The fifth round of the FIA World Touring Car Championship gets underway this weekend, with the grid heading to one of the drivers’ favourite circuits, the high-speed Salzburgring.
While the battle for Drivers’ Championship honours remains a three-way fight between the Citroëns of José Maríá López, Sébastien Loeb and Yvan Muller, they will have to be looking in their mirrors for the fast-closing Honda and Chevrolet rivals.
|2014 FIA WTCC RACE OF AUSTRIA
||Date:||23-25 May 2014|
|Open Test Session||Fri 1315-13:45|
|Free Practice Session 1||Sat 09:00-09:30|
|Free Practice Session 2||Sat 11:00-11:30|
|Race 1 (15 laps)||Sun 10:00-10:30|
|Race 2 (15 laps)||Sun 13:45-14:15|
|Race Lap Record||1:26.875 (2013)|
* All session times are quoted in Central European Summer Time (GMT +02:00 hrs)
Following the loss of Monza from the World Touring Car Championship, the Salzburgring is the fastest track that the series will visit, and this little gem – nestled within a narrow Alpin valley – would have to be one of the best circuits for touring car racing in Europe.
Little-used and generally unheard in major motorsport championships, this circuit may have a simply-looking layout, but it holds a daunting reputation for some fearsome top speeds and for being incredibly tough on tyres.
If anything, the Salzburgring is a throwback to the road racing circuits of yesteryear. The barriers are ultra close to the track edge and there is little in the way of run-off, which allows fans to get really close to the action. While the elevation changes are nowhere near as dramatic as the track’s (sadly disused) cousin, the Österreichring, it is still a terrific venue at which to go racing.
The start/finish straight ends with a tight right-left chicane, which can be the source of major drama at the start of Sunday’s two races. Beyond that, there’s the track’s second straight which leads into the banked Nockstein-Kehre right-hander, before it opens out to the track’s highest-speed section.
At over a mile long, the back ‘straight’ flings the cars towards the constantly tightening Fahrerlagerkurve sweeper, which is a tortuous corner on tyres, before the track snakes its way back onto the pit straight for another exciting lap.
The Runners & Form Guide
Nineteen runners will grid up for Sunday’s pair of fifteen-lap races, with the only change from Slovakia being the absence of TC2T class runner, Petr Fulín, who is running a part-time campaign in the second Campos Racing SEAT León.
Friday’s test session has given every indication that this weekend could be a closely-fought affair between the Citroëns, Hondas and RML-built Chevrolets. The session was headed by championship leader José Maríá López in the C-Elysée, but he was closely shadowed by the Chevrolet of Hugo Valente and the Honda of Mehdi Bennani, who finished up less than two-tenths of a second slower around the high-speed layout.
The Salzburgring plays less into the hands of the awesome traction of the Citroëns, and the trio of works cars could find themselves having some serious competition in qualifying and both races come Sunday.
They have the added handicap of being the only car model forced to run the maximum 60kg of performance ballast, meaning they will continue to run at the maximum 1,160kg minimum weight as they have done since the Hungaroring. The rival runners of Honda, Chevrolet and Lada will continue at the lowest base weight of 1,100kg.
The introduction of the performance ballast has seen the advantage of the C-Elysées dramatically trimmed, although the fastest laps of each car make from the last three events still shows that the French machines are on average 0.9 seconds faster than the Honda Civics and 1.2 seconds quicker than the Chevrolet Cruzes.
While who exactly will come out on top remains to be seen, what is perhaps clearer is that Lada’s struggles will continue into this weekend. The Lukoil team’s three Grantas are overweight and unreliable, and their hopes of curing a number of issues in a post-Slovakia test session went belly-up with more mechanical failures.
While former champion Rob Huff has been the standout performer compared to teammates James Thompson and Mikhail Kozlovskiy, he does also enjoy the benefit of having the only fully up-to-date car.
That being said, the Englishman’s machine is still about two seconds a lap off the pace – although the gap is reduced substantially in wet weather conditions – and the Salzburgring’s power-dependent nature will make this a tough affair for the red cars.
Images via FIA WTCC Media