The FIA World Touring Car Championship decider in Qatar is poised for a thrilling final chapter after a dramatic qualifying session at the Losail circuit.
Honda stand-in Esteban Guerrieri became the season’s seventh different pole-sitter with a brilliant qualifying lap, while teammate Norbert Michelisz saw his title hopes dealt a hammer blow when his car struck brake troubles and he could not qualify any better than eleventh-fastest.
Worse still for Michelisz, his main title rival and current points leader Thed Björk qualified fourth-fastest; the Polestar Cyan Racing driver picking up two potentially vital championship points to extend his overall lead to the Hungarian to 8.5 points. With a maximum of 55 points on offer over Friday night’s two races, the Swede clearly has the upper hand.
With qualifying taking place in the baking late afternoon heat, Michelisz looked to be a pole contender from the outset after topping practice on Thursday. The Hungarian backed that form up in Q1 but his pace dramatically fell away in Q2. After posting a time over two seconds slower than Guerrieri, Michelisz pulled into the pits and reported an escalating issue with his brakes. With no time to repair the problem, he was consigned to a P11 start for both races.
With the advantage handed to rival manufacturer Volvo, its three drivers all sailed into Q3. The second phase of qualifying was not without drama however, with Björk and one-time returnee Yvan Muller making light contact. Neither car sustained serious damage, but it was a nervous moment for Björk in particular.
Fifth-fastest Björk posted the first timed run in the one-lap Q3 shootout for pole position, but he was soon usurped by Rob Huff – the sole WTCC Trophy driver in the session – who lapped quicker in his Münnich Motorsport Citroën E-Elysée.
Having already shown he’d lost none of his pace since retiring from full-time racing, Muller looked strong on his lap but lost ground in the final sector. The Frenchman would ultimately be deposed to fifth as both teammate Nicky Catsburg and Guerrieri lapped quicker.
Guerrieri’s effort was particularly strong, lapping the Losail circuit some 0.4 seconds quicker than Catsburg’s Volvo in an emphatic performance.
While Guerrieri and Catsburg are themselves still in mathematical contention for the Drivers’ Championship title, each will effectively defer to their better-placed teammates across Friday’s two races.
Third-fastest Huff is in contention for the WTCC Trophy crown, but he will have to watch out for the two Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroëns of Tom Chilton and Mehdi Bennani who qualified sixth- and seventh-fastest respectively. The duo are currently 1-2 in the standings, separated by just half a point.
Former ETCC title-winner Kris Richard turned heads in his second WTCC outing, qualifying the Campos Racing Chevrolet Cruze formerly driven by Guerrieri an impressive eighth-fastest. The Swiss driver will start Friday night’s reversed-grid Opening Race from third place behind Sébastien Loeb Racing’s John Filippi and RC Motorsport’s Kevin Gleason, who has pole position.
The 10-lap Opening Race begins at 21:20 local time (GMT +3) tonight, followed by the 12-lap Main Race at 22:35.
|2017 FIA World Touring Car Championship Race of Qatar – Final Qualifying Results|
|1.||Esteban Guerrieri||Castrol Honda WTCC Team Civic WTCC||2:00.893|
|2.||Nick Catsburg||Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo S60 TC1||2:01.307|
|3.||Rob Huff||Münnich Motorsport Citroën C-Elysée||2:01.311||IND|
|4.||Thed Björk||Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo S60 TC1||2:01.557|
|5.||Yvan Muller||Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo S60 TC1||2:01.893|
|6.||Tom Chilton||Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||2:01.966||IND|
|7.||Mehdi Bennani||Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||2:02.176||IND|
|8.||Kris Richard||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||2:02.735||IND|
|9.||John Filippi||Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||2:02.940||IND|
|10.||Kevin Gleason||RC Motorsport LADA Vesta WTCC||2:03.423||IND|
|11.||Norbert Michelisz||Castrol Honda WTCC Team Civic WTCC||2:03.554|
|12.||Tom Coronel||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||2:03.602||IND|
|13.||Ryo Michigami||Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC||2:03.552|
|14.||Yann Ehrlacher||RC Motorsport LADA Vesta WTCC||2:03.746||IND|
|15.||Zsolt Dávid Szabó||Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC||2:05.300||IND|
|16.||Dániel Nagy||Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC||2:05.343||IND|
* Post-Qualifying Penalties:
Image via FIA WTCC Media