Two-time World Touring Car Champion José María López has kicked off his quest for a hat-trick of titles in style by qualifying fastest for Sunday’s season-opener at the Circuit Paul Ricard.

The Citroën Racing driver clocked a stunning 1:28.950 time in the final one-lap shootout for pole, beating his teammate Yvan Muller by three-tenths of a second. Honda’s Tiago Monteiro split the pair with the second-fastest time in Q3.

Qualifying unearthed some surprise results, the not least of which being two of the three Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroëns failing to make it beyond the first phase of qualifying. The victims were Tom Chilton and Grégoire Demoustier, who were only thirteenth- and fourteenth-fastest in their C-Elysées, which were carrying a mammoth 80kg of performance ballast.

Q1’s pace-setter was Thed Björk’s Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo, who then backed up his pace with the sixth-fastest time in Q2. The Swede’s qualifying joy would be short-lived, however, when his car failed post-qualifying scrutineering for running below the acceptable minimum ride height. Björk will therefore start both races from the back of the grid.

His penalty came at the benefit of LADA’s Hugo Valente, who was promoted to the tenth-fastest Q2 time and will therefore start from pole position for Race 1, where the fastest ten qualifiers’ results are reversed.

It was a lucky break for Valente, who found himself unable to improve on his original Q2 banker lap time when his Vesta TC1 developed a technical problem. That also benefited Honda’s Rob Huff, who vaulted to tenth-fastest (later ninth) and will start from the front row for the opening race.

The running spots for the top-five shootout were claimed by the factory Citroëns of López and Muller, with Honda, Chevrolet and LADA getting one runner apiece thanks to Monteiro, Tom Coronel and Nick Catsburg respectively.

Fifth-fastest in Q2, Catsburg’s car could not be turned around quickly enough for him to exit the pits and attempt a timed lap.

Coronel – who exceeded all expectations by taking his unfancied Chevrolet Cruze into Q3 – was next up, but he too failed to set a time when his brakes overheated on his hot lap.

2016 FIA World Touring Car Championship Race of France – Qualifying Results
Q3 Qualifiers Team Time Class
1. José María López Citroën Racing WTCC C-Elysée 1:28.950
2. Tiago Monteiro Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC 1:29.213
3. Yvan Muller Citroën Racing WTCC C-Elysée 1:29.262
4. Tom Coronel ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze no time IND
5. Nick Catsburg LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC no time
Q2 Qualifiers Team Time Class
6. Norbert Michelisz Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC 1:29.958
7. Mehdi Bennani Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée 1:30.021 IND
8. Fredrik Ekblom Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo S60 TC1 volvo 1:30.221
9. Rob Huff Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC 1:30.576
10. Hugo Valente LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC 1:30.612
11. Gabriele Tarquini LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC 1:30.875
EX. Thed Björk^ Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo S60 TC1 volvo excluded
Q1 Qualifiers Team Time Class
13. Tom Chilton Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée 1:30.315 IND
14. Grégoire Demoustier Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée 1:30.620 IND
15. John Filippi Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze 1:30.985 IND
16. René Münnich Münnich Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze 1:31.749 IND
Outside 107% Team Time Class
NQ. Ferenc Ficza Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC no time IND
WD. Dániel Nagy Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC withdrew IND

^Post-Qualifying notes:

  • Thed Björk (who originally qualified sixth-fastest) had his qualifying times excluded as a result of his car failing post-qualifying technical scrutineering. He will start both races from the back of the grid.

Post-qualifying, the inaugural MAC3 time trial event made its debut, with Citroën narrowly edging out LADA by just three-hundredths of a second in the unique three-car concept.

After finishing third out of the three manufacturers in last year’s championship standings, LADA was first off with Nick Catsbyrg, Gabriele Tarquini and Hugo Valente lining up on the starting grid. Tarquini led the slipstreaming trio, which clocked a two-lap effort of 3:07.175.

Honda was next up with Rob Huff, Norbert Michelisz and Tiago Monteiro behind the wheel, but the Civic trio struck disaster when Huff bogged down off the line and trailed his teammates by over two seconds on the run to Turn 1. They finished 2.453 seconds down on the Citroëns, who ultimately won the round – but only just…

With pole-winner López joined by teammate Yvan Muller and privateer runner Mehdi Bennani, the trio’s first timed lap was half a second up on the LADAS. The second tour saw them steadily fall away with each sector, and they managed to finish up just 0.03 seconds clear.

With ten points awarded for the winning manufacturer, when added to the drivers’ points awarded to the top five in qualifying, Citroen begin 2016 where they finished, leading the standings with 18 points.

Behind them, Lada and Honda joint second on 10 points each, with Volvo Polestar in last place, collecting a point with Thed Björk the fifth-best manufacturer-entered driver in qualifying. Fielding only privateer customer cars, Chevrolet is ineligible to compete in the MAC3 format.

Image via FIA WTCC Media

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.