The FIA World Touring Car Championship might have been done and dusted a few weeks ago in a thrilling finale on the streets of Macau, but that hasn’t stopped the speculation about who will go where as next year’s grid starts to take shape.
Of the major outfits, just Citroën Total WTCC and LADA Sport have confirmed their full-time line-ups for the 2015 season, with both keeping unchanged three-car set-ups. Citroën’s is easily the most impressive of any team in the series’ history, with newly-crowned champion José María López confirmed alongside Yvan Muller and Sébastien Loeb – the three have fourteen World Championship titles between them.
LADA has also kept its three existing drivers on board, with Brits James Thompson and Macau winner Rob Huff confirmed alongside steadily improving Russian youngster Mikhail Kozlovskiy. The trio will run the team’s all new Vesta model, which was launched earlier this year at the Moscow Motor Show.
The only other team to have given any indication of its line-up is series returnee NIKA Racing. The Swedish outfit had a one-off appearance at the Hungaroring in a TC2T-class Honda Civic for Japanese racer Yukinori Taniguchi, but it confirmed as long ago as the 2014 pre-season that it would launch a full-time campaign with a customer TC1 class Honda with former series race-winner Rickard Rydell at the wheel. NIKA Racing would be the third one-car satellite team fielding a Honda, alongside Proteam Racing and Zengõ Motorsport.
That means seven of at least 20 potential race seats are up for grabs next year. Let’s take a look at a few of the teams and engage in some crystal ball gazing…
Sébastien Loeb Racing
One of the biggest announcements during the Macau Guia Race season finale was the news that nine-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb’s eponymous racing team will join the WTCC next year, fielding a pair of Citroën C-Elysées.
Loeb will continue to drive for the works Citroën team, meaning both seats are up for grabs and will be among the most coveted on the grid, such has been the French carmaker’s dominance of the championship in its debut season.
One likely occupant will be Chinese racer Ma Qing Hua, who had a number of outings in a fourth works Citroën over the course of the 2014 season. The youngster – a former national touring car champion in his homeland – started off well by winning Race 2 in his debut weekend at Moscow Raceway, but failed to hit the same heights over his remaining outings. Given his marketability and Citroën’s desire to expand its foothold in China, keeping Ma on the grid would be a smart commercial move.
Castrol Honda World Touring Car Team
The partnership of Gabriele Tarquini and Tiago Monteiro ultimately proved successful in 2014, although the slow-to-develop package took a while to gel and it wasn’t until Suzuka before the works outfit joined the winners’ circle when Tarquini won the second race. By that stage, the privateer Proteam Racing Honda of Mehdi Bennani had claimed the Civic’s first win at the round before at Shanghai.
Monteiro was desperately unlucky not to claim victory in the second race at Macau, which he led until the start of the last lap when his power steering failed.
Expect both highly experienced drivers to be retained next year, although don’t be surprised if the team opts to mirror the set-up at Citroën and LADA by expanding to a three-car operation to give a marketable local driver a full-time gig.
For Norbert Michelisz to finish ‘best of the rest’ in this year’s Drivers’ Championship standings – without a win and with only four podium finishes all season – speaks to the incredibly consistent season that the Hungarian driver had. Had he not been stuffed into the wall at the start of Race 2 at Marrakech, Michelisz would have finished every race of the season – a feat only managed by Sébastien Loeb!
With the Zengõ Motorsport team having existed solely to keep Michelisz on the grid, both driver and team look to remain in a happy marriage into 2015.
Fellow one-car Honda outfit Proteam Racing might find itself to be a team of interest in the off-season, with WTCC race-winner Mehdi Bennani said to be canvassing a number of options in the off-season. The Moroccan enjoyed his best ever WTCC season, claiming his maiden series win and finishing eleventh overall in the Drivers’ Championship standings.
Certainly, Bennani is keen to remain in the WTCC, and he would not be drawn on rumours suggesting he might make a switch and could be possibly be in the frame for one of the two seats at the new Sébastien Loeb Racing team (see above).
“We’re still working on (next year), and we’ve received some good proposals,” Bennani told TouringCarTimes. “For me, I hope to be in this championship next year, we’re fighting against the best drivers in the world and it now looks very professional. I hope to be here and hopefully I’ll have some news soon.”
The Roberto Ravaglia-run outfit swept to its first Independent Teams’ Championship title in 2014, with drivers Tom Coronel and Tom Chilton finishing seventh and eighth respectively in the Drivers’ Championship standings, the best performance of the gang of six full-time Chevrolet RML Cruze runners.
Chilton claimed his and the team’s sole victory of the season when he won Race 1 from pole at Beijing – he was the only non-Citroën driver to win the opening race all season – and it is likely that both he and Coronel will continue with the squad next year.
“I’m very happy where I am. I think ROAL Motorsport’s the most professional team out of all the Chevrolets,” Chilton said after the Macau season finale.
“RML are very happy to support the customer programmes rather than run them, and I think ROAL are doing a very good job, Tom (Coronel) and I are 1-2 of the Chevrolets (in the standings) and we’ve won the Yokohama Teams’ championship, so for me, this is the best place for me to be.”
The Spanish squad was undoubtedly the most stretched team in the 2014 World Touring Car Championship, running cars in both the TC1 and TC2T classes.
With the WTCC moving to a TC1-only series next year, Campos’ focus will undoubtedly be sharpened, and rather unlike its fellow Chevrolet RML Cruze rivals, it’s a little better resourced to position itself to be first in the queue when the car receives new upgrades.
The challenge the team has had is with its inexperienced but quick drivers, who have rather too often been knocking the precious new parts off the cars thanks to their ability to get involved in their own (or other drivers’) accidents. The less said about Macau stand-in Pepe Oriola, the better…
Exactly who will drive for the team will probably come down to money. Both Hugo Valente and Dušan Borković have undoubtedly shown they deserve another year to smoothe out the rough edges, and Valente has indicated his desire to remain with the team and use it as a launchpad for a possible factory-backed drive in 2016.
“I want to stay here. I think there’s a few constructors coming in 2016, and the aim is to have an official drive in 2016,” he said. “I have to think that I’m only 22, and I hope that I will be more interesting to the manufacturers than some of the others, [so] that’s why I want to stay here and hope for the best.”
ALL-INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport
The Münnich Motorsport team is something of a side venture for web entrepreneur and occasional racing driver René Münnich, although he has enjoyed considerable success in the FIA GT1 Championship.
After scaling back to a two-car operation and snaffling up the pair of RML Chevrolets that became available at the eleventh hour when Bamboo Engineering opted not to remain in the championship, Münnich opted to remain on board for a second season and brought on four-time Italian Superstars champion Gianni Morbidelli to drive the second car.
While Münnich was consistently among the slowest of the TC1 runners, series returnee Morbidelli showed the occasional flashes of speed and became the first non-Citroën race-winner with a brilliant defensive drive to victory at the Hungaroring. His luck tailed off thereafter, but he still finished twelfth overall in the Drivers’ Championship.
There are whispers that Münnich might scale back to a one-car operation and race as an owner/driver, which could leave Morbidelli out in the cold.
“I knew it would be difficult to start again in this category but they helped me a lot,” Morbidelli said of his WTCC return. “Now we have to think about next year, but I don’t know if there’s a future for me, as I don’t know what René will decide what to do.
“[At the moment] I think there’s only a very small possibility. From my perspective, it’ll great if I have a chance to stay here and carry on and use the experience I’ve had in one year, but I don’t see any possibility at the moment.”
Liqui Moly Team Engstler
One team that will definitely not be on the grid next year is the Liqui Moly Team Engstler outfit, which exits the WTCC as the new Yokohama Trophy champion with a dominant run in the TC2T class by owner/driver Franz Engstler.
With the WTCC rules excluding the use of the older-spec Super 2000 cars next year, BMW stalwart Engstler was either going to have to look for a new manufacturing partner to remain in the series or seek pastures new.
In the end, he’s opted to join the brand new TC3 International Series and its Asian derivative as well – the spin-off championships created by former WTCC series boss Marcello Lotti – and run Volkswagen Golfs based on the SEAT León Eurocup platform.
Images via Christian Hartung