WTCR Qualifying flash: Muller storms to the top in Sochi
Yvan Muller claimed pole position for Race 2 at WTCR VTB Race of Russia by topping a tricky Qualifying affected by unpredictable rain at Sochi Autodrom.
The Cyan Racing Lynk & Co driver was fastest in the opening Q1 session, then proved quicker than Zengő Motorsport’s Mikel Azcona (CUPRA Leon Competición) in the Q3 shootout. Meanwhile, Goodyear #FollowTheLeader Yann Ehrlacher played it safe to qualify fifth and extend his advantage over nearest rival Frédéric Vervisch by one more point to 37 ahead of the final two races of the 2021 WTCR – FIA World Touring Car Cup.
The greasy and difficult track conditions following late morning rain proved a headache for every driver as they made calls on running full wets or slick Goodyears on the front and treaded tyres on the rear as Q1 began. The honour of topping the 20-minute opening session went to four-time World Touring Car champion Muller. Mikel Azcona appeared to have knocked him from the top, only for the Frenchman to hit back with his final effort to score the first five points of the weekend. Behind Azcona, the other three Q1 points scorers were Santiago Urrutia, Rob Huff and Nathanaël Berthon.
Title rivals Esteban Guerrieri and Ehrlacher missed out on points, but easily made it through to Q2 in sixth and seventh, while Vervisch – second in the standings heading into the weekend – saved himself from falling out at the first hurdle. He managed to end the session in P10 with a late switch to wet-weather Goodyear tyres all round, ahead of Nobert Michelisz and Néstor Girolami who was the last to graduate to Q2 in P12.
Of those who missed out, Attila Tassi was closest in P13, ahead of Jordi Gené, whose Zengő Motorsport Drivers’ Academy team repaired his CUPRA Leon Competición in time to take part following his accident in Free Practice 1. But Gabriele Taquini was disappointed to miss the cut in his last weekend before retirement, the Italian only setting a time good enough for P16. “It was not the qualification I wanted to do for my last one,” he said. “I tried to do my best, but in these conditions I was not fast. With the compensation weight we have we are struggling, but I can do better than this. I was far away from Q2.”
Conditions remained tricky to read in the 10-minute Q2 session as the track began to dry. But Ehrlacher proved full wets was still the best choice by setting the pace and making it safely through to the Q3 shootout. He was joined by Berthon, Girolami and Muller, who almost out-fumbled himself out of the reckoning. Muller didn’t set a lap until the final seconds, but jumped straight up to fourth after a late tyre change to full wets. Azcona was fifth to also make it through to Q3.
That meant Guerrieri was eliminated from the shootout in sixth, with Huff, Vernay and Vervisch next up. Like Muller, Gilles Magnus hadn’t set a time until the last moments – but his last-gasp effort pushed him into P10, ahead of Urrutia and Michelisz, which means the Belgian will start the partially reversed-grid Race 1 from pole position in his Comtoyou Audi RS 3 LMS.
Drops of rain before the Q3 shootout added further jeopardy for the final five. In the circumstances, Ehrlacher sensibly chose to run first in case the rain increased. The 2020 King of WTCR turned in a neat and tidy lap to set a benchmark of 2m31.887s.
Berthon was the next to run in his Comtoyou Audi. The Frenchman was far quicker than his careful countryman, going faster by a whopping 1.6s.
Now Muller took his turn. Was it emerging that instead of running early, running late was better as track conditions improved? Muller’s lap suggested so, given that it was a significant 0.661s faster than Berthon and 2.263s up on his nephew’s effort.
Azcona was the fourth to run. The Spaniard was down on Muller in the first sector, but fastest of all in the second – but lost speed in the final sector to end up second, 0.348s down on the Lynk & Co.
That left Girolami as the last to go. The Honda driver managed a decent lap, but didn’t have the pace to threaten Muller and was third fastest of the five. That left Muller on pole position for Race 2, ahead of Azcona, Girolami, Berthon and Ehrlacher.
“It was a big lap,” said a delighted Muller. “An amazing qualifying. I was quick in Q1, but my first effort in Q2 was not good enough and I had to come in to change tyres and just make it into Q3. We made a set-up change and did a good lap, so well done to the boys.”
Azcona was happy to be back in Q3, especially after suffering a fuel pump failure in FP1. Meanwhile, Ehlacher was satisfied as he eyes the big prize tomorrow.
“It started raining after Q2 when I had done a mega lap that didn’t count for points,” he explained, regarding his decision to run first in the shootout. “The main thing was getting into Q3. Now we are well placed, not to win but to score good points in both races. We have to be spot on tomorrow.”
Race 1 at WTCR VTB Race of Russia is due to start at 12h15 local time on Sunday.