After much anticipation, the first race of the re-designed World Touring Car Cup got underway in the streets of Marrakech. Twenty five of the greatest touring car drivers on the planet were about to lock horns over a mammoth 30-race season.
Thed Bjork and Gabriele Tarquini lined up on the front row, while Norbert Michelisz (who ran with similar pace to them in qualifying) would start from the very back of the pack after receiving a penalty for an engine change.
As the lights went out, it was Tarquini who got the best launch away from the starting grid – something that he has become renowned for over the years. Very early on, it became clear that the Italian veteran had lost none of his technique after a year away from full-time racing in order to develop the Hyundai i30N TCR.
But as Tarquini led his fellow Hyundai driver Bjork safely around turn 1, drama occurred further behind. First, Mehdi Bennani ran into the back of Esteban Guerrieri, forcing the Argentine out wide. As Bennani was deemed to have gained an unfair advantage, he would later be given a 10-second time penalty after the race, dropping him from fifth to ninth.
With Guerrieri out of shape, the pack bunched together in avoidance. As a result, Frederic Vervisch speared into the side of James Thompson‘s Honda, therefore spinning the Brit around. His steering broken, Vervisch then drifted across the track before clipping the back of Tom Coronel‘s car. With Thompson stranded sideways in the middle of the road, three oncoming cars all took further avoiding action that resulted in another crash. Aurelien Panis would force Fabrizio Giovanardi into the side of Mat’o Homola‘s Peugeot, causing Homola to spin around and collect the front of Panis’ Audi RS3 TCR. As a final blow, momentum then dragged Homola and Panis into the side of Vervisch.
Vervisch and Panis would immediately retire, while Homola and Coronel would join them in pit-lane later on as their cars succumbed to the damage sustained during that opening encounter. Giovanardi also lost a lap after repairs had to be done in pit-lane to the Alfa Romeo. This would signal the first red flag of the season; Vervisch’s Audi RS3 could not be easily removed from the track, and so the race had to be halted in order for the path to be cleared.
When the race was restarted, Tarquini grabbed an advantage over Bjork once the field was released from behind the safety car. Immediately, Tarquini was able to pull away by about five car-lengths. However, while Tarquini’s weekend was getting better and better, the same couldn’t be said for his BRC Racing team-mate. Having climbed up a few positions after starting from the very back, the front left wheel of Michelisz’s Hyundai came loose. This catastrophic failure would signal the end of the Hungarian’s first race of the season, marking the finale to a rather dreadful Saturday. Luckily, the slate is wiped clean on Sunday, as a fresh qualifying session will decide the order of the grid for the second and third races.
With the safety car out again, the race had become rather truncated. Nevertheless, it was once again up to Tarquini to launch away on the re-start, and just like last time, Bjork didn’t seem to be switched on and was promptly left behind.
After a strong qualifying performance, John Filippi had dropped back somewhat. Having been passed by the likes of Gordon Shedden, Yann Ehrlacher and Aurelien Comte, Filippi was now under threat from the highly experienced Yvan Muller. As Muller looked to try to get into the top 10 points-paying positions, his team-mate Bjork had also closed back up to the rear of Tarquini for the lead.
But despite all the close running, nobody could really launch any meaningful attacks. Apart from the retirement of Pepe Oriola from twelfth place on the penultimate lap, a status quo lasted for the remainder of the race. That, of course, meant that 56 year-old Tarquini would become the first ever WTCR race winner, proving that there’s still plenty of speed left in him. Bjork would come across the line in second place, while Rob Huff completed the podium in third.
Full results from Morocco Race One:
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