Reigning champions Citroën Racing have, as expected, routed the field in the opening round of the 2015 FIA World Touring Car Championship at Argentina’s Termas de Río Hondo circuit.
Defending series champion José María López cruised to a lights-to-flag victory in Sunday’s opening race, while teammate Sébastien Loeb claimed victory in Race 2.
While López’s run to victory was a fairly effortless affair, the racing behind the leading Citroëns proved as hot as the soaring track temperatures, with a number of runners tripping over each other in the early stages.
Incredibly, all 18 cars managed to make the start after a Hurculean overnight effort by the Campos Racing mechanics to repair Hugo Valente’s RML-built Chevrolet after the Frenchman’s high-speed shunt in Saturday’s second practice session. Unfortunately the youngster’s race wouldn’t last long; he toured around at the tail of the field and triggered another huge repair bill by crashing out once again after 4 laps.
The start of the race saw Ma Qing Hua bog his Citroën down badly off the line from fourth place, leaving the Chinese driver with a long afternoon trying to recover lost positions after falling to the tail of the field.
Up at the front, polesitter López was jumped off the line by teammate Yvan Muller, who rough-housed his was ahead of the local driver at Turn 1, only for López to drive clean past the inside of the French veteran before Turn 2.
From there on, López was never headed and the three Citroëns of he, Muller and Loeb quickly built an insurmountable gap to the chasing Hondas of Tiago Monteiro and Gabriele Tarquini. The works Hondas had no answer for their French rivals, with Monteiro finishing over 14 seconds adrift at the end of the 13-lap race.
The first lap saw the Campos Chevrolet of John Filippi hit James Thompson’s LADA at the hairpin, leading to terminal suspension failures for both drivers. The LADA mechanics did well to repair Thompson’s car before the end of the race, sending the Briton on a sighting lap before the chequered flag was unfurled to make sure the car was pointing straight ahead of his pole position start for Race 2.
The Russian team’s mechanics were left doubly disappointed when teammate Rub Huff was in the pits a few laps after ‘Thommo’ with exactly the same issue, highlighting an urgent design flaw for the team to cure on its all-new Vesta racer.
Huff’s culprit was the fifth Citroën of Mehdi Bennani. The Moroccan had make quick progress through the field from twelfth on the grid to be seventh, but fell to eighth behind Huff when he ran wide on the third lap.
A lap later and he’d punted a furious Huff off the road in a clumsy overtaking move for which the stewards ruled he was at fault, issuing Bennani with a drive-through penalty that put him to the rear of the field.
Sixth place, therefore, went to Norbert Michelisz. The Hungarian driver kept his nose clean and fought his way up from 17th on the grid after his qualifying misadventures; he finished ahead of the recovering Ma Qing Hua and claimed the Independent Trophy class honours.
The Chevrolets of Tom Chilton and Stefano D’Aste were next up in eighth and ninth, with their cars having no answer for the quicker Citroëns and Hondas in the straight-line stakes. Chilton’s teammate Tom Coronel retired before the chequered flag with turbo troubles, leaving series returnee Rickard Rydell to pick up tenth place and the final championship point.
2015 FIA WTCC Race of Argentina – Race 1 (13 laps):
|1.||José María López||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||13||23:25.060|
|2.||Yvan Muller||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||13||+ 3.170|
|3.||Sébastien Loeb||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||13||+ 7.500|
|4.||Tiago Monteiro||Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC||13||+ 14.168|
|5.||Gabriele Tarquini||Castrol Honda Racing Team Civic WTCC||13||+ 16.322|
|6.||Norbert Michelisz||Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC||13||+ 18.470|
|7.||Ma Qing Hua||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||13||+ 20.164|
|8.||Tom Chilton||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||13||+ 23.499|
|9.||Stefano D’Aste||Münnich Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||13||+ 27.306|
|10.||Rickard Rydell||NIKA Racing Honda Civic WTCC||13||+ 30.266|
|11.||Dušan Borković||Proteam Racing Honda Civic WTCC||13||+ 34.387|
|12.||Grégoire Demoustier||Craft-Bamboo Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||13||+ 36.213|
|13.||Mehdi Bennani||Sebastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||13||+ 37.906|
|14.||Tom Coronel||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||9||Turbo|
|DNF.||Hugo Valente||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||4||Accident|
|DNF.||Rob Huff||LADA Sport Granta Sport 1.6T||4||Collision|
|NC.||James Thompson||LADA Sport Granta Sport 1.6T||2||Collision|
|DNF.||John Filippi||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||1||Collision|
If the drivers were hoping for a calmer second race, then no one seemed to have read the script. Sébastien Loeb emerged through the chaos and carbon fibre shards to claim victory from Race 1 winning teammate José María López and Honda’s Tiago Monteiro.
After both failed to finish Race 1, James Thompson and Tom Coronel managed to take up their front-row starting positions for the second race after rapid repair work by their respective teams’ mechanics.
Coronel made the better jump at the start in his ROAL Chevrolet, while Thompson’s horror weekend came to an end when he was clipped by Stefano D’Aste’s Chevrolet at Turn 1. Both drivers were out on the spot, and the sister LADA of Rob Huff was out too – the Englishman withdrew after a solitary lap, unhappy with the handling of his own hastily-repaired car that was damaged by contact with Mehdi Bennani in Race 1.
Coronel led from a fast-starting Gabriele Tarquini, who rocketed up to second with another fast start that forced the Italian onto the grass to avoid hitting his slower-starting rivals.
Tarquini was moving to line up Coronel for a move for the lead, but the pair of them came under attack from the Citroën of Ma Qing Hua, who simply blasted by the two of them. The Chinese driver’s teammate Loeb was swiftly through as well and assumed second place.
All of that happened on the opening lap.
On the second lap, Loeb was in the lead thanks to an error from Ma, who slid wide and filled his radiator intake with grass cuttings; Coronel did the same with a near-identical mistake.
The field was compressed for a Safety Car interruption to allow the marshals to remove D’Aste’s stricken Chevrolet, allowing both Ma and Coronel to come into the pits and have their trackside mowing efforts tended to before they blew their engines. Coronel would retire soon after, with his Chevrolet’s floor having come loose thanks to his off-track moment.
That promoted Tarquini back up to second with race one winner López now up to third ahead of Mehdi Bennani’s SLR Citroën and the Honda of Tiago Monteiro in fifth, with Yvan Muller’s Citroën sixth.
The race was restarted on the seventh lap, and López quickly disposed of Tarquini along the back straight to claim second place. The Argentinean was unable to close the gap to Loeb, with the rallying ace claiming the third WTCC race win of his career.
Tarquini looked set to claim third, but was forced to slow on the final lap of the race and handed the final podium slot to teammate Monteiro.
Fifth place went to Mehdi Bennani, ahead of the Honda of Norbert Michelisz (who picked his way through the carnage from 17th) and the recovering Ma. The Chevrolets of Tom Chilton and rookie driver Grégoire Demoustier sandwiched the Honda of Rickard Rydell at the bottom of the top-ten placings.
Finishing outside the top ten was Muller, who once again fell victim to the kind of impulsive driving that cost him the 2014 championship crown. The Frenchman tagged Bennani’s car trying to challenge the Moroccan for fourth place on Lap 10, bundling his privateer Citroën down two spots before the veteran made his own mistake a lap later and became the third driver needing to pit for a radiator clean-out. He was later hit with a five-place grid penalty to be applied at the next round of the championship in Morocco.
The stewards also saw fit to punish Michelisz for late-race contact with Ma, switching the finish positions of the two drivers.
The race’s other retiree was Dušan Borković, who rippled the front splitter off his Proteam Honda when he ran off-track under pressure from fellow Honda runner Rydell.
2015 FIA WTCC Race of Argentina – Race 2 (15 laps):
|1.||Sébastien Loeb||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||15||29:33.508|
|2.||José María López||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||15||+ 4.690|
|3.||Tiago Monteiro||Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC||15||+ 10.149|
|4.||Gabriele Tarquini||Castrol Honda Racing Team Civic WTCC||15||+ 11.564|
|5.||Mehdi Bennani||Sebastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||15||+ 14.956|
|6.||Ma Qing Hua||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||15||+ 19.697|
|7.||Norbert Michelisz*||Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC||15||+ 17.948|
|8.||Tom Chilton||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||15||+ 21.338|
|9.||Rickard Rydell||NIKA Racing Honda Civic WTCC||15||+ 30.607|
|10.||Grégoire Demoustier||Craft-Bamboo Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||15||+ 32.304|
|11.||John Filippi||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||15||+ 42.280|
|12.||Yvan Muller||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||15||+ 43.627|
|DNF.||Dušan Borković||Proteam Racing Honda Civic WTCC||8||+ 34.387|
|DNF.||Tom Coronel||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||4||Turbo|
|DNF.||Rob Huff||LADA Sport Granta Sport 1.6T||2||Collision|
|DNF.||James Thompson||LADA Sport Granta Sport 1.6T||1||Collision|
|DNF.||Stefano D’Aste||Münnich Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||0||+ 27.306|
|DNS.||Hugo Valente||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze|
José María López leads the championship standings leaving his home race on 48 points, with Loeb just five points adrift on 43, with Monteiro 15 points further behind on 28.
The next round of the championship takes place at Circuit Moulay El Hassan on the streets of Marrakech, Morocco on April 18-19.
Images via FIA WTCC Media