Season Preview: 2019 World Touring Car Cup

by James Bowers

In 2018, World Touring Car racing was reborn. The expensive TC1 regulations of yesteryear were tossed aside in favour of Marcello Lotti‘s brainchild – TCR, and hence, the World Touring Car Cup (WTCR) was formed from the ashes of the old WTCC. The season was a resounding success for the most part, as despite the constant grumblings surrounding Balance of Performance, the format provided us with a year of epic touring car racing. Now, in 2019, the series is set to step it up a gear.

Throughout the Winter, Eurosport has been promoting the WTCR’s fresh line-up of drivers; a line-up which it believes is worthy of the title “Supergrid”. But, what exactly makes a ‘supergrid’?

The Big Guns

Gabriele Tarquini and Yvan Muller are names that are synonymous with touring car racing. With ten touring car championships between them, the veteran duo again proved that age is just a number, with the pair of them battling it out for the drivers’ title in 2018. Tarquini eventually edged it by just a handful of points from Muller, making him the oldest FIA World Champion on record, at the spritely age of 56.

Both of them will once again be back on the grid in 2019; Tarquini remaining with the Hyundai-equipped BRC Racing team, while Muller gets set to debut the new Lynk & Co 03 TCR for Cyan Racing. Despite the influx of driving talent over the Winter months, only a fool would discount Tarquini and Muller in the race for this year’s championship.

Hyundai-Lynk&Co-Barcelona-WTCR

Whose stars will shine brighter, Hyundai’s or Lynk & Co’s? Image Credit: Xavi Bonilla/DPPI

The duo’s team-mates should be equally well-respected. Alongside Tarquini at BRC Racing is Norbert ‘Norbi’ Michelisz. The ever-popular Hungarian is a proven race-winner, and as the crowd will tell you, takes on a hero status at his home event at the Hungaroring. Amidst all the fanfare however, Michelisz has never really been a favourite in any previous title races, arguably discounting his 2017 season with Honda. Given the drivers that he’ll be rubbing shoulders with again this year, the size of the task ahead of him is, if anything, getting larger. Nonetheless, on his day, Michelisz can beat anyone and will definitely be one to watch.

Alongside Muller at Cyan Racing is Swedish stalwart, Thed Bjork. The 2017 World Touring Car Champion is undoubtedly one of the best touring car drivers of his era, and could have made it back-to-back titles last year had it not been for a sudden capitulation in results at the final few rounds of the 2018 season. Equipped with the new Lynk & Co, which is expected to be one of the quickest cars on the grid, Bjork will be as composed and effective as ever.

Points to Prove

The Volkswagen Group has a heavy investment in TCR racing, with their Audi, Cupra and Volkswagen brands all being represented in the World Cup again this year. 2018, however, was a story of what could have been. The European marques were the cars to beat during the days of the old TCR International Series, but new kid on the block Hyundai, simply outclassed them last year.

Naturally, VAG’s response was to strengthen their hand over the Winter months with a few new faces brought into the project. However, to be successful, their established stars must also perform at their best this year. The highest ranked of the bunch last year in the drivers’ standings was Jean-Karl Vernay for Audi, who finished fifth. The Frenchman was a consistent performer which kept him in contention for the title, and with four race victories to his name, he certainly had some high points along the way. That said, it never truly felt like the German marque had what it takes to topple Hyundai.

Likewise, triple BTCC champion, Gordon Shedden, endured a tough debut season with Audi on the world stage. He did, however, pick up a win at the Wuhan street circuit, so there’s unquestionably plenty of pace to be capitalised upon. The question is, will he be able to achieve the consistency that is required? Well, he’s done it before on British shores, and with a year’s experience under his belt with a new team, new car and new event calendar, there’s no reason why he can’t.

VolkswagenGroup-Barcelona2019-WTCR

The Volkswagen Group were a force in TCR before the arrival of Hyundai in 2018. Can they reclaim their throne this year? Image Credit: DPPI

Another Audi driver with mixed fortunes in 2018 was Frederic Vervisch. For Vervisch, it was very much a season of two halves. In the early stages, he and the Comtoyou Racing squad were far from challenging the series’ top dogs. However, that all changed soon enough, and Vervisch quickly became one of the most prolific points scorers in the WTCR. Had he not endured such a tricky start to the season, Vervisch may well have had a say in the title fight at the end of the year. It’ll therefore be crucial that the Belgian is up to speed right from the get-go this time around, as Audi may well have a championship challenger on their hands.

Away from Audi, but sticking with the Volkswagen Group, attention turns to Volkswagen themselves. Although efforts have been made to improve their teams, the cynics amongst punters would still argue that only one of their drivers – Rob Huff – has a chance of winning the title. Pace has never been an issue for Huffy, but the charismatic Brit was involved in too many accidents throughout 2018, either through bad luck or misjudgement. If he can score the sort of points that slipped away in 2018, then he may well be able to add to his World Championship crown from 2012.

Then, there’s Honda. Argentine maestro, Esteban Guerrieri has been part of the Honda set-up for a couple of years now, but the 2018 campaign really felt like a breakthrough season for him. At Munnich Motorsport, all the outside attention was on his team-mate in the early stages of last year, but it was Guerrieri who emphatically came out on top in the final standings. Indeed, by claiming third place overall, Guerrieri marked his transition from ‘rising star’ to ‘established front-runner’. The key for Guerrieri will be to earn the right to retain that reputation in 2019. Having never really been expected to be a title contender before this season, will he be able to live up to the hype now that all of that has changed?

Returning Legends

One of the headlines of the 2019 WTCR Supergrid is the sheer number of touring car legends that have returned to the entry list.

A marker of how seriously Lynk & Co are taking this TCR project is the fact that triple World Touring Car Champion, Andy Priaulx, has been signed up by the Chinese-Swedish outfit. Few would’ve predicted him to return to the series in which he made his name as an elite racing driver, yet it has happened. Admittedly, Priaulx achieved all of his success in a rear-wheel drive BMW, whereas the new Lynk & Co is driven by its front wheels. In fact, the Guernsey-man hasn’t raced a front-wheel drive car on a full-time basis since 2002 in the BTCC.  That said, his reputation alone is enough to suggest he’ll be battling at the front.

Monteiro-Priaulx-Barcelona2019-WTCR

Tiago Monteiro (left) and Andy Priaulx (right) are just two of the former legends that have returned to World Touring Car racing this year. Image Credit: DPPI

The same can be said for one of his former BMW team-mates, Augusto Farfus. Farfus could never quite overcome Priaulx during the pair’s WTCC days, however the Brazilian will surely want to put that right – especially having signed up to drive for the rival BRC Hyundai team. The BMW links don’t stop their either. Also joining him in a Hyundai this year is Dutchman Nicky Catsburg. Catsburg made a fantastic impression during the dying days of the old WTCC, and has since joined the BMW GT programme alongside Farfus. But, after just a year away, Catsburg will be setting foot in a touring car once again, ensuring that Hyundai have arguably the best driver line-up (though Cyan Racing might have something to say about that).

The fourth welcome returnee is a particularly significant one. Portuguese ace, Tiago Monteiro hasn’t raced full-time since sustaining severe injuries in a Honda WTCC car while on course for winning the championship that year. Now though, Monteiro is finally fit to race again, and has rekindled his racing relationship with Honda in an attempt to right the wrongs of 2017. How will he cope in such a strong competition after such a long time out of the car? Well, only time will tell.

Rising Stars

Touring car racing is often considered to be a place for experienced professionals to duke it out in less demanding cars than, for example, a top level GT or open-wheel race car. That image from decades gone by, however, perhaps isn’t a fair reflection on the sport at all. Indeed, plenty of young drivers are now seeking out careers in touring car racing, and have been for a long time now. This year is certainly no exception.

Completing the Cyan Racing quartet alongside the established trio of Muller, Priaulx and Bjork is 22 year-old Yann Ehrlacher. Having been around the paddock for a couple of seasons now, Ehrlacher has built up a reputation as one of the brightest young stars in the field of touring car racing. The Frenchman made a lightning quick start to 2018, and even led the drivers’ championship at one stage. Sadly though, those results began to tail off as the season wore on. But, having swapped a seat at Honda for one with Lynk & Co, Ehrlacher will have some of the world’s best touring car drivers alongside him to learn from.

Speaking of Honda, they can claim to have the youngest driver on the grid in Attila Tassi, who is just 19 years old. The Hungarian impressed in TCR Europe last season and, while the step up to WTCR may be tough, Tassi has shown all the potential required to be able to match or exceed the achievements of compatriot, Norbert Michelisz. That may only become a realistic target in a few years’ time, however he’s still definitely someone to keep an eye on this season too.

Ceccon-Mulsanne-Barcelona2019-WTCR

Was Kevin Ceccon’s 2018 success just a flash in the pan, or can he and Team Mulsanne continue their progress in 2019? Image Credit: Xavi Bonilla/DPPI

Another TCR Europe graduate, Mikel Azcona, also makes the step up to the World Cup. Azcona is actually the reigning TCR Europe champion, and will be continuing his partnership with Cupra in 2019. Having signed for PWR Racing, Azcona effectively takes over the role of Pepe Oriola as Cupra’s home-grown Spanish wonderkid, with Oriola having sadly left the competition.

Last but by no means least, one of the surprise packages of 2018 – Kevin Ceccon – is back on the grid again this year. Having joined the WTCR mid-way through the season, Ceccon quickly achieved success with the underdog Team Mulsanne Alfa Romeo team. The Italian has since gained a reputation for his charisma both on and off the circuit, and will surely be a colourful member of the Supergrid in 2019.

Now, there may be a few names that haven’t been mentioned here that you think are worth a shout-out. And that’s the beauty of the Supergrid. The truth is, a mountain of positivity and intrigue can be generated around each and every driver set to compete this year; there simply aren’t any obvious back-markers.

So; new cars, new teams, new faces – and a few welcome old ones – all battling it out over a 30-race campaign. The season ahead promises a great deal in terms of spectacle and intrigue, so much so, that early comparisons have been made to the heyday of touring car racing – the 1990s SuperTouring era. Whether these comparisons are justified or not, well, right now it’s simply too early to say. But one thing that we can be sure of is that, regardless of how highly the TCR era ranks in the history of touring car racing, 2019 has all the ingredients to be an absolute classic.

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