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Review: Chevrolet Set the Early Pace

Chevrolet headed into the 2011 FIA World Touring Car Championship campaign looking to retain the crown they had secured in 2010 with Yvan Muller, who had been brought in to replace Nicola Larini, who retired from racing in the WTCC.

2011 saw the introduction of the new 1.6 litre turbocharged engines to replace the 2.0 litre normally aspirated engines or 2.0 litre turbo diesel engines which the SUNRED team ran in 2010.

The season got underway out in Brazil, at Curitiba – having switched from Interlagos, which was provisionally announced as the new host venue.

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Another change for the 2011 season was the way the grids were formed – previously, qualifying sorted out the grid for the first race while the second race saw the grid formed from the race results but with the top eight reversed.

For 2011, the first part of qualifying formed the grid for the second race – but with the top ten drivers reversed while the grid for race two was set on the second part of qualifying – it may sound confusing but after a while, it got easier to understand.

Rob Huff secured the first Pole Position of the season ahead of team-mate Muller while the team’s regular third driver, Alain Menu, was the first big casualty of the new system – failing to make it into Q2. Third on the grid was one off team-mate at Chevrolet, Carlos “Caca” Bueno – top Yokohama Independent runner was Michel Nykjaer in the SUNRED SEAT Leon 2.0 TDi, setting the fourth fastest time of Q2.

Having secured himself Pole Position, Huff set about opening his Championship challenge in the best possible fashion as he led home a Chevrolet 1, 2, 3 – Muller followed his British team-mate home while Bueno secured his first ever WTCC podium finish.

Best of the rest was Tom Coronel for ROAL Motorsport – the Dutchman had made the switch from the SEAT to the BMW 320TC for the 2011 campaign and led home the top Yokohama Independent runner, Kristian Poulsen in another BMW 320TC, run by Liqui Moly Team Engstler.

The top SEAT driver in the opening race was Gabriele Tarquini, who wound up down in seventh, behind Menu who had worked his way up the order after his disappointing qualifying session.

The second race from Brazil saw Menu line his Chevrolet Cruze up on Pole Position – he had been promoted into the top ten after other drivers were given penalties – while Coronel lined up next to him, with the advantage of Rear Wheel Drive.

Menu’s team-mates had to work their way up the order from lower down the top ten – after setting times which put them near the top in the first segment of the session.

Coronel took the lead off the line thanks to the rear wheel drive advantage he has in the BMW while Gabriele Tarquini in the Lukoil-SUNRED car moved into second, but he could only survive for three laps as Menu came back at him, before demoting Coronel to second on the tenth lap.

Tarquini, who was at a disadvantage in the TDi SEAT soon dropped down the order as the Chevrolet train climbed their way up the order – being led by Huff, with Muller and Bueno behind him. Muller took third from Huff on the eleventh lap but it wasn’t enough to deny the Brit the Championship lead leaving Brazil.

Menu took the victory from Coronel and sat second in the Championship, level on points with Menu but ahead due to his victory. Best of the rest leaving Brazil was Coronel in fourth, while Bueno completed the top five.

Poulsen led the way in the Independents category from WTCC debutant Javier Villa in another BMW 320TC, from Proteam Racing.

Next up was a trip to Belgium and Zolder, a late replacement for the proposed Argentinean race weekend. The series welcomed back Norbert Michelisz in the Zengo-Dension Motorsport BMW 320TC, while bamboo engineering made the switch to the Chevrolet Cruze 1.6T from their normally aspirated Chevrolet Lacetti.

Qualifying saw Huff replicate his Brazilian Pole Position with team-mate Menu alongside him, while the second row saw former team-mates Tarquini and Muller together; Poulsen once again topped the Yokohama Independent runners in qualifying, just ahead of the returning Michelisz.

Huff then replicated his win from Brazil in the opening race of the weekend to extend his Championship advantage – but he had to survive a six lap Safety car period after Tom Coronel crashed out and took Franz Engstler with him – the impact ruled Coronel out of the second race.

Huff led home the second Chevrolet 1, 2, 3 finish in three races as Menu finished second and Muller third, having taken the position away from Tarquini as the race entered its closing laps.

Poulsen secured his second Yokohama Independents victory in three races, just ahead of the impressive Michelisz and Nykjaer.

Fredy Barth was due to start from Pole Position in the reverse grid race but he failed to make the start and this gave Tarquini a clear run into the first corner and for the entire race duration, he had the widest SEAT in Belgium as he defended from Huff and then Menu for the victory – what would ultimately be the final victory for the turbo diesel engine and sole SEAT victory in 2011.

Huff had the chance to extend his Championship lead – but contact between Tarquini and him saw the British driver come off worse and dropped down the order – finishing sixth overall while Menu was third, in a SEAT sandwich as Tiago Monteiro secured his first podium finish of the season.

Securing his first Independents victory of the season in fourth was Darryl O’Young, who was showing that the team’s decision to switch to the Cruze from the Lacetti was the right move.

Huff continued to lead the Championship but his advantage had been eroded down to a single point, while Menu was second. Tarquini and Muller were starting to fall behind after four races, while Poulsen continued to lead the way in the Independents category.

From the tight Zolder circuit to the fast, flowing, slipstream central Monza circuit and for Huff, it marked his first time as a double winner in the World Touring Car Championship.

Qualifying saw him secure his hat trick of Pole Positions with team-mate Muller alongside him – Muller was looking to recover some of the points he lost at Zolder while Huff was looking to extend his advantage further.

Top Independent entrant in qualifying went the way of Michelisz, who finished inside the top four overall while the Independents points leader, Poulsen, could only finish seventh fastest.

Round five saw Huff lead all the way from his two team-mates, and didn’t crack under the pressure from Muller on the opening lap and then Menu – Huff and Menu made contact disputing the lead and on the final lap, Menu was out of the reckoning after he was pitched into the barrier by Muller, giving Huff a clear run home for his fourth third win in five races.

Muller was given a suspended grid penalty for his collision with Menu on the final lap – this penalty was suspended for two races but it wasn’t the first time in 2011 the Chevrolet team-mates would have intra-team conflicts…

Monteiro completed the podium – having seen off the attentions of Michelisz, who secured the Independent honours and bragging rights of being the top BMW home.

Round six saw Huff lining up second on the grid but as soon as the lights went out, he was into the lead with Muller chasing him hard for the entire race duration – even pushing his Championship leading team-mate under braking for the Parabolica.

It wasn’t just the battle for the win which saw contact and action – the battle for third overall and top Independent was causing interest as Monteiro, Michelisz and Poulsen all looking to finish on the podium, and it was Poulsen who claimed third overall and another Independents victory.

Huff left Italy with a thirty six point advantage over Muller while Menu, who had been Huff’s closest rival after Zolder was forty one points behind after his race one retirement and he could only salvage fifth in race two. Best of the rest was now Monteiro while Poulsen continued to lead the Independents battle.

The first of the new circuits was up next for the World Touring Car Championship as the series headed to Budapest and the Hungaroring. The Hungaroring was drafted in as a replacement for the trip to Marrakech and it didn’t disappoint.

For the first time since Japan 2010, Huff failed to secure Pole Position in qualifying – having mistimed his moves, he found himself outside of the top ten and lined up in twelfth, and looking for a damage limitation event.

It was left to Menu to secure Pole Position – his first since Brands Hatch 2009 – ahead of team-mate Muller while the Yokohama Independents Pole Position went to Javier Villa in the Proteam Racing BMW 320TC, with local hero Michelisz down in fifth.

Come race day, some 75000 fans had turned out to offer their support to Michelisz and the Zengo-Dension Team and he repaid their support with a podium finish, and securing the Independents victory.

Menu turned his Pole Position into his second victory of the season with Michelisz second while the battle for the final podium position was decided half way around the closing lap as Villa made a determined move on Tarquini – Tarquini would wind up sixth, behind Villa and the two Chevrolets of Muller and Huff.

From being a hero in race one, Michelisz became a villain (temporarily) in the second encounter as he tried an impossible move at the start to snatch the lead of his home race. He suffered heavy front end damage but limped round to the pits for emergency repairs – maybe he had prayed for the rain?

Two laps in and the heavens opened – drenching the circuit and the red flags were out, with Tarquini having taken the lead from Menu and Coronel around the outside of turn three. Huff had found himself fifth as the red flags came out.

Once the rain had stopped, the race was back underway with Tarquini leading Menu and Coronel – but soon Menu was out of contention, Muller and Huff were on a climb and Tarquini’s time in the lead was numbered… and he was taken by Muller and Huff as they climbed into a potential 1, 2 finish and a victory for Muller.

Tarquini held on to third position – just rewards for what he had suffered in the opening race and then the second race while Engstler secured his first Independents victory of the season in sixth.

SUNRED also introduced their 1.6T engine in Hungary and Barth scored a double top ten finish with it on its competitive debut – the main drivers would have to wait that little bit longer before switching.

Huff continued to lead leaving Hungary – his Championship advantage had been cut slightly to thirty one points by Muller, while Tarquini had moved into fourth and position of best of the rest – some seventy five points off Huff after eight races. Poulsen continued to lead the Yokohama Independents trophy but his advantage had been turned into level scores, just the count back on wins keeping him ahead of Villa.

From Hungary, the series headed to Brno for rounds nine and ten – a circuit which would normally provide at least one BMW victory, if not a brace of victories for the German manufacturer.

Tarquini, Monteiro and Nykjaer all made the switch to the new 1.6T engine which replaced the 2.0TDi unit in their SEAT Leon – the cars were now SUNRED SR Leon 1.6T’s due to the homologation procedure.

For Huff, it brought back good memories as he secured his first ever WTCC victory at the circuit in 2006 but qualifying saw team-mate Muller on top for the first time since Brands Hatch in 2010, while Huff was second but some three tenths slower.

Robert Dahlgren and the Polestar Racing team secured their qualifying result with fifth on the debut of their 1.6T engine in their C30, while Michelisz had qualified as the top Yokohama Independent runner but was disqualified from qualifying for being underweight and thus Poulsen inherited the class Pole Position.

Huff didn’t have to wait long before beating Muller in round nine – three corners is all it took for the British driver to move ahead and charge towards his fifth win in nine races. Muller shadowed his team-mate home in second while Menu completed the podium positions.

Poulsen finished as the leading Yokohama Independents runner in fifth overall, having been a part of the battle for third with Menu and Coronel while in sixth was Dahlgren, giving the team their best result to date in the WTCC.

Muller secured his second victory of the season in round ten, despite having to start down on row four – he caught and beat Coronel in the ROAL Motorsport BMW 320TC and drove into the distance while the BMW driver fought off the attentions of the other two works Chevrolets, with Menu coming home third and Huff fourth.

Rewarded the SUNRED outfit for all of their hard work and efforts was Nykjaer, who brought the car home fifth overall and as the top Independent entrant, with Poulsen back in eighth and third of the Independents.

Heading into the sixth weekend of the season on the streets of Porto, Muller had closed to within twenty five points of Huff with his race two victory – Menu, on the other hand was slowly being cast adrift of his two team-mates but had no threat from behind. Poulsen had opened up a slight advantage in the Yokohama Independents – he led by four points from Villa.

Porto, the venue for rounds eleven and twelve of the season proved to be a vital weekend in the chase for the Championship… as the Chevrolet drivers started to fight between themselves.

Qualifying saw Menu secure his second Pole Position of the season, ahead of his two Chevrolet team-mates, but it wasn’t a safe passage into the second part of qualifying for Menu, as he had to improve on his final flying lap of Q1.

Eighth position in Q2 was Michelisz and top Independent, while just behind the young Hungarian was the returning Stefano D’Aste in the Wiechers-Sport BMW 320TC, having replaced Urs Sonderegger, who stepped down after Brno.

Menu took full advantage of his Portuguese Pole Position to secure his third win of the season as his two Championship contesting team-mates were busy fighting over second position.

This meant that, at his home race, Monteiro was left to be the best of the rest in fourth while eighth place overall was enough for Michelisz to secure the Independent honours – while Poulsen struggled and came home seventh in class.

D’Aste started round twelve from Pole Position, having been tenth fastest at the end of the first part of qualifying – and he held on to the lead at the start despite the attentions of Muller and Huff.

It took Muller until lap three to find a way past the Italian and by the time Huff moved into second, Muller was three seconds up the road – not that Huff cared, he had been quicker all day and rapidly closed up on his team-mate.

Huff made his move for the lead around the outside of Muller heading into the first chicane on the back straight – the pair made contact and Huff was forced to cut the chicane while Muller made it.

Huff won – Muller moaned – Huff’s victory stood, Muller was annoyed. Away from the intra Chevrolet battles, Monteiro was giving the 80000 strong crowd something to cheer as he secured a podium at home and the first podium for the Sunred developed 1.6T engine fitted in his car.

Michelisz secured a double Independents win by finishing fourth overall – and top BMW in the race, while Poulsen failed to score at all and finished last overall.

After twelve races out of the twenty four completed, it was Huff who continued to lead the way with a twenty nine point advantage over Muller. Menu was third, sixty points behind Huff but sixty six points ahead of Monteiro, so it was slowly looking like a two way scrap for the title.

Michelisz had moved into the lead of the Independents after his double win at Porto, coupled with the bad weekend for Poulsen. The gap between them was five points, and with twelve races to go, nothing was secure – considering Macau offers double points for the Independents.

Would Huff be able to hold off a charged up Muller over the second half of the season or would the Frenchman secure his third crown? Or would Menu get back into contention? Would Michelisz secure his maiden Yokohama Independents crown or would Poulsen get himself back into contention?

All shall be revealed in the second part of the 2011 FIA World Touring Car Championship season review.

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