Epic night-time desert duel to decide WTCC titles

Epic night-time desert duel to decide WTCC titles

FIA WTCC Race of Qatar, 30 November-1 December 2017

*FIA World Touring Car Championship for Drivers and Manufacturers settled in Qatar
*WTCC Trophy also up for grabs at floodlit Losail International Circuit
*Night racing spectacular concludes wide-open 2017 WTCC season

The most wide-open FIA World Touring Car Championship season in a decade will go down to the wire in the Middle East next week (30 November-1 December) when three coveted titles are decided at Qatar’s spectacular floodlit showdown.

After 18 races over nine weekends in four continents, it all comes down to the duel in the desert when the FIA World Touring Car Championship for Drivers and Manufacturers, plus the WTCC Trophy for independent racers are settled.

The third WTCC Race of Qatar will conclude a thrilling year of high-speed action and intense competition with 10 drivers having taken race wins and seven still in mathematical contention for the overall crown prior to some classic Friday night fever touring car style.

However, with 6.5 points separating the title top two, Polestar Cyan Racing’s Thed Björk and Castrol Honda World Touring Car Team’s Norbert Michelisz, Volvo Polestar 12.5 points in front of Honda and Tom Chilton a mere half a point ahead of Mehdi Bennani in the WTCC Trophy and Rob Huff only seven points behind Chilton, the 2017 season closer at the Losail International Circuit will be the ultimate winner-takes-all battle.

FIA WORLD TOURING CAR CHAMPIONSHIP FOR DRIVERS UPDATE

Who’s in contention? With 60 points up for grabs, Thed Björk (255.5 points), Norbert Michelisz (249), Mehdi Bennani (216), Nicky Catsburg (211.5), Tom Chilton (210.5) and Esteban Guerrieri (205) can all take world title glory for the first time. Tiago Monteiro’s total of 200 would also have been enough to keep him in the fight but the Portuguese will be in Qatar in a supporting role only while he continues his recovery from injuries sustained in a testing crash in September.

How did it come to this? Guerrieri, Monteiro, Catsburg and, latterly, Björk have all topped the standings at one stage or another during the season. After leading by 12 points following the trip to Argentina in July, Monteiro appeared to be in the ascendency on the back of a stellar start to his campaign. But having not raced since (see above), Björk – who was second in the table prior to the summer break – was quick to take advantage, moving in front in China and starting WTCC Race of Japan 32.5 points ahead of Michelisz on the back of the disqualification of all Hondas from the results of the China races due to a technical infringement. By out-scoring Björk to the tune of 16 points in Japan, Michelisz arrived in Macau 16.5 points behind his rival where he took another 10 points away from the Swede to narrow the gap to 6.5 points with two races left.

What could happen? With the Losail International Circuit not awash with overtaking opportunities, the results of qualifying could be key. Having taken more pole positions than his rivals, Michelisz might have the edge. The Hungarian will also take heart from the fact he won the WTCC Trophy title in Qatar two years ago. But Björk was second on his Qatar debut last season and knows what it takes to win championships: he’s claimed the Scandinavian touring car crown four times. Having run 10 kilograms lighter than the Volvo S60s in Macau, the Honda Civics will be at the same 80-kilogram maximum compensation weight in Qatar, meaning no driver will have a weight advantage. The role of Björk and Michelisz’s team-mates could be a factor, however, after Esteban Guerrieri provided the perfect support to Michelisz in Macau by holding the pursuing Tom Chilton at bay for much of the Main Race as Michelisz kept hold of a vital second place. Polestar Cyan Racing pair Nicky Catsburg and Néstor Girolami are more than capable of taking points away from Michelisz, which will add another intriguing dimension to the championship shootout.

Head-to-head: Thed Björk/Norbert Michelisz

Thed Björk: “When I was young I wanted to be Formula One world champion but now this is just as good. I feel relaxed. Obviously I’m excited because in a little bite more than one week we’ll know. But everything we’ve done this year I will just try to put it together for the last days, focus on myself and just go as fast as I can and see if this is enough to win. I already feel after Macau I’m one of them that can win it, one of the top guys and I would rather be in the front door than in the back.”

Norbert Michelisz: “It’s all up for grabs in Qatar and I’m confident. We were strong in Qatar last year and I will really try to do my best not to do any mistakes, to get the most out of myself and the car. And in the end if it works out for sure I’ll be really happy. But the most important thing is to have the feeling that I’ve done everything I can to be champion and this is my goal. Of course it’s getting more and more difficult the closer we get to the last race but I really try not to think about the championship, just try to do my best.”

Championship points refresher: A maximum of 60 Drivers’ championship points will be on the table in Qatar with all scores counting. The top five in Qualifying Q3 score points as follows: 5-4-3-2-1. The top 10 in the Opening Race score points as follows: 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1. The top 10 in the Main Race score points as follows: 30-23-19-16-13-10-7-4-2-1.

FIA WTCC FOR MANUFACTURERS UPDATE
Volvo Polestar is 12.5 points in front of Honda with 117 points on offer in Qatar between qualifying, Manufacturers Against the Clock, the Opening Race and the Main Race. Honda won the FIA World Touring Car Championship for Manufacturers in 2013, while Volvo Polestar is chasing its maiden title success at world level.

WTCC TROPHY UPDATE
Tom Chilton is half a point in front of Mehdi Bennani, the defending champion and Chilton’s Sébasien Loeb Racing team-mate with ALL-INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport’s Rob Huff seven points behind Chilton. All three drive Citroën C-Elysée WTCCs, while Bennani – the first Arabic driver to win a world championship motor race – considers WTCC Race of Qatar his second home event behind WTCC Race of Morocco. Sébasien Loeb Racing secured the WTCC Teams’ Trophy for the second successive season earlier in the year.

FIVE OF THE BEST: WTCC TITLE SHOWDOWNS
Qatar will stage the 2017 FIA World Touring Car Championship showdown from 30 November-1 December. Here are five memorable WTCC title shootouts from over the years.

2005: Andy Priaulx reached the Macau season finale trailing Dirk Müller by a single point. But a brace of seconds for the Briton and a double non-score for the German left Priaulx on top.
2006: It was another Priaulx versus Müller show only this time it was Dirk’s namesake Jörg who failed to stop his fellow BMW driver – by a solitary point at the Macau finale.
2009: Gabriele Tarquini’s one and only WTCC crown came after he defeated his then SEAT team-mate Yvan Muller by four points having arrived in Macau just two in front.
2011: Rob Huff did everything he could to prevent Yvan Muller from claiming WTCC title number three by winning both races in Macau. But he came up short courtesy of two Muller podiums.
2012: Having come within three points of his first world title in 2011, it all came good for Rob Huff the following year when second place in Race 2 proved enough to land the big prize.

NORBERT MICHELISZ’S GUIDE TO WTCC RACING AT NIGHT
Uniquely, WTCC Race of Qatar takes place on a Friday night to coincide with the Arabic weekend when television audiences in Europe, Central and South America will be at their peak. The 10-lap Opening Race is due to get underway at 21h20 local time on 1 December followed by the Main Race over 12 laps from 22h35. Floodlights generating 5.4 million watts of power create a stunning backdrop, while cooler evening temperatures increase speeds and lower lap times. Norbert Michelisz is your guide to racing in the WTCC at night.

Prepare to be dazzled: “After two or three laps you don’t really have the feeling you are driving in the night because the light is ultra high-tech and it's like you have perfect visibility. But of course it’s something different.”

Change your visor: “As a driver you have the chance to change the visor. With a dark visor you can cope with the sunshine late in the afternoon but when the light is a bit darker, you have a lighter visor and almost choose the colour you want to see the track in.”

Plan your day: “The biggest change is you don’t have to do a lot in the mornings. You start early afternoon and it’s strange to cope with the extra time you have available because you usually get up in the morning and get in the car. With the time available after getting up you sometimes tend to over-stress thinking too much about what’s going to happen. I was in this situation in 2015 when I was fighting for the WTCC Trophy title. I remember I was quite exhausted when I was getting in the car for the first time on Thursday and Friday.”

Build your energy: “Like at every race you always have to eat light. But the secret in Qatar is to have two dinners which are quite light because the important thing is to store all your energy for the races on Friday night. Don’t eat too much on Thursday because sometimes you tend to eat a bit too much in the evening because it was a stressful day and different to what you were used to, then it’s sometimes difficult to fall asleep, something you really need to avoid happening. The menu is quite simple. It’s always some kind of rice or pasta without any sauce to not stress your stomach then some light meat. The important thing is to have a good sleep on Thursday because you have to store the energy for Friday evening when it really counts.”

Set-up secrets: “It’s really important to focus on qualifying set-up in Free Practice 1 and then to work on the race set-up in Free Practice 2 because FP1 is similar time of the day as qualifying and FP2 is at the same time as the race. As soon as the temperatures start to rise the front wheel drive means there’s a tendency for a lot of understeer, which will be the case in qualifying. But if you want to use this set-up in the races your car will have a big tendency towards oversteer so you need to have the balance in between.”

Tyre wear tips: “Of course, the really strange thing in the high temperatures is you really need to take care of the front tyres because the cars have a tendency to overheat the front tyres and you start to struggle with tyre wear. But as soon as the sun goes down and you have cooler temperatures, you can really attack almost the whole race distance because the temperature is much lower and the tyre overheating is not there from the front any more. It's quite strange because you have to take care of the front tyres for 90 per cent of the season but Qatar is quite unique, also in terms of the approach from the driver.”

Beware the sand: “The first 10 minutes in each session is about cleaning the track. Lap time improvement is quite significant in every session. If you are looking to advance it’s always good to be the last one on track because the track is in the best shape just in the last couple of minutes of every session.”

WEEKEND HIGHLIGHTS
*The WTCC’s third night race will also close the 2017 season when the FIA World Touring Car Championship for Drivers and Manufacturers, plus the WTCC Trophy for independent racers will be settled.
*Running at night requires a significant move away from a more traditional WTCC timetable. For example, Qualifying, Manufacturers Against the Clock (WTCC MAC3) and both races take place on the same day with the first track action set for 14h30 and the Main Race due to begin at 22h35.
*The DHL Pole Position Award for the most poles in a season will be presented in Qatar. Norbert Michelisz tops the list with three pole efforts followed by Rob Huff, who could draw level with the Hungarian title contender if he qualifies fastest.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2017
*Revamped and compact calendar (10 events only to reduce costs) features return to iconic venues Monza and Macau, a new track in China, plus a mid-July date for WTCC Race of Argentina.
*More points are on offer to the top 10 in the Main Race as follows: 1=30 points; 2=23; 3=19; 4=16; 5=13; 6=10; 7=7; 8=4; 9=2; 10=1).
*WTCC MAC3, the Tour de France-inspired time trial, continues with two more points for winning.
*FIA World Rallycross-style ‘joker’ lap got its world premiere at WTCC Race of Portugal in late June.
*Use of 360-degree camera to give viewer the impression they are in-car with the driver.

LATEST DRIVER NEWS
*Esteban Guerrieri has been called up to partner Norbert Michelisz and Ryo Michigami in the factory Honda line-up for the third event running while Tiago Monteiro continues to recover from injuries sustained in a high-speed testing crash in Spain back in September.
*There’s no rest for Rob Huff with the 2012 WTCC champion and Macau Main Race winner taking the start in Qatar on the back of three consecutive weekends of racing. His latest destination is the Shanghai International Circuit where he’ll turn team consultant for the China Touring Car Championship-chasing SAIC V3 333Racing squad.
*Losail International Circuit rookies include Yann Ehrlacher – whose uncle Yvan won at the track in 2015 and retired from full-time race at the venue 12 months later – his RC Motorsport team-mate Kevin Gleason, factory drivers Néstor Girolami and Ryo Michigami, and Zsolt Dávid Szabó, who scored his first world championship point in Macau when he headed home fellow Zengő Motorsport driver Dániel Nagy in the Main Race in P10.
*In contrast, John Filippi, who partners Mehdi Bennani and Tom Chilton at Sébastien Loeb Racing, has raced at Losail for the last two seasons and actually led his first racing laps in the WTCC when Qatar joined the championship for the first time in 2015.

FULL POWER, FULL WEIGHT FOR WTCC TITLE CONTENDERS
While 12.5 points separate Volvo Polestar and Honda in the battle to win the FIA World Touring Car Championship for Manufacturers, they’ll be equal in terms of compensation weight at WTCC Race of Qatar. The three Volvo S60 Polestars and the five Honda Civic WTCCs chasing success at the Losail International Circuit from 30 November-1 December will do so with the maximum 80 kilograms of success ballast fitted. Having run at the 1100-kilogram base weight in Macau, Citroën’s C-Elysée WTCC will carry 60 kilograms of compensation weight in Qatar to reflect the car’s upturn in pace at the street racing showpiece. Elsewhere, the Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1s will continue to carry 10 kilograms, while the LADA Vesta WTCCs will get a weight increase, going from zero to 10 kilograms. Designed to equalise car performance in the WTCC, the FIA’s compensation weight system uses a lap time-based calculation made following the previous two events, in this case Japan and Macau. The full compensation weight listing follows: Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1: 10kg (no change from previous event); Citroën C-Elysée WTCC: 40kg (+40kg); Honda Civic WTCC: 80kg (+10kg); LADA Vesta WTCC: 10kg (+10kg); Volvo S60 Polestar: 80kg (no change).

BENNANI: I WILL DO MY BEST FOR THE ARABIC SUPPORTERS
As the first Arabic driver to win an FIA world championship motor race in 2014, Mehdi Bennani lists WTCC Race of Qatar as his second home event following the season-opening WTCC Race of Morocco. Still a contender for the overall title, the championship’s visit to Qatar in 2016 proved significant in more ways than one for the Sébastien Loeb Racing privateer. “It was a very strong qualifying and a very strong race,” he said, reflecting on his maiden pole position and Main Race victory. “Everything was going in a good way because we were quicker than the factory Citroën drivers and this was very good. It was my first pole position and to have pole position in my second home race was very nice. The lap was magic and my engineer helped me a lot, telling me I had nothing to lose. People said I got pole position because some people did a mistake but I deserved it because I didn’t do a mistake. The Main Race was very tough with all the very quick drivers behind me. I tried to do 12 or 13 laps like qualifying and the only thing in my mind was I would win or I would put my car in the wall. I absolutely wanted to win this race.” A fan of WTCC Race of Qatar’s night race format, Bennani is determined to put on another strong showing this year. “I want to do my best for the Arabic supporters and bring a trophy back to Morocco,” Bennani added. “We will push at the maximum and I hope to leave the people with the best message, a podium finish.”

WHAT HAPPENED IN 2016?
Mehdi Bennani beat Thed Björk to his first Main Race victory on a highly emotional night at WTCC DHL Race of Qatar. Yvan Muller signed off from his record-breaking WTCC career with two top-six finishes to secure the runner-up spot behind champion José María López and ahead of Tiago Monteiro in the final points. Elsewhere, Gabriele Tarquini won the Opening Race for LADA, while Bennani’s triumph for Sébastien Loeb Racing gave Citroën WTCC win number 50. Tarquini’s victory was a convincing one. The Italian used his experience to pass Tom Chilton at the first corner on a restart and then pulled away to win by five seconds. The race had to be red-flagged following a first-lap off for Monteiro, whose Honda sustained broken rear suspension when Hugo Valente was unable to avoid clipping the wayward Civic. At the restart, polesitter Chilton defended from Tarquini but ran deep, enabling the LADA driver to get ahead. Taking the WTCC Trophy win, Chilton spent the rest of the race defending from Rob Huff (Honda), who went from fifth to third at the start. Tarquini also scooped the TAG Heuer Best Lap Trophy. Bennani soaked up big pressure from Björk to win the Main Race. Starting from his maiden outright DHL pole, Bennani kept the lead ahead of López, who passed Björk. Behind there was some fraught racing, with separate incidents between Chilton and Robert Dahlgren and the LADAs of Nicky Catsburg and Valente triggering a safety car. After the restart, Björk pulled off an impressive passing move on López and caught Bennani. But the Moroccan kept the Swede at bay with an error-free run to the flag, as López signed off from his multiple title-winning WTCC stint with third. Norbert Michelisz passed Yvan Muller for fourth and was on course to beat Honda team-mate Monteiro to third in the championship until Monteiro also found a way by Muller.

TRACK GUIDE IN 100 WORDS
Opened in 2004, the Losail International Circuit can operate 24 hours a day thanks to a state-of-the-art floodlighting system, which meant the WTCC’s first visit to the Middle East in 2015 took place under the cover of darkness for a memorable season finale, which also marked Qatar’s maiden WTCC appearance with a Friday night spectacular. Losail has staged MotoGP races from the outset with Sete Gibernau winning the inaugural race for Honda in 2004. The track, a 30-minute drive from the capital Doha, also hosted the 2006 Grand Prix Masters of Qatar, won by former F1 world champion Nigel Mansell.

TRACK ESSENTIALS
Name: Losail International Circuit
Location: Al Wusail, North Relief Road
Website: www.circuitlosail.com, www.qmmf.com
Length: 5.380 kilometres
Opening Race distance: 10 laps (53.800km)
Main Race distance: 12 laps (64.560km)
Lap record (qualifying): Mehdi Bennani (Citroën C-Elysée), 2m00.456s (160.7kph), 25/11/16
Lap record (race): José María López (Citroën C-Elysée), 2m01.628s (159.2kph), 27/11/15
WTCC appearances: 2
Time zone: GMT +3 hours
Sunrise/sunset: 06h02/16h43 (1 December)
Average temperature: 17°C-24°C (December)
Nearest airport: Hamad International Airport (40 kilometres)