Muller wins Portugal opener after horrific first-lap crash

by James Bowers

On paper at least, everything looked positive for the Sebastien Loeb Racing team as they waited to begin the first World Touring Car Cup race of the weekend. On the tight Vila Real street circuit in Portugal, overtaking would be tough, so the Volkswagen outfit seemed to be in prime position by having both of their cars on the front row of the starting grid. Unfortunately, just as street circuits can be technically demanding, they can also be extremely unforgiving as Rob Huff and Mehdi Bennani were about to find out.

As the lights went out, Rob Huff was slower off the line than his team-mate Bennani. Running side-by-side through the early sections of the circuit, a dream scenario for the team turned into the worst possible nightmare. As Huff defended his line into turn three, the left-rear wheel of his car and the front-right wheel of Bennani’s locked together, causing the pair of them to slam into the outside barrier at tremendously high speed.

As Huff’s car rebounded off the wall, the rear of his Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR made contact with the side of Norbert Michelisz‘s Hyundai, causing significant structural damage to its roll cage. Michelisz was able to flee the scene after the glancing blow however, as utter carnage ensued just behind. With nowhere to go, Thed Bjork then piled into Bennani’s car, lifting the Volkswagen into the air and on top of Huff’s fiery wreckage before settling back down onto the track. Yann Ehrlacher was the next to arrive with John Filippi alongside, and unfortunately for both Frenchman, they too would pile into the back of Bjork’s Hyundai which also briefly caught fire.

Of all the written off cars, Rob Huff’s was arguably in the worst shape. Image Credit: Francois Flamand/DPPI

Ehrlacher’s team-mate Esteban Guerrieri clattered past Filippi’s Cupra, before being punted from behind into the side of Bennani’s stricken Volkswagen. With Bennani’s car forced aside, Guerrieri could then escape the pile-up. Just behind the Argentine, Zsolt Szabo and James Thompson were also heavily involved in the crash as the ripple effect caused more and more contact between cars amongst the chaos.

Naturally, red flags were waved to signal the suspension of the race so that drivers could be attended to, cars could be cleared and the track barriers could be repaired. Both Huff and Bennani were taken to the local hospital for precautionary checks, however all drivers managed to escape the wreckage without serious injury – a true testament to the safety and strength of these TCR race cars.

Albeit with ten cars fewer than originally planned, the race was then restarted about two hours later. However, with the top five drivers’ cars having been written off, the tables had turned in favour of Yvan Muller. Having had a dreadful getaway in the original start, Muller was too far back to really be involved in any of the heavy impacts, so got away with relatively little damage done to his car. As a result, the Frenchman’s sixth place starting position transformed into pole position for the restart.

Once let go from behind the safety car, Muller led the restarted race from the repaired Honda of Esteban Guerrieri, while Gabriele Tarquini, Jean-Karl Vernay and Pepe Oriola completed the top five. At the lower end of the field, Fabrizio Giovanardi was wasting no time in moving forward as he passed Denis Dupont on the high-speed Mateus Downhill Straight.

Pepe Oriola would go on to have a fantastic race. Image Credit: Francois Flamand/DPPI

As Dupont was then hounded by wildcard entry Edgar Florindo, Tom Coronel was one of the first drivers to take the mandatory joker lap – an alternative route through circuit – on lap five. A unique feature to the Portuguese event so far, the introduction of a joker lap has been brought in to create more tactical overtaking opportunities. This is something particularly useful around the narrow Vila Real street circuit, where faster cars can often get stuck behind slower ones with no real way of getting by. Unfortunately for Coronel, he was unable to see the full result of his joker lap tactics as his car ground to a halt on the following lap.

In the battle for fifth place, Pepe Oriola, Benjamin Lessennes and Aurelien Comte all took their joker lap on lap seven. For Comte, this proved to be an error. Having shown faster pace than the two cars in front of him, the Frenchman should’ve taken the joker lap either a lap before or after the other two drivers in order to take advantage of the clean air that he’d receive. Instead, Comte was unable to capitalise on his speed advantage and a status quo remained.

The full effects of the joker lap then came into play the next time around. Jean-Karl Vernay dived into the slower joker lap route and emerged alongside Pepe Oriola. As Oriola had quicker pace than the Audi driver, and served his joker lap earlier, the Spaniard was able to make use of his speed advantage and pass Vernay for fourth place.

Yvan Muller was untroubled in the lead of the race. Image Credit: Paulo Maria/DPPI

With only a few laps to go, Aurelien Comte then proved that actually he didn’t need the best joker lap tactics to complete an overtake. As he and Lessennes closed onto the back of the slower car of Vernay, the consequential bunching allowed Comte to almost draw alongside Lessennes as the cars ran through turns nine & ten. Under pressure, Lessennes then made a small error on the exit of turn fourteen which allowed Comte to race past into sixth position along the Mateus Downhill Straight.

With the final lap in sight, the race was then hit with even more drama. Gabriele Tarquini had been closing up to the rear of Esteban Guerrieri in the battle for second place, however he attacked a set of curbs too hard and punctured his left-front tyre. Struggling around the latter stages of the lap, Tarquini had no choice but to concede third place to Pepe Oriola, but could at least drag his Hyundai across the line in fourth.

It would be Yvan Muller who took victory though, and with it, the lead in the drivers’ points championship after Yann Ehrlacher was eliminated in the first lap carnage.

Full Race Result:

1stYvan MullerHyundai13 laps
2ndEsteban GuerrieriHonda+2.060
3rdPepe OriolaCupra+10.596
4thGabriele TarquiniHyundai+12.925
5thJean-Karl VernayAudi+13.926
6thAurelien ComtePeugeot+14.186
7thBenjamin LessennesHonda+16.696
8thNathanael BerthonAudi+19.937
9thGordon SheddenAudi+20.169
10thFrederic VervischAudi+20.678
11thFabrizio GiovanardiAlfa Romeo+21.728
12thMat'o HomolaPeugeot+22.668
13thEdgar FlorindoCupra+50.040
14thNorbert NagyCupra+50.451
15thZsolt SzaboCupra+1:05:510
RetAurelien PanisAudiN/A
RetDenis DupontAudiN/A
RetJose RodriguesHondaN/A
RetTom CoronelHondaN/A
RetNorbert MicheliszHyundaiN/A
RetRob HuffVolkswagenN/A
RetMehdi BennaniVolkswagenN/A
RetYann EhrlacherHondaN/A
RetThed BjorkHyundaiN/A
RetJohn FilippiCupraN/A
RetJames ThompsonHondaN/A
RetGianni MorbidelliAlfa RomeoN/A

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