Jose Maria Lopez won a battle between Citroen‘s three drivers to claim pole position on the marque’s World Touring Car Championship debut in Marrakech.
The new C-Elysse has dominated the running so far on the first weekend of the championship’s new regulations, with Citroen’s rigorous winter testing programme paying off well.
The majority of the attention so far has been on Lopez’s more illustrious team-mates Yvan Muller and Sebastien Loeb but the Argentinian – a race winner on his only previous weekend in the WTCC on home soil last year – was able to upstage the French pairing to come out on top in qualifying.
A revised qualifying format for this season sees the five fastest drivers in Q2 go through to a further single-lap shootout for pole position, and it was Chevrolet drivers Tom Chilton and Dusan Borkovic joining the Citroen trio in the final five.
WTCC debutant Borkovic’s hopes were dashed when he left the pitlane too early for his effort, landing him a black flag. Muller was the first of the Citroens to run but made a mistake on his lap, cutting a chicane. He was over a second quicker than Chilton, but it was doubtful whether his time would be allowed to stand.
That didn’t matter for Lopez anyway, with the former US F1 Team signing managing to go 0.018s faster than the four-time champion. Nine-time world rally champion Loeb – fastest in Q2 – was quicker than Lopez after the second sector of his lap but lost time at the end of the lap and finished up 0.115s slower.
“I’m very happy and of course it’s a good feeling to be on pole,” said Lopez, a GP2 race-winner and three-time champion in his native TC2000 series. “I knew I had lost some time in the first two sectors so I pushed a bit more in the third one and it worked out. It will still be a long day tomorrow, especially with the reversed grid for the second race.”
Muller did indeed have his time disallowed, promoting Loeb onto the front row for his first touring car race and moving Chilton up to third. Muller will start fourth ahead of Borkovic.
Rene Munnich far surpassed his previous best qualifying result to take sixth in his new Chevrolet, only missing out on Q3 by one position. Three Hondas were next with Tiago Monteiro ahead of Norbert Michelisz and home hero Mehdi Bennani, who appeared delighted to secure a front row place on the reverse grid for race two.
Tom Coronel recovered from a practice shunt in his Chevrolet to take tenth and race two pole position, narrowly denying lead Lada driver James Thompson. Campos Racing Chevrolet driver Hugo Valente was unable to deliver the same strong pace he had shown earlier in the weekend and will have to make do with 12th on the grid.
Thompson’s new Lada team-mate Rob Huff narrowly missed out on Q2 in 13th, hampered by problems with his new Lada and then a late red flag triggered by TC2 SEAT driver Petr Fulin.
Gabriele Tarquini has been forced out of action for the weekend after his factory Honda was damaged heavily in a practice accident involving fellow Italian veteran Gianni Morbidelli, who is making his WTCC return after last entering in 2006. Tarquini ran deep into the run-off area at one of the chicanes and was waiting to rejoin the track when he was hit at high speed by Morbidelli, who had misjudged the chicane in his Chevrolet.
Morbidelli – a new signing to Munnich’s team for this season – was unable to take part in qualifying but is hoping to be able to race on Sunday.