With the World Touring Car Cup (WTCR) approaching crunch time in the championship battle, the series headed to Suzuka for the penultimate event of the year. Here’s how qualifying panned out:
The first qualifying session of the weekend would be a straight forward one. No elimination rounds, just all the cars against the clock to decide the starting grid for the opening race.
However, the session got off to a false start. Red flags were waved as Mat’o Homola struck a tyre stack with just five minutes gone, so that marshals could recover the wayward track furniture.
At the second attempt to get qualifying underway, Munnich Motorsport‘s Esteban Guerrieri was the early pace-setter, though he wouldn’t remain at the top of the time sheets for long. One of the event’s surprise packages – the Alfa Romeo of Kevin Ceccon – went quicker than the Honda-equipped Argentine, but he too was subsequently dethroned. Continuing the theme of underdogs on the rise, Aurelien Comte was the man to go fastest of all in his Peugeot 308TCR.
After that, pure stubbornness amongst some of the championship’s top drivers led to a rather odd sequence of events. It began when Thed Bjork decided to pull over and lift off the pace, with the aim of allowing the rival Hyundai pair of Gabriele Tarquini and Norbert Michelisz to go safely by. Ultimately, this was to avoid giving them an aerodynamic tow along the long straight, but the BRC Racing duo refused to give up their position behind Bjork. Next up, the trio of Munnich Motorsport Hondas arrived, and did exactly the same thing. Consequently, we were left with a multi-car tail-back on the circuit.
The race stewards failed to see the funny side of any of this, and awarded grid penalties to some of those involved after the session had ended.
But indeed, it was Aurelien Comte who took a surprise pole position for the opening race, ahead of the equally surprising Alfa Romeo of Kevin Ceccon. The Munnich Motorsport pair of Esteban Guerrieri and Yann Ehrlacher would start alongside each other, just behind on the second row of the grid.
This qualifying session would comprise of three knock-out phases. The top 12 cars would progress from Session 1, and the the top five would progress from Session 2. In Session 3, each of the final five cars left standing would have one chance at posting a lap time in a winner-takes-all style decider for pole position.
Thed Bjork was arguably the highest-profile casualty from Session 1. The firm title contender had struggled for pace throughout practice and the earlier qualifying round, and could only get as high up the order as thirteenth. It was a troubling time for the Audi drivers as well. Fresh from winning on the streets of Wuhan, the WRT Audi team-mates Jean-Karl Vernay and Gordon Shedden languished towards the bottom of the time sheets.
Tiago Monteiro would also be eliminated at this stage, however 16th position was anything but a failure for the Portuguese ace. Considering that he’s spent over a year recovering from injuries sustained while behind the wheel of a race car, to be comfortably amongst the mid-pack was something to be celebrated as he continues his preparation for 2019.
In Session 2, Yvan Muller and Esteban Guerrieri collided, and eventually neither would be able to reach the top 10. Instead, Pepe Oriola would claim the tenth spot on the grid for Race 3, and pole position for Race 2 thanks to the reversed-grid rules. Alongside him on the front row for Race 2 would be Rob Huff, who qualified ninth.
Aurelien Comte, Kevin Ceccon, Gabriele Tarquini, Yann Ehrlacher and Mehdi Bennani were the quintet to progress into Session 3. Bennani was the first to hit the track, but a scruffy lap meant that he’d finish no higher than fifth. Fourth place would go to Yann Ehrlacher, while a slight mishap for Aurelien Comte on his lap meant that he could only manage third place.
It came down to a battle between the Italians for pole position. Tarquini, having already fended off Comte’s lap time, was sitting pretty at the top of the time sheets. However, Kevin Ceccon would knock the championship leader off of his perch in a ground-breaking moment for the Team Mulsanne Alfa Romeo squad.