Norbert Michelisz crowned champion as Kristoffersson takes epic win in finale

by James Bowers

Despite Esteban Guerrieri‘s best efforts, Norbert Michelisz has been crowned champion of the 2019 FIA World Touring Car Cup, while Cyan Racing Lynk & Co claimed the teams’ championship honours.

After twenty nine races, it had all come down to this. The two title contenders would share the front row of the grid, with championship leader Norbert Michelisz starting on pole, and Esteban Guerrieri beside him with a ten-point gap to overcome. For the Argentinean to be crowned champion, Guerrieri would have to win the race and hope that Michelisz didn’t finish on the podium. The task was much simpler for ‘Norbi’ though, as all he had to do was keep the Honda in his rear view mirrors.

However, as the lights went out, that proved to be easier said than done. Hyundai’s main man got a worse getaway, which meant that Guerrieri was able to pass him in the braking zone on the outside line into turn one. Mikel Azcona also followed through in his Cupra, demoting Michelisz to third place. With Guerrieri leading already, Michelisz could not afford to drop any further down the order.

He would have to work hard to hang onto third though, as a gaggle of four cars all swarmed around him at turn nine. For now, he would manage to hold onto the position, but he wasn’t out of the danger zone yet. Johan Kristoffersson had made an absolutely blinding start in this race, and was now up to fourth place after having started from 22nd on the grid. Latched onto the back of Michelisz, it felt inevitable that the Swede would snatch away the Hungarian’s chance of championship victory.

Indeed, with little resistance from Michelisz, Kristoffersson flew by into third place on the inside line at turn twelve, provisionally handing the championship to Esteban Guerrieri at the end of lap one.

But, on the start of lap two, things were about to be shaken up yet again. Mikel Azcona could sense a race victory, and had Esteban Guerrieri in his sights. After the Spaniard dived to the inside of Guerrieri at turn two, the pair of them ran side-by-side through turn three before eventually the Argentine regained the lead on the inside line at turn four. All the while, Kristoffersson was closing up to potentially make it a three-way battle for the lead.

Augusto Farfus then found himself stranded in a gravel trap, leading to the safety car being called out at the end of the second lap. The stricken Hyundai was towed away quickly by the Malaysian marshalls, and so the sensational start to this race was able to resume on lap five.

Michelisz wasted no time in trying to regain a crucial spot on the podium and dragged his way alongside Kristoffersson’s Volkswagen on entry to turn one. However, the Hyundai didn’t have quite enough grip to hang on around the outside, so Michelisz would have to remain in fourth place for now.

Just two corners later, Michelisz’s job was done for him however, as Mikel Azcona went through for the lead of race, snatching away crucial championship points from Esteban Guerrieri. The provisional standings had therefore swung back in favour of the Hungarian by just three points. Azcona’s lead didn’t last for long though. Guerrieri wasn’t going to lose this championship without a fight, and so he swept back past the Spaniard on the inside line into turn nine.

Then, the battle devolved into sheer pandemonium. Slight contact from Azcona unsettled the rear of Guerrieri’s car as they headed into the high-speed turn twelve. The Argentinean driver slid onto the grass and then back onto the circuit, meaning that Azcona had to take avoiding action. This left the door wide open for Kristoffersson and Michelisz, meaning that all four of them were practically side-by-side through turn fourteen.

Through it all, Azcona got the best traction from the outside line and powered back into the lead. Guerrieri narrowly kept Michelisz behind, but with the Hungarian out of position, Kristoffersson could tuck back into third behind Guerrieri. Into the final turn of lap five, Kristoffersson sent it down the inside of Guerrieri, but the Honda ace pulled off a counter move perfectly and regained second place as the cars stormed onto the start-finish straight.

Unfortunately for the Munnich Motorsport camp, Guerrieri couldn’t hold the Volkswagen back for much longer. At turn four, Kristoffersson made a clean overtake on the inside, edging the title that little bit further out of Guerrieri’s reach. Then, things went from bad to worse.

Having picked up a large amount of grass around his radiator (during his kerfuffle with Mikel Azcona), Esteban Guerrieri’s Honda developed an overheating issue. As the cars moved onto lap six, he gradually found himself dropping back into the midfield, as the Civic’s engine temperature began to shoot off the scale.

So, with his only rival almost entirely knocked out of contention, the championship was now back firmly in Michelisz’s grasp.

Knowing the state of play, he decided to take the safe approach. Kevin Ceccon and Frederic Vervisch had been closing up to the back of him, so, to avoid any contact and dramatic loss of points, he let the pair of them through in the knowledge that the next car on the road was the friendly face of team-mate Gabriele Tarquini. Fifth place would now be more than enough for Michelisz to secure the crown.

Gordon Shedden‘s season – and potentially his WTCR career – then came to an abrupt end as he found himself dispatched into the gravel trap; much like Farfus had, a handful of laps earlier. Just as was the case with the previous incident, the safety car was deployed.

With the hazard resolved, the 2019 World Touring Car Cup season was reduced to a four-lap shoot-out for race victory between Mikel Azcona, Johan Kristoffersson, Kevin Ceccon and Frederic Vervisch. Ceccon was the first to make his move. The superior speed of the Alfa Romeo allowed him to draw alongside Kristoffersson on the start-finish straight, but with the inside line to his advantage, the Swede was able to hang on around turn one.

At the end of lap eleven, it was Kristoffersson’s turn to launch an attack. Azcona defended the inside line at the final corner, but as we had seen throughout the weekend, there was more traction to be found on the outside line anyway. This meant that Kristoffersson was able to grip around the Spaniard’s Cupra and power ahead on the run to the line. Having started from outside the top twenty, Johan Kristoffersson was now on course to win Volkswagen’s last ever race in the World Touring Car Cup.

Indeed, the Swede looked comfortable from then on, and took victory in what has to go down as one of the drives of the season. Mikel Azcona fended off Kevin Ceccon for second place, while Frederic Vervisch ended Audi’s factory involvement in the sport with fourth place.

However, all eyes were on the man in fifth. After over a decade of trying, Norbert Michelisz – one of the biggest names on the grid – wrote his name into Hungarian sporting history by becoming the 2019 FIA World Touring Car Champion. After years of being the bridesmaid, ‘Norbi’ had finally done it; he was finally crowned victorious. Esteban Guerrieri put up a brave and honest fight this weekend, however nobody (outside of Argentina at least) could surely begrudge Michelisz of the accolade that he’d dedicated his career to achieving.

As for the teams’ championship, Gabriele Tarquini came home in sixth place for Hyundai, but with Thed Bjork and Yvan Muller in ninth and thirteenth respectively, it wasn’t enough for the South Korean marque to overhaul Cyan Racing Lynk & Co’s lead in the standings.

UPDATE: A post-race time penalty was applied to Mikel Azcona for his involvement in the incident which saw Esteban Guerrieri pick up radiator damage. The Spaniard therefore loses second place and drops to fourteenth, promoting Kevin Ceccon and Frederic Vervisch into the remaining podium positions. It also means that Azcona loses out on Rookie of the Year to Johan Kristoffersson. Gabriele Tarquini was given a time penalty too for safety car procedure infringements, which would see him drop down to eighteenth.

Race Result – Top 15:

PositionDriverCar
1stJohan KristofferssonVolkswagen
2ndKevin CecconAlfa Romeo
3rdFrederic VervischAudi
4thNorbert MicheliszHyundai
5thNestor GirolamiHonda
6thTiago MonteiroHonda
7thThed Bjork Lynk & Co
8thBenjamin LeuchterVolkswagen
9thRob HuffVolkswagen
10thJean-Karl VernayAudi
11thYvan MullerLynk & Co
12thAndy PriaulxLynk & Co
13thDaniel HaglofCupra
14thMikel AzconaCupra
15thHafizh SyahrinHyundai

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