The battle for the 2017 FIA World Touring Car Championship took another exciting twist in Sunday’s opening leg of the Race of Japan at Motegi. Tom Chilton claimed his second win of the season in his Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée with a dominant lights-to-flag drive to insert himself into the fight for the Drivers’ Championship.
It was a busy and bruising Opening Race at the 4.8-kilometre Twin Ring Motegi circuit, particularly for the more-fancied championship challengers. With the circuit awash with rain, Chilton rocketed off the line to claim the lead as reversed-grid pole-sitter Kevin Gleason slid wide at Turn 1 in his RC Motorsport LADA.
Gleason’s mishap benefited his teammate Yann Ehrlacher, who slotted into second place ahead of championship leader Thed Björk.
Chilton simply checked out at that point, and with the befit of a clearer windscreen he pulled clear to the tune of over a second a lap to win by a whopping 13 seconds.
Behind the Brit, there was plenty of action. Björk’s Volvo teammates, Nicky Catsburg and Néstor Girolami, both found themselves in trouble with the FIA Stewards.
Catsburg started the race from 17th and last thanks to a precautionary post-qualifying engine change. With the Dutchman needing to make up places to keep his slim championship hopes alive, he quashed those ambitions by running into the back of Ryo Michigami’s Honda on Lap 3, pitching the Japanese driver into a slide. Catsburg was hit with a drive-through penalty for his troubles.
Further up ahead, Girolami found himself battling with Michelisz, who is now Honda’s main prospect for the Drivers’ Championship title. Girolami had worked his way up to fifth, but a slide saw him drop behind Michelisz. A poorly-judged attempt to re-pass the Hungarian saw him tip Michelisz into a spin at the final corner, earning Girolami his own slow tour through pit lane.
The penalties for Catsburg and Girolami helped Michelisz move back into the top-ten, and a move on Rob Huff’s ill-handling Münnich Citroën helped move him into seventh place.
The thrilling battle for second place proved to be the major highlight of the race. Ehrlacher was driving well to keep a quicker Björk at bay, but the Swede’s patience got the better of him as he tried to pass the French youngster’s LADA with three laps to go. The move saw both cars nearly spin, which allowed an enterprising Esteban Guerrieri to nip through into second place in his Honda.
Björk then tried to recover and pass Guerrieri, but tipped the Argentine into a half-spin from which he incredibly recovered. Ehrlacher was able to nip back into second place as Guerrieri and Björk continued their scrap through the next few corners. With the risk that he might create a hat-trick of drive-through penalties among the Volvos, Björk elected to redress and remained behind Guerrieri until the chequered flag.
By finishing ahead of Michelisz, Björk extended his lead in the Drivers’ Championship to 15.5 points over the absent Tiago Monteiro.
Catsburg managed to recover to finish in ninth place – thanks to Girolami slowing to a crawl at the finish line to drop behind his teammate – and the two points he earned allowed him to close to 13.5 points behind Monteiro. Race-winner Chilton moves to fourth overall, 1.5 points up on Michelisz.
The Main Race follows at 15:30 JST (GMT +9), with Michelisz starting on pole position ahead of Catsburg and Girolami.
|2017 FIA WTCC Race of Japan – Opening Race Final Classification (11 laps)|
|1.||Tom Chilton||Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||23:53.262||IND|
|2.||Yann Ehrlacher||RC Motorsport LADA Vesta WTCC||+ 13.158||IND|
|3.||Esteban Guerrieri||Castrol Honda WTCC Team Civic WTCC||+ 15.288||MF|
|4.||Thed Björk||Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo S60 TC1||+ 15.846||MF|
|5.||Mehdi Bennani||Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||+ 19.053||IND|
|6.||Kevin Gleason||RC Motorsport LADA Vesta WTCC||+ 20.659||IND|
|7.||Norbert Michelisz||Castrol Honda WTCC Team Civic WTCC||+ 27.349||MF|
|8.||Rob Huff||Münnich Motorsport Citroën C-Elysée||+ 36.278||IND|
|9.||Nick Catsburg||Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo S60 TC1||+ 36.629||MF|
|10.||Ryo Michigami||Honda Racing Team JAS Civic WTCC||+ 37.104||MF|
|11.||Néstor Girolami||Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo S60 TC1||+ 37.127||MF|
|12.||John Filippi||Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée||+ 37.748||IND|
|13.||Tom Coronel||ROAL Motorsport Chevrolet RML Cruze||+ 40.107||IND|
|14.||Kris Richard||Campos Racing Chevrolet RML Cruze||+ 40.687||IND|
|15.||Dániel Nagy||Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC||+ 42.683||IND|
|16.||Filipe de Souza||RC Motorsport LADA Vesta WTCC||+ 54.402|
|17.||Zsolt David Szabó||Zengõ Motorsport Honda Civic WTCC||+ 1:08.185||IND|
Image via FIA WTCC Media