Tarquini paints clearer picture as rivals falter
WTCR SUZUKA (J) OCTOBER 27-28 ROUND 9/10
If the fight to be the inaugural World Touring Car Cup champion had previously looked too close to call between a trio of Hyundai drivers, the three races at Suzuka offered up a clear favourite for the 2018 crown heading into the Macau season finale later this month.
Gabriele Tarquini may not have been the star of the weekend – that honour went to a driver less than half his age: Kevin Ceccon – but he did capitalise brilliantly on a tough weekend for Yvan Muller and an utterly wretched one for Thed Bjork.
It means that 56-year-old Tarquini goes into the triple-header on the streets of Macau 39 points clear of Muller, while
Bjork has 53 points to make up.
The vagaries of the WTCR’S compensation weight system meant that the Peugeot and Alfa Romeo runners arrived at Suzuka with no ballast, whereas Hyundai and Audi were at the opposite end of the scale. Aurelien Comte capitalised on his featherweight Peugeot 308 to score pole for the opener.
But it was ex-gp2 racer Ceccon who prevailed come the race, passing Comte on the second lap and then surviving a pair of safety-car restarts to deliver Alfa Romeo its first WTCR triumph. It also ensured that every marque on the grid this year has won at least once.
Muller managed to finish third behind Comte to draw level on points with eighth-placed Tarquini, but that was the high point of his weekend. In second qualifying he was left stranded in 11th on the grid after having a Q2 laptime deleted, and things didn’t get any better from there.
While his former Chevrolet team-mate Rob Huff passed reversed-grid poleman Pepe Oriola to win race two in his Sebastien Loeb Racing Volkswagen, Muller finished outside the points (although he was later elevated to 10th when Denis Dupont was penalised), and fifth place for Tarquini tipped the scales back in his favour to the tune of nine points.
But it was in race three that Tarquini inflicted the biggest blow. Starting second behind Ceccon, Tarquini passed the Alfa Romeo off the line. When Ceccon picked up a five-second time penalty for being out of place on the grid, Tarquini simply let his rival by and clung to his tail.
Ceccon crossed the line 2.9s to the good, but he dropped to third behind Tarquini and Comte when his penalty was applied, while Muller’s title ambitions suffered a major knock further down the order.
Mired in a hectic battle for sixth, he was hit by the Honda Civic of Esteban Guerrieri at the hairpin, costing him two places. The pair made contact again at 130R, which led the pack to bunch up into the final chicane and Muller to be hit from behind.
That essentially spelled the end of Muller’s race. He pitted shortly after, although the mess did allow Muller’s
YMR team-mate Bjork to salvage eighth.
It proved to be the only points finish of 2017 WTCC title winner Bjork’s weekend – he was taken out of the opener by a clash with Gordon Shedden and finished a low-key 12th in the second race.
The chaos in the last encounter also allowed comeback hero Tiago Monteiro (making his first race start in more than a year after his huge testing accident) to come within a whisker of grabbing the final point: 11th proved to be the Honda driver’s best result in a tough return event.
Race three win allowed Tarquini to gain ground in the WTCR title race
Alfa Romeo finally joined the winners’ circle thanks to Ceccon