Muller’s nephew Yann Ehrlacher, will bring added intrigue, while there are new formats and venues, upgraded cars and rule tweaks to further spice up the action.

The championship’s global tour features 10 stops in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and South America from April to December and the season opener in Morocco will take on added significance as it’s the home event for Sébastien Loeb Racing’s Mehdi Bennani. “It’s one of the biggest events in Morocco and everyone is waiting to see if I can do a great result and fight for the win,” he said. “Because people are expecting me to do well there is pressure but it’s a positive one. I prefer to have this kind of pressure than having no pressure at all.”

Like Bennani, Honda factory race Tiago Monteiro is among the title favourites in 2017 after finishing third in the standings last season. But the ex-Formula One racer is braced for a big battle for glory: “The championship is going to be so wide open with so many possible winners and that makes it definitely more exciting for everybody.”

WEEKEND HIGHLIGHTS

*Opening weekend of 10-event 2017 season featuring eight potential world champions

*One of the most open seasons for nearly a decade excites star names

*Semi-permanent track in Marrakech provides close racing and allows no margin for error

*Huge crowds to cheer on home hero Mehdi Bennani

*Rookie drivers out to make their mark in highly-competitive field

*Ambient temperatures to hover around 32 degrees centigrade and test drivers and their cars

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2017

*Factory teams from Honda and Volvo Polestar go up against leading privateer entrants

*Revamped calendar features return to iconic venues Monza and Macau, a new track for WTCC Race of China, plus a mid-July date for WTCC Race of Argentina

*Shortened schedule means every result counts

*Main Race longer than before with more points on offer to the top 10 (new scale: 1=30 points; 2=23; 3=19; 4=16; 5=13; 6=10; 7=7; 8=4; 9=2; 10=1)

*WTCC MAC3, the Tour de France-inspired time trial, continues with two more points for winning

*FIA World Rallycross-style ‘joker’ lap planned for WTCC Race of Portugal in Vila Real

*New two-day format to reduce costs for teams (Free Practice 1 and 2 now last 45 minutes each, no Friday Testing)

LATEST DRIVER NEWS

*Factory teams Honda and Volvo Polestar both feature tweaked driver line-ups for 2017. Japanese racer Ryo Michigami replaces Rob Huff at Honda where he will partner Norbert Michelisz and Tiago Monteiro. Thed Björk gets two new team-mates: Nicky Catsburg and Néstor Girolami, while Yvan Muller has signed as a development driver for partner team Cyan Racing

*Huff has returned to ALL.INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport after three years away to drive the German team’s newly acquired Citroën C-Elysée WTCC. Mehdi Bennani and Tom Chilton continue to drive Sébastien Loeb Racing-run Citroëns and welcome new team-mate John Filippi, who has renewed support from OSCARO

*There will be family pride at stake for rookie racers Yann Ehrlacher and Aurélien Panis. Ehrlacher is the nephew of four-time world champion Yvan Muller, while Panis’s father Olivier won the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix and commentates on Eurosport France’s WTCC coverage

*Panis will partner Dániel Nagy at Zengő Motorsport, while Ehrlacher joins new team RC Motorsport

*Esteban Guerrieri has secured a partial programme with Campos Racing with work underway to make it a full-season deal

*Like Guerrieri, Tom Coronel will be Chevrolet Cruze mounted in 2017 after he extended his long-term agreement with Roberto Ravaglia’s ROAL Motorsport backed by DHL

THEY SAID WHAT?

Norbert Michelisz (Castrol Honda World Touring Car Team): “My target is simple: to become world champion this year, and that has to start with a good points score in Morocco, especially while the Civic isn’t carrying any compensation weight. Last year we were very fast at the revamped Marrakech circuit, which features a lot of low-speed corners and rewards a car that is well-balanced under braking and has good traction. Several upgrades to the car were made at our final pre-season test at the Hungaroring and I think we’ve taken a significant step forwards compared to where we were even a few weeks ago, so everyone in the team can feel confident of a strong performance.”

Néstor Girolami (Polestar Cyan Racing): “I raced on a lot of street circuits in Argentina and I enjoy them a lot. From looking at pictures and videos, it’s a very difficult track but you have to go to the limit – although a little bit less to avoid stupid mistakes in Free Practice – so you can push very hard in qualifying because being fastest in qualifying is 90 per cent of the weekend.”

Mehdi Bennani (Sébastien Loeb Racing): “We know that it’s a big challenge to do a race in this level so every time we need to renew the car, try another set-up. There will be a moment when we are struggling but this is the level of the WTCC. Marrakech is a nice track with lots of fighting and everybody is on the same level. You need to do everything on the limit but you can’t touch the wall so it’s a mix between. Sometimes you need to go on the limit, sometimes you need to flirt a bit with the wall. My preparations have been a mix between training and promotional work. I have a good programme of training with a new coach for this year and we try to be stronger in the physical way. But there are lots of events with partners and it’s important to be present.”

Tom Coronel (ROAL Motorsport): “It’s a very difficult place. I’ve had some really bad memories there after two big crashes two years ago and three years ago. Last year we won so it’s a big up and a big down. I feel confident on street tracks but we should be clever because it’s the first race of the season and we have a good package. I am confident I can be on the podium.”

WHAT HAPPENED IN 2016?

Independent driver Tom Coronel ripped up the formbook by winning the Opening Race of FIA WTCC AFRIQUIA Race of Morocco after withstanding intense pressure from world champion and factory Citroën driver José María López for his first victory since 2013. With former WTCC title winner turned team boss Roberto Ravaglia watching from the pits, Coronel didn’t crack after inheriting top spot from Hugo Valente when the LADA driver was ordered to serve a drive-through penalty following contact with DHL pole-sitter James Thompson. The Marrakech event then took a dramatic twist, with rain before the start of the Main Race making for a slippery new-look Circuit Moulay El Hassan. But Rob Huff took the difficult conditions in his stride to lead home a Honda 1-2-3 with Norbert Michelisz second and Tiago Monteiro third. However, all Hondas were subsequently excluded for failing post-race technical checks, which handed victory to López, second to his Citroën team-mate Yvan Muller and third to LADA’s Gabriele Tarquini. Local hero Mehdi Bennani made up for his frustrating qualifying to take the WTCC Trophy honours in the Main Race and maintain his title advantage.

TRACK GUIDE IN 100 WORDS

Transformed from street circuit to semi-permanent race track for 2016, Circuit Moulay El Hassan is located in the heart of Marrakech’s bustling hotel district. Built to FIA Grade II standards, the layout is the work of Hermann Tilke’s renowned architecture agency and offers impressive views of the Atlas Mountains and Marrakech city wall. But with a compact lap of 2.971 kilometres (down from 4.545km) and a sprinkling of tight, wall-lined turns, there’s no time for WTCC drivers to take in the scenery. Home hero Mehdi Bennani attracts a fervent following at this race, restored to season-opening status after two years.

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