Mehdi Bennani has claimed his first outright pole position in the FIA World Touring Car Championship’s final race of the season at Qatar’s Losail circuit.

The newly-crowned Independent Trophy winner narrowly edged out Polestar Volvo’s Thed Björk for top spot by just 0.036 seconds while the fellow factory Citroëns of José María López and Yvan Muller stumbled in their quest for pole position in their last WTCC outings.

López initially looked set to demolish the opposition as he has done for much of his WTCC career, smashing his lap record from last year by over a second with a time of 1:59.788 in the opening stanza of qualifying. Björk was his nearest challenger, albeit four-tenths of a second back in his considerably lighter Volvo, while the Honda of Norbert Michelisz was third-fastest.

The three privateer Chevrolet RML Cruzes were found wanting around the 5.8-kilometre layout ill-suited to the characteristics of the car and failed to make the Q1 cut reserved for the fastest twelve runners. ROAL Motorsport’s Tom Coronel was the quickest in thirteenth ahead of Münnich Motorsport’s James Thompson, with Campos Racing’s John Filippi in fifteenth.

The two Zengő Hondas of Ferenc Ficza and Daniel Nagy managed to outqualify Grégoire Demoustier, with the Franco-Belgian once again failing to take advantage of the clear superiority of his Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée WTCC.

With a two-minute lap-time and just ten minutes allocated for Q2, each driver only had one proper shot at setting a lap time good enough for the top-five shootout for pole.

Muller and López hit the track early and posted times good enough for the first two spots on the timesheets, luckily managing to complete their flying laps before the session was halted when Hugo Valente’s LADA stopped on the circuit with broken suspension.

The session was resumed with just five minutes on the clock and it was a tense affair for everyone else to try and squeeze out a lap without being impeded by a fellow driver.

While Muller elected to stay in the pits, López had another crack and managed to edge out the French veteran with a time marginally slower than his Q1 effort.

Joining them in the Q3 shootout were Volvo’s Thed Björk, Honda’s Norbert Michelisz and the privateer Citroën of Mehdi Bennani.

The other works Hondas of Rob Huff and Tiago Monteiro just missed out on a top-five berth, while series returnee Robert Dahlgren managed eighth-fastest in the second Polestar Volvo S60.

Gabriele Tarquini was ninth-fastest in his LADA, and will start on the front row alongside Sébastien Loeb Racing’s Tom Chilton in tonight’s reversed-grid opening race. Tarquini’s teammates Nicky Catsburg and Hugo Valente share the sixth row for both races in LADA’s final WTCC hitout.

The top-five shootout saw Bennani post an opening benchmark time of 2:00.456. It was a solid effort that should have been beaten by the works Citroëns on the basis of their earlier times.

Michelisz was next up in his Honda; the Hungarian looked on course to beat Bennani’s time with a faster second sector, only to break his front-left suspension when he hit the tyre stack placed at the apex of Turn 13.

The session was briefly red-flagged to remove his Honda before Björk was allowed out, but the Volvo driver finished just three-hundredths of a second shy of Bennani’s time.

Muller was the penultimate runner and looked set to move into provisional pole before he had a messy final sector and finished almost a second adrift. It was incredibly a similar result for López, with the Argentine fluffing his final sector to hand Bennani a surprise pole.

The final two races of the 2016 World Touring Car Championship season take place under floodlights tonight at 21:20 and 22:35 local time (GMT +3), over 12 and 13 laps respectively.

2016 FIA World Touring Car Championship Race of Qatar – Qualifying Results
Q3 Qualifiers Team Time Class
1. Mehdi Bennani Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée 2:00.456 IND
2. Thed Björk Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo S60 TC1 volvo 2:00.492
3. José María López Citroën Racing WTCC C-Elysée 2:00.895
4. Yvan Muller Citroën Racing WTCC C-Elysée 2:01.632
5. Norbert Michelisz Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC no time
Q2 Qualifiers Team Time Class
6. Rob Huff Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC 2:00.892
7. Tiago Monteiro Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC 2:00.965
8. Robert Dahlgren Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo S60 TC1 volvo 2:01.114
9. Gabriele Tarquini LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC 2:01.372
10. Tom Chilton Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée 2:01.771 IND
11. Nick Catsburg LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC 2:02.343
12. Hugo Valente LADA Sport Rosneft Vesta WTCC no time
Q1 Qualifiers Team Time Class
13. Tom Coronel ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze 2:01.827 IND
14. James Thompson Münnich Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze 2:01.957 IND
15. John Filippi Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze 2:01.997 IND
16. Ferenc Ficza Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC 2:02.179 IND
17. Dániel Nagy Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC 2:02.468 IND
18. Grégoire Demoustier Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée 2:02.491 IND

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.