A CIVIC PARTNERSHIP PARTNERSHIP
British ace is after a second world title, and believes Honda can help. By Rob Ladbrook
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 “I originally made contact with JAS when Honda first entered the WTCC in 2012, but at the time I was committed to other manufacturers and other projects, but I was on the team’s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.” ■