The exclusion of Norbert Michelisz, Thed Bjork and Yvan Muller from qualifying (as a result of running with illegal boost levels) had shaken-up the starting grid for the opening World Touring Car Cup (WTCR) race. As such, great spectacle was predicted and I’m glad to report that the Slovakiaring did not disappoint.
Misfortune struck debutant Kevin Ceccon from the get-go. A mechanical failure on the warm-up lap meant that the young Italian would have to start the race from pit lane. However, as we were about to see, this didn’t prove to be a hindrance to his, or Team Mulsanne‘s, progress up the order.
Lining up from pole position, Gabriele Tarquini – the master of standing starts – was expected to charge away at the front in his rapid Hyundai. However, that was not the case. Tarquini bogged down uncharacteristically and was promptly swarmed by the four cars behind him, handing the lead to Aurelien Comte in the Peugeot 308TCR. Despite this, Tarquini wasn’t the most unfortunate of the front-runners on the opening lap. Having started in fourth place, Esteban Guerrieri found himself outside the top ten and amongst the midfield scramble. Ultimately, this would lead to his demise as contact would break his Honda’s rear suspension.
It then became clear that Fabrizio Giovanardi and the Team Mulsanne Alfa Romeo Giulietta TCR were in their best form yet. Heading onto lap two, Giovanardi made light work of getting past Denis Dupont on the inside line through turn one, and looked as though he could make even further progress up the order. At the front of the pack though, Pepe Oriola was wasting no time as Jean-Karl Vernay lurked ominously behind, taking the race lead away from Comte in the early stages of the second lap.
Spotting a potential opportunity, Vernay then made good use of his Audi’s straight line speed to draw up alongside Comte’s Peugeot as the cars headed into turn three. Vernay hung on around the outside of Comte and moved up into second place, with the track curving back in his favour.
Just behind, Giovanardi then overtook Tom Coronel for sixth place. Both drivers appeared to be in good form in this opening race, however Giovanardi’s performance in the Alfa Romeo – which had struggled all year until this weekend – was particularly eye-catching. Up ahead, Comte felt a place on the podium trickle through his fingers as Gabriele Tarquini got back ahead of him.
With a third of the race distance gone, points were still not entirely out of question for the three Hyundais which had been excluded from qualifying. Having carved their way through the lower midfield competitors, Yvan Muller had broken into the top fifteen by the end of lap three, while Thed Bjork followed closely behind. However, Norbert Michelisz in the third of the penalised Hyundai i30N TCRs was having a much more difficult time. Unable to make any real progress, the Hungarian soon fell behind the hard-charging Alfa Romeo of Kevin Ceccon. In the latter stages of the race, Michelisz’s misfortune was compounded as he retired to the BRC Racing team garage.
Just as Muller and Bjork had dealt with Gordon Shedden – who didn’t go down without a fight – the safety car was deployed in order for the track marshals to retrieve Frederic Vervisch‘s stricken Audi. Oriola would then get a warning for excessively bunching up the field on the safety car restart, however the Spaniard’s lead remained in tact as he gradually stretched out a gap over Vernay once again.
After Ceccon swept past the Volkswagen duo of Rob Huff and Mehdi Bennani, Fabrizio Giovanardi in the other Alfa Romeo then made a move on championship contender Yann Ehrlacher for fifth place, again on the inside line into turn one. The Italian would follow this up by closing on to the back of Aurelien Comte’s Peugeot on the final lap, but while Ceccon then made his way past Shedden and John Filippi, Giovanardi couldn’t quite find a way to steal fourth place before the chequered flag was waved.
At the front, it was Pepe Oriola who emerged as the eventual race winner; a well-deserved result for a driver and team that has gradually improved over the course of the season. In fact, despite this being the first victory of 2018 for Oriola – or any of the Cupra drivers for that matter – the Spaniard has emerged as a potential dark horse for the championship. Following his strong tally from Portugal and this early positive start in Slovakia, Oriola now finds himself in sixth place in the drivers’ points standings.
Another noteworthy performance is that of Denis Dupont, the young Belgian’s eighth place finish in this opening race means that he has secured his first championship points of the season.
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