Amidst the continually wet and rainy conditions at Suzuka, the first World Touring Car Cup qualifying session of the weekend got underway in rather chaotic fashion.
Thed Bjork was one of the first cars to start their flying lap, and as a result, by the time he reached the final corner on the short 2.2 kilometre circuit, there were still a large group of cars blocking his way as they each tried improve their positioning to set up their own flying laps.
Consequently, Bjork had to abandon his lap, while the onrushing Yvan Muller was forced to take major evasive action in order to avoid hitting any of the slower cars. The ice racing veteran did well to hold onto his vehicle as it pitched into a half-spin, and luckily no damage was done.
Daniel Haglof then became the first casualty of the worsening conditions. The Swede lost control of his Cupra at turn five, span into the gravel and then got stuck. With his car stranded in a dangerous place, there was no other option than to red-flag the session so that it could be removed out of harm’s way.
Qualifying did indeed get underway once again, but as he was the cause of the red flag, Daniel Haglof was not allowed to rejoin and had his fastest lap time removed. He could therefore end qualifying no higher than nineteenth.
Meanwhile, it was just one minute before the red flags had to be deployed again. This time Tom Coronel was the cause as he aqua-planed and crashed into the side of Mikel Azcona‘s car. As two more Cupras fell by the wayside, this meant that only Aurelien Panis remained in contention for the Spanish marque.
The session restarted with twenty minutes on the clock, and conditions had seemingly improved somewhat. A host of drivers improved their lap time, including the previous pace-setter Tiago Monteiro. However, yet another stoppage was required when Yvan Muller piled into the barriers at turn one.
Muller had only just moved up into third place in the session, but now he was set to lose that time for causing another stoppage. To add salt to his wounds, the front end of the Frenchman’s Lynk & Co was heavily damaged, so large question marks loomed over whether he’d even get to take part in the later qualifying session for races two and three.
For a third time, qualifying was restarted. Niels Langeveld was one of the most significant early improvers. The Dutchman rocketed up to third place, while Ritomo Miyata moved up into thirteenth. The Audi contingent were finally able to get some more representative lap times onto the board, but still weren’t quite at the heights that they had achieved in practice.
With just under ten minutes left, Johan Kristoffersson was the next big mover. The fastest man in practice two dethroned Langeveld for third, but still nobody could get close to the Honda duo of Monteiro and Esteban Guerrieri.
At least, until Thed Bjork came along, that is. The Swede went second fastest as the times began to tumble further. Andy Priaulx then cemented the inherent pace of the Lynk & Co, as he went fastest of all.
He wouldn’t stay there for long though, as a minute later Frederic Vervisch went even quicker in his Audi. Gabriele Tarquini also found some extra speed and slotted into second place.
Then, Tiago Monteiro pulled off an astonishing lap to go four tenths of a second faster than Vervisch; a huge margin in racing terms, especially in conditions as treacherous as these. Ritomo Miyata moved up from 20th to sixth, but then sadly all the fun and games came to a halt once more, as Attila Tassi fired off backwards at turn two. Tassi’s fourth place lap time was deleted, and so Miyata would move up even further to fifth.
Eventually, the session boiled down to one final shoot-out with just a handful of minutes remaining. Nestor Girolami made the most of the opportunity and slotted in to make it a Honda lock-out of the top three.
So, Tiago Monteiro will start the first race of the weekend from pole position, ahead of Honda stablemates Esteban Guerrieri and Nestor Girolami.
Niels Langeveld was the best of the rest for Audi in fourth place; one of his best WTCR qualifying performances ever. Langeveld’s team-mate Frederic Vervisch rounded out the top five.
Gabriele Tarquini was the only Hyundai driver to show any sort of speed in these conditions, and will line up from sixth place in race one. By contrast, championship points leader Norbert Michelisz would have a lot of work to do from fourteenth on the grid.
One of the feel-good stories from qualifying was the performance of young wildcard, Ritomo Miyata. Having been as high up in the standings as fifth, the Japanese Formula 3 regular still had plenty to be proud of in seventh place.
The Lynk & Co duo of Thed Bjork and Andy Priaulx will start the opening race from eighth and ninth, while Johan Kristoffersson completed the top ten.