The 2017 FIA World Touring Car Championship gets underway this weekend in Morocco, and unlike recent years, this could be one of the most closely-fought battles the series has seen.
The WTCC grid has undergone significant change in the off-season. Gone are Citroën and LADA as manufacturer entries (although both brands remain on the grid with privateer entries), leaving just Volvo and Honda as the sole factory-supported teams.
Having dominated the championship from the outset in its three short seasons in the series, one of Citroën’s all-conquering C-Elysée WTCCs have found a new home at the privateer Münnich Motorsport outfit. With the new car comes a new face behind the wheel, with former championship Rob Huff returned to the German outfit after a single year with Honda.
The Englishman’s place at Honda’s factory stable has been claimed by longtime Honda stalwart Ryo Michigami, who performed well in his one-off outing for the team on home soil last year. The Japanese veteran will partner Tiago Monteiro and Norbert Mischelisz, who both remain with the JAS Motorsport-run outfit.
Over at Polestar Cyan Racing, there was plenty of change in the off-season. The team relocated to new headquarters and expanded to three cars after an impressive return campaign with its all-new S60 TC1 challenger. Volvo veteran Thed Björk remained on board, while his Swedish compatriots Robert Dahlgren and Fredrik Ekblom (who shared driving duties in the team’s other car) both ventured elsewhere. In their place come Néstor Girolami and LADA refugee Nick Catsburg.
Unlike previous years, the manufacturer entries will face stiff competition from the independently-funded outfits. Sébastien Loeb Racing will remain at the forefront with three Citroën C-Elysée WTCCs at their disposal. Mehdi Bennani and Tom Chilton remain, and will be joined by young French driver John Filippi.
Hungarian privateers Zengõ Motorsport will continue to operate as a customer Honda outfit, with incumbent driver Dániel Nagy joined by a new teammate in Aurélien Panis, the son of former F1 driver Olivier Panis.
The field’s two Chevrolet runners – ROAL Motorsport and Campos Racing – will field Dutch veteran Tom Coronel and Argentine TC 2000 champion Esteban Guerrieri in their respective single-car entries.
A new team making its WTCC debut is the French RC Motorsport outfit, which has secured two ex-factory LADA Vesta cars for the season. It will only enter one car at Morocco, however, with young driver Yann Ehrlacher (the nephew of four-time WTCC title-winner Yvan Muller) making his debut.
|2017 FIA WTCC – Manufacturer Entries|
|No.||Driver||Team / Entry||Car|
|5.||Norbert Michelisz||Castrol Honda WTCC Team||Honda Civic WTCC|
|18.||Tiago Monteiro||Castrol Honda WTCC Team||Honda Civic WTCC|
|34.||Ryo Michigami||Honda Racing Team JAS||Honda Civic WTCC|
|61.||Néstor Girolami||Polestar Cyan Racing||Volvo S60 Polestar TC1|
|62.||Thed Björk||Polestar Cyan Racing||Volvo S60 Polestar TC1|
|63.||Nick Catsburg||Polestar Cyan Racing||Volvo S60 Polestar TC1|
|2017 FIA WTCC – Independent Entries|
|No.||Driver||Team / Entry||Car|
|3.||Tom Chilton||Sébastien Loeb Racing||Citroën C-Elysée WTCC|
|8.||Aurélien Panis||Zengõ Motorsport||Honda Civic WTCC|
|9.||Tom Coronel||ROAL Motorsport||Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1|
|12.||Rob Huff||Münnich Motorsport||Citroën C-Elysée WTCC|
|25.||Mehdi Bennani||Sébastien Loeb Racing||Citroën C-Elysée WTCC|
|27.||John Filippi||Sébastien Loeb Racing||Citroën C-Elysée WTCC|
|68.||Yann Ehrlacher||RC Motorsport||LADA Vesta WTCC|
|86.||Esteban Guerrieri||Campos Racing||Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1|
|99.||Dániel Nagy||Zengõ Motorsport||Honda Civic WTCC|
|TBA.||TBA||RC Motorsport||LADA Vesta WTCC|
|Circuit International Automobile Moulay El Hassan|
|Location||Marrakech, Morocco||Circuit Length||2.971 km / 1.846 mi|
|Direction||Anticlockwise||Lap Record||1:23.087 – Hugo Valente (2016)|
Transformed from street circuit to semi-permanent race track for 2016, the Circuit Internationale Automobile Moulay El Hassan is located in the heart of Marrakech’s bustling hotel district.
Built to FIA Grade II standards, the updated layout is the work of Hermann Tilke’s design agency and offers impressive views of the Atlas Mountains and Marrakech city wall. But with a compact lap of 2.971 kilometres (down from its original 4.545 kilometres) and a mix of tight, wall-lined turns, there’s no time for WTCC drivers to take in the scenery.
|2017 FIA World Touring Car Championship – Afriquia Race of Morocco|
|Event Dates||07-09 April 2016||Scrutineering||Fri 13:30-18:30|
|Free Practice Session 1||Sat 09:00-09:45||Free Practice Session 2||Sat 11:45-12:30|
|Qualifying Session 1||Sat 15:15-15:45||Qualifying Session 2||Sat 15:50-16:05|
|Qualifying Session 3||Sat 16:10-16:20||MAC3||Sat 16:30-16:45|
|Opening Race (18 laps)||Sun 16:35-17:00||Main Race (21 laps)||Sun 17:45-18:15|
|Afriquia Race of Morocco Weather Forecast|
|Friday||15°C – 30°C||Saturday||15°C – 31°C||Sunday||16°C – 32°C|
Session times quoted in Western European Summer Time (UTC/GMT + 1:00)
Rewind to 2016
Independent driver Tom Coronel ripped up the formbook by winning the Opening Race of FIA WTCC AFRIQUIA Race of Morocco after withstanding intense pressure from world champion and factory Citroën driver José María López for his first win since 2013.
With former WTCC title winner turned team boss Roberto Ravaglia watching from the pits, Coronel didn’t crack after inheriting top spot from Hugo Valente when the LADA driver was ordered to serve a drive-through penalty following opening-lap contact with pole-sitter James Thompson.
The Marrakech event then took a dramatic twist with rain before the start of the Main Race making for a slippery new-look Circuit Moulay El Hassan. But Rob Huff took the difficult conditions in his stride to lead home a Honda 1-2-3 with Norbert Michelisz second and Tiago Monteiro third. However, all Hondas were subsequently excluded for failing post-race technical checks, which handed victory to López, second to his Citroën teammate Yvan Muller and third to LADA’s Gabriele Tarquini. Local hero Mehdi Bennani made up for his frustrating qualifying to take the WTCC Trophy honours in the Main Race and maintain his title advantage.
The Form Guide
After three seasons dominated by Citroën and José María López, a radically shaken up driver entry list means the 2017 championship outcome really is anyone’s guess.
With Citroën exiting as an official manufacturer and two of its star drivers having left the championship altogether, the battle for title honours is wide open.
Behind the French squad last year came Honda duo Tiago Monteiro and Norbert Michelisz. While the Civic model made steady gains over the course of 2016, the Citroën C-Elysée is still considered to be the class of the field, even without the development clout of its parent carmaker.
The privately-run Citroëns fielded by Sébastien Loeb Racing – particularly with Mehdi Bennani and Tom Chilton remaining at the wheel – should undoubtedly feature at the pointy end of the grid.
The standout driver in pre-season testing, however, has been Münnich Motorsport returnee Rob Huff. The former series champion dominated testing at Monza and has firmed as the bookies’ favourite to claim a second career title.
One should not, however, discount the potential of Volvo, which also undertook a major reshuffle in the off-season. The team expanded to three cars, bringing in Néstor Girolami and Nick Catsburg into the fold, while also hiring Yvan Muller as a development driver and senior advisor. With the French veteran knowing all of Citroën’s inside information, he will prove a major asset to the Swedish squad in its quest for title glory.
Images via FIA WTCC Media