WTCR Free Practice 1 flash: Michelisz clear of title rivals in Sepang
Norbert Michelisz has got his WTCR / OSCARO title bid off to the best possible start with the fastest time in Free Practice 1 at WTCR Race of Malaysia.
One of four drivers in contention for the crown heading into the Sepang super-finale, Michelisz lapped the 5.543-kilometre track in a best time of 2m15.124s, as his three rivals for the WTCR – FIA World Touring Car Cup presented by OSCARO struggled for pace.
“It’s just free practice but honestly the feeling was not good inside the car,” said the BRC Hyundai N Squadra Corse driver. “We suffered a lot of understeer and un-constant car balance so there is a lot of work to do. It’s always nice to be first but if we are not able to improve a bit, I don’t expect us to stay ahead. We need to be efficient now. I’m not sure what the others did but we had new tyres from the beginning and I think it helped a lot. And I’m not sure what the others had but I think we had a tyre advantage. It’s a bit too humid and because of that we’re sweating a lot but it’s okay.”
Néstor Girolami (ALL-INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport) gave his title-chasing team-mate Esteban Guerrieri some cause for optimism by going second fastest in his Honda Civic Type R TCR, 0.035s down on Michelisz. His rival for top WTCR rookie honours, Mikel Azcona, was third in his PWR Racing CUPRA TCR with Leopard Racing Team Audi Sport’s Jean-Karl Vernay fourth after he held an off-track moment halfway through the 45-minute session.
Mitchell Cheah was a hugely impressive fifth for Hyundai Team Engstler and the top Malaysian wildcard with fellow one-off racer João Paulo de Oliveira a strong sixth in his KC Motorgroup Honda.
Cheah said: “It was a good start to the first official practice of WTCR. I didn’t look so much into the position I was in at the end of the session, I was just focusing on myself and trying to get the car in the best shape possible to run for this weekend. I think we are making progress and looking to final touches before qualifying starts.”
Frédéric Vervisch, who spent the early part of the session working on set-up changes to his Comtoyou Team Audi Sport RS 3 LMS, was fifth quickest with 15 minutes to go when he stopped on track, triggering a full-course yellow. He ended the session in seventh place, ahead of Gabriele Tarquini, Aurélien Panis and Nicky Catsburg. Benjamin Leuchter was the top Volkswagen-powered driver in P11 with SLR team-mate Johan Kristoffersson P12.
Kevin Ceccon was P13, one place ahead of Ma Qing Hua in the sister Team Mulsanne Alfa Romeo Giulietta Veloce TCR by Romeo Ferraris.
Esteban Guerrieri, second in the title standings, was P15 but not concerned about his position: “The position does not matter so much. It’s only FP1. We did what we planned to do and worked through our programme. We were focusing on set-up work and we’re not in a bad position. Qualifying is where it really matters.”
Cyan Racing Lynk & Co pair Yvan Muller and Thed Björk, who are also in the thick of the title fight, were P25 and P26 respectively, while Malaysian MotoGP star Hafizh Syahrin – who is also competing in the 8 Hours of Sepang FIM Endurance World Championship event this weekend – was P17 as he continues to adapt to race-car driving.
Tom Coronel’s Free Practice 1 was curtailed almost before it had begun when contact with Tarquini sent him limping to the pits with damage to his Comtoyou DHL Team CUPRA Racing entry. Free Practice 2 is up next at 12h45 local time.