A CIVIC PART­NER­SHIP PART­NER­SHIP

Bri­tish ace is af­ter a se­cond world ti­tle, and be­lieves Honda can help. By Rob Lad­brook

Motor Sport News - - Rob Huff’s Honda Move - Pho­tos: Honda, LAT

It’s been a while since Rob Huff had this feel­ing. Al­most four years in fact. That feel­ing of things be­ing ex­actly as they should be. Hav­ing all the chance in the world to ful­fil ex­pec­ta­tions – that feel­ing of be­ing at home.

Huff hasn’t had that since 2012, when he lined up on the FIA World Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onship grid for the open­ing round in an Rml-pre­pared fac­tory Chevro­let Cruze. He was cer­tain then that he could be the world cham­pion, and he did it. But since then those ex­pec­ta­tions have had to be tem­pered. Un­til now.

Fol­low­ing Chevro­let’s with­drawal from the WTCC af­ter Huff ’s ti­tlewin­ning year the Cam­bridge-born man has been bounded around. From a pri­va­teer SEAT Leon run by Mun­nich Mo­tor­sport, to a de­vel­op­ing fac­tory Lada Granta and then the fledg­ling Vesta model. None truly had the po­ten­tial, or the back­ing, to de­liver the se­cond ti­tle Huff craves so badly.

Now though, Huff reck­ons he has that feel­ing again. This year the 36-year-old moves to Honda fac­tory out­fit JAS Mo­tor­sport to han­dle a Civic WTCC, and it’s a chance he’s been wait­ing for.

“I haven’t been this ex­cited about mo­tor­sport since I won the WTCC ti­tle back in 2012,” says Huff. “I feel like I’m go­ing back to the type of team I had in the Chevro­let glory days. Ab­so­lutely no dis­re­spect to Lada as they looked af­ter me bril­liantly for the last two years, but JAS has that his­tory and that pedi­gree.

“I haven’t had that same level of sup­port from a team and a man­u­fac­turer since Chevro­let left, and I know I’ll get that now and that’s a hugely ex­cit­ing prospect. I put JAS in the same league as RML in terms of their ca­pa­bil­i­ties. This deal re­ally lights my fire to suc­ceed again.”

Huff ’s move to Honda looks sim­ple on pa­per, but has come about through a com­bi­na­tion of hard work a nearper­fect tim­ing. Huff sealed a deal to join JAS to con­test the TCR se­ries race that sup­ported last year’s Ma­cau Grand Prix. It was a slot usu­ally oc­cu­pied by the WTCC but with Qatar join­ing the se­ries the world cham­pi­onship stepped aside.

“I was gut­ted when the WTCC left out Ma­cau as it’s my favourite track,” says Huff. “I orig­i­nally made con­tact with JAS when Honda first en­tered the WTCC in 2012, but at the time I was com­mit­ted to other man­u­fac­tur­ers and other projects, but I was on the team’s radar.

“Know­ing TCR was run­ning at Ma­cau I asked if I could drive one of its cars and we struck a deal. Then the WTCC fi­nale at Qatar clashed so the deal fell apart. But a cal­en­dar shuf­fle put the WTCC race a few days af­ter Ma­cau, so I im­me­di­ately went up to JAS’S truck and banged on the door to see if we could get the deal back on. We did and I raced with the team at Ma­cau in the TCR Civic, but I never at that point thought it would go fur­ther.”

One month later Honda an­nounced that it was part­ing com­pany with 2009 WTCC cham­pion Gabriele Tar­quini. Once that news was out, Huff spot­ted an op­por­tu­nity. “The mo­tor­sport ru­mour mills will say this deal was done way be­fore I even sat in the TCR car for Ma­cau, but it hon­estly wasn’t,” he ex­plains. “As soon as I heard Gabriele was leav­ing I got on the phone be­cause I saw an op­por­tu­nity. I’ve al­ways prided my­self on never step­ping on peo­ple’s toes in this sport and steal­ing a job from an­other driver. But once I knew there was a gen­uine open chance I knew it was one I wanted.”

The call was placed and the deal was struck. Huff was in, along­side Ti­ago Mon­teiro and third driver Nor­bert Miche­lisz. It’s a new start of sorts for Huff, and he says the feel­ing he got from his first test in the WTCC Civic con­firmed the move was the right one.

“I tested the car for the first time at Jerez re­cently and it was night and day dif­fer­ent to what I had be­fore,” he ex­plains. “When you drove a Lada down the pit lane to join the track there was al­ways some­thing un­usual go­ing on, some­thing you got used to or adapted to. But when you drive the Civic it gives you 100 per cent con­fi­dence straight away, it is so solid. You get the feel­ing it is a very well de­signed, well thought-out and well en­gi­neered car.

“My time at Lada was great, but quite mixed, and I think it comes down to the fo­cus of the com­pany. The head of Lada has other busi­ness in­ter­ests out­side of mo­tor­sport, whereas a team like JAS lives and breathes mo­tor­sport only, it is the main busi­ness and their main ethos, and that re­flects in the car and the way the team works.

“From rac­ing against the Civic last year I know how good it is. It’s no se­cret that it’s hard to over­take in the WTCC with the mod­ern cars. We have 400bhp and a lot of aero­dy­nam­ics now, so it’s tough, but if you were chas­ing a Civic you could see the ad­van­tages it has. It has ex­cel­lent trac­tion and the low-rev drive­abil­ity is bril­liant. It is also very sta­ble and just has that lit­tle bit ex­tra in ev­ery area that the Lada didn’t quite have.”

Huff has had two dif­fi­cult sea­sons with the Rus­sian fac­tory Lada Sport Ros­neft team, fin­ish­ing 10th in the points both years – his low­est WTCC fin­ishes since 2006. De­spite the strug­gles there were high­lights. Huff took Lada’s first WTCC podium in the 2014 Granta by fin­ish­ing se­cond in Ar­gentina, be­fore snatch­ing two race wins – in Bei­jing and Ma­cau re­spec­tively. The ar­rival of the new Vesta WTCC last year promised much, but couldn’t match the might of the Citroen C-el­y­sees that dom­i­nated the cham­pi­onship ( see side­bar).

Citroen is now leav­ing the se­ries af­ter one fi­nal sea­son this year, with the French firm fo­cus­ing on its World Rally Cham­pi­onship pro­gramme and a re­ju­ve­nated at­tack with a new C3 WRC from 2017.

Huff knows that with Citroen gone, there is an op­por­tu­nity for a new man­u­fac­turer to take its turn in the sun. He is con­vinced Honda’s time will come.

“The move to Honda is part of a longer-term plan,” Huff ex­plains. “Citroen leav­ing the WTCC isn’t a ter­ri­ble thing. It was great that it came in be­cause we needed that third man­u­fac­turer for the good of the cham­pi­onship and Citroen has done an amaz­ing job – the car, the team and the bud­get they put around it has been noth­ing short of phe­nom­e­nal. But, ul­ti­mately, they built the car too fast.

“Peo­ple could say that about us with the RML Chevro­lets too, but we man­aged it and only ever just won, we never ran away with it ev­ery race. For new man­u­fac­tur­ers com­ing in it’s hard to look past Citroen de­stroy­ing ev­ery­body, as they have smashed ev­ery­one to bits with that car. But with Citroen leav­ing and Volvo com­ing in [with a pair of Polestar-run S60s] I think the WTCC will be back to its best from 2017. It will be as strong as it ever has been.

“Citroen is still run­ning five cars this year [two works and three cus­tomer], so the first sea­son with Honda will be tough, but I see a gilded op­por­tu­nity for a P3 this year and firmly be­lieve Honda will have it. The ul­ti­mate goal is to spend this year work­ing with the team, de­vel­op­ing the car and then at­tack the se­ries head-on and win in 2017.

“Ev­ery­body has their time. Chevro­let had it, but be­fore Chevor­let it was BMW and SEAT, and Citroen is hav­ing its time now. There’s no rea­son 2017 can’t be the start of Honda’s time.

“I’m not sat­is­fied with just one world ti­tle – I’d love at least three more! That might be a bit am­bi­tious, but I know I’m in the right place to give me the best chance to fight for the world cham­pi­onship again.” ■

Huff tested the Jas-run Civic at Jerez re­cently

Honda’s Miche­lisz (left) and Huff Huff raced Lada Vesta last year

WTCC Star Bri­ton Rob Huff says Honda deal has him fired up to fight in The Lada Granta scored two race wins in its life

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