The racing may not have even begun yet, however qualifying provided a fascinating twist in the World Touring Car Cup (WTCR) championship battle. Here’s what happened:
Qualifying for Race One
The first qualifying session would, as ever, be a straight-forward 30 minute shoot-out between all 31 cars entered to the event. Having broken records during practice, Rob Huff went even quicker in the first half of this qualifying phase after benefiting from an aerodynamic tow behind the fast Hyundai of Yvan Muller.
However, fortune was on his side as he posted the lap time with mere milliseconds to spare before the red flags were deployed to halt the session. Just in front of Muller, the other YMR Hyundai of Thed Bjork crashed into the hard barriers at Fisherman’s bend. Unable to move under its own steam, Bjork’s car would have to be removed by one of the circuit’s recovery vehicles, meaning that qualifying would have to be temporarily halted.
Once the session got underway again though, Huff was knocked off of his perch at the top of the time sheets. Esteban Guerrieri staked his claim at pole position by setting a blistering lap time of his own, but then ended up in a moment of conflict very shortly after.
Indeed, Guerrieri and Muller’s already frosty relationship had been made even worse. Closing in on the trio of Munnich Motorsport Hondas, Muller felt as though his path had been impeded by the Argentine, as he attempted to set off on another flying lap. Tempers flared as Muller then appeared to squeeze Guerrieri slightly towards the inside wall, before Guerrieri then sent his car back past on the inside line into Lisboa corner where light contact was made between the two.
Thinking that it was all over in terms of the hunt for pole position, Guerrieri returned to the pit lane and began to celebrate with his team of engineers. However, he hadn’t counted on Rob Huff making one final attempt to go even quicker. As the session drew to a close, Huff’s early lap sectors were slower than Guerrieri’s. But, quite astonishingly, the British driver went fast enough in the final sector alone to secure pole position, and by a healthy margin too.
So, Huff would be on pole position for race 1, while best buddies Esteban Guerrieri and Yvan Muller will start beside each other in second and third place respectively. French duo, Yann Ehrlacher and Jean-Karl Vernay, took fourth and fifth position – just ahead of Huff’s team-mate, Mehdi Bennani. Next up came the pair of BRC Racing Hyundais. Norbert Michelisz went slightly quicker than Gabriele Tarquini to secure seventh place, but for championship leader Tarquini, it was crucial that he had managed to stay just about within touching distance of Muller, his closest challenger for the title.
Indeed, the Italian ace will have to minimise the gap between himself and Muller as much as possible in race one, so that he maintains a strong enough lead in the points standings.
Elsewhere, Frederic Vervisch and Pepe Oriola rounded out the top ten, while issues would arise for the three slowest cars on the grid. Zsolt Szabo, as well as local wildcards Rui Valente and Lam Kam San, all failed to post a lap time within 105% of the pole position time. As such, their eligibility to start race 1 is under serious jeopardy.
But in regard to the championship battle, things would get particularly interesting in the qualifying sessions to decide the grid for the remaining two races…
Qualifying for Race Two & Race Three
With this phase of qualifying featuring knock-out rounds, the potential was there for proceedings to be spiced up a little further. And indeed, drama struck the World Touring Car Cup when championship leader, Gabriele Tarquini, crashed his Hyundai in the first elimination round.
Taking too much speed into the notorious Lisboa corner, Tarquini planted the front of his car into the barriers. With the Hyundai having to be winched away by a crane off of the circuit, the Italian’s presence in the remainder of qualifying looked anything but certain. As suspected, fellow drivers improved on their lap times and knocked Tarquini down to 14th. Crucially, this placed him outside the top 12 positions required to progress into the second elimination round.
Also taking no further part in qualifying was fellow championship contender, Thed Bjork. The Swede had suffered damage in the qualifying session for Race One, and clearly lacked pace in his repaired car. As such, both would be starting outside the top ten points-paying positions in Race Two and Race Three. All of a sudden, Tarquini’s 39 point lead over Yvan Muller had gone from seeming comfortable, to seeming ominously under threat.
It’s not just the drivers’ championship that this would impact either. Both leading teams, BRC Racing and YMR, had therefore lost a car to the depths of the midfield already due to Tarquini and Bjork’s misfortune.
In the second elimination round, Mehdi Bennani and Nathanael Berthon left it very late during the session to post a lap time. Bennani must have been feeling the pressure, as a slight mistake at Moorish Hill saw his Volkswagen pinball into the unforgiving concrete barriers. Red flags were waved to halt the session in order to recover his stricken car, but ultimately this would mean that both he and Berthon would fail to reach the top ten, as neither had been able to post a lap time before the session was ended.
One man who would be thrilled by that was Timo Scheider. The former DTM champion had been having his best performance yet in a WTCR car, and promptly stuck his car on tenth place on the grid for Race Three. However, due to the reversed-grid regulations for Race Two, this would see him start the second race from pole position. Joining him on the front row of the grid for that second race would be the impressive Alfa Romeo driver, Kevin Ceccon, thanks to his ninth place result.
Yvan Muller, meanwhile, could do no better than sixth. But, this was still a far more favourable position to be in than either of his nearest championship rivals – Tarquini and Bjork. In fact, you could argue that the ball had landed firmly in Muller’s court ahead of the three races, with the Frenchman given a fantastic opportunity to close the points gap on Tarquini.
Rob Huff continued to lead the way and made it into the top-five shootout with relative ease. Esteban Guerrieri, Norbert Michelisz, Jean-Karl Vernay and Yann Ehrlacher would be the other drivers to join him in the battle for pole position.
Throughout both qualifying sessions, Huff and Guerrieri had been the stand-out performers, and indeed, it ended up being between the Brit and the Argentine to take the top spot on the time sheets. For a while, it looked as though Guerrieri had done enough to halt Huff’s dominance, but the Briton pushed his car to the limit in the final sector of his flying lap, and promptly stole pole position from the Argentine driver.
So, Rob Huff and Esteban Guerrieri would line up on the front row of the grid in race three, just ahead of Norbert Michelisz in third place, Jean-Karl Vernay in fourth and Yann Ehrlacher in fifth.
Most of the crowds attention, however, will undoubtedly be on the drivers’ championship battle. Can Yvan Muller take advantage of his rivals’ qualifying woes, and complete an epic comeback against Gabriele Tarquini? Stay tuned to find out…