Néstor Girolami finally broke through to win his first FIA World Touring Car Championship pole position at the all-new Ningbo International Speedpark in China.
Qualifying had the potential to be a complete lottery as persistent rain lashed the 4.015-kilometre circuit, but the Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo driver held his nerve through the two knockout qualifying stages to put himself in contention for pole in the final one-lap shootout. Bragging rights and five championship points would be his after he edged out factory Honda driver Norbert Michelisz by just 0.32 seconds.
The result has hopefully brought an end to the run of bad luck that the Argentine driver has endured in his first full-time season in the WTCC.
“Wow, finally,” an elated Girolami beamed. “The team did a fantastic job. Two days ago we were testing to sort my problem, the famous vibration that has finally gone. I’m so happy, it’s nice for my confidence. I am here to fight, to help my team-mates and fight for Volvo for the championship.”
While Girolami was the star of Saturday’s wet track action, he will have an important tactical role to play over Sunday’s two races as he works to help teammate Thed Björk take full advantage of the injury-induced absence to championship leader Tiago Monteiro, who continues a lengthy recovery from injuries sustained in a heavy testing accident last month.
By qualifying third-fastest, Björk closes to within nine points of the absent Monteiro and will want a large haul of points this weekend. Girolami’s bad luck has kept him out of the title fight, and inasmuch as he needs to help Björk, he will also have to limit the potential damage that Monteiro’s own teammate Michelisz could wreak.
Joining Björk on the second row of the grid will be Rob Huff, who was the sole WTCC Trophy and Citroën runner to make the Q3 shootout for pole.
Standing in for the injured Monteiro is 2009 WTCC champion Gabriele Tarquini, who made an impressive return to the series. The Italian was fastest overall in Q2, however that put him last out on track in Q3 when the rain was at its heaviest. A wild slide at Turn 1 killed any chances of a fairy tale challenge for pole position.
Among those not to make it to Q3 were Tom Chilton (Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën), Esteban Guerrieri (Campos Racing Chevrolet) and Nicky Catsburg (Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo) who will start the Main Race from sixth through eighth respectively.
Ninth- and tenth-fastest were John Filippi (Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën) and impressive WTCC rookie Yann Ehrlacher. The RC Motorsport driver will hope to repeat his maiden win earned last time out in Argentina with his reversed-grid pole position for Sunday’s Opening Race.
Ehrlacher’s teammate Kevin Gleason managed a career-best twelfth-fastest behind Honda’s Ryo Michigami. The Japanese driver’s qualifying pace was impacted by a throttle issue, and his misery will be compounded with a back-of-the-grid start for the Opening Race thanks to his second engine change in as many rounds.
The disappointment of qualifying was WTCC Trophy frontrunner Mehdi Bennani, who failed to get his Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën beyond Q1. The Moroccan qualified thirteenth-fastest and will start ahead of Tom Coronel (ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet), Dániel Nagy (Zengõ Motorsport Honda) and WTCC returnee Filipe de Souza, entered in a third RC Motorsport LADA.
Nagy’s teammate Zsolt Dávid Szabó failed to set a time in Q1 thanks to mechanical issues.
The WTCC Race of China features two races on Sunday: the shorter Opening Race over 13 laps at 14:30 local time followed by the longer Main Race over 16 laps at 16:30 local time (GMT +8).
|2017 FIA World Touring Car Championship Race of China – Final Qualifying Results|
|1.||Néstor Girolami||Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo S60 TC1||1:58.049|
|2.||Norbert Michelisz||Castrol Honda WTCC Team Civic WTCC||1:58.369|
|3.||Thed Björk||Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo S60 TC1||1:58.536|
|4.||Rob Huff||Münnich Motorsport Citroën C-Elysée||1:58.857||IND|
|5.||Gabriele Tarquini||Castrol Honda WTCC Team Civic WTCC||2:01.040|
|6.||Tom Chilton||Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||1:59.460||IND|
|7.||Esteban Guerrieri||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||1:59.896||IND|
|8.||Nick Catsburg||Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo S60 TC1||2:00.025|
|9.||John Filippi||Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||2:00.265||IND|
|10.||Yann Ehrlacher||RC Motorsport LADA Vesta WTCC||2:00.641||IND|
|11.||Ryo Michigami||Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC||2:02.171|
|12.||Kevin Gleason||RC Motorsport LADA Vesta WTCC||no time||IND|
|13.||Mehdi Bennani||Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||2:00.590||IND|
|14.||Tom Coronel||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||2:00.604||IND|
|15.||Dániel Nagy||Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC||2:02.565||IND|
|16.||Filipe de Souza||RC Motorsport LADA Vesta WTCC||2:02.980||IND|
|NQ.||Zsolt Dávid Szabó||Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC||no time||IND|
* Post-Qualifying Penalties:
- Ryo Michigami – who provisionally qualified eleventh-fastest – will start the Opening Race from the back of the grid due to an unscheduled engine change.
Image via FIA WTCC Media