Having secured pole position in qualifying, Thed Bjork led a relatively clean start to the opening World Touring Car Cup (WTCR) race at Ningbo Circuit this weekend. However, the relatively sedate first two corners would prove to be the calm before a storm of action.
In the middle of the top ten, Nathanael Berthon and Zsolt Szabo fell victim to their own squabbling. With a hoard of cars waiting to seize on any opportunity, Berthon was tagged by Yvan Muller, causing a suspension breakage in the Frenchman’s Audi. Szabo, meanwhile plummeted through the order through no real fault of his own and would eventually retire to pit lane with an issue. Sadly, two of the stand-out performers in qualifying were out of contention very early on.
Meanwhile at the front of the queue, Bjork had begun to scamper away from Frederic Vervisch. As such, it wasn’t long before Vervisch had the Honda of Esteban Guerrieri right on his back bumper. With relative ease, the Argentine made his move to pass the Belgian for second place in sector three of the opening lap.
But, with a train of cars waiting to pounce, Norbert Michelisz seized the opportunity to follow Guerrieri past Vervisch. However, the joy would be short-lived for ‘Norbi’ as a sudden trail of smoke appeared from the back of his Hyundai; the consequence of a terminal mechanical failure.
In the mid reaches of the top ten, Denis Dupont was holding his own against some of the big names in touring car racing. The youngster was soon foiled though, as he turned in on Rob Huff at the final corner thus causing himself to run wide off of the circuit. But, with Huff also at a disadvantage in terms of corner exit speed, the Brit fell behind his Sebastien Loeb Racing team-mate, Mehdi Bennani.
Yvan Muller was the next driver to challenge Dupont, passing him via a switch back manoeuvre for seventh place. Just behind that tussle, Jean-Karl Vernay‘s recovery drive from a poor qualifying session was prematurely halted, as he was forced to pull his Audi off of the circuit with a mechanical failure.
By lap three, the battle for tenth place (and the final championship point) was beginning to boil over. Through the huge eight-car bundle, Yann Ehrlacher was the driver who emerged in front of everybody else having dispatched of Pepe Oriola. The Spaniard was under significant fire from the cars behind as Kevin Ceccon and WTCR new-boy Timo Scheider clattered their way past on either side of the Cupra.
At about a third of the race distance, gaps between cars began to emerge and the order began to settle. The story of the race soon became the inter-team battle between Rob Huff and Mehdi Bennani. The pair famously clashed while battling for the lead earlier this year in Portugal, however the carnage of that day was thankfully not repeated in this race. Despite having the slightly faster pace of the two cars, Huff simply could not find a way past his Moroccan colleague.
Despite multiple pleas to the team engineers over the radio, Huff couldn’t convince them to swap the two positions of the cars, and so the status quo remained for the rest of the race. One man who could get a couple of overtakes done was Yann Ehrlacher. The Frenchman is currently embarking on a mission to reignite his championship chances, and made short work of Aurelien Panis and Denis Dupont to haul himself up into eighth place.
Gordon Shedden‘s expected resurrection of form after the summer break simply didn’t happen in this race. Caught in the midfield battles after a woeful qualifying session, the Brit did however manage to beat Tom Coronel in a drag race to the finish line as the chequered flag was waved. Thirteenth position would have to do for the former British Touring Car Champion.
Out in front though, Thed Bjork was untroubled en route to victory, and firmly reinstated himself as a championship contender.
Full Race Result:
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