Sébastien Loeb has claimed his first ever FIA World Touring Car Championship pole position with a stunning performance in the final one-lap qualifying shootout at his home event at the Circuit Paul Ricard.
The nine-time World Rally Champion led another Citroën rout of qualifying, beating home teammates Yvan Muller, José María López and Ma Qing Hua in an emphatic 1-2-3-4 lockout.
In a double celebration for the Frenchman, his eponymous privateer team will have pole position for Sunday’s reversed-grid race, with Mehdi Bennani qualifying his Citroën tenth-fastest to secure the prime starting position ahead of LADA’s Jaap van Lagen.
After dominating the day’s two practice sessions, it would have been a brave pundit to predict anything other than a Citroën clean sweep in qualifying. It began with the fastest Q1 time by Ma Qing Hua, who led the remaining four Citroëns to a safe progression into Q2.
The only driver to break the French carmaker’s run was Tom Chilton, who put his ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet an impressive fifth-fastest in the opening session. The Briton used the final minutes of the session to try and give teammate Tom Coronel a tow down the circuit’s two long straights, but the Dutch veteran lost the back end of his DHL sponsored car and had a spin, which consigned him to thirteenth on the grid.
The opening session was a disaster for two former champions, Gabriele Tarquini and Rob Huff, who will start behind Coronel in both races. Tarquini was on course to sneak into the top-twelve until a mistake on his final flying lap, while Huff’s session ended early with a wild spin at Turn 1 after a sudden left-rear wheel failure.
The second phase of qualifying saw more of the same from the four works Citroëns, with Loeb ominously leading the way with a 1:29.638 over teammates López and Muller. Chilton was again the only non-Citroën in the mix, and admitted his surprise at making the final shootout for pole. López would pop in the fastest time at the end of the session to secure the last run in the one-lap Q3 shootout.
There was a tight scrap for pole position honours in Race 2 – where the tenth-fastest qualifier gets pole position – that featured the remaining two LADAs of Nicky Catsburg and Jaap van Lagen, the Craft-Bamboo Chevrolet of Grégoire Demoustier and the SLR Citroën of Bennani.
Catsburg lost out on improving beyond the twelfth-fastest time when he was called to the weighbridge at the worst possible time, while Demoustier – having easily his best showing of his rookie season – ran out of tyre life and had to settle for eleventh.
Pole honours eventually went the way of Bennani, who – despite having the same specification car as the works Citroëns – has been nowhere near frontrunning pace all weekend.
Q3 saw Ma first out, posting a solid 1:29.617 – 0.002 seconds faster than López’s Q2 benchmark – but the Chinese youngster was outdone by Muller, who broke the qualifying lap record with a 1:29.370 and looked on course to claim a fourth pole position of the season.
Chilton was on track next and was predictably unable to match Ma and Muller, before Loeb unleashed a stunning final sector to move to provisional pole position. His time – a 1:29.245 – was too much of a hurdle for the last man out in the session, José María López, who went third-fastest and fell 0.008 seconds short of Muller’s time.
Sunday’s two races at the Circuit Paul Ricard will be run over 16 laps apiece at 12:45 and 14:00 (UTC +2).
|2015 FIA WTCC Race of France – Qualifying Results|
|1.||Sébastien Loeb||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||1:29.245|
|2.||Yvan Muller||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||1:29.370|
|3.||José María López||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||1:29.378|
|4.||Ma Qing Hua||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||1:29.617|
|5.||Tom Chilton||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:29.831||IND|
|6.||Hugo Valente||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:30.133||IND|
|7.||Tiago Monteiro||Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC||1:30.158|
|8.||Norbert Michelisz||Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC||1:30.559||IND|
|9.||Jaap van Lagen||LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC||1:30.843|
|10.||Mehdi Bennani||Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||1:31.345||IND|
|11.||Grégoire Demoustier||Craft-Bamboo Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:31.360||IND|
|12.||Nick Catsburg||LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC||1:31.743|
|13.||Tom Coronel||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:30.688||IND|
|14.||Gabriele Tarquini||Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC||1:30.802|
|15.||Stefano D’Aste||Münnich Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:30.948||IND|
|16.||Rob Huff||LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC||1:31.029|
|17.||Rickard Rydell||NIKA Racing Honda Civic WTCC||1:31.162|
|18.||John Filippi||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:31.443||IND|
Images via FIA WTCC Media