Gianni Morbidelli’s return to the World Touring Car Championship just gets better and better: the Italian claimed an amazing pole position in Saturday’s one-lap shootout at the Salzburgring to win top spot from the dominant Citroëns by just 0.049 seconds.
But the Münnich Motorsport driver’s joy would prove short-lived: he was later hit with a five-place grid penalty after being found guilty of failing to slow sufficiently during the earlier Q1 session. The penalty gave reigning champion Yvan Muller pole position for Sunday’s opening 15-lap race.
The penalty shouldn’t detract from Morbidelli’s outstanding performance. After the Citroëns had dominated every session of the event so far, another 1-2-3 was expected for the all-conquering C-Elysées in final qualifying.
But 46-year-old Morbidelli pulled a rabbit out of the hat with a sensational 1:22.137 to overhaul provisional pole-sitter Sébastien Loeb; the time proved ultimately too good for Tom Coronel or Yvan Muller, who slotted into fourth and second respectively.
The field was trimmed to eighteen cars ahead of the start of qualifying, with Hugo Valente forced to skip the session after crashing his Campos Chevrolet heavily in the earlier practice session at Turn 9.
That meant getting through to Q2 could prove a tight battle in the TC1 class should either one of the three Ladas outqualify another class runner. The team sent its three cars out for a second dash in the closing minutes, but bungled their strategy by not giving their quickest driver, Rob Huff, a tow around the high-speed layout. James Thompson was the beneficiary and moved into thirteenth place – one short of the twelfth spot needed to graduate – while Huff was consigned to the fourteenth-fastest time.
The high-speed Turn 9 right-hander continued its tradition of catching out a number of drivers over the weekend. José María López made an uncharacteristic error by spinning at the corner in Q1, although he luckily did no damage to his car by avoiding the barriers.
The same could not be said of Dušan Borković in Q2. The lanky Serbian tagged the left-rear of his sister Campos Chevrolet at the same corner to bring out the red flags.
That ensured a mad scramble for the five Q3 spots on offer, which in the end went to the three Citroëns, Morbidelli and Coronel.
Gabriele Tarquini grabbed the all-important tenth spot on the timesheets to ensure he would have pole position for the reverse-grid Race 2, ahead of his three fellow Honda runners Norbert Michelisz, Mehdi Bennani and Tiago Monteiro.
2014 FIA WTCC Race of Austria – Final Qualifying:
|1.||Gianni Morbidelli*||Münnich Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:22.137||TC1|
|2.||Yvan Muller||Total Citroën Racing C-Elysée||+ 0.049||TC1|
|3.||Sébastien Loeb||Total Citroën Racing C-Elysée||+ 0.226||TC1|
|4.||Tom Coronel||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||+ 0.295||TC1|
|5.||José María López||Total Citroën Racing C-Elysée||+ 0.370||TC1|
|6.||Tom Chilton||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:22.565||TC1|
|7.||Tiago Monteiro||Castrol Honda Racing Team Civic WTCC||1:22.790||TC1|
|8.||Mehdi Bennani||Proteam Racing Honda Civic WTCC||1:22.866||TC1|
|9.||Norbert Michelisz||Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC||1:22.871||TC1|
|10.||Gabriele Tarquini||Castrol Honda Racing Team Civic WTCC||1:22.929||TC1|
|11.||René Münnich||Münnich Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:23.363||TC1|
|12.||Dušan Borković||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||no time||TC1|
|13.||James Thompson*||LADA Sport Lukoil Granta Sport 1.6T||1:23.705||TC1|
|14.||Rob Huff||LADA Sport Lukoil Granta Sport 1.6T||1:23.722||TC1|
|15.||Mikhail Kozlovskiy*||LADA Sport Lukoil Granta Sport 1.6T||1:24.144||TC1|
|16.||Franz Engstler||Liqui Moly Team Engstler BMW E90 320TC||1:27.550||TC2|
|17.||John Filippi||Campos Racing SEAT León WTCC||1:28.245||TC2|
|18.||Pasquale di Sabatino||Liqui Moly Team Engstler BMW E90 320TC||1:28.901||TC2|
|DNQ.||Hugo Valente||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||no time||TC1|
* Gianni Morbidelli receives a five-place grid penalty for Race 1 after being found guilty of ignoring blue flags during Q1. James Thompson and Mikhail Kozlovskiy have been demoted to the back of the grid for Race 1 for unscheduled engine changes.
Images via FIA WTCC Media