Season Review: 2019 FIA World Touring Car Cup – Part Two: The Talking Points

by James Bowers

The 2019 World Touring Car Cup was a highly competitive, highly entertaining and sometimes highly controversial edition of the world’s premier tin top category. In the second part of our yearly review, we take a look back at what got people talking in and around the WTCR paddock…

A Truly Brilliant Championship Finale

For a long time, the traditional venue for the World Touring Car season finale has been the notorious Guia street circuit in Macau. The legendarily narrow and risky nature of the circuit always managed to give the series plenty of spectacle, and added another ‘high stakes’ element to the championship battle. So, I had mixed emotions when it was announced that this year’s finale would instead be taking place at Sepang in Malaysia – a far more forgiving, wider circuit that never really stood out when it was on the Formula One calendar.

The last time the series ended its campaign somewhere other than Macau was between 2015-2017, at the Losail circuit in Qatar. Undoubtedly, the event lost a great deal of its gravitas as that circuit didn’t have the same level of heritage as Macau, nor did it produce particularly great racing. I was therefore worried that this year’s final round, like those held in Qatar, would be somewhat underwhelming. But as it turned out, I needn’t have worried at all.

Esteban Guerrieri and Norbert Michelisz engaged in a blockbuster battle for the title in the final race of the year. Image Credit: Florent Gooden / DPPI

Sure, practice and qualifying on Friday was very one-sided in the favour of Norbert Michelisz and Hyundai, however Sunday was anything but. The racing throughout the grid was frenetic, and that poor qualifying run for Esteban Guerrieri and Yvan Muller consequently produced heroic drives from the pair of them to charge up the order in a bid to save their title hopes. For Muller, it wouldn’t quite be enough, but Guerrieri’s remarkable victory in race two set up one of the best final races that we’ve seen in years.

The script could not have been better. The two title contenders shared the front row of the grid, and from very early on, it was Guerrieri the underdog who had the positional advantage on track. This provided brilliant entertainment for neutrals, as the projected points standings swayed in and out of both drivers’ favour on multiple occasions. Meanwhile, Johan Kristoffersson also happened to choose this race to put in the stand-out performance of the year, charging his way up from 22nd on the grid to win overall. Unfortunately, the slightest of contacts with Mikel Azcona would ultimately lead to Esteban Guerrieri’s demise, however it must be said that the tide was already beginning to turn against him on track before that happened. Still, it’s a shame that we didn’t get to see how much fight the Argentine had left in him, but nonetheless this was a truly outstanding way to end the year, and to crown a new champion.

Team Orders Reach Boiling Point at Zandvoort

Cyan Racing‘s first year with the new Lynk & Co 03 TCR model has to go down as a successful one. After all, they did emerge as the Teams’ Champion of 2019, and had a mathematical chance of winning the driver’s title until the very last race of the season. However, things haven’t all gone quite to plan at times during the year, and sometimes this was a result of their own doing.

At the start of the year, Cyan Racing announced what was arguably the strongest driver line-up of them all. Yvan Muller, multiple World Champion and last year’s runner-up, would be joined by 2017 World champion Thed Bjork, as well as Yann Ehrlacher (a young driver with extremely high potential) and returning triple World Champion, Andy Priaulx. On paper, this sounded great, but the trouble with a line-up as good as that is that everybody will feel as though they have the ability to be the best of the bunch.

This became a problem when the WTCR circus arrived at Zandvoort in the Netherlands. In the third race of the weekend, Ehrlacher and Bjork shared the front row of the grid. As the lights went out, Bjork made a quicker getaway (something which Ehrlacher believed was due to his car having an inferior engine), and took the lead of the race. It soon became clear that this was not the plan that the team had agreed on beforehand, as Ehrlacher appeared to convey over the radio that he felt that the overtake was in some way unjust.

The radio chatter between Yann Ehrlacher, Thed Bjork and their engineers made for interesting listening at Zandvoort. Image Credit: Florent Gooden / DPPI

A lap later, Bjork begrudgingly handed back the lead of the race, but was then keen to make his own thoughts clear on the situation. Cyan Racing now had one driver who believed that their initial pre-discussed game plan entitled him to the race victory, and another who felt that he too deserved to win after pulling off a successful overtaking manoeuvre at the very start of the race, albeit possibly due to his car having superior parts.

This prompted the team to play musical chairs once again, with Ehrlacher being instructed to concede the position back to Bjork. However, by this point, tempers had frayed, and frustration had well and truly sunk in for the Frenchman, who felt as though he had been robbed of victory by factors outside of his own control. The result was a very audible, very public outcry over the team radio for the decision to be reconsidered, during which he even sounded close to tears. The team’s third driver, Yvan Muller, also decided to weigh in with his opinion over the radio, all of which cast the team’s management in a very bad light indeed.

Despite levels of disarray which are rarely seen in top flight motorsport, Cyan Racing did manage to secure a 1-2 result in that race with Bjork taking the victory, but their reputation for professionalism took a considerable beating in the process.

Slipstreaming at the Nordschleife

If the radio messages from Zandvoort are the most iconic sounds of the season, then the Nurburgring Nordschleife surely provided some of the most iconic sights. Although the ‘Green Hell’ is a hugely well-renowned circuit for its gruelling nature and sheer length, it must be said that overtaking comes at a premium. In fact, most races there are won or lost on the 1.7 mile Dottinger Hohe straight towards the end of the lap. The vast section of track offers a prime opportunity to use aerodynamic slip-streaming to your advantage, and this year saw plenty of drivers make use of that tactic.

Rob Huff pulled off one of the best overtakes of the year at the Nurburgring. Image Credit: Clement Marin / DPPI

Perhaps the most prominent example of this was when Nestor Girolami and Frederic Vervisch were battling for third place. Girolami had positioned himself well throughout the lap in order to set himself up for an overtake on the Audi in front. The two drivers traded places back and forth along the straight, as the aerodynamic advantage swayed between them, but just out of shot Rob Huff was about to enter the fray. Benefiting from an even greater slipstream (created by the two cars ahead of him going side-by-side), the Brit managed to claw his way up to the rear of Girolami’s car, before sweeping to the left and powering into third place ahead of the next corner. A truly fantastic piece of opportunistic driving to take two positions in one go.

Tiago Returns to The Winners’ Circle

The tragic tale of Tiago Monteiro is a story which has been well-covered. In 2017, the former champion elect suffered a freak accident in testing which sidelined him for the best part of two racing seasons. Since then, he has been working tremendously hard with Honda on his comeback to professional motorsport, and this year in front of his home fans in Portugal, it all paid off.

The first half of this campaign had been a struggle for Monteiro. Throughout the year, he had been significantly outpaced by Esteban Guerrieri and Nestor Girolami who were also driving Honda machinery. But at the Vila Real street course, the tables turned. It suddenly all clicked into place for Monteiro’s KCMG team, and so the Portuguese stalwart was able to put his Civic on the front row of the grid in qualifying, while team-mate Attila Tassi claimed the first pole position of his WTCR career.

Vila Real was the perfect place for Tiago Monteiro to return to the top step of the podium. Image Credit: Florent Gooden / DPPI

In the race, however, Tassi fell victim to mechanical woes, while Monteiro’s car stayed in good health and allowed him to lead from the front. Just as he had done for so long in the past, Monteiro was able to put on an assured display behind the wheel, and in the end crossed the line with a comfortable 2.3 second gap to the car behind. Unquestionably, this was the most popular race victory of the year, as the entire town erupted into celebration. It also proved to be the start of a much more competitive spell for both him and the KCMG team as a whole.

After the event, the 42 year-old summed up the magnitude of his accomplishment when speaking to TouringCarTimes, saying: “The last half lap was very emotional. Not many people know how much we went through. It was physiologically and psychologically very hard. Many times, you think why, this is not going to work…but, I’ve been doing this for so long, and I want to fight, I want to try. I never give up. I’ve said that many times in my career. We always come back. That’s what we’re made of. We live for this.”

Priaulx & The Great Early Braking Debate

The Chinese and Japanese rounds of the championship played a pivotal role in the battle for the title, marking the resurgence of Yvan Muller and the tightening of the gap between Michelisz and Guerrieri. But amongst that, there was an interesting alternative story arc appearing too.

It started at Ningbo, in the second race at the Chinese circuit. While he was leading the way, debris from an earlier accident left Andy Priaulx with a slow puncture, ultimately forcing him to drive in a defensive manner. At turn six, this caught Norbert Michelisz unaware, as the Lynk & Co driver ahead of him had no option but to start braking earlier than usual. The result was that the Hungarian rammed the rear of the Brit’s car, spinning him out of contention in the process. Michelisz also picked up damage, but unlike his rival from Cyan Racing, he would go on to finish and win the race. No action was taken against ‘Norbi’ as the collision was deemed to be unfortunate but not malicious from either party. And besides, Priaulx’s fate had already been confirmed by the puncture, before that final blow from the Hyundai sealed the deal.

But, with Hyundai and Lynk & Co in the midst of a tense championship battle, relations were already under strain between the two teams, and they were about to get even more so. In race three, Michelisz and Priaulx again came to blows, but this time on lap one. On this occasion, Michelisz had been shoved into the back of Priaulx’s car by Frederic Vervisch in the Audi. The consequence for the Hyundai was immediate retirement, and while the damage on Priaulx’s car wasn’t terminal this time around, it did prove to be significantly detrimental to his car’s driveability. After the event, Priaulx was evidently frustrated, claiming that he “didn’t remember it being quite so stupid” when he last drove in the championship in 2009.

Andy Priaulx (furthest right) spins out after contact with Norbert Michelisz (furthest left). Image Credit: David Noels Photographe

Moving onto Japan, and the accident-prone Guernseyman was on the receiving end of further contact, again distributed by a rival Hyundai. In the first race of the event, Nicky Catsburg was let through by his stablemate Norbert Michelisz, who was again positioned directly behind Andy Priaulx’s Lynk & Co. Shortly after, Catsburg made heavy contact with Priaulx at turn one, firing him off into the gravel trap. At first glance, it appeared as though Catsburg had done exactly that – taken out a direct rival – and that’s certainly how Priaulx felt about the situation. He said:

“That was totally intentional to swap positions and then drive me off the road. That was the most unsporting thing I’ve ever seen in my life. He [Catsburg] was using his car as a weapon of intent, that is super-dangerous. As a factory driver you shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing as an example for all the young drivers coming through. If I had killed a marshal, hurt myself or hit Yann [Ehrlacher] side on, who knows what that kind of driving behavior could have caused. I think that should be immediate exclusion for the rest of the season.”

However, things weren’t quite as clear cut as they first seemed. Nicky Catsburg came back with his own interpretation of events, which were as follows:

“I don’t really know what Andy was thinking but he hit the brakes so unbelievably early. I can’t really anticipate a driver doing something like that. It’s a real shame that he was so angry after the race, because I really like Andy. He was showing me the finger, I think it was because he wanted me to be P1. For sure, we will have to explain ourselves to the race director. I don’t want to have any bad blood with Andy. I like Andy, but now he thinks that I fired him off. I don’t see why he would say that, what would be my benefit to smash him off? We were fighting for nowhere. He is entitled to his opinion, but I think he is wrong.”

A still image then began to circulate the internet, showing Priaulx’s car with its brake lights on and Yvan Muller’s car further up the road but still not braking. For a collection of fans online, this swayed the consensus in favour of Catsburg, and Priaulx all of a sudden turned from victim to villain. However, with all the evidence at their disposal, the FIA stewards didn’t see it that way, as they handed Catsburg a 30-second time penalty instead.

An irate Andy Priaulx gesticulates at Nicky Catsburg. Image Credit: Eurosport/WTCR

That should have been the end of that, but Cyan Racing had other ideas. The team took to their official YouTube channel to dedicate an entire video to the incident, while the official WTCR media team also involved the clash as part of their ‘story of the day’; something which Hyundai felt was wrong. Team manager, Gabriele Rizzo, explained:

“I have to say we find the conduct of another team in this championship unacceptable in the way they are discussing on-track incidents after the event. We respect the decision of the stewards and believe no further comment was necessary. We are disappointed that the promoter further amplified this incident on its platforms in favour of one manufacturer. There needs to be balance and fairness in what is presented to the media and to our fans, and this weekend this was lost.”

The feud became less public from the next round onwards, perhaps due to Rizzo’s words. But throughout 2019, both teams were eager to complain every time that something went in the other’s favour, whether that be incidents on track or adjustments to the sport’s Balance of Performance measures. The comparative silent stance taken by Honda has certainly worked in the Japanese marque’s favour from a PR perspective, although even they couldn’t help but complain of the 2019 title being ‘robbed’ from them after the aforementioned clash between Guerrieri and Azcona at Sepang.

Mikel Azcona Announces Himself to The World

Although the official Rookie of the Year award went to Johan Kristoffersson, to me the performances of Spain’s Mikel Azcona stand out more. Kristoffersson entered the season as the World’s greatest rallycross driver, so it shouldn’t have been a shock to find out that he knows his way around a race car. But for Azcona, the step up to the World stage of motorsport was a far greater leap, and was a far more consistent story of success. A sharp rise in form in the second half of the year saw the award head in the Swede’s direction, but from the very first round in Marrakech, Azcona was always in the mix, and often found himself as the quickest of all the Cupra drivers.

The 23 year-old ends the season in sixth place in the standings, with five podium finishes – including one race victory – to his name. Admittedly, he entered the series as the reigning European TCR champion from 2018, but even during that campaign he only took a solitary victory. Before that, he had been a race winner in low level Spanish motorsport, but had never won an overall title. So, to come into the FIA World Touring Car Cup and end the year as the sixth best driver on the grid straight away, is a truly remarkable achievement.

The PWR Racing team congratulate Mikel Azcona after taking victory in Portugal. Image Credit: Florent Gooden / DPPI

It’s not as though he had an easy environment in which to do it, either. Although highly impressive given their lack of experience, the PWR Racing squad for whom Azcona drove, were also complete rookies in the World Cup this year. Yet, the partnership blossomed into something which I don’t think anybody would’ve predicted at the start of the season in Morocco.

Admittedly, his involvement in the clash with Guerrieri at Sepang will have soured his image in the eyes of some, particularly those of us with an allegiance to Honda, but that one blip cannot be allowed to overshadow an otherwise superb campaign. Indeed, Azcona has well and truly filled the whole left by Pepe Oriola within the Cupra TCR programme, and alongside Yann Ehrlacher, will now be considered as one of the hottest future prospects in the sport.

The demise of Audi and Volkswagen

2019 was, generally speaking, a very rough year for the Volkswagen Group in the World Touring Car Cup. Yes, Johan Kristoffersson finished fifth in the overall standings and took three race victories behind the wheel of his Golf, but beyond that – and the surprise success of Azcona for Cupra – there was little to shout about for VAG.

From the offset, there wasn’t much evidence to suggest that any of their cars; whether that be the Volkswagen, Audi or Cupra contingent, would be genuine contenders for the championship – a worrying sign for a manufacturer-supported effort spanning twelve cars. And indeed, that trend continued as the year went on.

For much of the campaign, the Volkswagen Golf was undoubtedly the slowest car on the grid – even in comparison to the privately built and funded Alfa Romeo Giulietta programme. When the Balance of Performance swayed in their favour later on in the year, results did pick up, but by no means consistently. Not even Rob Huff could get a tune out of the car – the man famous for winning races with the unfancied Lada team a few years ago. In that context, Kristofferson’s achievements look even more impressive.

Audi & Volkswagen teams will no longer receive factory support in 2020, leaving doubts over whether they’ll even be on the grid at all. Image Credit: Florent Gooden / DPPI

Then, there’s Audi. Between their four drivers, the marque managed just a single race victory this year, taken by Frederic Vervisch at the Slovakiaring. Their fall from grace compared to last year’s results is a real shame, and it’s not due to a lack of driving talent either. Sure, BTCC champion Gordon Shedden has looked strangely out of his depth, and Niels Langeveld lacked experience, but in 2018, Jean-Karl Vernay and Frederic Vervisch established themselves as two of the top drivers on the grid. Between Team WRT and Comtoyou Racing, much more would’ve been expected from 2019, particularly considering that they were only a small improvement away from title contention at the end of last year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the Volkswagen Group have pulled their support from Sebastien Loeb Racing, Leopard Lukoil Team WRT and Audi Sport Comtoyou Racing, leaving it highly unlikely that we will see cars from either Audi or Volkswagen back on the grid next year. Cupra, however, will continue to fly the flag for VAG, competing with a model based on the brand new Leon in 2020. Audi and Volkswagen meanwhile, will refocus their efforts on GT racing and electrification respectively.

So, there you have it, the main talking points from what has been a captivating year of touring car racing. What were your personal highlights from the 2019 World Touring Car Cup? If you think there’s something we missed, let us know in the comment section!

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