José María López has kicked off his defence of the FIA World Touring Car Championship title in style, thrashing the rest of the field in qualifying at the season-opening Race of Argentina.
The local driver a crowd favourite took his Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée a full 1.2 seconds faster than teammate Yvan Muller in the final one-lap shootout for pole position.
With Sébastien Loeb third ahead of Ma Qing Hua, it was a factory Citroën 1-2-3-4 and a lockout of the first two rows of the grid for Sunday’s opening race.
There was delight in the LADA camp, with tenth-fastest qualifier James Thompson grabbing pole position for Race 2 in the team’s brand new Vesta.
The build-up to qualifying had been dramatic for Frenchman Hugo Valente, who had his second huge accident in less than a fortnight when he crashed out of the second practice session. His Campos Chevrolet was so badly damaged, it remains doubtful that it will be repaired in time for the races.
The drama didn’t end there. Right at the start of qualifying, another runner went down. This time it was Norbert Michelisz, whose Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic shed its left-front wheel. The Hungarian was unable to take any further part in the session, and will start both of Sunday’s races from the back row of the grid.
The fifth independently-entered Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën of Mehdi Bennani was quickest in Q1 for much of the session, although the Moroccan was ultimately pipped at the post by a flying Rob Huff in the LADA Vesta.
With the non-participating Michelisz and Valente both out of commission, a further four runners would find themselves eliminated from the qualifying action at the end of the twenty-minute session. Two Hondas and two Chevrolets made up the mix, with the Civics of Dušan Borković and series returnee Rickard Rydell sandwiching the RML-built Cruzes of John Filippi and rookie driver Grégoire Demoustier.
The twelve-fastest Q1 runners graduated into Q2, but that session was interrupted just a few minutes in when Bennani spun in the first sector and beached his SLR Citroën in the gravel. He had failed to post a time and will start both races from twelfth position.
That left the remaining runners with just one run to try and put themselves in contention for the top-five Q3 session. Huff was the biggest loser in the session, having his flying lap ruined by the Bennani red flag, and then failing to put in a competitive time second time out; the former champion will start eleventh for both races.
Tom Chilton was the fastest Chevrolet and Independent Trophy qualifier, securing the sixth-fastest time in his ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet. Italian compatriots Gabriele Tarquini (Honda) and Stefano D’Aste (Münnich Motorsport Chevrolet) were seventh- and eighth-fastest respectively, ahead of the second ROAL Chevrolet of Tom Coronel.
The Q3 graduates were therefore all four of the factory Citroëns – Ma Qing Hua was fastest overall – while Tiago Monteiro disrupted things by going fourth-quickest in his works Honda.
Loeb was first out in Q3 and made an error in the final sector on his one-lap dash, while the feat was repeated by Monteiro and Ma. Muller kept things tidier on his lap, but must have been galled at the margin by which López claimed pole.
The first race is due to get underway at 15:15 local time (GMT -3).
2015 FIA WTCC Race of Argentina – Final Qualifying:
|1.||José María López||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||1:45.461|
|2.||Yvan Muller||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||1:46.701|
|3.||Sébastien Loeb||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||1:47.061|
|4.||Ma Qing Hua||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||1:47.203|
|5.||Tiago Monteiro||Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC||1:47.633|
|6.||Tom Chilton||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:46.738||IND|
|7.||Gabriele Tarquini||Castrol Honda Racing Team Civic WTCC||1:46.967|
|8.||Stefano D’Aste||Münnich Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:47.120||IND|
|9.||Tom Coronel||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:48.322||IND|
|10.||James Thompson||LADA Sport Granta Sport 1.6T||1:50.165|
|11.||Rob Huff||LADA Sport Granta Sport 1.6T||1:50.553|
|12.||Mehdi Bennani||Sebastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||no time||IND|
|13.||Dušan Borković||Proteam Racing Honda Civic WTCC||1:48.443||IND|
|14.||John Filippi||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:48.507||IND|
|15.||Grégoire Demoustier||Craft-Bamboo Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:49.042||IND|
|16.||Rickard Rydell||NIKA Racing Honda Civic WTCC||1:49.267|
|DNQ.||Norbert Michelisz||Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC||no time||IND|
|DNQ.||Hugo Valente||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||no time||IND|
Image via FIA WTCC Media