WTCC title battles too close to call as Japan prepares for a perfect 10

Honda on top by five points, Björk holds half-point driver lead

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By Olivier Ferret

22 October 2017 - 14:01
WTCC title battles too close to (...)

Nine years since the FIA World Touring Car Championship made its first visit to Japan, the thrilling wide-open race for the 2017 title continues on Japanese asphalt next week (27-29 October) when Twin Ring Motegi north of Tokyo hosts the action.

With 14 races run, Volvo Polestar’s Thed Björk heads to enemy territory in front of factory Honda drivers Tiago Monteiro and Norbert Michelisz. But with a slender half-point advantage over Monteiro and a two-point gap on Michelisz, the Swede won’t be taking his foot off the throttle at the Japanese firm’s home track, where Michelisz and Monteiro won in 2015 and 2016 respectively.

After missing out in China on the advice of doctors following a testing accident in Spain last month, Monteiro’s participation at WTCC JVCKENWOOD Race of Japan remains subject to medical clearance with an update from the Castrol Honda World Touring Car Team expected next week.

It’s not just the Drivers’ title battle that remains finely balanced with three race weekends of the season remaining. There’s five points between leader Honda and Volvo Polestar in the FIA World Touring Car Championship for Manufacturers, while seven points blanket the top four in the WTCC Trophy for independent racers with Tom Chilton leading Rob Huff, Mehdi Bennani and Esteban Guerrieri, who claimed his second outright victory last time out in China.

New to the WTCC schedule for 2015, Twin Ring Motegi’s long straights and lengthy braking zones promote passing in abundance, as 2012 world champion Huff can testify. After making up three positions in the first race two years ago, Huff gained 10 places in the second counter to climb from P13 to the final step of the podium.

And Huff isn’t alone in pulling off multiple overtakes on the 4.801-kilometre layout. Monteiro made up eight places in race one in 2015 with Tom Coronel and Stefano D’Aste also moving up the same number of positions in the second race. Coronel climbed five places in the Main Race in 2016, while José María López charged through from P10 to fourth in the Opening Race in his efforts to put his third world title beyond doubt.

WEEKEND HIGHLIGHTS

*Néstor Girolami returns to the scene of his debut for Volvo Polestar fired up by his maiden WTCC victory in China recently. However, with his success achieved behind the safety car, the Argentine will be gunning to win for real at Twin Ring Motegi.

*WTCC Race of Japan marks the completion of a busy period of FIA events in the country. Starting with Rally Hokkaido, a round of the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship in mid-September, the FIA Mobility Conference took place in Tokyo from 25-29 September. Suzuka hosted the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix from 6-8 October, which was followed one week later by the FIA World Endurance Championship-counting Fuji 6 Hours.

LATEST DRIVER NEWS

*Japan’s only full-time WTCC driver, Ryo Michigami, scored a career-best ninth in the Opening Race in China and then repeated the feat in the Main Race.

*John Filippi (sixth), Kevin Gleason (seventh), Dániel Nagy (eighth) and Main Race winner Néstor Girolami all celebrated personal-best finishes at the all-new Ningbo International Speedpark.

*Sweden’s Thed Björk leads the FIA World Touring Car Championship for Drivers for the first time, while Briton Tom Chilton moves from joint leader to outright pacesetter in the WTCC Trophy following the visit to China.

*Filipe De Souza completes his two-event WTCC bid in a third RC Motorsport entry and arrives in Japan on the back of scoring his first world championship point after 21 attempts.

*WTCC Race of Japan is something of a home event for Tom Coronel. The Dutchman lived in Japan for five years, winning the county’s Formula 3 and Formula Nippon titles. Indeed, he wrapped up the former at Twin Ring Motegi 20 years ago.

*Zsolt Dávid Szabó continued his WTCC transition in China following his category debut at the previous event in Argentina. He partners Dániel Nagy at leading privateer outfit Zengő Motorsport.

*Yann Ehrlacher was a WTCC podium visitor for the second time in China, the 21-year-old Frenchman trailing winner Esteban Guerrieri in the Opening Race, having led initially.

*Ehrlacher is the nephew of four-time WTCC champion Yvan Muller, who claimed a record-extending and final career win number 48 at Twin Ring Motegi last season.

*While an Opening Race podium in China put Nicky Catsburg back into title contention, two non-scores hit Mehdi Bennani’s hopes. The Sébastien Loeb Racing driver will look to hit back in Japan.

WTCC HONDAS WILL BE HEAVY AT HOME

Honda’s Civic WTCC will continue to carry the maximum 80 kilograms of compensation weight at WTCC JVCKENWOOD Race of Japan. 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 Argentina and China. As in China, Honda’s rival for the FIA World Touring Car Championship for Manufacturers, Polestar Cyan Racing, will benefit from its fleet of Volvo S60s running 10 kilograms lighter than the Civics. The four Citroën C-Elysée WTCCs racing in Japan will carry 40 kilograms, 10 less than in China, while the Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1s are 10 kilograms heavier. The LADA Vesta WTCCs will carry zero compensation weight. The full compensation weight listing follows:

Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1: 10kg (+10kg from previous race)
Citroën C-Elysée WTCC: 40kg (-10kg)
Honda Civic WTCC: 80kg (no change)
LADA Vesta WTCC: 0kg (no change)
Volvo S60 Polestar: 70kg (no change)

THEY SAID WHAT?

Thed Björk (Polestar Cyan Racing): “It feels good to be coming back to Japan. It’s a really nice atmosphere and I am happy to race here because it’s a good place to have a race. I’m thinking about the points all the time but I’m not throwing everything in for a race win because I have to think about the complete package and that means getting as many points for the championship as possible. I’m just really happy to be involved in a title fight and I hope it will be like this for the rest of the year. We’ve seen it’s not easy to win this year like it was for José María López before. It’s much closer now and that makes it interesting. I feel like we are closer in the battle and that will continue to the rest of the season. I am just a little ahead but it doesn’t matter.”

Ryo Michigami (Honda Racing Team JAS): “I’ve been racing at Twin Ring Motegi for more than 15 years – and, of course, it’s very special for Honda because they own the circuit. I like the place too; it’s not too far from Tokyo and the facilities here are very good for fans and for whenever I’ve been here testing or racing. The key factor with the road course at Motegi is braking. There are lots of long straights with slow corners, so you have to be very careful with managing your brakes and making sure they can last a full race distance. If we have a hot race day like last year, this could be a very important factor in deciding who wins.”

Tom Coronel (ROAL Motorsport): “I lived in Japan for five years so it’s a kind of coming back home for me. I was the Formula 3 champion, winning my title at Twin Ring Motegi, the Formula Nippon champion and in GT I won two times the All-Star race and was the only Honda driver who won in 2003 at Motegi. It’s the best circuit we have for overtaking and I know we will put on a good show. I always feel power from coming to Japan and it’s easy when you have the same passion from the fans. It’s always nice to come back here, there’s a good atmosphere and the racing world is quite big. Also it’s really where I started my international career as a professional driver so I’m happy to be back always. I’m not expecting to win, I see myself as making other drivers and I pick up the scraps. Of course I will do everything I can for a good result.”

WHAT HAPPENED IN 2016?

Norbert Michelisz headed a Honda 1-2-3 on home soil as José María López became provisional FIA World Touring Car champion for 2016 following two action-packed races. After finishing a battling fourth in the Opening Race, the Argentine was leading the Main Race comfortably from the DHL pole position when he slowed to let Citroën team-mate Yvan Muller take what was the four-time world champion’s first victory of 2016. However, second place was enough to put López’s third WTCC title beyond doubt. Elsewhere, Sébastien Loeb Racing drivers Tom Chilton and Mehdi Bennani shared the WTCC Trophy honours, while Citroën closed in on a third makes’ crown. Rob Huff and Tiago Monteiro completed the Opening Race podium for Honda, with Monteiro third behind Muller and López in the Main Race. Néstor Girolami marked his return to WTCC action with fifth for Polestar Cyan Racing in the Main Race, as Nicky Catsburg and Gabriele Tarquini scored for LADA. López claimed the TAG Heuer Best Lap Trophy.

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