The 2011 World Touring Car Championship season gets underway at Curitiba in Brazil this weekend (20th March). Here is The Checkered Flag's comprehensive season preview.
The championship sees a wide range of changes for the 2011 season. The biggest of these is perhaps the introduction of the 1.6 litre turbo engine. The FIA's global engine has also been adopted by the World Rally Championship this year, and should encourage manufacturers to compete in both series. Despite a reduction in engine size from the outgoing 2.0 litre normally aspirated unit, the turbocharger allows for an increase of around 30 bhp to 320 bhp. This will make it more competitive against those teams running the older unit, but reliability could be a problem in the early races.
Following SEAT's departure prior to the 2010 season, BMW have become the latest manufacturer to withdraw its factory team, ahead of its return to the DTM series for 2012. Despite this, the German marque will continue to support its customer entries, and BMW Motorsport has developed a new 1.6 litre turbo engine for them to use. Chevrolet have been testing their similar unit for several months now, while the SUNRED SEATs will remain powered by the turbo diesel engine until they introduce their 1.6 engine later in the season. There is some good news on the manufacturer front through, as Volvo supports Polestar Racing's first full season entry.
On the calendar front the series visits the key market of mainland China for the first time with a round at the Guangdong International Circuit. The British round moves from Brands Hatch to Donington Park, while the Japanese race visits Suzuka rather than Okayama. The Marrakech event has been cancelled, with a replacement event in Central Europe set for the same weekend in June.
Another change will be the way that the grid for the second race of the weekend is decided. No longer will the top eight finishers from the first race be reversed for the start of the second race. Instead, the top ten from the first qualifying session (Q1) will be reversed.
Chevrolet (RML) – Chevrolet Cruze 1.6T
Having taken its first titles last year, Chevrolet is now the only true works team in the WTCC. The team has worked hard on the development of the new 1.6 litre turbo engine, which could make its Cruze even harder to match.
1. Yvan Muller
The Frenchman regained the world title in his first year with Chevrolet, so will be hard to beat this year. The lack of a factory rival for the team means the main competition will come from within his own team.
2. Rob Huff
Suffered a mixed year last year, but ended well to finish joint runner-up with Tarquini. This year he will probably provide the main competition for teammate Muller, so his simple aim will be to beat him and claim the title.
6. Carlos ‘Caca’ Bueno
Multiple Brazilian Stock Car champion Bueno will drive for the team at selected events, starting with his home race at Curitiba. Known to be looking towards a full-time WTCC switch in the near future, his debut with the team at Brands Hatch last year went up in flames, literally.
8. Alain Menu
Menu lacked the pace or consistency of teammates Muller and Huff last year, and may suffer with the same problem this year. Races with the no.8 as part of Chevrolet's centenary celebrations, as it was the lucky number of fellow Swiss and company founder Louis Chevrolet.
SUNRED – SEAT Leon TDI
Spanish squad took over running of diesel SEAT's after the manufacturer's departure last year. They will once again run six cars under three different banners, with a mix of former factory SEAT peddlers, second year drivers and rookies. Will switch to a 1.6 litre turbo later in the season, but the exact performance gap between that and the existing TDI is unknown.
3. Gabriele Tarquini
2009 champion didn't quite have the legs to retain his title last year. Again, this year will be a tough challenge, with much depending on the respective engines. The 48-year-old said he is looking towards a factory return for 2012.
4. Aleksei Dudukalo
Rookie brings the sponsorship from Russian oil company Lukoil that has paid for Tarquini's campaign. Steps up from the SEAT Leon Eurocup, where he enjoyed moderate success with one race win last year.
SEAT Swiss Racing by SUNRED:
7. Fredy Barth
Barth was impressive upon his debut last year, though results did tail off towards the end of the year. Will hope to be closer to benchmark SEAT driver Tarquini now he has gained more experience of the top flight.
17. Michel Nykjaer
Former Danish and European Cup champ endured a bit of a tough time last year, dropping out of race winning positions thanks to a puncture at Monza and running out of talent, and road, in the Okayama rain. Like Barth, will hope to progress up the grid in second season.
18. Tiago Monteiro
Last year was possibly the Portuguese driver's best year in the WTCC since switching from F1, despite the lack of factory backing. The loss of the BMWs will allow him to move up into the top four this year, behind the leading trio of Muller, Huff and Tarquini.
74: Pepe Oriola
16-year-old wonderkid finished third in the SEAT Leon Eurocup last year in his first full season of car racing. Certainly a big step up, but has time on his side and can very much treat 2011 as a learning year. He could spring a surprise along the way, though.
Zengo-Dension Team – BMW 320 TC
Hungarian team makes the switch from SEAT to BMW this year. Former champion team RBM are assisting with the preparation of the car, which will be powered by the new 1.6 litre turbo. Will miss the opening race in Brazil to test the car prior to debut at Zolder.
5. Norbert Michelisz
Michelisz was impressive in his first full season last year, winning the rookie challenge and taking an overall win at Macau. Will look to add to that tally this year, but will first have to overcome the challenge of adapting to rear-wheel-drive.
Bamboo-engineering – Chevrolet Lacetti
British team was impressive in its rookie WTCC season last year, challenging the established indie teams. Ageing Lacettis will be replaced by Cruze models powered by the new 1.6 litre turbo at Zolder, with the Lacettis being used by the team's BTCC program.
9. Darryl O'Young
The Canadian-born Hong Kong driver was another to impress as a rookie last year, adapting well to the switch from Porsches to touring cars. Early switch to the Cruze will allow him to fight for Trophy honours once again.
10. Yukinori Taniguchi
Japanese computer game developer joined the team at Oschersleben last year to replace the underfunded Harry Vaulkhard. He impressed, particularly at his home race at Okayama, to remain with the team for a first full season in the series.
Liqui Moly Team Engstler – BMW 320 TC
German BMW squad continues with the aim of taking a first independents' title. In recent years Franz Engstler has not managed to find a competitive driver to be his teammate, but the returning Kristian Poulsen performed well for his own team last year.
11. Kristian Poulsen
Danish truck sales manager raced for Engstler in 2009 lacking pace, but showed considerable improvement last year racing for his own private team taking several Trophy wins on his way to third in the class standings, despite missing the opening two rounds.
12. Franz Engstler
Struggled with a slow start this year, but got better results as the year went on to finish second in the indies' classification. Will hope to go one better this year, and should benefit from reduced competition in the BMW ranks.
ROAL Motorsport – BMW 320 TC
Roberto Ravaglia's team returns to the WTCC, having ran the BMW Italy-Spain squad until the end of 2009. Ability to fight for race wins will depend on the competitiveness of the BMW with its new turbo engine up against the Chevrolet.
15. Tom Coronel
The Dutchman lines up for a WTCC season for the first time behind the wheel of something other than a SEAT. Previously raced a BMW back in the ETCC years, and already enjoying working with Ravaglia. Not eligible to compete for a third Yokohama Trophy.
Proteam Racing – BMW 320 TC/BMW 320si
Italian squad has been the leading privateer BMW team in recent years, but both former Indie champions Sergio Hernandez and Stefano D'Aste have departed. An unproven driver lineup could mean they lose out to Team Engstler here.
20. Javier Villa
Former GP2 racewinner follows in the footsteps of fellow Spaniards Felix Porteiro and Sergio Hernandez by switching to the WTCC to race a BMW. 2011 will be a learning year for him in this discipline, although he did race in the Mini Challenge last year.
21. Fabio Fabiani
Former biker has raced for Proteam on selected occasions, but now commits to a full programme, behind the wheel of an older-spec BMW 320si. The lack of the turbo engine will probably prohibit him from mixing it with his teammates.
25. Mehdi Bennani
Moroccan switches from Wiechers to Proteam for his second year in a BMW. Was quick at times last year, but will need to be more consistent to challenge for honours. He has now lost his home race, which enabled him to enter the series in the first place.
Polestar Racing – Volvo C30
After making numerous occasional appearances throughout recent years, the Swedish outfit commits to a full season entry for the first time, albeit with just one car. Volvo is supporting the team as an evaluation for a full manufacturer entry for 2012.
30. Robert Dahlgren
Has been successful with the Polestar Volvo in Scandinavia, and will hope to translate this into results on the world stage. Top ten results in Okayama last year proved how competitive he could be this season.
Wiechers-Sport – BMW 320 TC
Like Zengo/Michelisz, will miss Curitiba to allow for testing of the car with its new 1.6 litre engine. Sonderegger only in until Oschersleben – expect partnership with Japanese brakes company Endless to allow an Asian driver to complete the season with the team, just like in previous years.
35. Urs Sonderegger
46-year-old Swiss businessman started racing in 2007, and has mainly driven in the SEAT one-make cups. Has a lot to learn at this level, and will represent a step down in calibre for the Wiechers team.
DeTeam KK Motorsport – BMW 320 TC
Hong Kong team enters the WTCC for the first time with a BMW powered by the 1.6 litre engine. Team tasted success by winning the GTC at the 1000 km of Zhuhai last year with an Audi R8. Will be supported by Team Engstler, with Kurt Treml as Team Manager.
65. Marchy Lee
Follows in the footsteps of fellow Hong Kong driver Darryl O'Young in entering the WTCC for a full season. Former Formula BMW Asia champion finished second in the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia last year.
Stick with The Checkered Flag throughout 2011 for the latest news and results from the World Touring Car Championship.