Event preview: Returning home hero Monteiro joins the WTCR street racers in Vila Real
From the Nürburgring Nordschleife of the North to what’s known locally as the Nürburgring Nordschleife of the South, the WTCR – FIA World Touring Car Cup presented by OSCARO is on the move again to Vila Real, a street track for the brave where brilliance makes the difference and mistakes are punished in an instant.
While the 4.785-kilometre lap is more than 20 kilometres shorter than the real Nordschleife, there are similarities thanks to the Portuguese venue’s blend of fast turns, climbs and descents.
As with all street tracks run-off is scarce and precision is key to being competitive. And when it came to being competitive in 2018, Thed Björk’s DHL pole to victory in Race 3 was a masterclass in dominance and came on the back of a dramatic Race 1 when a multi-car accident left several cars badly damaged.
“It was quite a scary moment for many of us,” said Björk, the fastest driver around Vila Real in a TCR-specification car and last year’s TAG Heuer Best Lap Trophy winner. “My car was on fire, I was boxed in and thinking about a different outcome. But as racing drivers we forget, and it’s one of my favourite circuits because when you get the flow it’s so nice to drive and so rewarding to be close to the walls. Vila Real is my track. I’m just spot on [there], attacking it in my way and taking on a challenge I am not afraid of. It’s a good atmosphere and the city appreciates us being there.”
Monteiro all set for a hero’s return
Portuguese hero Tiago Monteiro is back in action in Vila Real after his incredible recovery from the serious head and neck injuries he sustained in a testing crash in September 2017. Reduced to the role of frustrated spectator last year, Monteiro will be part of the #WTCR2019SUPERGRID in his KCMG Honda Civic Type R TCR. After a strong start in Morocco, Monteiro’s season has been filled with frustration. But, as the one-time Formula One podium finisher insists, “there’s no way we’re going to give up. We know where we have to improve and we’ll keep on working.”
Fifty Vila Real street races run
This year’s WTCR Race of Portugal coincides with the 50th running of the Vila Real street race. Racing has been held on Vila Real’s demanding hillside roads since 1931, when Gaspar Sameiro and Ercilio Barbosa conquered the original 7.150-kilometre course in a Ford Model A. Safety and financial factors meant races were held on an irregular basis until Eurosport Events brought the FIA World Touring Car Championship to the city in 2015. It provided stability and Vila Real’s first world-level event, albeit on a shorter layout with a handful of chicanes installed for safety reasons.
The ‘joker’ lap is back…
The ‘joker’ lap brought an untried concept to world championship motor racing when it was used at WTCC Race of Portugal in 2017. Designed to further spice up the action on a circuit where overtaking isn’t always possible, the ‘joker’ lap concept requires the WTCR / OSCARO drivers to take an alternative route in all three races, although not before the third lap of any race.
Vila Real’s ‘joker’ lap route is located at the final corner, Turn 26, with the full approval of the FIA Safety Department and local authorities. While the right/left flick through a roundabout will still be used in normal racing conditions, the alternative route to the left side will effectively take drivers the other way onto the roundabout and through a tighter left/right sequence before they re-join the start/finish straight. The alternative route is expected to take an additional two seconds, which will hand pursuing drivers ample opportunity to overtake.
Inspired by the FIA World Rallycross Championship, the ‘joker’ lap has brought an extra dimension to racing on Vila Real’s streets. As well as providing additional overtaking opportunities – Tiago Monteiro’s ‘joker’ lap strategy helped him to a podium double in 2017 – it will create a unique tactical battle between the teamsmeaning its impact on the races is not to be missed.
To make it visible and understandable on television, the ‘joker’ lap location will be highlighted by special graphics, which will also give viewers instant notification when the lap has been taken. Fans following live timing through the WTCR app will also be able to determine the ‘joker’ status of each driver.
… and there’s a joker master in the pack!
He might be new to Vila Real and only five events into his WTCR / OSCARO career but SLR Volkswagen’s Johan Kristoffersson is a master when it comes to taking the ‘joker’ lap. The Swede is a double FIA World Rallycross champion and used to do ‘joker’ laps for a living as they are mandatory in all WRX events.
Fifteen races, nine winners and a tightly-poised title race
Nine drivers have won races in 2019, while all seven customer racing brands have celebrated podium visits to underline another hugely competitive WTCR / OSCARO season. Esteban Guerrieri will start WTCR Race of Portugal with an impressive 45-point advantage over Norbert Michelisz and Thed Björk. But with a maximum of 85 points up for grabs in Vila Real alone, the title battle remains wide open heading into the second half of the season. Click here to view the provisional 2019 standings.
Welcome to the #WTCR2019SUPERGRID
The #WTCR2019SUPERGRID celebrates the fact that of the 26 all-season racers, seven have won 14 FIA world titles, while the others have shared 29 major championships between them.
Gabriele Tarquini, who began his world title defence with the Race 2 win at the season-opening WTCR AFRIQUIA Race of Morocco, carries the number 1 on his BRC Hyundai N Squadra Corse i30 N TCR. The hugely-experienced Tarquini took his second victory of 2019 when he beat team-mate and home hero Norbert Michelisz in the third race in Hungary.
After missing out on the inaugural WTCR / OSCARO crown by three points in a seven-way title decider in Macau last November, four-time world champion Yvan Muller is back in a Cyan Racing Lynk & Co 03 TCR developed by Geely Group Motorsport from China. He broke his WTCR / OSCARO podium duck at the Hungaroring but is still chasing his first 2019 win.
Thed Björk partners Muller at Cyan and started his bid for a second FIA world crown by giving Lynk & Co an historic victory in Morocco. After the Hungary and Slovakia weekends proved frustrating in comparison, the Swede hit back in style with a win double in The Netherlands.
Rob Huff (SLR VW Motorsport Golf GTI TCR), the 2012 WTCC champion, is one of 12 of the 15 winners from 2018 returning in 2019. After a challenging start to the season, the Briton came close to a Race 2 podium in Slovakia and showed more form at Zandvoort and Germany.
BRC Hyundai N LUKOIL Racing Team’s Augusto Farfus, ex-FIA World Rallycross ace Johan Kristoffersson (SLR Volkswagen) and Andy Priaulx (Cyan Performance Lynk & Co) are all world title winners and new to WTCR in 2019, with Kristoffersson now a winner following his Race 2 triumph at the Nürburgring Nordschleife where Farfus bagged a first podium.
Winner of Race 1 in Marrakech, Esteban Guerrieri (ALL-INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport Honda Civic Type R TCR), topped the standings after Race 1 in Hungary only for his challenge to unravel when broken steering caused his Race 3 crash. He made amends with a fighting second place in Race 2 at the Slovakia Ring and retook top spot in the title table by winning Race 2 at Zandvoort. He will take to the track in Vila Real with a 45-point title lead following a strong Germany weekend.
Jean-Karl Vernay (Leopard Racing Team Audi Sport) had high hopes of his first 2019 win in Hungary when he lined up on the reverse-grid Race 2 pole. But a clutch issue meant a sluggish start resulting in the Frenchman settling for second ahead of impressive newcomer Daniel Haglöf (PWR Racing). The Nürburgring Nordschleife offered little return for both drivers, while Haglöfis a Vila Real rookie.
Vernay’s team-mate Gordon Shedden and Comtoyou Racing pair Niels Langeveld and Frédéric Vervisch complete the Audi-powered attack with Vervisch winning in Slovakia – the result of an impressive charge from ninth on the grid – and taking a podium double in Germany. In his first season in WTCR / OSCARO, Langeveld is making progress and upping his pace at every turn.
A number of exciting young guns are aiming to challenge the established order in 2019. They include Mikel Azcona, who has graduated to WTCR as the TCR Europe champion to race a PWR-run CUPRA, and his close rival in recent seasons, Attila Tassi, the 19-year-old Honda-powered KCMG driver. Vila Real is unchartered territory for both but Tassi heads to Portugal on a high following a season-best fourth at the Nürburgring Nordschleife.
Kevin Ceccon, another Vila Real rookie for Team Mulsanne and Yann Ehrlacher (Cyan Performance Lynk & Co) are already winners in WTCR, but at 25 and 22 respectively, they remain among a list of talented youngsters that also includes Aurélien Panis, who has switched to CUPRA power for 2019 with Comtoyou Team DHL CUPRA Racing. Ex-single-seater racer Ceccon scored a podium brace in Slovakia, while Ehrlacher led at Zandvoort.
Tom Coronel partners Panis at Comtoyou and won in Vila Real in 2016. Fellow Dutchman Nicky Catsburg (BRC Hyundai N LUKOIL Racing Team) is new to WTCR in 2019 having triumphed in the World Touring Car Championship in the past. Benjamin Leuchter made the most of his Nordschleife knowledge to score an emotional home victory in Germany. Vila Real is a trip into the unknown for the SLR Volkswagen driver.
ALL-INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport’s Néstor Girolami, another series newcomer for this year, is also a WTCC race winner and topped the title standings after claiming his third WTCR / OSCARO victory in Slovakia. Having become the first Chinese to score WTCR points last season, Ma Qinghua made more history as the first Chinese driver to win a WTCR / OSCARO race when he triumphed in Race 3 at the Slovakia Ring in his Team Mulsanne Alfa Romeo Giulietta. He was victorious at Vila Real in 2015.
Tiago Monteiro starts his first full season since serious head and neck injuries ended his hopes of winning the WTCC title in 2017. The Portuguese, a Formula One podium finisher in the past, joins Hong Kong-based KCMG to race a Honda Civic Type R TCR. Monteiro’s former team-mate, Norbert Michelisz, is another title contender for BRC Hyundai N Squadra Corse after winning in Germany. Mehdi Bennani shared the Vila Real wins with Michelisz in 2017.