There have been a number of exciting changes up and down the grid ahead of the coming season of the World Touring Car Championship, as well as a shake up on the calendar front. But will the title race boil down to anything other than another epic battle between Chevrolet teammates Yvan Muller and Rob Huff?
There will be Fords on the WTCC grid for the first time since 2005, with Team Aon switching from the British series and hoping to go somewhat better than the German Hotfiel operation did in the first season of the revived WTCC seven years ago.
SEAT return their official presence to the grid, supporting two new teams and developing their own turbocharged engine, ahead of a likely full return from 2013. Joining them in committing to the series are Honda and Lada, who will both make selected appearances this season in preparation for a full-time presence in the near future.
Unfortunately one manufacturer who won't be present this season are Volvo, who have decided not to commit full-time to the WTCC. This despite showing the kind of promise with their sole entry last year that could have seen them taking the fight to Chevrolet for the title given a proper assault.
There has been a complete reshuffle on the calendar front, with the main addition being a round in the United States for the first time at Sonoma. The season kicks off at Monza for the first time since 2006, and is the first in a string of seven races until early June. This is essentially the European leg of the season, albeit with the returning trip to Marrakech in Africa as round three. Races in Slovakia and Austria come in, with the German and British rounds missing out. The Shanghai International Circuit replaces the nearby Tianma Circuit as the host of the Chinese round, while there's a return to Estoril for the Portuguese races.
Calendar in full:
Rounds 1 & 2: 11 March – Race of Italy – Monza
Rounds 3 & 4: 1 April – Race of Spain – Valencia (Ricardo Tormo)
Rounds 5 & 6: 15 April – Race of Morocco – Marrakech
Rounds 7 & 8: 29 April – Race of Slovakia – Slovakiaring
Rounds 9 & 10: 6 May – Race of Hungary – Hungaroring
Rounds 11 & 12: 20 May – Race of Austria – Salzburgring
Rounds 13 & 14: 3 June – Race of Portugal – Estoril
Rounds 15 & 16: 22 July – Race of Brazil – Curitiba
Rounds 17 & 18: 23 September – Race of USA – Sonoma
Rounds 19 & 20: 21 October – Race of Japan – Suzuka
Rounds 21 & 22: 4 November – Race of China – Shanghai
Rounds 23 & 24: 18 November – Race of Macau – Macau
Let's take a look at the runners and riders:
Chevrolet – Chevrolet Cruze 1.6T
Another year without a serious factory rival just points towards another walk in the park for the RML-run squad. But then again this is motor racing – nothing is ever certain. They've gone for their usual tactic of consistency on the driver front, with the same trio of drivers as in the previous two years. Huff and Menu have been with the team since day one back in 2005.
1. Yvan Muller (FRA)
With back-to-back titles, Muller can rightfully claim to be the best touring car driver in the world at the moment. He didn't have it all his own way last year thanks to an off-colour first half to the year, but he managed to recover to steal the title. He can't guarantee being as fortunate again this time, so he'll want to make sure he hits the ground running early on.
2. Rob Huff (GBR)
Last year was probably supposed to be Huff's year, and at the halfway stage he looked in pole position with a seemingly healthy points lead over Muller. He would let it slip away though, and he'll be keen to take revenge this year.
8. Alain Menu (SUI)
Menu was a match for his two teammates on several occasions last year, but didn't have the consistency to go with it. Once again it's hard to see him taking the fight to Muller and Huff in the title battle, but he'll continue to aim for personal glory from race-to-race.
Lukoil Racing Team – SEAT Leon WTCC
Russian oil firm Lukoil got involved in the WTCC for the first time last year, but this year have split from Sunred and will instead be running their two Leons together with SEAT Sport. A factory-developed engine should help, but the ageing Leon chassis is no longer the match for its Chevrolet counterpart that it used to be.
3. Gabriele Tarquini (ITA)
Tarquini turned 50 last week, but he keeps on coming back for me. And he's still able to compete at the top of his game, as he proved with victory at Zolder last year in the turbodiesel SEAT. The unreliability of the Sunred turbo engine let him down after that, but he'll hope the new SEAT Sport-developed unit will solve those issues.
4. Aleksei Dudukalo (RUS)
Last year was very much a learning one for Dudukalo, so he'll hope to be more competitive this time around. Having better machinery underneath him should help there, as should having Tarquini as a mentor and having plenty of pre-season mileage. Who else better than Gabriele to turn you into a top touring car driver?
Zengo Motorsport – BMW 320 TC
The small Hungarian outfit enters its third season in the WTCC, its second with BMW. Yokohama Trophy honours will again be the main aim, something that should be easier to achieve this year given they won't miss the opening round again. Have the added challenge of expanding to a two car outfit.
5. Norbert Michelisz (HUN)
Former gamer Michelisz continues to show his potential in the WTCC. A consistent pointscorer again last year, it was adapting to the rear-wheel drive BMW that probably restricted him to just one podium. With a year in the car behind him and the addition of a teammate, he'll hope to trouble the leaders more regularly this year.
27. Gabor Weber (HUN)
Weber succeeded his compatriot Michliesz as SEAT Leon Eurocup champion in 2010, and is now rewarded with a chance to race in the WTCC. Whether he can match his teammate remains to be seen, but he'll certainly hope to be in the mix with the other independent BMW drivers.
Liqui Moly Team Engstler – BMW 320 TC
The German outfit certainly enjoyed their most successful WTCC season to date last year, with team boss Franz winning outright for the first time on home soil at Oschersleben and Kristian Poulsen winning the Independents' title in another Engstler-entered car. Poulsen has moved on, but the team will aim for an equally good campaign.
6. Franz Engstler (GER)
The Oschersleben win was obviously the highlight of his WTCC career to date, but the Yokohama Trophy continues to elude him. And with the Danish duo of Poulsen and Nykjaer who finished ahead of him last year both absent this season, that absolutely has to be the 50-year-old's aim.
7. Charles Kaki Ng (HKG)
Following their success in Asia in earlier years, Engstler have been working towards getting a driver from the continent into a full-time seat. They've now found their man, in Charles Ng. A successful drifter and Asian touring car champion in 2010, he contested the last three WTCC rounds last year and scored an overall point at Suzuka.
Chevrolet Motorsport Sweden – Chevrolet Cruze 1.6T
9. Rickard Rydell (SWE)
Scandinavian champions make a one-off entry (for now) on the world stage at Monza. Both team and driver have WTCC experience, the team having run additional cars for the factory team before, including at Monza. With a 2011-spec turbocharged Cruze under him, it will be interesting to see how Rydell stacks up against the factory trio.
bamboo-engineering – Chevrolet Cruze 1.6T
An all-new driver lineup at bamboo this year, and with it a new livery for their Chevrolets. In the grand scheme of things they were probably a bit disappointing last year, but are set for greater support from RML for this campaign. Having two WTCC rookies could harm their progress.
11. Alex MacDowall (GBR)
Refugee of Chevrolet UK's BTCC withdrawal, youngster MacDowall opts to stick with the marque and switch to the world stage. Never got to show his full potential in two years in the BTCC – he'll hope to change that this time around.
12. Pasquale di Sabatino (ITA)
A long time single-seater racer with experience in FR3.5 and Auto GP, Di Sabatino makes the switch to touring cars – no doubt looking for a career beyond the F1 ladder. Obviously it's difficult to judge how good he'll be – but he did win a race in FR3.5, albeit only in his fourth year of trying.
Team Aon – Ford Focus S2000 TC
Arena Motorsport-run squad makes the step from the British championship, despite never having quite found the success there that they would have wanted. Saying that, they spent two of their three seasons developing a new car, but this year they aren't starting entirely from scratch, and seem to have been doing plenty of testing. Nash eligible for the Yokohama Trophy, but Chilton isn't.
14. James Nash (GBR)
Reigning BTCC Independents' champion follows Team Aon in making the switch to the global stage, an environment he'll actually be a little familiar with having contested the SEAT Eurocup support series in 2008 (which gave him track knowledge of Monza, Valencia and Estoril). Still relatively early in his touring car career, but he's already shown plenty of potential.
23. Tom Chilton (GBR)
It's now 10 years on since Chilton made his BTCC debut, but other than the indie title in 2010 the series never really delivered anything for him. He'll be relishing the challenge of the WTCC, but he certainly won't find success instantly as it will almost certainly take time for the car to become truly competitive.
ROAL Motorsport – BMW 320 TC
After their one-car return to the WTCC last year, Roberto Ravaglia expands his team back up to two to accommodate Cerqui who shone in Superstars for them last year. With their Superstars programme now over, WTCC is the primary focus for Ravaglia this year.
15. Tom Coronel (NED)
Popular Dutchman was clearly the best of the rest last year, backing that up with victory at Suzuka. This year he wants to stake a claim for third overall in the points at the expense of Menu, but he needs to keep an eye out for the SEATs too. Having a rapid teammate in Cerqui should help him out though.
16. Alberto Cerqui (ITA)
Cerqui was the surprise of the Superstars Series last year, coming into his rookie touring car season from F3 and going onto win the Italian title. He now gets the chance to prove his talent on the world stage with ROAL. Judging by the way he conquered Thomas Biagi last year, Coronel had better watch out. Eligible for indies honours too.
Tuenti Racing Team – SEAT Leon WTCC
A two-car team run by Sunred Engineering under the banner of Tuenti, Spanish social networking website and Pepe Oriola's sponsor. Like Lukoil they get support from SEAT Sport including their new turbocharged engine, something that will delight Monteiro after his reliability woes of last season.
18. Tiago Monteiro (PRT)
Monteiro enjoyed a good start to his season last year but it fell apart when the untried turbo engine was fitted in his SEAT. This time he'll hope those problems have gone, and like Tarquini he'll be looking to take the fight to the Chevrolets wherever possible. Hasn't had the testing mileage that Gabriele has had, though.
74. Pepe Oriola (ESP)
Oriola's debut season last year was a bit of a quiet one, but one that was still impressive given he only turned 17 in July. 2012 gives him a chance to build upon what he learnt last year, as should the SEAT Sport support and no doubt a greater opportunity to learn from Monteiro. Being the best of the proper indie SEATs (i.e. excluding Tarquini and Monteiro) is a realistic aim.
Special Tuning Racing – SEAT Leon WTCC
Small family-run team returns to the WTCC for its first proper campaign (having run Boardman together win Sunred in 2009). It has also gained technical support from SEAT, and has a promising driver pairing. They will no doubt have their fellow Brits over at bamboo as a benchmark.
20. Darryl O'Young (HKG)
After two years with bamboo, O'Young makes a rather surprise switch to WTCC newcomers Special Tuning. It's doubtful that a factory-supported SEAT Leon will be better than a factory-supported Chevrolet this year, but it might when SEAT increase their commitment next year, as expected. It has also been pointed out that he races VAG brands elsewhere.
22. Tom Boardman (GBR)
Boardman returns for another crack at the WTCC, having become an outright race-winner in the BTCC last year. A repeat of such heroics is unlikely just yet, but he should be in a stronger position with SEAT support. Will hope to mix it with the Yokohama Trophy mainstays, and give his teammate a run for his money.
Proteam Racing – BMW 320 TC
Talking of independent mainstays, Proteam have been ever-present frontrunners in the category since day one, and remain committed for now despite murmurings otherwise in recent times. However, whether any of their drivers for this season can challenge for the Trophy is a major doubt, with Javier Villa forced to miss out for now due to sponsorship delays.
24. Isaac Tutumlu (ESP)
Tutumlu has experience of more powerful cars than his new WTCC BMW, having raced in the Porsche Supercup and the Superstars Series. But whether he has the ability to mix it at this level is something that we'll find out during the opening races.
25. Mehdi Bennani (MAR)
Bennani is embarking on his third full season in the WTCC, and his third in a BMW. He now needs to demonstrate that he can be a frontrunner in the Yokohama Trophy, something he hinted at with his performances at the back end of last year. Such improvement is possible – proven by Kristian Poulsen last year.
Wiechers-Sport – BMW 320 TC
26. Stefano D'Aste (ITA)
This year D'Aste is back on the grid from the beginning of the year, having last year not made an appearance until the middle of the season. Will that extra preparedness allow him to take on the likes of Engstler for Yokohama Trophy honours? We'll see. Nobody in the category knows the WTCC like him though.
SUNRED Engineering – SEAT Leon WTCC
Never content with just running one or two cars, SUNRED will enter a pair of SEATs under their own name in addition to looking after the Tuenti cars of Monteiro and Oriola. It will very much be a learning year for both their touring-car-novice drivers though.
40. Andrea Barlesi (BEL)
20-year-old Belgian-Italian from Paris, who won the LMPC category of the Le Mans Series in his first season of sportscars in 2010. He's now left that behind to make a career in touring cars, though he does have a little experience in this area having begun his career in the Clio Cup.
88. Fernando Monje (ESP)
Like his teammate, single-seater convert Monje will be in at the deep end for his rookie touring car season, though he will get the chance to learn the ropes in the ETCC races at Monza before making the WTCC jump at a later stage. Also has a bit of tin-top experience from some SEAT Supercopa races a couple of years ago.
That completes our season preview of the World Touring Car Championship – theCheckeredFlag.co.uk will be covering the series throughout the year.