After a two-year absence, elite level touring car racing will return to Slovakia this weekend as the World Touring Car Cup (WTCR) concludes its tour of Europe. Initially, this round of the championship had been scheduled to take place in Argentina at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit, however national economic worries curtailed those plans. It is for that reason that Argentina is no longer a part of the Dakar Rally either. A replacement venue for the WTCR was therefore sought after, and a last-minute deal was struck with the Slovakiaring.
Although South American fans will undoubtedly be disappointed by the change in venue, the Slovakiaring has the potential for highly entertaining races. The circuit combines both high-speed and tricky technical corners with a track wide enough for cars to freely race side-by-side. Certainly, the event shouldn’t be lacking spectacle.
The Championship Battle
Heading into the weekend, Yvan Muller is the championship leader with a 22-point advantage over Gabriele Tarquini and Yann Ehrlacher. Despite not looking particularly great at Vila Real, certainly compared to the other Hyundai drivers, Muller made the most of his good fortune at the Portuguese track and bagged a healthy total of points. Likewise, Tarquini escaped most of the carnage in Iberia and, despite having to deal with illness, also had a largely successful weekend last time out.
The same cannot be said for Yann Ehrlacher, however. The youngster appeared to be quicker than both of his title rivals around the fast-paced street circuit, but after being caught up in the huge accident in race one, the following two evolved into recovery missions. From a weekend of damage limitation, Ehrlacher will undoubtedly be fired up to reclaim his lead in the points standings that he lost to Muller. As the Balance of Performance (BoP) measures have been updated once again ahead of this round, both the Hyundai and Honda fleet have been given an equal break in terms of weight ballast. Therefore, the two sets of cars should be as evenly matched as ever, all of which points towards a fantastic tussle at the front end of the field.
Double Jeopardy for Volkswagen
After their blistering pace at Portugal, the Sebastien Loeb Racing team’s pair of Volkswagen Golf GTi TCRs have been given the maximum weight ballast in the most recent BoP update. The French squad will feel as though this is particularly unfortunate given recent events at the Vila Real circuit last time out. Although Rob Huff and Mehdi Bennani were very quick in qualifying, a huge crash that was instigated by the pair of team-mates meant that their cars would be completely destroyed. As such, the team picked up a total of zero points from an event which should’ve been very fruitful for them.
Of course, with both cars written-off, Sebastien Loeb Racing have had to order two brand new machines from Volkswagen, meaning that the team will have to work even harder to get the Golf GTi TCRs up to speed in Slovakia – and the added ballast will only make that more difficult. Heading into Portugal, Rob Huff was third in the points standings, and looked set to ascend even higher. Now though, the British driver will have to push hard in the remainder of the season if he is to once again be in title contention.
Speaking ahead of this weekend, Huff said: “Portugal should have been an exceptional weekend for us. My team-mate, Mehdi Bennani, and the Volkswagen Golf GTI TCRs prepared by Sébastien Loeb Racing were very quick, but unfortunately [accidents] happen in motor racing. Now we just have to look ahead and prepare for Slovakia. As the two cars were destroyed we’ll have two new ones, which means twice as much work for our guys.”
“Our aim is to put on as good a performance as possible to thank them for all the work they do for us. I’d also like to say a big thank you to all the people who sent us messages of support. It’s very touching and makes a big impression to see the number of people who were worried about our health.”
Home Hero Homola
The likeable Slovakian youngster, Mat’o Homola, enters his home event on the back of a breakthrough weekend at Vila Real. Using joker lap tactics to his advantage, Homola put in a tremendous display to take his first WTCR victory in the second Portuguese race. Undoubtedly, he and the DG Sport Competition team will be looking to follow up that result with more success at the Slovakiaring, a circuit which Homola knows very well. The Peugeot 308TCR should be fairly well-adapted to the high-speed dynamics of the track, so all the signs are positive for local fans who will be cheering on their hero.
Speaking ahead of the event, Homola previewed what sort of racing we should expect to occur: “It’s a very complex track because there are very fast corners and very technical corners. Every driver will find their favourite corner. It’s something different to the other tracks, some tracks are really small and narrow but Slovakia Ring is really wide with some fast and slow corners. You can see four cars wide on the main straight and the races are always nice to watch.”
“You have a really high heartbeat in Turn 2 and you need to hit the right point of the apex, otherwise you’re going off. It’s very challenging, very high-speed, approximately 200kph, and fun. I know from history there was a lot of overtaking with really nice, tight racing. There can be slipstreaming and you can also overtake in some of the technical sections. It will be good for the fans.”
Local interest will also be boosted by the presence of Homola’s compatriot, Andrej Studenic. Driving for the Brutal Fish Racing Team, Studenic will make his WTCR debut as a wildcard behind the wheel of a Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR. The other wildcard entry has been handed to Czech ace, Petr Fulin.
A new beginning for Team Mulsanne?
The news of Gianni Morbidelli‘s departure from Team Mulsanne emerged this week after the veteran Italian driver appeared to run out of patience with the lack of progress being made by the team. All season, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta TCR has unfortunately struggled for pace in comparison to its mass-produced rivals from the likes of Honda, Hyundai and the VAG Group.
Although the loss of Morbidelli is far from ideal, the arrival of 24 year-old Kevin Ceccon as his replacement could yet prove to be the injection of determination that the outfit needs. Despite his relative youth Ceccon has a great racing pedigree, and after a difficult time in recent years, is highly driven to achieve greater results. Last time out at Portugal, Fabrizio Giovanardi‘s eleventh place finish wasn’t quite enough to score the team’s first points, however it was their best result yet.
Although it has been a difficult task so far, the ingredients are there for Team Mulsanne to continue their steady positive trajectory. Whether or not they can reach the top ten at the Slovakiaring remains to be seen, though Morbidelli’s departure would appear to suggest that their progress is perhaps a little too steady at the moment.
*All times are given in the local time zone.
Friday 13th July
Free Practice One: 12:40-13:10
Free Practice Two: 15:50-16:20
Qualifying One: 17:55-18:25
Saturday 14th July
Race One: 12:00-12:30
Qualifying Two: 15:10-16:00
Race Two: 19:00-19:30
Sunday 15th July
Race Three: 11:45-12:15
You can watch the first qualifying session and race for free via a live stream which will be posted on the WTCR Facebook page. Alternatively, if you live in Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland or the USA, then these streams can be found on OSCARO.com instead. Race Two and Sunday’s events will be broadcast live on Eurosport. However, if you can’t watch the racing on TV, we’ll have full reports of all the action right here on TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk.