The FIA World Touring Car Championship returns to Portugal this weekend after a two-year absence from the calendar. Instead of racing around the streets of Porto, the field will face an all-new challenge on the historic avenues of the town of Vila Real, the country’s oldest motorsport venue.
|2015 FIA World Touring Car Championship OSCARO.com Race of Portugal|
|Date||10-12 June 2015||Lap Length||4.775km|
|Open Test Session||Fri 11:30-12:00||Free Practice Session 1||Sat 09:10-09:40|
|Free Practice Session 2||Sat 12:00-12:30||Qualifying Session 1||Sat 15:15-15:45|
|Qualifying Session 2||Sat 15:50-16:05||Qualifying Session 3||Sat 16:10-16:20|
|Race 1 (13 laps)||Sun 11:45-12:15||Race 2 (13 laps)||Sun 17:15-17:45|
Session times quoted in Western European Summer Time (GMT + 01:00)
The origins of motorsport can be traced back to this very street circuit, which staged its very first street race through the town’s hillside roads in 1931. It’s a venue which has weathered world wars, economic and political turmoil and the the loss of its international status in the 1970s, through to a grassroots revival and a return to the international stage.
The passion for car racing runs deep through this small town in Portugal’s wine-making north, with Vila Real sitting on a hillside along the Rio Corbo river.
With the departure of Macau from the WTCC calendar, Vila Real will serve as the perfect antidote for what was one of the toughest street circuits in the world.
What a track! Terrifyingly quick in its original 7-kilometre layout, the track ran over two perilous bridges straddling sheer drops to the valley below, as well as a pair of railway level crossings over a narrow-gauge train line. Additional hazards such as houses, lamp posts and the odd stray dog or spectator made this truly one of the meanest circuits in the world.
The post-War era saw the circuit as a major stopping point for a number of high-profile international racers, with the likes of Eugenio Castelotti, Felice Bonetto, Sir Stirling Moss, Jean Behra, David Piper and Maria Teresa de Filippis having graced its many corners, rises and plunges.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, the town hosted innumerable sports car races until the Portuguese revolution of 1974, and despite a brief revival in 1979, it lost its international license and was consigned to hosting local Group A touring car events. Racing was stopped altogether in 1991 when four spectators were killed during a support race.
Then in 2007, Vila Real rose once again with a revival meeting – attended by Moss, no less – on a shortened layout which is still used today. The event returned to be a round of the Portuguese Touring Car Championship until the Global Financial Crisis bit, but it has made another comeback after negotiating a deal to return to the international stage by hosting its first ever World Touring Car Championship round.
With 24 turns, the track – dubbed the ‘Nürburgring of the South’ – starts its climb out of downtown Vila Real up the Subida de Abambres to its summit at Turn 11 at the circuit’s most easterly point, with a total elevation change of 75 metres (250 feet). Exiting Turn 14, the Curva do Cipreste, the track plunges downhill before two flat-out left-handers – which are expected to be taken at over 240km/h! – before a hard stop at Turn 17, the track’s best overtaking point. There’s a short high-speed blast back onto the start/finish straight, where the field will be slowed by a temporary chicane in the final corners.
The Form Guide
With fourteen races of the 2015 WTCC season run to-date, the battle for outright championship honours remains on a knife-edge. José María López leads the standings with an increased margin of 39 points thanks to victory last time out in Paul Ricard, but French Citroën teammates Yvan Muller and Sébastien Loeb cannot be discounted and will provide the Argentine driver with a stern challenge.
Fellow Citroën runners Ma Qing Hua and Mehdi Bennani (in the privateer Sébastien Loeb Racing C-Eylsée WTCC) should also be in the mix, and both will be keen to recover after an up-and-down 2015 campaign to-date. Bennani, in particular, will be hoping to reverse his fortunes after throwing away an outside chance at victory at Paul Ricard when he blatantly jumped the start from pole position in Race 2.
The C-Eylsée WTCC’s long wheelbase, however, might not be well suited to the tight and twisty confines of Vila Real, and this could allow fellow factory outfit LADA to have its best shot of a maiden win in its new Vesta – provided, of course, that the new car can hold together long enough.
Team leader Rob Huff is the WTCC’s all-time street circuit specialist with ten race wins ‘around the houses’, include a record-breaking six on the streets of Portugal’s former enclave, Macau. The Brit will once again be joined by Dutch duo Nicky Catsburg and Jaap van Lagen.
The four Honda Civics have lost some a further 10 kilograms of success ballast, which should allow the Japanese marque to be more competitive this weekend. Independent points’ leader Norbert Michelisz will again lead the privateer charge in his Zengő Motorsport Honda, while reigning TC 2000 champion Néstor Girolami is back for another crack in the single-car NIKA Racing entry.
The local fans will really only have eyes for Tiago Monteiro, however. Born in the coastal city of Porto, the 38-year-old has enjoyed some success on street circuits and will be looking to improve his fortunes with the support of a home crowd. Teammate Gabriele Tarquini will again provide stiff competition in a tight midfield scrap.
Of the Chevrolet runners, ROAL Motorsport will arrive in Portugal following a value in-season test at Paul Ricard; Tom Coronel and Tom Chilton will spearhead their attack against fellow RML Cruze TC1 runners Grégoire Demoustier (Craft-Bamboo Racing), Stefano D’Aste (Münnich Motorsport), John Filippi and Hugo Valente (both Campos Racing).
In what is as close to a home event as the team can get, Campos Racing had hoped to field a third entry for local touring car driver Manuel Pedro Fernandes, who has extensive experience racing on the circuit despite not having competed full-time for a number of years. Predictably, the Portuguese ASN has refused him the relevant racing license he needs to compete, leaving the field at 18 cars.
Image via FIA WTCC Media