Norbert Michelisz converted pole position into victory in the first race of day at Sepang, however charging drives from Esteban Guerrieri and Yvan Muller ensured that they stayed in contention for the 2019 World Touring Car Cup.
As the notoriously unpredictable rain clouds swarmed around the circuit, it was decided that the race would start behind the safety car. The Malaysian weather is known for its huge changeability, and with cars starting on various combinations of tyres, it was decided that a citing lap behind the safety car was the best way forward.
As the Audi R8 was withdrawn at the end of lap one, Michelisz led the way from Aurelien Panis and Nestor Girolami, but Frederic Vervisch was immediately under threat from Augusto Farfus for fifth. With the wrong tyre choice on his car, Vervisch struggled for grip, and quickly dropped down the order. This was good news for Guerrieri, as it was one less car between him and title rival Michelisz.
The Argentine swiftly then tried to get by Ma Qing Hua on the inside line at turn nine, but the Alfa Romeo got a better drive off the exit. However, as the cars traded lines, and traded grip, Guerrieri eventually made the move stick at turn 12, while the flailing Audi of Vervisch narrowly avoided wiping out Joao Paulo de Oliveira behind them.
Next up on Guerrieri’s list was the first of the rival Hyundai contingent. After getting a great exit on the final corner, Guerrieri feigned to the outside of turn one before cutting back to the inside. Farfus tried to close the door too late, and contact was made, but Guerrieri shuffled past into sixth place anyway.
Out of position and off the line with the most grip, Farfus then found himself under threat from the cars behind. Ma Qing Hua breezed past on the outside at turn 3, while Kevin Ceccon and Joao Paulo de Oliveira also looked to pick up any scraps. Through turns five and six, Ceccon looked to get past Farfus, but the biggest mover of all was de Oliveira who pulled off a brave attempt to pass both Farfus and Ceccon in one go. The track curved back in his favour at turn seven, securing eighth place for the Brazilian wildcard.
Yvan Muller, meanwhile, had quietly been working his way up the order from mid table obscurity back into top ten contention. Indeed, the Frenchman got better traction on the exit of turn nine, and so he too managed to get past the struggling Hyundai of Augusto Farfus.
As the cars headed onto lap four, de Oliveira continued his charge up the field, this time getting the better of Ma Qing Hua along the start finish straight. Behind them, Muller did likewise alongside the other Alfa Romeo of Kevin Ceccon. Ma tried to defend his position into turn one, but de Oliveira and Daniel Haglof braved it out on the outside line, which curved back in their favour at turn two.
With Guerrieri in his mirrors, Gabriele Tarquini decided that it was time to pick up the pace. Having got by Mikel Azcona at turn four, he then immediately got the better of Honda’s Nestor Girolami through turn five. The reigning champion proved once again that at 57 years old, he still has plenty of speed left in him, and crucially, would prove to be a more difficult man for Guerrieri to pass than Farfus was.
Honda wasted no time in levelling things out however. At turn nine, Girolami crowded Azcona to the outside line, opening the door for Guerrieri to breeze past the pair of them on the inside line. The Argentine was now up to fourth place from his ninth place spot on the starting grid.
The de Oliveira-Muller train still hadn’t let up either, and they were already onto the back of Girolami having swiftly dealt with Azcona’s Cupra. The wildcard entry passed Girolami as the cars moved onto lap five, and Muller also managed to get the job done on the exit of turn two. The Frenchman had now gained ten positions from sixteenth up into sixth place. Although Michelisz was stretching his points advantage out in front, it was clear that Guerrieri and Muller were giving it everything to stay in contention for the championship.
Thed Bjork and Augusto Farfus then came into the pits for slick tyres, with their respective teams effectively using them as research pawns to decide what the best tyre combination would be for Muller and Michelisz in the two remaining races.
Out on track meanwhile, Joao Paulo de Oliveira was earning his wages from Honda, as for lap after lap, the Brazilian held Yvan Muller at bay in an attempt to protect Guerrieri’s fourth place.
Leading the way though, Norbert Michelisz rounded off a flawless perfromance to take the chequered flag, and take victory, in the first race of the WTCR finale at Sepang. With it, the Hungarian would extend his lead in the championship to 27 points over Esteban Guerrieri in second place. With Gabriele Tarquini coming home in third, it was so far, so good for Hyundai.
But, sandwiched in between them in second place across the line, Aurelien Panis drove a mature, controlled race en route to the first ever podium finish of his FIA World Touring Car Cup career. With question marks over the future of Comtoyou Racing and all the other Volkswagen Group teams, the son of the ex-Formula One ace had certainly put himself in the shop window with a performance like this.
Behind the top trio, de Oliveira did the job he was asked to do by Honda, ensuring that Guerrieri came home in fourth place, while Muller remained behind in sixth. No points for Thed Bjork though meant that he was now mathematically out of the title fight.
Race Result – Top 15:
|5th||Joao Paulo de Oliveira||Honda|
|6th||Yvan Muller||Lynk & Co|
|11th||Andy Priaulx||Lynk & Co|
|14th||Yann Ehrlacher||Lynk & Co|