As the 2019 World Touring Car Cup (WTCR) season finally reaches its conclusion this weekend, Norbert Michelisz has set himself out as the man to beat after a superb qualifying performance that has earned him pole position in two of the three remaining races. The popular Hungarian won’t have it all his own way en route to championship victory though, as main rival Esteban Guerrieri remains within striking range. Here’s how the starting grids for Sunday were decided:
Qualifying Session 1:
The first qualifying session of the weekend would decide the starting grid for the first of three races set to come on Sunday. Unlike the second session which would take place later in the day, this round of qualifying would take on the form of a traditional, simple thirty-minute shoot-out between everyone on the entry list.
With everyone involved, it was all hands on deck for each of the three marques in contention for championship honours this weekend. Quickly, it became apparent who were the ones with the upper hand.
Hyundai, fresh from winning the 2019 World Rally Championship teams’ title, had seemingly dialled their cars in perfectly for the Sepang circuit. With four I30Ns at their disposal, BRC Racing (the outfit behind the Hyundai operation) played their tactics well by ensuring that Michelisz picked up an aerodynamic tow along the crucial back straights from each of his teammates. Indeed, Norbi made sure to acknowledge the leadership from his team, and implementation from his teammates, after securing the fastest lap time of all as a result. His time of 2:13.748 meant that he had a margin of almost four hundredths of a second to the next fastest car; quite a comfortable cushion by touring car standards.
The next fastest car wasn’t even one of Michelisz’s championship rivals however, but instead was French youngster Aurelien Panis. The Cupra driver impressed everyone to take the best qualifying result of his WTCR career, and he did it without the help of a slipstream.
Alongside Hyundai, Honda are another marque who could win the World Cup this weekend. Just like their South Korean rivals, Honda also tried to use positional tactics to give their main contender a helping hand in qualifying. However, things didn’t quite work out as they would’ve intended. Yes, the third fastest car in this qualifying session did turn out to be a Honda, but it wasn’t the driver which they would’ve wanted it to have been. Nestor Girolami ended up as the quickest of their quintet of Civics, however Esteban Guerrieri is the man who actually has a chance of winning the drivers’ championship on Sunday. From third, Girolami could potentially drop back to help Guerrieri who will start the first race from tenth place, but the team will be frustrated not to have managed to get the right driver to the top of the standings when their cars clearly had the required pace.
Mikel Azcona was fourth fastest after putting in yet another impressive shift in his rookie season. Meanwhile, Frederic Vervisch secured the fifth grid spot for Audi in what will be their final appearance in the WTCR as factory-supported customer teams. The Hyundai trio of Augusto Farfus, Nicky Catsburg and Gabriele Tarquini were next up in the standings, serving as a helpful points buffer between Michelisz and his championship rivals. The top ten for race one’s grid was rounded out by the Alfa Romeo of Ma Qing Hua, and the slightly frustrated aforementioned Guerrieri.
But what about the third marque in contention for championship glory? Well, for Lynk & Co Cyan Racing, qualifying was an outright disaster. None of their four drivers could find any sort of front-running pace, with their two title contenders – Yvan Muller and Thed Bjork – languishing down in 16th and 28th respectively.
Qualifying Session 2
Onto qualifying session 2, and onto the introduction of knock-out rounds. This session would be comprised of three phases. The first of which would see the twelve fastest cars out of the twenty-nine entries progress into phase two. There, drivers would battle for two honours. The first of which would be to progress into the top five shoot-out for pole position, while the second would be securing pole position for the reversed grid race by placing tenth fastest. Those who make it into the final top five shoot-out would then just have one lap each to stake their claim for pole position.
As day turned to night and the floodlights came on around Sepang, Lynk & Co were desperate to right the wrongs of Qualifying 1. The Chinese-Swedish team came tantalisingly close to reaching the all-important top twelve, but unfortunately for Yvan Muller, the Frenchman could reach no higher than thirteenth. Thed Bjork was also off the pace again in nineteenth, meaning that unless something very dramatic happens on Sunday, Lynk & Co’s hopes of winning the drivers’ championship are all but over. Cyan Racing does currently lead the teams’ championship standings however, but they will have to work hard to retain that advantage over the course of the three races to come.
It would also prove to be an unhappy farewell for Volkswagen. Like Audi, VW are pulling their factory support from the WTCR paddock at the end of this season, but sadly as has been the case throughout the year, the Golf GTI TCR struggled for pace in qualifying once again. Johan Kristoffersson was the best of the bunch, but he could do no better than 21st.
Moving on into phase two, Ma Qing Hua was the tenth fastest driver, thus securing pole position for himself in the reversed-grid second race on Sunday. In ninth place, Honda’s Nestor Girolami would join the Alfa Romeo driver on the front row of the grid.
Up at the sharp end however, Norbert Michelisz was once again leading the way, and indeed became the first driver to make it into the top five shoot-out for pole position. Nicky Catsburg and Gabriele Tarquini also made it through for Hyundai, along with Cupra’s Mikel Azcona and Michelisz’s main title rival, Esteban Guerrieri, for Honda.
As a result of going fastest of all in phase two, Michelisz had the luxury of first choice in regard to when he wanted to set his crucial shoot-out lap time. Rather than wait around, the Hungarian chose to go first and set the early benchmark. This time, with no slipstream or help from his team-mates, Michelisz set a lap time of blistering pace; a 2:13.141.
Catsburg and Tarquini would never truly pose a threat to their team-mate, however the margin to the likes of Guerrieri and Azcona was remarkable. Esteban Guerrieri’s lap time was a whopping seven tenths of a second slower than that of Michelisz, while Azcona was eight tenths back. Gaps such as this are rare in touring car racing, where often over half of the grid can be covered by a mere second. If they hadn’t already, this performance ensured that everybody sat up and took notice of Norbert Michelisz. Certainly, this was the sort of performance that was worthy of championship glory.
But the question remains; will Michelisz and Hyundai be able to translate their qualifying pace into points-paying performances on race day? Well, with two pole positions lined up, and confidence like no other driver on the grid this weekend, it certainly seems to be Norbi’s to lose. However, in touring car racing, nothing should be taken for granted. Honda’s Esteban Guerrieri is still very much in this fight, and you can be sure that a driver as passionate as he is will give it everything he’s got.