With the Macau Grand Prix’s busy schedule of competitions, free practice for the World Touring Car Cup (WTCR) drivers got underway mid-week. In years gone by, these sessions have often heralded multiple collisions between cars and the concrete barriers as drivers find their limits. However, this time around, no significant damage was done – although Denis Dupont did have a minor shunt in his Audi. There’s still everything to play for in qualifying of course, though there were some interesting stories to emerge from these early practice sessions:
Practice Session 1:
The star of the first practice session was undoubtedly Jean-Karl Vernay. Despite a hefty 60kg of success ballast onboard the Team WRT Audi RS3 LMS TCR, the Frenchman topped the time-sheets ahead of fellow title contender, Esteban Guerrieri.
Vernay was quick right from the offset, and gradually improved on his lap time as the session went on. Drivers like Macau expert, Rob Huff, would temporarily knock him off the top position a few times, but each time Vernay would be able to respond with an even faster lap time of his own.
Esteban Guerrieri and Rob Huff were his closest competitors, but in the end, they had to settle for second and third place in the standings respectively. Behind them, Yvan Muller was the best-placed Hyundai driver in fourth. This early result would be seen as a highly positive one for Muller, given the fact that Gabriele Tarquini was mired in the midfield positions. In the context of the championship battle, a similar situation in qualifying would put the ball firmly in Muller’s court.
Tarquini’s team-mate Norbert Michelisz was fifth fastest, while Yann Ehrlacher was sixth. Both of these drivers will certainly be looking to end the year on a high with a strong performance this weekend, as 2018 has been far from plain-sailing for either of them.
Thed Bjork, Mehdi Bennani, Pepe Oriola – who was victim of a gearbox fault – and Aurelien Panis rounded out the top ten.
One of the most notable parts of the session, however, was the significance of circuit traffic. On multiple occasions, drivers had to abandon fast laps due to being held up by slower cars. Although the Guia circuit is a long one, the sheer number of cars taking part in this event mean that it’s difficult for drivers to find clean air. The issue is made worse when you consider the apparent calibre of some of the local wildcard drivers. Despite apparently having been chosen through a rigorous selection process, drivers such as Lam Kam San and Rui Valente (who were around 10-15 seconds off the pace), would prove to be rather inconvenient road blocks at times.
Practice Session 2:
The traffic issues continued into the second practice session, however this would simply be a common element of the competition that all drivers would have to deal with. Through it all, Rob Huff came out on top, reminding us why he’s the driver with the most race wins of all time at the Macau Grand Prix.
After setting the pace early on, the Hyundai duo of Norbert Michelisz and Yvan Muller toppled the Volkswagen driver off the top of the time-sheets. However, Huff responded on his second flying lap with a record-breaking time. In fact, his 2:29:766 lap time would be the first time that a TCR-specification car had ever gone round the Guia circuit in under two and a half minutes.
In the end, Huff’s nearest challenger was Yann Ehrlacher, half a second behind in second place. Muller, meanwhile, put in another highly positive display, securing third place behind his nephew. Vernay couldn’t quite replicate his earlier form and in the end had to settle for fourth, while Huff’s team-mate Bennani made it two Volkswagens in the top five.
Esteban Guerrieri and Thed Bjork were sixth and seventh, proving that they’re in the mix for a good result in qualifying. Next up were the BRC Racing team-mates, Norbert Michelisz and championship-leader Gabriele Tarquini. For Tarquini, it will have been a huge relief to progress into the top-ten after a difficult time in the previous session.
The final car to break into the top-ten was the Honda of Ma Qing Hua. Filling in for Tiago Monteiro, the Chinese driver did far better than he had done in the earlier session.