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WTCC street fighters aim to master Macau

Title battle wide open as record-equalling entry prepares for action

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By Olivier Ferret

11 November 2017 - 11:45
WTCC street fighters aim to master (...)

One of the most challenging race tracks on the planet awaits drivers from the FIA World Touring Car Championship when the wide-open title battle resumes on the streets of Macau from 16-19 November. But as well as offering vital points, JVCKENWOOD WTCC Race of Macau forms the legendary Suncity Group Macau Guia Race, run for the first time in 1972 and won a record eight times by 2012 WTCC champion Rob Huff.

Back on the WTCC roster for the first time since 2014, the 6.120-kilometre Circuito da Guia challenges and thrills in equal measure. Blending twisty turns and narrow blasts with long, wide-open straights and sweeping corners, the demanding layout also contains a plethora of gradient and surface changes.

“There are circuits as challenging but there aren’t any as unforgiving as Macau,” said Huff, who made his Macau Guia Race debut in 2005. “Those who push the boundaries on every corner can get rewarded but it can also be a disaster. However, I’m massively excited to be going back, it’s a magical place and to have eight victories is something special. I want to build on that.”

While Huff has dropped out of the overall title fight in his ALL-INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport Citroën, factory Honda star Norbert Michelisz is in the thick of the battle, 16.5 points behind Polestar Cyan Racing’s Thed Björk, a Macau rookie.

“I won my first WTCC race in Macau in 2010 so I have some special memories,” said Hungarian Michelisz, the winner of the last round in Japan. “It’s a really challenging circuit, a bit like Nürburgring Nordschleife and driving on circuits like this is unique and something a racing driver looks for. The closer the race gets the more excited I get.”

Despite his absence of Macau knowledge, Sweden’s world championship leader Björk is unfazed by what’s in store when the WTCC returns to the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China next week. “New tracks have been going quite well for me and my progress was quite fast in learning tracks. I hope I can also learn Macau fast enough.”

Björk’s Volvo-driving team-mate Nicky Catsburg can count on some Macau knowledge having contested the FIA GT World Cup in 2016. The Dutchman is 2.5 points behind Michelisz in the title standings. “It was actually quite scary going to Macau for the first time. Mandarin corner is so fast, really exciting and you have to be comfortable being close to the walls. I don’t feel I really know Macau because we had a lot of red flags last year but maybe I have an advantage over my Polestar Cyan Racing team-mates.”

Like Catsburg, Esteban Guerrieri has one Macau visit under his belt from the Formula 3 Grand Prix in 2007 when he took on current Formula 1 drivers Brendan Hartley, Nico Hülkenberg and Romain Grosjean. With Tiago Monteiro, the erstwhile title leader, still recovering from injuries sustained in a high-speed testing crash in September, Honda has once again called up Guerrieri as Monteiro’s stand-in after the Argentine impressed with a podium in Japan last time out when he pulled off the save of the season following an on-track clash with Björk. (Click here to watch the action).

“Macau is such an intense single lap for concentration,” said Guerrieri. “You have to go between walls on full power at 100 per cent, you give everything and even more to get the maximum out of the car. I like street courses and Macau is top of the street courses.”

It’s not just the FIA World Touring Car Championship for Drivers that’s still up for grabs: the WTCC Trophy for independent racers is a three-way fight between Mehdi Bennani, Tom Chilton and Huff, while Volvo Polestar and Honda are bidding to win the FIA World Touring Car Championship for Manufacturers. After 16 races, Volvo Polestar is on top by 46.5 points with a maximum of 117 available in Macau.

WEEKEND HIGHLIGHTS

*WTCC JVCKENWOOD Race of Macau, the Suncity Group Macau Guia Race, will run to a new format with the Opening Race and Main Race taking place on separate days.

*The timetable adjustment will result in a more advantageous international broadcast slot for the Opening Race (due to begin at 14h10 local time, 07h10 CET).

*In order to give teams maximum opportunity to repair and ready their cars for Sunday’s Main Race, which is scheduled from 10h40 local time (03h40 CET), OSCARO Repair Time is unrestricted (it’s normally 20 minutes only with five of those minutes for refuelling).

*Nineteen-car entry is highest of 2017 and equals the previous TC1 record set in Japan last season.

*Double Guia Race winner Emanuele Pirro will be in attendance in his capacity as FIA WTCC driving advisor.

LATEST DRIVER NEWS

*With Tiago Monteiro still recovering from injuries sustained in a high-speed testing crash in Spain back in September, Esteban Guerrieri has been called up to partner Norbert Michelisz and Ryo Michigami in the factory Honda line-up.

*Rob Huff will head to Macau fresh from contesting the penultimate round of the China Touring Car Championship at Wuhan where he will drive a SAIC V3 333Racing Lamando GTS.

*Zengő Motorsport, which guided Michelisz to a WTCC Race of Macau win in 2010, will enter track rookies Dániel Nagy and Zsolt Dávid Szabó, two rising stars from Hungary.

*Two Macau rookies also form part of the Polestar Cyan Racing works Volvo attack with Thed Björk and Néstor Girolami racing in Macau for the first time.

*Macau-based Mak Ka Lok is back on WTCC duty for the first time since 2014. He completes the three-strong RC Motorsport attack alongside existing drivers Yann Ehrlacher and Kevin Gleason for his first taste of TC1 competition.

*Ehrlacher is the son of Cathy Muller, who was P12 in the Macau F3 Grand Prix in 1983, and nephew of Yvan Muller, a double WTCC Race of Macau winner and four-time WTCC champion.

*While Ehrlacher is a Macau novice, Gleason qualified second for the Macau Guia Race in 2015.

*Ma Qing Hua brings WTCC event-winning pedigree to Macau as the first Chinese driver to win an FIA world championship motor race. He will join Mehdi Bennani, Tom Chilton and John Filippi at Sébastien Loeb Racing in a fourth Citroën C-Elysée WTCC.

*Campos Racing has recruited WTCC newcomers Clerebold Chan Kin-Pong and Po Wah Wong to race its Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1s.

IT AIN’T HEAVY, IT’S A WTCC CITROËN!

The five Citroën C-Elysée WTCCs set to compete in Macau will run at the 1100-kilogram base weight. Designed to equalise car performance in the WTCC, the FIA’s compensation weight system uses a lap time-based calculation made following the previous two events, in this case China and Japan. After running at 40 kilograms in Japan, the French machines will carry zero compensation weight, which could prove advantageous on the challenging Circuito da Guia street track. Meanwhile, the five Honda Civic WTCCs will be 10 kilograms lighter than they were in Japan, going from the maximum 80kgs to 70. However, the three Volvo S60 Polestars driven by title leader Thed Björk and team-mates Nicky Catsburg and Néstor Girolami will be saddled with the full 80 kilograms. The Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1s will continue to carry 10 kilograms, while the LADA Vesta WTCCs will run without added weight.

The full compensation weight listing follows: Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1: 10kg (no change); Citroën C-Elysée WTCC: 0kg (-40kg); Honda Civic WTCC: 70kg (-10kg); LADA Vesta WTCC: 0kg (no change); Volvo S60 Polestar: 80kg (+10kg).

MA ON A MISSION: CHINESE STAR RETURNS TO WTCC IN MACAU

Ma Qing Hua will return to the FIA World Touring Car Championship at WTCC Race of Macau in a Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën. In doing so, he will revive a partnership that netted two victories including what was the first for a Chinese driver in an FIA world championship motor race. After making a winning start to his WTCC career in a Citroën C-Elysée midway through 2014, the 29-year-old tackled the full 2015 season, finishing fourth in the standings and adding a second win on the streets of Vila Real to his debut triumph at the Moscow Raceway the previous year. While he was entered under the Citroën Total WTCC banner, Sébastien Loeb Racing provided full technical support. And despite not having driven a World Touring Car in anger since November 2015, Ma will be raring to go in Macau, the penultimate event of the WTCC season. “I’m very positive about this opportunity and really pleased to come back to this championship,” said the Chinese racer. “I have no downside on street circuits. When I raced in 2015 I won in Vila Real. Macau is a legendary place, an amazing city and I really appreciate the chance to do it again this year. It will take a little while for sure to get back into the rhythm but it should be fine and I still have a strong memory from those cars and I still have the feeling.” Ma will form part of an expanded Sébastien Loeb Racing line-up in Macau that will feature title chasers Mehdi Bennani and Tom Chilton, plus young Frenchman John Filippi. And Ma is braced for the strong competition he will face as one of the most wide-open WTCC seasons for nearly a decade draws to a close on one of the most challenging race tracks in the world. “I have been watching the WTCC races this season and the competition is very close with the Volvo cars and the fact Honda has improved a lot,” said Ma. “We have seen this year the Citroën can still be at the front and I believe in the team. I’ve worked with them before, they’re more experienced with these cars and they always give me good confidence. The WTCC is a championship where you fight to the end and everything can happen in the races. There is no question I would like to do the full championship again.”

THEY SAID WHAT?

Nicky Catsburg (Polestar Cyan Racing): “It was actually quite scary going to Macau for the first time last year even though you’re never really scared as a driver. But Macau is something special, especially Mandarin, the second corner. It’s so fast, maybe a short lift but maybe flat out and really exciting. At Macau you just have to be close to the walls and be comfortable being close to the walls. I don’t feel I really know Macau because we had a lot of red flags last year but maybe I have an advantage over my Polestar Cyan Racing team-mates Thed Björk and Néstor Girolami, who have never been there. I’m not the biggest fan of street circuits but I like the challenge of Macau although it punishes you when you push too much.”

Esteban Guerrieri (Castrol Honda World Touring Car Team): “I raced there in 2007 in Formula 3. Before I went to the Nürburgring Nordschleife this year I always said Macau was the most intense single lap for concentration. The Nürburgring Nordschleife is double that but at Macau you have to go between walls on full power at 100 per cent, you give everything and even more to get the maximum out of the car. I like street courses and Macau is top of the street courses. You never know where is the limit or when you are close to the limit. You don’t realise you’ve gone too much until you hit the wall. In a normal race track you go off the track and you realised you’ve gone too far. At Macau you never realise how hard you are pushing. When I went there in 2007 I was top-five in first qualifying but my second qualifying was not good, P12 or P13 or something. Then I was a victim of Mandarin corner at the start and it was not a good weekend. But I enjoyed it.”

Tom Coronel (ROAL Motorsport): “If you ask a driver what would be the coolest race track on planet earth the Nordschleife and Macau are in big competition. Macau is a circuit where you need to build your confidence and I’m always a bit over-confident. I was leading the Formula 3 race once when I crashed at Mandarin because I was looking in my mirrors. And once you have a little scratch your confidence is cracked. This is why I tell the young guys to build up your speed and get in the flow of Macau, which is like Monaco with the glamour, the casinos and all the impressive hotels. It’s special vibe but it’s not a holiday because you’re at work although you need a little party on the Sunday night because after stress you need relaxation and Macau is one of those stressful places. I was very happy when Macau was back on the calendar because it belongs to the WTCC and I’ve always been quick there. The hardest corner for me has always been Mandarin because you are always holding your breath. I did it twice flat with a WTCC car, one time it worked out with new tyres and the second time I tried it I crashed my car. But it was flat. You have the posts on the left side and the car starts to move, always once, twice, you turn in but the wobble is a little bit different and if you’re not on the right moment you just miss the apex and you have a big shunt. It’s one of those big corners that makes it cool for a race car driver but also the most challenging.”

Rob Huff (ALL-INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport): “I’m massively excited to be going back, probably much more than anyone else. Macau has always been a magical place for me from the first moment I went there. I’ve always been quick and confident there but I don’t know the answer why. It’s always been a place that’s clicked with me. To have eight victories is something special and I want to build on that. I went there for the first time with no apprehension, no idea really. I hadn’t really heard of the place if I’m honest. The first year my good friend [and fellow WTCC racer] Tom Coronel helped me out. He’d been there many times before and we spent two hours from 2am on the Monday and Tuesday before the race going around in a taxi. Although you can’t do a full lap of Macau in a taxi it was a big help. For whatever reason we’ve got the lap record in a Lada Granta but don’t ask me how. We were quicker than José María López in a Citroën C-Elysée and no one could touch him in 2014. Okay, I got lucky because Tiago [Monteiro] lost the powersteering when he was leading, but I beat Yvan Muller in another Citroën and he was behind me the whole time. At Macau you don’t get away with any mistakes. There are circuits that are as challenging but there aren’t any that are as unforgiving as Macau. There is no room for error. Those who push the boundaries on every corner can get rewarded but it can also be a disaster. There’s no such thing as a small amount of damage at Macau.”

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