Yvan Muller returned to the lead of the FIA World Touring Car Cup standings after claiming an unlikely win in the opening race on the streets of Vila Real, which came courtesy of a huge first-lap accident that decimated the field.

The multi-car crash was triggered by Sébastien Loeb Racing teammates Rob Huff and Mehdi Bennani, who somehow conspired to commit a motorsport ‘own goal’ of proportions that were both spectacular and tragic.

The pair started from the front row, with Huff having edged Bennani to pole by a scant 0.027 seconds in qualifying, and made an even start to be running side-by-side through the opening kinks that marked the uphill climb at the start of the lap.

The pair rubbed wheels as they jostled for position; Huff held the inside line through the right-hander at Turn 3 but Bennani refused to yield and the inevitable contact was made. Huff’s steering was broken and he slid across Bennani’s nose and slammed into the barriers, which launched the Moroccan into the air and across the roof and bonnet of Huff’s car.

Chaos ensued behind them, as the chasing pack simply cannoned into the stricken VW Golf GTI pairing and then each other. Out on the spot were two of the three Münnich Motorsport Hondas of James Thompson and Yann Ehrlacher, along with Thed Björk (YMR Hyundai) and John Filippi (Campos Racing Cupra). Norbert Michelisz managed to limp his battered BRC Racing Hyundai back to the starting grid but his mechanics opted to retire his car.

Several drivers were trapped in their cars as a small fire broke out in Björk’s Hyundai. Fellow drivers rushed to help the likes of Ehrlacher and Zsolt Szabó who were trapped in their cars – the former escaped through his Honda’s boot with the assistance of teammate Thompson, while the latter needed a rear window broken so he could escape.

Those caught in the worst of the accident were clearly shaken, with Huff and Bennani taken to the medical centre by ambulance complaining of chest and abdomen pains. Their cars were complete write-offs, along with Thompson’s Honda, and will take no further part this weekend.

Muller was left to thank a dreadful start that saw him fall from sixth on the grid to near the tail of the field by Turn 2, which gave him enough of a chance to see the drama unfolding ahead of him and bring his car to a safe stop without any major damage.

The race was suspended for over two hours while the track was unblocked and the necessary repairs could be carried out to the crash barriers, before the remaining runners resumed behind the Safety Car in their original grid order.

With all five of the drivers who started ahead of him on the grid now sidelined, Muller assumed an effective race lead ahead of Esteban Guerrieri, whose Münnich Motorsport mechanics were able to repair his Honda in time for the restart. Gabriele Tarquini held on to third in the sole remaining BRC Racing Hyundai.

Muller was steadily able to build a small lead over Guerrieri, with the two taking their ‘joker lap’ detours at the end of the eighth lap.

The Frenchman was able to claim his second race win of the 2018 season and reclaimed the Drivers’ Championship lead thanks to this result and his nephew Ehrlacher being an opening lap retiree.

Tarquini challenged Guerrier in the closing laps, but hopped the kerbs at the chicane too hard on the final lap and broke his rear suspension. The Italian managed to limp home to the chequered flag but was overtaken by Campos Racing’s Pepe Oriola before the finish line.

Oriola completed one of the race’s few genuine overtaking moves, squeezing by Jean-Karl Vernay’s WRT Audi – who qualified tenth-fastest but took the race’s initial start from the pit lane – when the Frenchman served his ‘joker lap’.

Vernay ran out of time to get by the ailing Tarquini but held on to finish fifth ahead of Aurélien Comte’s Peugeot and Benjamin Lessennes’ Boutsen Ginion Honda. The Audis of Nathanaël Berthon, Gordon Shedden and Frédéric Vervisch completed the points-paying positions.

Sunday’s WTCR action at Vila Real features a three-part qualifying session at 09:00-10:10 before two races at 15:45 and 17:10 local time (GMT +1).

2018 FIA World Touring Car Cup Race of Portugal – Race 1 Final Classification (12 laps)
Driver Team Laps Result Pts
1. Yvan Muller MRacing – YMR 12 2:36:58.962 27
2. Esteban Guerrieri ALL-INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport 12 + 2.060 20
3. Pepe Oriola es Team OSCARO by Campos Racing 12 + 10.596 17
4. Gabriele Tarquini it BRC Racing Team 12 + 12.925 14
5. Jean-Karl Vernay Audi Sport Leopard Lukoil Team 12 + 13.926 12
6. Aurélien Comte DG Sport Compétition 12 + 14.186 10
7. Benjamin Lessennes be Boutsen Ginion Racing 12 + 16.696 8
8. Nathanaël Berthon Comtoyou Racing 12 + 19.937 6
9. Gordon Shedden Audi Sport Leopard Lukoil Team 12 + 20.169 4
10. Frédéric Vervisch be Audi Sport Team Comtoyou 12 + 20.678 2
11. Fabrizio Giovanardi it Mulsanne SRL 12 + 21.728
12. Mat’o Homola DG Sport Compétition 12 + 22.668
13. Edgar Florino Rui Edgar Macedo Florino 12 + 50.040
14. Norbert Nagy Zengõ Motorsport 12 + 50.451
15. Zsolt Dávid Szabó Zengõ Motorsport 12 + 1:05.510
16. Aurélien Panis Comtoyou Racing 9 Mechanical
Not Classified Team Laps Result
DNF. Denis Dupont be Comtoyou Racing 8 Mechanical
DNF. José Rodrigues Target Competition 7 Mechanical
DNF. Tom Coronel Boutsen Ginion Racing 5 Mechanical
DNF. Norbert Michelisz BRC Racing Team 1 Damage
DNF. Rob Huff Sébastien Loeb Racing 0 Collision
DNF. Mehdi Bennani Sébastien Loeb Racing 0 Collision
DNF. Yann Ehrlacher ALL-INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport 0 Collision
DNF. Thed Björk MRacing – YMR 0 Collision
DNF. John Filippi Team OSCARO by Campos Racing 0 Collision
DNF. James Thompson ALL-INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport 0 Collision
DNS. Gianni Morbidelli it Mulsanne SRL Mechanical

* Post-Race Penalties:

  • None

Images via FIA WTCR 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.