José María López leaves the European leg of the FIA World Touring Car Championship season with an extended lead in the drivers’ points standings over Citroën Racing teammate Yvan Muller after claiming his fifth victory of the season at the Circuito Vila Real. Ma Qing Hua made it a double celebration for the French squad after converting his Race 2 pole into his second career win.
It was an interesting weekend to say the least. Once again, there was some quality racing on display at a brand new venue which earned praise for being one of the toughest and most spectacular circuits the series has visited, but it was a weekend mired by controversy and heated exchanges between the drivers and manufacturers.
Much of the ire was directed in Citroën’s way. Such was their dominance on the Vila Real street circuit, another double-win looked to be on the cards, but only if they got their qualifying strategy right.
With overtaking on the tight and undulating circuit set to be extremely difficult, pole position in both races was perhaps the only certainty.
The fastest ten qualifiers would have their grid positions reversed for Race 2, so that meant outright pole and the tenth-fastest time for the four-car team would be its best short.
Their salvation came in the twelve-car Q2 session, where both Néstor Girolami (NIKA Racing Honda) and Mehdi Bennani (in the fifth Citroën run by Sébastien Loeb) would both fail to run. López and Loeb set about locking out the front row of the grid for Race 1, while Yvan Muller and Ma Qing Hua proceeded to trundle around the circuit and post the slowest times to guarantee themselves a front row start for Race 2.
It was a tactical call that earned them a protest from chief rivals, Honda, who felt that its drivers Gabriele Tarquini and Tiago Monteiro had been held up by the ponderously slow C-Elysées. Ma was already going to be summoned to the FIA Stewards for allegedly impeding ROAL Motorsport’s Tom Coronel in Q1.
Despite the quite blatant tactics – which Citroën predictably denied, claiming Muller had a technical problem and Ma had been held up by him – the FIA found no fault with Citroën and the results stood; Honda’s protest was thrown out, while Coronel was subsequently given a €1,000 fine and a summons to do some PR work for the FIA for unsavoury language directed to Ma in a clip he loaded to YouTube.
Race 1: López cruises to another Citroën 1-2
The Race 1 grid formed with temperatures still boiling in the paddock and on the track, but it was a fairly sedate opening race as López and Loeb both made great starts to claim a commanding 1-2 finish ahead of Norbert Michelisz’s privately-entered Honda Civic.
The action was largely confined to the opening lap, with Hugo Valente – who qualified an impressive third-fastest – bogging down in his Campos Racing Chevrolet and immediately getting swamped by Michelisz and his fellow works Honda runners, Gabriele Tarquini and Tiago Monteiro.
The Frenchman was quickly under assault from the other two Citroëns of Ma and Muller, who had themselves both got the jump on the LADAs of Jaap van Lagen and Nicky Catsburg off the line.
Valente found himself in a Citroën sandwich, and he and Muller made contact on the run up to Turn 3, allowing Ma to sneak ahead. Valente would retire before the end of the first lap with a broken clutch, and he would be joined by the NIKA Racing Honda of Néstor Girolami, who pulled into the pits with apparent oil pressure issues. The Argentine was able to rejoin the race, but was later disqualified after the race when the team violated parc fermé conditions by performing further repairs outside of the designated time period.
Up at the front, López pulled steadily away from Loeb en route to a comfortable fifth race win of the season, only backing off the final laps when victory was assured.
Michelisz managed to fend off Tarquini in the early laps and started to eat into the margin to Loeb in the final tours, while Monteiro kept Ma at bay to claim fifth. Muller finished in a distant seventh place, nursing some damage from his first-lap contact with Valente, just ahead of van Lagen’s LADA.
Nicky Catsburg finished ninth ahead of teammate Rob Huff, with the pair leading a close train of cars that also comprised Bennani and Coronel.
|2015 FIA WTCC Race of Portugal – Race 1 Final Classification (13 laps)|
|Driver||Team / Entry||Laps||Result|
|1.||José María López||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||13||26:23.906|
|2.||Sébastien Loeb||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||13||+ 1.519|
|3.||Norbert Michelisz||Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC||13||+ 5.391|
|4.||Gabriele Tarquini||Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC||13||+ 5.711|
|5.||Tiago Monteiro||Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC||13||+ 9.402|
|6.||Ma Qing Hua||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||13||+ 12.807|
|7.||Yvan Muller||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||13||+ 21.126|
|8.||Jaap van Lagen||LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC||13||+ 22.324|
|9.||Nick Catsburg||LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC||13||+ 27.636|
|10.||Rob Huff||LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC||13||+ 28.860|
|11.||Mehdi Bennani||Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||13||+ 29.395|
|12.||Tom Coronel||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||13||+ 29.853|
|13.||Stefano D’Aste||Münnich Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||13||+ 34.158|
|14.||Tom Chilton||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||13||+ 47.443|
|15.||John Filippi||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||16||+ 1:06.056|
|16.||Grégoire Demoustier||Craft-Bamboo Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||13||+ 1:06.927|
|Not Classified||Team / Entry||Laps||Result|
|DNF.||Hugo Valente||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||0||Clutch|
|EXC.||Néstor Girolami||NIKA Racing Honda Civic WTCC|
Race 1: Ma Qing Hua wins red-flagged race
Ma Qing Hua proved the critics wrong with a dominant drive to victory in Sunday’s second race, which saw three major accidents that ultimately led to the race being red-flagged on the twelfth lap.
With he and teammate Yvan Muller having locked out the front row, both made textbook getaways to lead the pack off the line.
Behind, there was chaos. Crowd favourite Tiago Monteiro made a good start from the third row and was trying to thread his way between the two slower-starting LADAs of Jaap van Lagen and Nicky Catsburg ahead of him. There just wasn’t enough room for him, and he tagged van Lagen’s Vesta.
The Dutch driver’s front-left wheel was ripped clean off, and both speared into the barriers on the right hand side of the track and into instant retirement. Stefano D’Aste was an innocent victim of the smash, with van Lagen’s errant wheel bouncing into the Italian’s Chevrolet and breaking its suspension.
The field was held by the Safety Car for five laps while the mess was cleared away, and when racing resumed, Ma immediately put the hammer down and pulled away from Muller.
Catsburg, who managed to dodge the contact between van Lagen and Monteiro, was now in third place and looking to claim his first podium finish. But his LADA didn’t have the traction of the chasing cars behind, although he did well to resolutely defend his position against Tarquini’s Honda, who was being closely followed by Michelisz, Loeb and López.
His defences lasted a further four laps before he left his braking too late at Turn 25 and that allowed Tarquini into third.
But the loss of momentum left him vulnerable to Michelisz and Loeb on the run to the roundabout; Michelisz went for the inside approach to the right-hander, while an opportunistic Loeb went to Catsburg’s left. The pincer movement failed as both were turned in front of Catsburg’s nose, with Loeb sliding into the barriers and retirement.
Michelisz was now into fourth and Catsburg, who had also lost position to López while rejoining the fray, was able to continue before he succumbed to the damage from the contact and cannoned into the barriers two laps later.
Officials had no choice but to throw out the red flags, giving the dominant Ma his second career win from Muller and Tarquini.
Michelisz took out the independents’ class victory with his fourth-placed finish ahead of López, who limited the damage to Muller in their championship battle.
The gap between the pair now sits at 55 points, with the field now set to head to the final flyaway races in Japan, China, Thailand and Qatar. The next round of the championship takes place at the Twin Ring Motegi road course on the weekend of September 12-13.
|2015 FIA WTCC Race of Portugal – Race 2 Final Classification (11 laps*)|
|Driver||Team / Entry||Laps||Result|
|1.||Ma Qing Hua||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||11||26:44.910|
|2.||Yvan Muller||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||11||+ 5.573|
|3.||Gabriele Tarquini||Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC||11||+ 10.812|
|4.||Norbert Michelisz||Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC||11||+ 11.982|
|5.||José María López||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||11||+ 12.423|
|6.||Nick Catsburg||LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC||11||+ 15.177|
|7.||Hugo Valente||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||11||+ 15.639|
|8.||Néstor Girolami||NIKA Racing Honda Civic WTCC||11||+ 16.060|
|9.||Rob Huff||LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC||11||+ 16.669|
|10.||Mehdi Bennani||Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||11||+ 17.174|
|11.||Tom Coronel||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||11||+ 18.055|
|12.||Grégoire Demoustier||Craft-Bamboo Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||11||+ 25.619|
|13.||Tom Chilton||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||11||+ 28.318|
|14.||John Filippi||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||11||+ 31.126|
|15.||Sébastien Loeb||Citroën Total WTCC C-Elysée||9||Accident|
|Not Classified||Team / Entry||Laps||Result|
|DNF.||Stefano D’Aste||Münnich Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||0||Collision|
|DNF.||Jaap van Lagen||LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC||0||Collision|
|DNF.||Tiago Monteiro||Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC||0||Collision|
* Race red flagged and declared based on classification at the end of the eleventh lap.
Images via FIA WTCC Media