The World Touring Car Cup (WTCR) begins the European leg of its 2019 adventure this weekend. Following a season-opener on the streets of Marrakech, the WTCR returns to a more traditional circuit layout at the Hungaroring in Budapest.
It may be early on in the season, but there are already stories beginning to develop. Here’s what to look out for over the course of the weekend:
The Headline Acts
You can’t talk about the WTCR in Hungary without mentioning Norbert Michelisz. The home hero already has ‘legend’ status amongst his fans, and that support is always expressed well by the Hungarian fans. One of the most atmospheric events on the WTCR calendar, fans will routinely cheer in their masses when ‘Norbi’ passes by the grandstands on each lap. With that in mind, a win for Michelisz in any of the three races set to go ahead would see the place erupt, as it has done in the past.
That said, although the Hyundai is a strong package and more than capable of winning this weekend, it hasn’t been the easiest start to the year for Michelisz. As a result, compatriot Attila Tassi will be eager to steal some of the limelight from his more experienced counterpart. Teenage Tassi is the youngest driver on the WTCR grid, and steadily improved behind the wheel of his KCMG-prepared Honda Civic over the course of the opening event. Now, returning to a track he knows well, Tassi will want to take another step forward this time out. Who knows, maybe the Hungarian fans will have a new name to cheer for…
A Baptism of Fire
Sticking with the Hungarian theme, local racing team Zengo Motorsport will be welcomed back to the WTCR paddock this weekend with a wildcard entry for Tamas Tenke. Last year, Zoltan Zengo‘s crew ran a pair of Cupra TCRs for Norbert Nagy and Zsolt Szabo, however it’ll be Tenke who gets to drive the car this time out. A former sim-racer, Tenke has minimal experience behind the wheel of a real-life racing car. At the start of the year, the 22 year-old partly competed in the TCR Middle East Series in order to get a feel for the car and the team.
The step up to the WTCR, however, will be a huge one – particularly when handed an extra 20kg of weight ballast for being a wildcard entry. Both the driver and team are aware of the learning curve that Tenke will face this weekend, but are eager to make the most of the experience before contesting the majority of the 2019 TCR Europe Series for the remainder of the year.
Volkswagen’s start to the season in Morocco was nothing short of a disaster. A stark lack of pace, mechanical failures and contact between team-mates – the event in Marrakech had it all. With only two of their four cars even being able to score a handful of points, the Sebastien Loeb Racing operation appears to have plenty of work to do to even get back into the top ten during a race.
It could be argued that the Volkswagen has been given a particularly unfair Balance of Performance, or it may even have just been a case of the Circuit Moulay el-Hassen not suiting the Golf TCR’s characteristics. Either way, a better reflection of the cars’ pace will hopefully be shown this time out, at a more conventional circuit such as the Hungaroring. That said, SLR had issues that stretched beyond pure performance in the opening round.
Friendly fire between Mehdi Bennani and Rob Huff was a constant theme of 2018. Unfortunately, the pair picked up where they left off in Race Two, as Bennani tagged the back of Huff’s car, who in turn slid into the third Golf of Johan Kristofersson. Bennani was left with terminal damage to his car, and while Kristofersson got off lightly, Huff dropped to last place. Even if the team manages to get on top of the performance of their cars this weekend, they will have to ensure that incidents like these do not happen again if they want to be serious contenders.
The Battle for Supremacy
If Morocco was anything to go by, the 2018 championship battle should be absolute edge-of-the-seat stuff. Honda, Hyundai and Lynk & Co all took race victories at the North African circuit, while Audi and Cupra also featured on the podium.
The battle for supremacy, however, does appear to be between the first aforementioned trio. Of course, there’s a long, long way to go in this season, but the likes of Jean-Karl Vernay, Frederic Vervisch and Mikel Azcona were relative interlopers amongst a strong field of Honda, Hyundai and Lynk & Co competitors.
Lynk & Co’s Thed Bjork emerged from the event as the championship leader. The Swede’s blend of raw pace and sensibility seemed to work in his favour as others around him fell by the wayside. Undoubtedly, he’ll be wanting to continue that trend in Hungary, however the rest of the Lynk & Co quartet will all be eyeing-up improved results this time out.
Yvan Muller in particular will be most unhappy with his points tally from Marrakech. Despite putting in two strong qualifying performances and leading the third race, potential victory was snatched away from the French veteran by engine and tyre failures. Muller will have been left with a bittersweet feeling for sure, as although he was arguably the quickest man out there, he didn’t collect the point to show for it.
After emerging last year as a serious championship contender, Honda’s Esteban Guerrieri was the Japanese marque’s star last time out. Having won the opening race of the year, the Argentine finds himself second in the standings behind Bjork. His team, Munnich Motorsport, are also leading their respective championship following strong results from Guerrieri’s team-mate, Bebu Girolami. The German outfit has never really been one of the top dogs at this level until now, and they certainly won’t be willing to go down without a fight.
Last year’s powerhouse, Hyundai, doesn’t look quite so invincible in 2019. Yes, reigning champion Gabriele Tarquini took victory in Race Two at Marrakech – but that was with the advantage of a reversed grid. His three team-mates surprisingly never quite looked like challenging for the top results on pure pace, although it must be said that Nicky Catsburg‘s weekend should have been far more fruitful than it was. Brake failure stole a nailed-on race victory from the Dutchman, who instead could only watch on as Tarquini took the chequered flag.
While the Hyundai quartet may not have shown the pace that they did at Morocco last year, their package is still undoubtedly one of the strongest on the grid. Naturally, different circuits will favour different cars, so expect to see a fluid level of competitiveness between Lynk & Co, Honda and Hyundai in the coming months – though Audi’s streamlined RS3 shouldn’t be discounted either.
Who are the Favourites?
So, who will come out on top in Hungary, you ask? Well, history suggests that Hyundai should do well. Norbert Michelisz stuck his car on pole position twice here last year, but it was Gabriele Tarquini who took the victories. That said, the Hyundai was strong pretty much everywhere last year, barring some controversial BoP measures enforced at Zandvoort. Under it’s new BoP guise for 2019, it’s perhaps not so clear-cut.
Honda, meanwhile, could also be in good shape. Munnich Motorsport’s driver line-up of last year picked up the fastest laps in two of the three races, along with a place on the podium. If Hyundai are expected to be weaker this year, Honda could be the ones to take advantage.
But then there’s the unknown factor of Lynk & Co. The Chinese car prepared by Cyan Racing is totally new for 2019, so there’s no past performances to look at. It must be noted, however, that the team were impressively strong on their debut with the new car, and could quite easily become a Hyundai-like powerhouse if they continue to develop it.
Alternatively, the Hungaroring might not suit their car at all, or their drivers for that matter. Yvan Muller and Thed Bjork have had success here before, but the duo were outpaced by Tarquini and Michelisz last year when equipped with the same machinery. Yann Ehrlacher was rapid here in 2018 however, while touring car legend Andy Priaulx adds more unpredictability to the pot having never raced in Hungary before.
So, to put it simply: there are no favourites. And sure, that may be a cliche, but it’s hard to definitively argue for one team over another when there is so much variance involved. What we can be certain of, however, is that the upcoming race weekend should be nothing less than spectacular.