There were many reasons why Chevrolet began 2010 as the favourites in the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC). Having spent 2009 getting to grips with the new Cruze model, the RML-run cars were always going to be a better package in 2010. The team had recruited 2008 champion Yvan Muller to improve their driver lineup. They also appeared to have reduced competition for 2010, with SEAT having withdrawn as a factory effort and BMW's attack being reduced to just two cars.
In Race One at Curitiba in Brazil, they converted this favourites tag into results, with new signing Muller leading home teammates Rob Huff and Alain Menu for a Chevrolet 1-2-3. And all this on a track that they had struggled miserably on 12 months ago.
Despite no longer having a 'factory team', the SEAT challenge still looked strong. A four car team was put together under the SR-Sport banner (run by SUNRED), to allow reigning champion Gabriele Tarquini to defend his title, joined by fellow works-refugees Tiago Monteiro and Jordi Gene. Completing the team was Tom Coronel, who would finally get to show his credentials in a diesel SEAT after his success in the Independent's Trophy. Add to this Leon TDIs for rookies Michel Nykjaer, Fredy Barth and Norbert Michelisz and SEAT had as strong a presence on the grid as before.
The SR-Sport quartet proved to be competitive from the start, with Tarquini taking the honours in the second race in Brazil, ahead of Gene. The remaining BMW pairing of Andy Priaulx and Augusto Farfus were off the pace, with a fifth for Priaulx and a pair of sixths for Farfus all they had to show.
There was speculation during the Brazilian weekend that the next race in Puebla, Mexico, would not happen. It was soon announced that the round had been cancelled due to security fears in the region. With no time to get a replacement event organised, the championship moved onto the streets of Marrakech, Morocco in May.
The first race needed three attempts to get underway, with race directors unhappy with the way the drivers were lining up for the rolling start. Tarquini had led the race from its eventual start when the safety car was deployed following a shunt for Russian Andrei Romanov. The local marshals struggled to remove the stricken BMW from the circuit, meaning the race finished under the safety car. Huff finished behind winner Tarquini, with Monteiro third.
The second race had an equally disrupted start, as front-row starter Michelisz stalled. Huff was spun into the wall by Barth, with the Bamboo Chevrolets of Darryl O'Young and Harry Vaulkhard coming together as they attempted to avoid the carnage. This inevitably brought the safety car out, which did not return to the pits until lap seven. Menu and Farfus came together on the restart, which brought the safety car out again. The field was released with just one lap to go, with polesitter Priaulx holding on under pressure from Muller to win, with Coronel third.
The struggles to recover stricken cars quickly enough in Marrakech meant that the teams began the European season at Monza having endured many fewer racing laps than they had expected when their cars boarded the ship to Curitiba back in February.
The first race at Monza would end in dramatic style. Tarquini was leading on the last lap, but suffered a puncture towards the end of the lap. Huff moved out and passed him at the Ascari chicane, but also suffered a puncture, his tyre exploding on the run down to Parabolica. The BMWs of Priaulx and Farfus were fast approaching, but could not overtake at Parabolica due to yellow flags for the Chevrolet of one-off driver Leonel Pernia, who found the gravel on the penultimate lap. Priaulx and Farfus were able to get past under green flags at the run for the line, Huff holding onto third and Tarquini dropping to seventh.
Tarquini got himself into the lead of Race Two early on, but was given a drive-through penalty for jumping the start. This handed the opportunity to Nykjaer to take his first victory – but he too was denied by a puncture on the final lap. This allowed Muller to take his second win of the season and with it the championship lead.
The WTCC made its first visit to Zolder in June, its first round in Belgium since it went to Spa in 2005. Gene took the checkered flag at the end of Race One, but was later disqualified for a technical infringement, handing teammate Tarquini the victory ahead of Muller and Menu.
In Race Two, Priaulx converted his reverse grid pole position into a victory – a tactic he would continue to deploy for the rest of the season, with his BMW lacking the qualifying pace to challenge for Race One wins.
It was another unfamiliar circuit for the drivers next up, with Portimao playing host to the Race of Portugal for the first time. Colin Turkington joined the championship, turning a wheel in anger for the first time since winning the 2009 British Touring Car title, a lack of funds having limited his activities in 2010. It was local hero Monteiro who took a popular victory in the first race, having started on pole position.
The reverse grid system gave rookie SEAT drivers Barth and Michelisz an opportunity in Race Two, but Barth blew his at the start by making a terrible getaway. Michelisz lost the lead to Menu on lap four, who was then passed by Tarquini. Muller found a way past Menu to finish second behind Tarquini, with the title race now looking increasingly like a two way battle between the pair.
Next stop, Brands Hatch, where Chevrolet locked out the front three positions in qualifying. Muller took a comfortable win from Huff, the pair joined on the podium by Turkington. Having been passed by Turkington on the penultimate lap, Menu dropped back to gain a good starting posiiton for Race Two, a move that would later land him in hot water with the stewards.
Farfus made a strong start to take the lead from the second row in Race Two, but was passed at Druids by Priaulx on lap three. Menu attempted to follow Priaulx into second, but made contact with Farfus. This allowed Turkington to jump into second and help to record a British 1-2.
The WTCC made its annual trip to Brno in the Czech Republic for round seven. Huff converted pole into a victory in Race One, leading home Tarquini and Menu. Muller was taken out of the running when he got caught up in a clash between Turkington and Michelisz, the Frenchman's first result outside of the top six all season.
Turkington made a good start to Race Two to initially take the lead, though was passed by Priaulx on the second lap. Priaulx took a comfortable win, BMW's 50th in the WTCC, while Turkington held off pressure from several drivers behind to finish second – his third podium in four races. Tarquini was forced to retire with injection problems, while title rival Muller was unable to get into the points following his Race One retirement.
The championship moved onto Oschersleben in September after a summer break. Menu took his first, and what would be only, win of the season in Race One, but only after teammate Huff was black-flagged from the lead in controversial circumstances. Huff had taken the lead at Turn 1 after light contact with Farfus as the field tried to squeeze themselves around the tight first corner at the German circuit. Huff was handed a drive-through, which became a black flag after refusing to come into the pits. Farfus and Muller completed the podium behind winner Menu, while Tarquini retired with damage from the first corner battle.
In Race Two Priaulx took his third reverse grid win in a row, his sixth victory in total for the season. Farfus finished second to make it a BMW 1-2 on home soil with Muller completing the podium. Tarquini's poor weekend dropped him to third in the standings, now behind Priaulx, who was 11 points behind Muller heading to the final European destination – Valencia.
SEAT appeared to have the best package at their home race – Tarquini taking pole position and then converting this to a victory in Race One. The Chevrolets of Muller and Huff completed the podium, Muller ensuring that Tarquini did not gain too much of an advantage over him in the title race.
Monteiro gave SEAT a double victory at home by winning Race Two. Muller and Tarquini fought their way up from the fourth row of the grid to finish in second and third, Priaulx finishing fourth. As the cars began their journey by sea to Japan Muller had extended his lead over Priaulx to 25 points, with Tarquini just four points behind. Little did they know that the intra-make rivalry was about to kick-off.
BMW Team RBM took the decision to switch to a sequential gearbox in their two cars for the Okayama weekend, benefitting from a lower level of success ballast due to the fact that BMWs with a sequential gearbox were considered different cars for the purposes of calculating ballast, and that Andrei Romanov had used one, with permission from the other teams, since the beginning of the season. BMW promptly went and locked out the front row in qualifying, something that made Chevrolet very unhappy, protesting against the decision of the stewards to allow the BMWs to use the different gearbox.
The weekend's races went ahead as normal with no changes made. Chevrolet benefited from the traditionally wet conditions, with Huff winning in Race One. Priaulx held onto second, with Muller settling for third.
In an equally soaking Race Two, Priaulx's title chances were hit when he spun out into the gravel. Nykjaer was on course to take his maiden victory after leading from pole, but he ran wide through the gravel, gifting Tarquini the lead. The Italian soon lost it though, himself running wide and into the barriers and into retirement. Farfus stayed out of trouble to win, leading home a returning Turkington, with Muller in third.
The results remained provisional pending the outcome of Chevrolet's appeal, the result of which was finally confirmed in the week running up to the finale in Macau. The International Court of Appeal disqualified the two BMWs of Priaulx and Farfus from the Okayama results, overturning the stewards' decision to allow them to use the sequential gearboxes. This gave Muller an unassailable lead in the drivers' standings, while Turkington inherited his first WTCC victory for Race Two.
And so the WTCC arrived in Macau, with the title no longer up for grabs around the twisty streets of the former Portuguese colony for the first time in its history. The usual Friday qualifying session was split into two due to red flag delays and fading light, Huff coming out on top in Saturday morning's Q2 session to secure pole. The Briton took a comfortable win in Race One, ahead of Muller and Monteiro – another 1-2 for the American marque enough to seal them their first Manufacturers' title.
The final race of the season was a traditionally chaotic affair for Macau, with an opening lap pileup bringing out the red flags. It was Michelisz, who had earlier in the day wrapped up the first ever Rookie Challenge, who eventually triumphed to take a well-deserved maiden victory in the WTCC, also the first for the small Hungarian Zengo team who had made the step up to the big time with Michelisz at the beginning of the season.
TCF’s Top Five Drivers of the 2010 WTCC season:
- Yvan Muller – The Frenchman made the switch from SEAT to Chevrolet seamlessly, winning the first race and continuing from there. May not have won as many races as Priaulx or Tarquini, but was consistently near the front, including seven consecutive podium finishes in the title run-in as his rivals faltered.
- Andy Priaulx – The ageing BMW was no match for the relatively-new Chevrolet or the diesel SEAT, yet Priaulx still managed an unmatched six victories. The triple champion will be missed if, as assumed, he does not return following BMW’s defection to the DTM.
- Rob Huff – Did not quite manage to match teammate Muller during the year, but also suffered some bad luck at points. Strong end to the season allowed him to tie with Tarquini for second in the standings.
- Gabriele Tarquini – To remain in the title fight for as long as he did without a full factory team around him shows the Italian’s strength, with little to no development and testing on the car all year. Has hinted he may not return next year.
- Norbert Michelisz – His speed was impressive, considering he was a rookie who’s only racing up until a few years ago had been virtually, also coming from a country with no touring car heritage to speak of. A star of the future.