This weekend sees the long-awaited kick-off of the 2014 FIA World Touring Car Championship season, which ushers in the biggest set of regulations changes in the series’ ten-year history. Added to that, the grid has a brand new manufacturer in Citroën, and a host of new and returning faces on the grid.
The cars will stage two races around the tortuous Marrakech street circuit. It’s a healthy twenty-car field, with sixteen runners built to the championship’s latest Super 2000 regulations – dubbed the TC1 Class – which feature lighter and more powerful aerodynamically advanced machines.
The New Machines
The new TC1 cars feature a wider track, larger 18″ wheels, increased engine power output from their 1.6-litre turbo engines and enhanced aerodynamics that showcases their aggressive styling and high-mounted rear wings.
The new-generation cars have been designed to be, on average, about five seconds a lap quicker than their predecessors.
Citroën joins the grid
This year’s grid boasts a healthy six different manufacturers and – at this stage – seven different models.
Under the series’ rules, all cars must be homologated by the respective manufacturer, three of which – Citroën, Honda and LADA – are providing works support. The fourth manufacturer in the TC1 category is Chevrolet, but the teams running its RML-designed Chevrolet Cruze will do so without the financial backing of the carmaker’s European arm.
The other three carmakers in TC1 operate as fully-fledged manufacturer entries. Citroën will make its debut in the WTCC with a trio of brand new C-Elysée WTCC racers, while Honda has four upgraded Civic hatchbacks, two of which will be run by the JAS Motorsport factory team and the other two will be independently run. Russian car brand LADA has increased its presence to three cars, an increase from the two it ran last year.
The runners and riders at the front
While there has been a considerable amount of change in the make-up of the grid over the off-season – perhaps not helped by a number of the independent teams indicating they would skip the year until more 2014-spec cars became available – it’s still a very strong field featuring four WTCC champions.
Citroën’s line-up is particularly interesting. Headed by four-time series champion Yvan Muller, he will be ably supported by the very talented duo of Sébastien Loeb and José María López. As a nine-time World Rally Champion, Loeb is among the best credentialed drivers in WTCC history, but he’s only had a handful of seasons circuit racing, and it will take him a little bit of time to get up to speed. López looks more likely to threaten Muller’s number-one driver mantle: the Argentine made headlines with his win on his WTCC debut last year, and he should run with Muller over the course of the year. The French carmaker will add a fourth car for Chinese racer Ma Qing Hua at selected races.
Honda has kept the same works line-up of Gabriele Tarquini and Tiago Monteiro, with the privateer outfit Zengõ Motorsport also getting its hands on one of the Japanese’s marque’s brand new Civics for the 2014 season, which the very talented Norbert Michelisz will once again pilot. A fourth car has also been produced for the Proteam Motorsport team, which will again run Moroccan racer Mehdi Bennani. The African racer threatened to claim his maiden WTCC race win on a number of occasions last year, and could finally break his duck in more competitive equipment.
LADA has expanded to a three-car line-up this year, adding former champion Rob Huff to last year’s pairing of James Thompson and Mikhail Kozlovskiy to pilot the outfit’s updated Granta Sport racer.
There are three other teams competing for honours in the TC1 category, with ROAL Motorsport, Campos Racing and Münninch Motorsport all getting their hands on the RML-designed Chevrolet Cruze.
On paper at least, ROAL looks the strongest of the trio, with series veteran Tom Coronel back on board and joined by last year’s championship frontrunner, Tom Chilton.
Münnich Motorsport was the last of the outfits to get its hands on a pair of Cruzes, securing the cars originally assigned to the Bamboo Engineering stables in an eleventh-hour deal. Former FIA GT champion René Münnich is on board for a second year, and he’ll be joined by four-time Italian Superstars title-winner Gianni Morbidelli.
Campos Racing will splits its four cars across the TC1 and TC2 categories, fielding a pair of Cruzes for Frenchman Hugo Valente and Serbian touring car racer Dušan Borković.
The second-tier championship
The second-tier TC2T championship is very much going to be an ‘also-ran’ or ‘Division B’, and it will – sadly – hardly get much attention given all the action that the fastest TC1 racers will provide at the sharp end of the field.
With these older-spec cars not getting any development, they five (confirmed, so far) entries will basically have their own race at the back of the pack, and they won’t have a prayer of being able to compete with the TC1 runners, which will be at least five seconds per lap faster.
The inclusion of the older-spec machinery has kept a handful of the independent teams in the championship while they wait for the availability (and cost) of the new-spec machinery to improve.
The Liqui Moly Engstler Team will continue with two BMWs for series veteran Franz Engstler and the returning Pasquale di Sabatino, while Campos Racing – which also fields a pair of Chevrolet Cruzes in the TC1 category – will run at least two SEAT León WTCCs over the course of the season.
Swedish outfit Nika Racing also confirmed it would remain on the grid (missing the season-opener in Morocco), but it will use a 2013-spec Honda Civic WTCC and probably be the frontrunner in the ‘B Division’.
The New Rules
While the technical regulations were given a massive overhaul, the sporting regulations haven’t been given too much of a shake-up, aside from an increase in the minimum race distance (now at least 60 kilometres each) and a change to the qualifying format.
Qualifying has now been split into three sessions. A twenty-minute Q1 session (lasting half an hour on street circuits) will serve to reduce the field to twelve runners for Q2, which will last for ten minutes (with an extra five minutes for street circuits). The fastest five Q2 runners will then stage a single-lap shootout for pole position in Q3.
The grid order for Race 1 will be based on the final Saturday qualifying classification, while Race 2 will see the top ten qualifiers’ grid positions reversed. Both races will have standing starts.
The Form Guide
While it may be brand new to the game, Citroën actually enters the series’ new era as the early-season favourites, having been blessed with almost a year of design, development and testing time while it ramped up for its debut. Certainly the early practice times at Morocco have born this out after its three cars dominated the opening test session on Friday.
Honda and LADA were always going to be compromised, splitting their efforts between seeing off the 2013 season and designing updated racers for 2014. Both will, in effect, be playing catch-up for the first half of the season – rather similarly to how they were last year against the dominant Chevrolet Cruzes.
The dark horse could well be the RML-designed Cruze. While it’s hand no monetary of development input from Chevrolet, the mean-looking machine has been developed using the wherewithal of RML many years of touring car success. The engine – a higher BHP version of the unit that has dominated the scene since 2011 – is already capable of delivering power and reliability, and the chassis certainly looks the business. The greatest challenge its three teams will face in the early rounds will be a drastic shortage of spare parts and bodywork – a small slip on the Marrakech streets could be disastrous with the championship’s second round, at Paul Ricard, just a week later.
Images via FIA WTCC Media