Niels Langeveld tops opening WTCR practice at Suzuka

by James Bowers

Despite a perfectly dry forecast for the weekend ahead, Suzuka was submerged in heavy rain as the first World Touring Car Cup practice session got underway on Friday.

It was only a matter of time before somebody fell victim to the elements. This time round, it was Yann Ehrlacher who was the first to fall off the circuit after running too deep into turn two.

Five minutes later, Tom Coronel then had a huge moment at turn one. The charismatic Dutchman dug his car out of the gravel trap as quick as he could, minus the left side skirt which was sheered off during his high-speed slide.

Not wanting to be outdone by Coronel, Ehrlacher then had another excursion into the gravel traps, this time at turn six.

Wildcard, Ryuichiro Tomita, hit standing water at the same bend and was unable to avoid having a half-spin in his Audi. Luckily, he was able to regather and move on out of the way quite quickly.

Attila Tassi then had a slightly wayward moment at turn one, but remained the quickest of the Honda quintet in seventh. Tomita had another spin in the same place, but the biggest issue was when Aurelien Panis went straight on into the barriers at the first corner. The young Frenchman had been running third on the time sheets at that point.

With the car embedded in the barriers, the red flag was flown to halt proceedings in order to recover Panis’ wrecked Cupra. When the session resumed, there were just five minutes left on the clock, so a mad rush out of the pit lane ensued.

Frederic Vervisch‘s early table-topping lap time had stood firm for most of the session, but with under two minutes to go, Niels Langeveld pulled off an even quicker lap time despite never having driven around Suzuka before.

The Dutchman stayed on top for the remainder of practice, and so it was a Comtoyou Racing one-two on the timesheets, with Vervisch up there in second place.

Gabriele Tarquini was the best of the rest in third for Hyundai, while Rob Huff was fourth in his Volkswagen.

The top five was rounded out by Yvan Muller for Lynk & Co, while the best Honda-equipped driver was Tiago Monteiro in sixth.

Jean-Karl Vernay was next in seventh place, almost seven tenths of a second slower than Langeveld. Mikel Azcona and championship contender Esteban Guerrieri finished the session in eighth and ninth place respectively, while Gordon Shedden made it four Audis in the top ten.

It was nearly five though, as wildcard Ritomo Miyata showed impressive pace for Team Hitotsuyama in twelfth position.

As for championship points leader Norbert Michelisz, he had a session to forget. The Hungarian fan favourite was mired all the way down in twenty-fifth place.

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