After months of build-up, the 2011 World Touring Car Championship kicks off this weekend at the series’ traditional opening venue of Curitiba in Brazil. Richard’s F1 previews this weekend’s action and takes a look at some of the new rules coming into the series this year…
The sport looks to be in something of a state of flux, with several major manufacturers holding back on deciding whether to commit to the championship, while BMW enters the year offering customer support to a series of teams as opposed to fielding a works-backed entry.
But in order to become more attractive to potential manufacturers, the FIA has introduced new engine regulations that it hopes will attract more carmakers to the sport in 2012.
Undoubtedly, the biggest rule to come into the sport is the switch to 1.6-litre turbocharged ‘global’ engines, mirroring the change being implemented in the FIA World Rally Championship this year as well.
All of this season’s four major manufacturers – Chevrolet, BMW, SEAT and newcomers Volvo – will adopt the new engine technology, with the likes of Chevrolet and BMW have already covered plenty of miles with their new units, putting them in an excellent position for early success while main rival SEAT makes the switch from its turbodiesel units to the new engine platform.
Fielding an unchanged driver line-up of Yvan Muller, Robert Huff and Alain Menu, newly-crowned champions Chevrolet look like the clear favourites to lead the chasing pack in the opening rounds. A strong result at Curitiba would help the team buck its form trend in Brazil, where the team has taken a single race win (Muller, 2010) in the series’ history of visiting the circuit.
One concern for the team, however, will be what effect the additional torque from the engine has on its front tyre wear (with it being a front-wheel-drive car), which is an issue that the BMW entries are not having to counter.
Chevrolet’s second team is a privateer outfit in the form of Bamboo Engineering, which will run its venerable Lacettis for this weekend only until it secures the updated turbocharged Cruze models from the next round onwards, which will significantly boost the prospects of its drivers, Darryl O’Young and Yukinori Taniguchi.
And despite the absence of the works Schnitzer/RBM BMW outfit this year, there will be no shortage of the German cars on the 2011 WTCC grid, many of which will be capable of having a crack at taking outright victory.
The turbocharged BMW 320TC has proven fairly quick in pre-season testing, and the strongest candidate looks to be the re-formed ROAL Motorsport outfit – making its return to the WTCC after a one-year break – with its sole driver, Tom Coronel, who makes his switch from SEAT.
Coronel’s WTCC career results mean he is ineligible to blitz the field in the battle for the Independents’ Trophy championship, but main rivals Scuderia Proteam Motorsport will be able to stake a claim for this crown, having signed Mehdi Bennani and newcome Javier Villa to the team.
Another strong BMW outfit will be the Liqui Moly Team Engstler group, which sees last year’s Independent Trophy runner-up Kristian Poulsen join forces with team owner/driver Franz Engstler.
Other single-car BMW entries will include Marchy Lee Ying Kin (Deteam KK Motorsport), while Urs Sonderegger (Wiechers Sport) and Norbert Michelisz (Zengö-Dension Motorsport) will join the series at the next round in Belgium.
Down at SEAT, the Spanish squad will run a six-car operation featuring the likes of former F1 pilots Gabriele Tarquini and Tiago Monteiro, alongside Michel Nykjær, Fredy Barth, and rookie drivers Pepe Oriola and Aleksei Dudukalo.
Currently running the 2.0-litre TDI engines until its turbocharged units are ready, it’s unlikely the SEATs will prove as competitive here this weekend.
Volvo makes its full-time series debut with a single-car entry run by the hugely successful Polestar Racing outfit, which will field a S2000-spec Volvo C30 for Robert Dahlgren. The team is also developing its own turbocharged engine which it will blood in due course, but it will run a 5-cylinder normally-aspirated unit for the moment.
And while you might think that the new engine rules and driver line-up changes are the only major talking point, the qualifying rules have also undergone a major shake-up, with the grid orders for the first and second races being determined via separate qualifying sessions.
The grid order for the first race will be determined using the current two-stage qualifying process, but the grid for the second race will be decided by reversing the order of the ten-fastest drivers’ lap times. This rule has been brought in to prevent drivers from hanging back in the opening race in order to secure an advantageous starting position for the second race.
Back at Curitiba, it will be the sixth time that the Brazilian circuit has played host to the series, and for the first time it will enjoy a double-header billing with the Copa Caixa Stock Car, Brazil’s most popular tin-top racing car series.
Aside from Yvan Muller’s single win for Chevrolet last year, the event has been a benefit for SEAT and BMW, with Gabriele Tarquini and Muller proving to have the greatest success here, with three race wins apiece in the last three years. BMW last won here in 2007 with Jörg Müller and local hero Augusto Farfus taking the spoils.