At the start of the year, the 2019 FIA World Touring Car Cup was billed as one of the most competitive competitions in touring car racing history. Veterans like Gabriele Tarquini and Yvan Muller proved in 2018 that they still had plenty to give, while heroes from the previous decade such as triple world champion Andy Priaulx and Augusto Farfus, also rejoined the grid. Esteban Guerrieri and Thed Bjork are entering their peak years as drivers, while the likes of Yann Ehrlacher and Kevin Ceccon would fly the flag for the next generation. Off the back of an underwhelming 2018 campaign, it looked as though once again it might be a stretch too far for Norbert ‘Norbi’ Michelisz to come out on top.
Always the bridesmaid but never the bride, Norbi’s infectious attitude had earned himself a cult hero reputation, not only amongst the masses of passionate Hungarian fans out there, but amongst fans all around the world too. It had become clear over the past decade that the former video game racer had an elite level of talent behind the wheel, yet he could never quite shake off his identity as an underdog. However, with the task more difficult than ever before, the people’s champion finally earned his crown. This is how:
In Morocco, the championship started off poorly for Michelisz, with his best result of the three African races being an eighth place. By contrast, his Hyundai team-mate and reigning WTCR champion, Gabriele Tarquini, picked up a win and two other top five results. Initially then, it looked as though BRC Squadra Corse would pick up where they left off in 2018, with Tarquini as the team’s main title challenger.
The other two race wins at the Circuit Moulay el-Hassen went to Esteban Guerrieri (Munnich Motorsport Honda) and Thed Bjork for the brand new Cyan Racing Lynk & Co outfit; two drivers who would continue to be top performers throughout the season which lay ahead.
The next round in Hungary would be a great opportunity for Michelisz to shine, with the support from his home fans along the pit straight being audible from even inside the car during races. Pole position for the third race of the weekend suggested that it would indeed be time for Norbi to steal the limelight. However, it didn’t quite work out that way. Honda’s Nestor Girolami instead stole the show with two victories from the first two races. Then, when it came to the third and final event, that all-important pole position didn’t translate into a race win. Instead, that accolade went to Tarquini, meaning that Michelisz would have to settle for second place in front of the adoring crowds. Things hadn’t started particularly well then for Norbi; Honda were proving to be fierce competitors, and his team-mate had outperformed him thus far.
But then came Slovakia. Two podiums and a sixth place finish ensured that Michelisz picked up the largest points haul of anybody at the circuit, narrowly outdoing Ma Qing Hua‘s remarkable weekend in the privateer Alfa Romeo. In fact, his consistency would boost him up from eighth in the standings, to third, just behind the Honda duo of Girolami and Guerrieri – and crucially ahead of team-mate Tarquini.
Zandvoort was next, but this time it was Cyan Racing Lynk & Co who were the team to beat. In particular, Thed Bjork was the man on a mission that weekend. His two race victories ensured that he moved up to second place in the championship table, behind new leader Guerrieri. A poor round for Girolami saw him drop to third, while another podium finish meant that Michelisz found himself no lower than fourth, maintaining his status as the top-ranked Hyundai driver while Tarquini found himself in a woeful run of form.
Still though, four events in, and the Hungarian was winless. He was in the mix, make no mistake about that, but so far he had lacked that outright cutting edge. It appeared then, that unless things changed, 2019 would simply be another year where Norbert Michelisz flattered to deceive.
Luckily for him, that victory drought wouldn’t last much longer. At the gruelling Nurburgring Nordschleife, Norbi finally got the result he was looking for in the first race of the weekend. However, things didn’t really go to plan after that, with a seventh place in race two, and a crash with Rob Huff in race three. Meanwhile, Guerrieri picked up a far larger points tally from his pair of podium finishes. The victory had catapulted Michelisz up into second place overall, but that healthy set of results ensured that Esteban Guerrieri now had a 45-point advantage at the half-way point of the season.
The Portuguese event on the high-speed streets of Vila Real marked the final European round of the 2019 campaign. All the headlines would (rightly) go to Tiago Monteiro, who won his first race since returning from an 18-month injury spell. However, Monteiro wasn’t in contention for the title at this point, whereas Honda stablemates, Guerrieri and Girolami were.
Unfortunately for them, they couldn’t quite share the joy felt by Monteiro in front of his home crowd. Instead, Girolami again struggled to even get into the top ten, while a pretty dire event for Guerrieri was saved by a third place finish in race two. Michelisz, meanwhile, didn’t pick up a great deal of points from the second and third races, but crucially, he did manage to take another victory in race one. This practically halved the gap between Guerrieri and Michelisz in the standings to just 24 points, while a relatively noncompetitive weekend for Thed Bjork meant that Lynk & Co’s main man was still in third place, another 26 points back.
So, the World Touring Car Cup circus moved onto Asia, and with that, Yvan Muller seemed to wake up from his 2019 slumber. Until this point, last year’s runner-up had scored just two podium finishes in the entire season, and was sitting down in sixth place in the standings, nearly 80 points behind Guerrieri.
It came as a bit of a shock then, when he stormed to two victories and a third place finish from the three races at China’s Ningbo circuit. Out of nowhere, Muller had shot right back into contention, displacing Thed Bjork as the top-ranked Lynk & Co driver in the standings. The tables really were beginning to turn, as a failure to score any points from the entire weekend meant that Guerrieri lost his lead in the championship to Michelisz. At this seemingly pivotal moment, Norbi claimed a fourth place finish in race one, followed by a victory in race two. A crash with Andy Priaulx took away any chance of further points, but as his main rival faltered, Michelisz remained strong and competitive. With that, it was now he who had a 16-point lead.
Honda would be keen to strike back on home turf at the next round in Japan though, and to a large extent, they did. Esteban Guerrieri was victorious in race one at Suzuka, and followed that up with a second place finish in race three. Michelisz limited the damage however, with victory in the second race. But, that wasn’t enough from a points perspective, and so his newly-won lead of the championship standings had to once again be relinquished to Guerrieri.
At this point in the campaign, with two events left to go, Thed Bjork was placed third in the standings, eight points ahead of Lynk & Co team-mate Yvan Muller in fourth. Although they were outsiders, both drivers still had a shot of winning the title this year. However, at the penultimate round in Macau, the Cyan Racing team decided to put all of their eggs into just one basket.
Despite Bjork’s marginal advantage in the standings, it soon became clear that the team would be backing Muller for the title instead. With overtaking being notoriously difficult on the Macanese street circuit, qualifying would be vital, and it was the Frenchman who ended up performing better of the two. Just like that, he had won the intra-team battle for supremacy, and for the ultimate support of the team’s tacticians.
Evidently keen to justify his team’s decision, Yvan Muller took victory in the first race around the Guia circuit, having started from sixth on the grid. Norbert Michelisz remained within range of him though in second place, but Guerrieri failed to finish. The Frenchman doubled up with a victory in race two, and sure enough it looked as though Cyan Racing’s plan may have started to pay off, with Guerrieri in fourth place this time, but Michelisz down in tenth.
Muller was once again the best placed of the title contenders in the third race, while Andy Priaulx secured victory ahead of Macau master, Rob Huff – his first race win after a ten-year hiatus from the championship. In the standings, things had really closed up. Norbert Michelisz regained the lead with 316 points, while Esteban Guerrieri and Yvan Muller sat in second and third place with 307 and 305 points respectively.
With just eleven points between them, it would all come down to this – a three-way shoot-out between Hyundai, Honda & Lynk & Co at the season finale in Malaysia. In qualifying, Michelisz was imperious. Wiping the floor with his competition, Norbi stormed to two pole positions, setting up what many presumed would be a relatively inevitable saunter to championship victory. Lynk & Co’s team orders would seemingly prove worthless as the team was way off of the competitive pace around Sepang, when it mattered the most. Despite early struggles in practice, Munnich Motorsport ensured that their Hyundai counterparts wouldn’t have it all their own way though. as Esteban Guerrieri would share the front row of the grid with Michelisz in the very last race of the year.
As you can imagine, race one went to Norbi, who was able to stroll off into the distance ahead of an impressively-quick Aurelien Panis. The real headline from this race, however, was Esteban Guerrieri’s charge up from tenth place on the grid to fourth – something which would keep his title hopes realistically alive. Likewise, Yvan Muller put in a hard shift to progress from sixteenth to sixth. But, at this stage, the state of play was still heavily in Michelisz’s favour.
Onto race two, and a heroic drive by Guerrieri would close the gap in the standings. Starting from ninth place on the reversed grid, the Argentine made a lightning getaway, and after the first couple of laps (with a red flag stoppage in between), he found himself as the leader of the race. Guerrieri would go on to take the victory and the hefty amount of points that comes with it, putting the pressure firmly back on Michelisz’s shoulders, who crossed the line in eighth.
Muller again charged his way up from mid-grid obscurity to sixth, but it wasn’t enough. With just one race left, the veteran was now mathematically out of the running to win the title. That meant that in the final race of the year it would be a straight fight between Esteban Guerrieri and Norbert Michelisz, separated by just a handful of points and a few feet on the grid.
The race which occurred next will no doubt go down in history as one of the true classics. From the get-go, the script was thrown out of the window. Michelisz, who had to stay in the top four if Guerrieri won, was down to third by the second corner, while Honda’s man led the way. The likes of Mikel Azcona, Johan Kristoffersson and Kevin Ceccon all got stuck into the mix as well, resulting in truly frantic racing which was exhilarating to watch. Over the course of the first half of the race, things would shift so dramatically that the lead of the points standings changed hands about six times, before eventually the fun and games came to a premature end.
At a point when he was on course to be champion, Esteban Guerrieri was on the receiving end of light contact with Mikel Azcona as they battled for the lead of the race. It was enough to temporarily send the Argentine off the circuit, where unfortunately grass would get collected in and around his radiator. Ultimately, the Honda would overheat, ending any hopes of Guerrieri claiming the title this year, as he gradually dropped out of contention. Azcona would go on to receive a penalty for the role he played, but don’t for a minute think that Michelisz’s victory is not deserved.
Of course, we never got the chance to find out for sure, but it looked as though it was only a matter of time before Azcona and/or Kristoffersson would legitimately get by Guerrieri anyway; particularly the latter who had remarkably stormed all the way up from 22nd on the grid to take the race win. Plus, although Guerrieri’s fightback was incredible to watch, Michelisz’s overall command of the weekend and newfound consistency throughout the year cannot be overlooked. The truth is, either one of them would have been a worthy champion in 2019, but this time, for the first time, it was Norbi who reigned supreme.
Final Championship Standings (Top 10):
|1st||Norbert Michelisz||BRC Squadra Corse |
|2nd||Esteban Guerrieri||Munnich Motorsport |
|3rd||Yvan Muller||Cyan Racing |
(Lynk & Co)
|4th||Thed Bjork||Cyan Racing |
(Lynk & Co)
|5th||Johan Kristoffersson||Sebastien Loeb Racing |
|6th||Mikel Azcona||PWR Racing |
|7th||Nestor Girolami||Munnich Motorsport|
|8th||Gabriele Tarquini||BRC Squadra Corse|
|9th||Yann Ehrlacher||Cyan Performance|
(Lynk & Co)
|10th||Jean-Karl Vernay||Leopard Lukoil Team WRT|