2018 WTCR Season Review: Tarquini’s fairytale Comeback

by James Bowers
Suzuka2018-TCR-WTCR

The 2018 season marked the start of a new era for world touring car racing. From the outside looking in, it seemed almost inevitable that a merger between the World Touring Car Championship and Marcello Lotti‘s TCR format would happen eventually. With costs continuing to rise and grid sizes dwindling further, the controversial TC1 regulations had to be dispensed with at the end of 2017, and TCR proved to be just the tonic that the world championship needed. Having been established in 2015, the TCR racing regulations had exponentially grown in reputation under the guidance of Lotti’s company, WSC. So, putting past grievances aside, Lotti and WTCC promoter, Francois Ribeiro, struck a deal to form a new racing series – The World Touring Car Cup (WTCR).

A minor downside of taking onboard the TCR regulations was that manufacturer entries were now outlawed, and as such, the series would lose its status as an FIA World Championship, and instead become a “World Cup”. Nonetheless, factory-supported drivers were commonly placed within independently run teams in order to fly the flag for their respective marques. The high-quality driver line-ups that resulted from this, along with the lowered costs to entice more car brands to get involved, ensured that the season was a tremendous success. It provided everything that a World Touring Car campaign should involve – close, hard-fought battles on track between a wide variety of different manufacturers.

The Comeback Kings:

World touring car racing may have undergone many changes this year, however it also saw the welcome return of a few familiar faces. Fabrizio Giovanardi has amassed ten championship titles in global touring car racing, and after a few seasons in the wilderness, made a return to full-time racing with the Team Mulsanne Alfa Romeo outfit. Unfortunately, the Italian only scored points on two occasions, both at the Slovakiaring, before leaving the team with two events still to go.

Two other legendary names in touring car racing also made their returns to the sport, however they sustained a far greater deal of success than Giovanardi did in the underdeveloped Alfa. Gabriele Tarquini spent the entirety of 2017 working with Hyundai to build a TCR-spec race car, and in 2018, he reaped the rewards of all his hard development work. Running with the BRC Racing team, Tarquini and the Hyundai i30N TCR were a match made in heaven. This new venture sparked a resurgence of form from the veteran Italian. In his most recent seasons with Honda and Lada, Tarquini’s race results were beginning to fall away slightly, but this year he emphatically returned to the top of the standings.

Tarquini&Muller-Macau2018-WTCR

Yvan Muller (left) and Gabriele Tarquini (right) made victorious comebacks to racing in 2018. Image Credit: Alexandre Guillaumot/DPPI

Despite a year away from racing, Tarquini won the 2018 World Touring Car Cup, however he was closely challenged by a fellow returnee – Yvan Muller. Four-time world champion, Yvan Muller, had effectively retired after Citroen shut down their TC1 programme at the end of 2016. However, with support from Cyan Racing, the Frenchman also made a comeback in 2018 with his own team, YMR, and a pair of highly effective Hyundai TCR cars. Truth be told, the championship was on a knife edge for most of the season, with Tarquini and Muller – amongst others – regularly swapping positions at the top of the points standings. Eventually though, it was Tarquini who came out on top by a margin of just three points, although Muller’s YMR outfit did at least secure the teams’ championship honours.

Either way, it proved that these veteran racers still have plenty more to give, and to win.

Racing Highlights

While some fans were irked by the ever-changing Balance of Performance measures, the system certainly added to the on-track spectacle by levelling the mechanical playing field, and prevented the likes of Hyundai’s incredibly strong i30N TCR from dominating the series. As a result, we were provided with some spectacular battles throughout the field in 2018. Here’s some of the highlights:

The ebb and flow of the Nurburgring: 

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The battle between Audi and Hyundai at the Nordschleife was an intriguing one. Image Credit: Clement Marin/DPPI

The Nurburgring Nordschleife needs no introduction to motorsport fans, and a track of such extremes often amplifies the small differences between each and every car on the grid. This year, there was the interesting dynamic of Hyundai’s superior handling characteristics going up against the faster top speed of Audi’s more aerodynamic RS3 sedan. In particular, Yvan Muller and Frederic Vervisch were involved in a great tussle in the second race at the German circuit. The Belgian initially snatched third place from Muller on lap two (of three) but was re-passed in the Grand Prix section of the Nurburgring. Muller then stretched out the gap through the tight and twisty sectors 2 & 3, but Vervisch managed to reel him back in through sector 4. The speed differential of the two cars effectively caused a ricochet of pace behind them too. When Vervisch suddenly had to slow down to avoid hitting the slower Hyundai of Muller, Yann Ehrlacher was also compromised. So, by the time the cars reached the legendary Dottinger Hohe straight, Vervisch utilised his Audi’s straight-line speed to swipe past Muller for the final step on the podium, while Norbert Michelisz made a similar move on Ehrlacher just behind in synchronised fashion. As a visual spectacle, the quartet of slip-streaming cars battling for third place was a sight to behold.

Homola’s joker lap tactics:

Homola-vs-Muller-VilaReal2018-WTCR

Mat’o Homola took a great tactical victory on the streets of Vila Real. Image Credit: Francois Flamand/DPPI

Love it or hate it, the joker lap used at the Vila Real street circuit in Portugal unquestionably adds another element to the tactical side of the sport. A premise most commonly seen in rallycross, the joker lap system requires drivers to take a longer, alternative layout of the track once during the race. The timing of this can be crucial in many on-track scenarios, and one example of this was the battle for victory in race 2. Mat’o Homola timed his joker lap perfectly to come out in front of Aurelien Panis‘ Audi, giving him the clean air he needed to chase after Yvan Muller who had inherited the lead of the race. Homola pushed his Peugeot to the limit, and gradually made inroads into the gap between himself and the Frenchman. But while Homola had timed his joker lap perfectly, Muller left it just a lap too late. Had he taken the joker lap on the previous time around, Muller would’ve had enough of a time advantage to come out ahead of Homola. However, a big push from the Slovakian youngster saw the cars emerge almost side-by-side once Muller finally did take the alternate route. Homola managed to power past along the start-finish straight, and held on for what would be his first race win in the WTCR, and what a way to win it.

The Slovakian show-stopper:

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The Slovakiaring provided some of the closest racing in 2018. Image Credit: Francois Flamand/DPPI

The WTCR round held at the Slovakiaring was never initially planned to go ahead. Instead, a race in Argentina had been scheduled as part of the original 2018 calendar, but that failed to materialise. As such, the Slovakiaring was brought in as a last-minute replacement venue, and it certainly justified its inclusion. Throughout the weekend, the cars seemed able to stay more or less in one long queue, which made for some captivating battles everywhere you looked in all three races. There were some surprise results too, with Pepe Oriola scoring his first and only win of the season, not to mention a standout performance by underdog Norbert Nagy to secure a podium position in race 2. It was also the first event which saw the Alfa Romeos appear to be somewhat competitive. We even had the shock factor of Yvan Muller losing a wheel and retiring while behind the safety car! In my opinion, the Slovakiaring produced the best racing all season. It shook up the natural pecking order and featured too many on-track tussles to mention. It’s no wonder that the circuit has retained its place on the calendar from the outset in 2019.

Last-gasp chaos at Suzuka:

The racing became fast & furious at Suzuka. Image Credit: Francois Flamand / DPPI

With the season beginning to reach its conclusion, the gloves were off in the third race at Suzuka. In the middle of the top ten, tempers began to fray, and the standard level of contact that you would expect from a touring car race progressed into an all elbows-out brawl. Yvan Muller, Rob Huff, Esteban Guerrieri, Norbert Michelisz and Pepe Oriola were the primary instigators, with the latter seeming to cut every possible chicane and the rest getting rather frustrated as a result. While it may not have been the cleanest race, it certainly was spectacular, as positions swapped hands lap after lap due to the constant pushing and shoving. Inevitably, it all ended in tears though. Guerrieri was nudged into the gravel at the fastest corner on the circuit, while all hell broke loose at the chicane which saw Yvan Muller’s title challenge take a serious blow. By this point, the queue of cars stretched from around sixth place all the way down to the lower end of the top twenty. So, when things finally boiled over, it was every man for himself, leading to the awesome images of cars running at least four-abreast in staggered bunches in one huge free-for-all along the start-finish straight. If there was ever a race to sum up the good and bad elements of touring car racing, this would be it.

The heaviest hits

As alluded to when speaking about the final race at Suzuka, touring car racing is most definitely a contact sport. Most of the time, the racing can be considered to be firm but fair, however the close-quarters nature of the sport means that sometimes things can go very wrong indeed. Here’s a run-down of some of the biggest crashes that we saw during the 2018 season:

The unforgiving Green Hell:

The forests of the Nurburgring Nordschleife are a notoriously unforgiving place. Image Credit: Florent Gooden / DPPI

The Nurburgring Nordschleife is nicknamed the ‘Green Hell’ for a very good reason. A place that demands the maximum level of driving and mechanical competence, even the slightest misjudgement can be harshly penalised. This year, Gabriele Tarquini found that out on two occasions. In the first race, the experienced Italian took too much speed into the final corner after having fended off an attack from Frederic Vervisch. As a result, he slammed his Hyundai hard into the barriers – something which would happen to him again in the second race of the event. This time, however, it wasn’t so much his fault. The slightest of contacts with Gordon Shedden saw Tarquini’s Hyundai again spear off into the barriers at very high speed. Thankfully, he walked away from both accidents without injury. Then, in race 3, Tarquini’s team-mate Norbert Michelisz stole the show. A late overtaking manoeuvre on Rob Huff’s poorly Volkswagen saw both cars pitched into the barriers. Again, everyone would walk away unhurt, but Tom Coronel would be given a tremendous fright as he had to zig-zag his way past Huff’s stationary Golf GTi TCR and the spinning wreck of  Michelisz’s Hyundai.

SLR’s self-destruct button:

The severity of the incident at Vila Real is plain to see. Image Credit: Francois Flamand / DPPI

Arguably one of the largest accidents we’ve seen in touring car racing for years, Sebastien Loeb Racing‘s inter-team kerfuffle resulted in every single car on the grid being involved in the same accident. It should have been a dream weekend for the SLR Volkswagen team. Rob Huff and Mehdi Bennani had been the class of the field throughout practice and qualifying, and would consequently line-up on the front row of the grid. A 1-2 finish was definitely on the cards, however that was all thrown away just a couple of corners into the first race at Vila Real. Bennani attempted to take the lead, but Huff refused to back down, leading to inevitable contact as the circuit narrowed. Both Volkswagens made heavy contact with the wall and speared back across the track where they were collected by a large number of the 25 cars that started behind them. Thed Bjork‘s Hyundai in particular was one of the most severely damaged, along with the Hondas of Yann Ehrlacher and James Thompson amongst others. Everyone involved was eventually cleared by medical staff, however the pair of SLR Volkswagens were completely written-off. What should have been the start of a serious title challenge for Huff and Bennani in fact turned out to be the lowest point of their season.

Tarquini’s game of dominoes:

Cars littered the Slovakian scenery in race three. Image Credit: Jean Michel Le Meur / DPPI

While the Slovakiaring provided some great fair racing over the course of the weekend, it also provided us with a fair bit of contact too. On the first lap of the third race, Gabriele Tarquini misjudged his braking zone into turn three and consequently hit the Honda of Benjamin Lessennes. Lessennes was pitched sideways as a result, and clattered into the unsuspecting Esteban Guerrieri and John Filippi. Cars scattered everywhere in confusion and avoidance, leading to a secondary accident between the likes of Nathanael Berthon, Gordon Shedden and others as drivers attempted to rejoin the circuit. Indeed, this game of dominoes would prove to be a rather expensive one.

Conclusion

The 2018 season sparked life back into World Touring Car racing; a format which had been on a downwards spiral in recent years. The championship battle went right down to the final race of the year, and took many twists and turns throughout the season. Everyone behind the rebirth of this series can breathe a sigh of relief, as it has proven to be a resounding success.

While some people will be frustrated by the Balance of Performance regulations (which are used to equalise all the cars on the grid), the fact of the matter is that it provided some really great racing this year. Plus, the best package in TCR – the Hyundai – may well have been hit hard by BoP on occasions, but ultimately it still ended the season as the car which won both the drivers’ and team’s championships. It may not have dominated as some people think it should’ve been allowed to, but it was let loose enough to ensure that it rightfully took home all the trophies at the end of the year. For me, that’s not exactly a bad compromise. The BoP measures are designed to give every team and driver a chance of victory, but the best packages out there will always come out on top in the end.

Looking ahead to 2019, the future certainly seems bright for the World Touring Car Cup. Legendary names such as Andy Priaulx and Augusto Farfus will add even more quality to the grid on their return to touring car racing, while relatively new ones like Nicky Catsburg and Johan Kristofferson will be hoping to make their mark on this form of racing after being successful elsewhere. In the eyes of many, 2019 is set to be one of the greatest world touring car seasons in modern history. Only time will tell if it lives up to the early off-season hype…

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