Tar­quini paints clearer pic­ture as ri­vals fal­ter

Autosport (UK) - - WORLD OF SPORT - JAMIE KLEIN

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

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