After a few years of mediocrity, the World Touring Car Cup (WTCR) has now become a racing series to be proud of once again, after having undergone a major re-design. With the old, unsustainable TC1 regulations cast aside, the recent trio of races held at the Circuit Moulay el-Hassan signalled the start of a new era for world-level touring car racing. In place of the old rules, a new format – TCR – had been introduced, bringing new cars and much excitement with it.
Masterminded by Marcello Lotti, the TCR formula has grown at an exponential rate. Having spread across the globe, these sporting regulations can be considered nothing less than a resounding success. Realistically, it was only ever a matter of time before the formula made its way into the world series, and now, it has.
With seven different marques represented, twenty-five of the world’s greatest touring car drivers took to battle on the streets of Marrakech. Although Saturday’s opening race perhaps failed to deliver the cut-throat racing that was expected, the highly truncated affair did at least give us insight into what the pecking order would be like. Luckily, when Sunday’s two races came about, the action was a bit more popcorn-worthy. For reports on those races, be sure to check out our WTCR archive.
In qualifying, and then during the first race, it became immediately clear that the Hyundai i30N TCR was the car to have. 2017 World Touring Car Champion, Thed Bjork was fastest in qualifying, but it was the Italian maestro Gabriele Tarquini who instead claimed the first victory of 2018. A race won at the beginning, Tarquini showed why he has a reputation for being the best starter of front-wheel drive cars. After getting a fantastic launch, he was able to hold off the Swede until the chequered flag was waved.
Throughout the weekend, both Hyundai teams (BRC Racing and YMR) would set the pace. However, in race two, the reversed starting grid offered an opportunity for others to shine. Starting from pole position as a result of qualifying in tenth, Campos Racing’s Pepe Oriola was hoping to take the first win for new Spanish marque, Cupra. However, the victory would instead go to Jean-Karl Vernay in the Leopard-Lukoil Team WRT Audi RS3.
Veterans of the GT racing world, Team WRT have made an impressive start to life as a touring car team. Having won a TCR International title already with Vernay in 2017, the team appears to be making yet more strides forward as they switch from Volkswagen machinery to Audi this year. Joining Vernay, triple British Touring Car Champion Gordon Shedden made his international racing debut in Marrakech. While two of his races didn’t go entirely to plan, a fifth place result in race one proved that he has the speed to challenge the world’s elite.
Another driver to mention is John Filippi. In recent seasons of world touring car competition, Filippi had struggled to make much of a name for himself. But, having rejoined Campos Racing after a few seasons at SLR, Filippi demonstrated a pleasantly surprising turn of pace. Faster than his more fancied team-mate Pepe Oriola in Saturday’s qualifying, Filippi’s race weekend may only have resulted in one championship point, however his general display suggests that 2018 could be a breakthrough campaign for the young Frenchman.
Sticking with the French theme, the debut of the brand new Peugeot 308TCR has to be considered a success too. At the hands of Aurelien Comte, the Peugeot picked up its first championship points at Marrakech; something which was never a guarantee due to the quality of the competition this year. Although Comte’s car then suffered technical difficulties in the second and third races, Mat’o Homola‘s performance on Sunday proved the Peugeot to be a useful track weapon.
Overall though, the biggest winner of the season-opening round at Morocco has to be Gabriele Tarquini. Having spent 2017 on the sidelines in order to help develop Hyundai’s first ever official circuit racing car, the 56 year-old made an exceptional return to full-time competition. Walking away with two race victories over the course of the weekend, Tarquini has a healthy lead in the championship standings.
Unfortunately, not everyone had such a great first weekend of the 2018 season. Italian legend, Fabrizio Giovanardi, has come out of retirement to drive a Team Mulsanne Alfa Romeo Giulietta alongside Gianni Morbidelli this year. However, it wasn’t a totally happy comeback for ‘Gio’, nor was it a particularly good event for Morbidelli either. Lacking development in comparison to the other cars, the Alfa Romeo struggled somewhat around the Circuit Moulay el-Hassan. As a result, when the cars weren’t mired in the pit-lane with technical issues, they never really looked like challenging for points. With two of the most experienced drivers on the grid and a good base platform, the popular Team Mulsanne squad do at least have the ingredients to become a more competitive outfit over the course of 2018 though.
Factory-backed Honda driver, Esteban Guerrieri, didn’t have a stellar weekend either. With the official endorsement of Honda behind him, the Argentine was expected to be the lead driver within the Munnich Motorsport garage. It didn’t quite work out that way, though. Instead, Yann Ehrlacher was the best of the three Munnich Motorsport drivers, claiming a fourth place in race three, while Guerrieri didn’t do much to distinguish himself from James Thompson either – who had been without a drive in 2017. That said, we’ve seen in the past that Guerrieri is a class act, and in such a closely matched field any minor error can be costly.
Indeed, the 2018 season will likely see the fortune of all drivers fluctuate quite a bit. Or at least that’s what Norbert Michelisz will be hoping. During a weekend which proved highly fruitful for the other three Hyundai drivers, Michelisz’s time in Morocco was littered with bad luck. A grid penalty for race one turned a front-row start into a back-row start, and the racing wasn’t any more positive either. A terminal electric failure, even a detached wheel meant that Michelisz failed to pick up anywhere near the amount of points that his pace suggested that he should have.
As a whole, Comtoyou Racing were the team with perhaps the least to smile about as brake failures plagued their cars all weekend. Denis Dupont had to withdraw from Sunday’s races after sustaining significant damage in the morning’s qualifying session, while Frederic Vervisch twice had to retire from a race due to fading brake pads. The team wasn’t immune from picking up external damage during the races either. A crash in race one meant that Vervisch failed to finish any of the three races, while Nathanael Berthon was also involved in contact with Mat’o Homola and Fabrizio Giovanardi on separate occasions. Aurelien Panis was even involved in a race one skirmish too. For the Belgian outfit, the only way is up…
The WTCR parade heads to the Hungaroring for the second round of the season on 28-29 April. Local hero, Norbert Michelisz will be hoping to the emulate the success of Tarquini at his home track, and as we’ve seen in the past, a victory for ‘Norbi’ can spark quite a reaction from the thousands of fans at the circuit. Happily, there’s quite a few names for the Hungarian spectators to cheer on in 2018. Full-time competitors Zengo Motorsport had a tricky first event at Morocco, and while the campaign will be difficult for their young drivers Zsolt Szabo and Norbert Nagy, they will hope to put on a strong performance on home ground.
Another new feature of WTCR for 2018 is the formal introduction of wildcard entries. This means that at each event, two additional drivers can join the grid for their home race. There were no takers for the Moroccan round, but in Hungary, the field will indeed swell from 25 to 27 cars. Daniel Nagy will drive one of the impressive-looking Hyundai i30N TCRs for the M1RA team, while Attila Tassi will be behind the wheel of his HELL Racing Honda Civic FK8 TCR.
More generally speaking, the big question going into Hungary is will the Hyundai dominance of Morocco continue into the second event? The likes of Gabriele Tarquini and Thed Bjork will certainly be hoping so, but with a plethora of driving talent in the championship this year and a range of top teams developing seven different cars, it’s anyone’s guess who’ll come out on top next.
To satisy all your WTCR content needs, make sure to check in with Eurosport for live TV coverage of the events at the Hungaroring, while race reports can be found right here on The Checkered Flag.co.uk.