Easily one of the most iconic race tracks on the planet, the Guia circuit is almost ready to hold its 65th annual Grand Prix. Located within the booming metropolis of Macau, preparation is underway to transform regular city streets into the demanding sequence of corners that motorsport fans worldwide have grown to love. The Macau circuit really does have everything: high-speed sections, incredibly tight low-speed sections, elevation change – the list goes on. As such, it’s one of the most demanding race courses on the planet, and even the slightest mistake is often harshly punished by its unforgiving concrete walls.
While the event is arguably most famous for its Formula Three and motorcycle races, touring cars have also been an ever-present on the Macau Grand Prix schedule in one form or another. This year, the FIA’s top level touring car competition, the World Touring Car Cup (WTCR), will be taking to the track for its final event of the season. What better setting could there be for a championship to be decided? So, here’s the runners and riders who still have a shot of winning the 2018 World Touring Car Cup:
The favourite: Gabriele Tarquini
Having celebrated his 56th birthday in March, plenty of punters had written-off the Italian legend a few seasons ago. However, this year, Gabriele Tarquini has done his best to prove that age is just a mere number. After taking a year out from full-time racing to develop the new Hyundai i30N TCR race car, he has returned with a seemingly re-invigorated approach to driving. Undoubtedly, it must help that he has an unrivalled understanding of the i30N TCR’s traits as its chief test driver, though his return to form has nonetheless been very impressive indeed.
Heading into Macau, Tarquini has a 39 point advantage over his nearest rival, Yvan Muller. Over the season, he’s amassed five wins and a further three podium results in a largely consistent campaign, barring two back-to-back pointless rounds at the Nurburgring and Zandvoort. While the Hyundai has arguably been the strongest car over the course of the season, it has had its low-points too thanks to the ever-changing Balance of Performance regulations. During these times, however, Tarquini has often been the driver who manages to get the best out of the car regardless. The last round at Suzuka was a great example of this, as while Tarquini was consistently competitive throughout all three races, his fellow Hyundai drivers couldn’t find the same sort of speed.
His advantage in the points standings is certainly a healthy one, and undoubtedly Tarquini is the favourite to win the world cup. However, one man who will be determined to defy the odds is Yvan Muller…
The closest challenger: Yvan Muller
Tarquini isn’t the only one who took a break from full-time racing in 2017. Instead Yvan Muller acted as a lead test driver for Cyan Racing and their Volvo programme. But with the Volvo ineligible to compete under the new TCR regulations, and with Cyan Racing busy working on a project for 2019, Muller decided to return to racing with his own team – YMR. Also making use of the highly competitive Hyundai i30N TCR, the 48 year-old Frenchman has enjoyed a highly successful comeback.
At the start of the season, Muller claimed that his priority for 2018 was to help the growth and progression of his racing team, however come the end of the season, his priorities would appear to have become somewhat more personal. Even with his team manager hat on, the multiple-time former world touring car champion will surely be revelling in the opportunity to add yet another trophy to his collection. With a 39-point deficit to make up to Tarquini, he has a big task ahead of him if he is to achieve glory this year, but history would tell you that discounting Yvan Muller is a very unwise thing to do.
The reigning champ & a future one? Bjork & Oriola
Despite looking to be in a very good position a few rounds ago, reigning World Touring Car Champion Thed Bjork heads to Macau with a 53-point margin to make up on Tarquini. Two poor events for Bjork at Wuhan and Suzuka have left him trailing behind somewhat, and he now requires a prompt return to top form as the season finale looms large. Racing for Muller’s YMR team due to the pair’s links with Cyan Racing, Bjork has at times looked like the best of the Hyundai bunch, but unfortunately for him he’s lacked the required consistency at crucial times.
There’s no doubting his quality, he’s the reigning world champion after all, and is right in the thick of it once again this year. However, with the same machinery at his disposal as Muller and Tarquini, it would take something truly special from Bjork – or a heavy dose of good luck – to turn the tables on his Hyundai stablemates.
Pepe Oriola, meanwhile, has arguably been the surprise package of 2018. Of course, he’s shown glimpses of race-winning form at the top level of touring car competition before, however this seems to be the 24 year-old Spaniard’s coming of age season. Behind the wheel of the Campos Racing Cupra TCR, Oriola has totalled six podium finishes and a race win as well as consistent points – a record that his team-mate John Filippi could only dream of. That said, while he has been very impressive all year, it might be premature to think that he’s the finished article just yet. A particularly scrappy performance in the third race at Suzuka would suggest that he still has a little way to go to be the complete package. And so, with a 64-point gap to Tarquini, perhaps that shows.
2018 may not be Oriola’s year to become world champion, however there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the ultimate title in touring car racing is not beyond his reach in the future. After all, he’s half the age of some of his competitors at the top of the standings. Watch this space…
The Outsiders: Vernay, Guerrieri & Michelisz
It’s often said that anything can happen on the streets of Macau, especially when you add touring cars to the mix. But, even the unpredictability of one of the world’s most notorious circuits is unlikely to be enough for this trio to take the crown in 2018. Being roughly 75-80 points behind the championship leader, each of these drivers will go into the weekend knowing that although they still remain in mathematical contention, it would take a substantial twist in the tale of the season for them to be victorious.
Jean-Karl Vernay, the reigning TCR International Series champion has been the stand-out Audi driver this year, and it should not be a surprise to seem him in the mix at this stage. Claiming a few victories along the way, Vernay has been a consistent scorer of points if nothing else. But, it goes without saying that consistency can only get you so far, and Vernay simply hasn’t been on the podium enough to be a realistic title contender. If he can add a few more top results to his tally next year, it may well be a different story.
Esteban Guerrieri heads to Macau as Honda’s only chance of victory, following Yann Ehrlacher‘s catastrophic mid-season slump having earlier led the way in the points standings. Indeed, while Ehrlacher initially grabbed the headlines, Guerrieri came into his own as the season progressed. Despite always being competitive though, Guerrieri has never really posed a serious challenge to the drivers at the top of the points standings. It’s been a positive year for the Argentine though, and is certainly a good basis to build on for next year’s campaign.
Finally, Norbert Michelisz has had a rather perplexing season. Running alongside Tarquini in the BRC Racing team, the Hungarian fan-favourite has endured a far more negative season than his Hyundai-driving counterparts. ‘Norbi’ certainly isn’t lacking in quality compared to the other drivers associated with the South Korean marque, yet he has consistently been the fourth best of the quartet. One race victory and four podium results is a fairly meek return for a driver like Michelisz, and as such, he finds himself off the pace in the title battle. Although he’s mathematically still in with a shout, it perhaps wouldn’t be a surprise to see Michelisz utilised as a rear-gunner for his team-mate, Tarquini.
Other things to keep an eye on
While the main focus of the weekend will surely be on the drivers’ championship battle, there’s plenty of other factors to look out for.
The revised Balance of Performance regulations should help to predict at least part of the form hierarchy heading into Macau. As if Vernay hadn’t had enough of an uphill battle to deal with, the Audi RS3 LMS TCR is the car which has been most harshly penalised by BoP success ballast, being given a 60kg addition to its base weight. The Hyundais should be on form, however, as they will run at their lightest weight since the Slovakiaring.
Volkswagen, however, have been given a success ballast for the weekend of 30kg, though Rob Huff will be hoping that this won’t be too much of a hindrance. The British ace has had a roller-coaster season, but always seems to do well at Macau. In fact, this weekend, the Brit will be aiming for his tenth race victory there – a circuit record. Plus, to mark the occasion of the legendary Macau Grand Prix weekend, Huff will be running a slightly revised livery on his Golf GTi TCR.
How to watch the Macau Grand Prix
As ever, Eurosport will be offering live TV coverage of the World Touring Car Cup races. Earlier practice sessions will be broadcast live on Facebook, while TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk will keep you up to date with articles throughout the weekend.
So the stage is set, seven drivers enter the Macau street circuit with a chance of winning the world touring car cup, but only one of them will. Who’s your money on?