Friday night will pull down the curtain on the most closely-fought World Touring Car Championship season in its history as Volvo’s Thed Björk and Honda’s Norbert Michelisz go head-to-head for the 2017 Drivers’ Championship title.
|Losail International Circuit|
|Location||Lusail, Qatar||Circuit Length||5.380 km / 3.375 mi|
|Opened||2004||First WTCC Event||2015|
|Direction||Clockwise||Lap Record||2:01.628 – José María López (2015)|
Located just outside the town of Lusail, north of the capital city of Doha, the Losail International Circuit is a state-of-the-art 5.3-kilometre facility which cost some $58 million to build before it was opened in 2004.
The circuit has been a fixture on the MotoGP circuit since then, and its status was raised further when Musco Lighting installed a complex network of floodlights around the layout to make it the largest permanent sports lighting project in the world – a distinction that now belongs to the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.
This floodlighting will be in action once again when the World Touring Car Championship stages its night-time races on Friday, making for a memorable season finale.
Similar in some respects to the Bahrain International Circuit given its desert location and high ambient temperatures, the Losail circuit features a 1-kilometre long start/finish straight that feeds onto a complex network of 16 corners that following in seemingly quick succession. Turn 1 aside, the rest of the lap is rather ‘follow my leader’ stuff, although other series’ have rather tended to defy that with Turns 4, 12 and 15 proving to be suitable overtaking spots for the braver drivers.
Rewind to 2016
Gabriele Tarquini and Mehdi Bennani emerged victorious on a highly emotional night at last year’s WTCC DHL Race of Qatar. The weekend saw Yvan Muller announce his retirement from racing and Citroën teammate José María López also leaving the sport to move to endurance racing and the Formula E Championship.
The Opening Race saw Tarquini take a convincing victory in his LADA Vesta after overtaking Tom Chilton on a restart to cruise a five-second win. The race had to be red-flagged on the first lap when Tiago Monteiro crashed his Honda with broken suspension after the Portuguese driver was hit by Tarquini’s teammate Hugo Valente.
When the race was restarted, an enterprising Tarquini quickly applied pressure to Chilton and forced a mistake from the race-leader. It was all the invitation the Italian needed to sneak through en route to victory, while Chilton was left to fend off Rob Huff’s Honda for second place.
Muller’s incredible career came to an end with two top-six places to secure runner-up spot behind López, with the Argentine leaving tin-top racing after dominating the championship over the past two seasons.
The Main Race saw Mehdi Bennani soak up from Polestar Racing’s Thed Björk to claim victory. After claiming his first outright career pole position, Bennani kept his lead ahead of López, who passed Björk off the line. The midfield once again provided the drama, with contact between Chilton, Robert Dahlgren, and LADA duo Nicky Catsburg and Valente triggering a Safety Car.
Björk managed to get the jump on López at the restart and closed onto Bennani, applying major pressure on the Moroccan to make a mistake. But Bennani kept it inch-perfect on the hard-to-pass track to claim a narrow victory.
Yvan Muller signed off from his record-breaking WTCC career with two top-six finishes to secure the runner-up spot behind teammate López and ahead of Tiago Monteiro in the final points.
With Citroën ending its manufacturer-backed involvement in the championship, the French carmaker was swiftly followed by LADA, which – despite Tarquini’s win – opted to also call time on its stint in the WTCC.
The 2017 Event
|2017 FIA World Touring Car Championship – Race of Qatar|
|Event Dates||30 Nov – 01 Dec 2017||Scrutineering||Thu 13:30-17:30|
|Free Practice Session 1||Thu 18:30-19:15||Free Practice Session 2||Thu 21:15-22:00|
|Qualifying Session 1||Fri 14:30-14:50||Qualifying Session 2||Fri 14:55-15:05|
|Qualifying Session 3||Fri 15:10-15:30||MAC3||Fri 15:40-16:00|
|Opening Race (10 laps)||Fri 21:20-21:45||Main Race (12 laps)||Fri 22:35-23:05|
Session times quoted in Arabia Standard Time (UTC/GMT + 3:00)
The Form Guide
The 2017 FIA WTCC season has been the most openly fought in years and Friday night’s season finale could see any one of six different drivers vying for the Drivers’ Championship title.
The favourites are championship leader Björk and Michelisz, who are separated by just 6.5 points. Both drivers’ championship hopes could hinge on the support of their respective teammates over the weekend, however they face the added curve ball in the fact that their respective stablemates Nicky Catsburg (-40 points) and Esteban Guerrieri (-50.5) are still mathematically in the hunt as well.
So keen is Polestar Cyan Racing to give Volvo its first WTCC crowns that the Swedish outfit has convinced four-time series champion Yvan Muller to come out of retirement to race for them this weekend.
The spoilers in the mix are Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën Mehdi Bennani and Tom Chilton, who can each claim the overall championship honours as well as vie for the WTCC Trophy for non-manufacturer drivers. The pair will perhaps be more focused on claiming the Trophy prize, but they will have to keep an eye on Münnich Motorsport Citroën driver Rob Huff who remains in the mix after claiming a record ninth victory on the streets of Macau.
The Losail circuit has so far failed to deliver great racing in the WTCC’s past visits and there’s little to suggest we can expect an improvement in 2017. Qualifying will therefore be ultra-important – a bad session on Friday afternoon could derail any one driver’s championship aspirations.
It’s been an unpredictable season to say the least – could Qatar have the final joker in its pack?
Images via FIA WTCC Media