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Review: Yvan Muller Turns His Season Around

Donington Park marked the start of the second half of the 2011 FIA World Touring Car Championship and it was Rob Huff who arrived at his home event as the Championship leader, with an advantage of twenty nine points over his nearest rival and Chevrolet team-mate, Yvan Muller.

Donington Park saw Wiechers-Sport draft in local hero Colin Turkington to replace Stefano D’Aste, who had commitments elsewhere but it wasn’t the 2009 British Touring Car Championship Champion who secured Pole Position.

The conditions in qualifying meant that the session became a lottery – and two of the biggest losers were Norbert Michelisz, the Zengo-Dension Team driver lining up eighteenth while Robert Dahlgren and the Polestar Racing team finished nineteenth and outside the qualifying maxima but were allowed to take the start.

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It was left to Muller to finish on top of the pile at the end of the second section of qualifying, with his two Chevrolet team-mates completing a 1, 2, 3 – best non Chevrolet was SUNRED’s Tiago Monteiro while Turkington finished fifth overall and top of the Yokohama Independents.

Muller took advantage of his Pole Position to lead the trio of Chevrolets away at the start and the three pulled out a gap, leaving the rest of the field to battle it out for the role of best of the rest – which went the way of ROAL Motorsport’s Tom Coronel in the BMW 320TC.

Turkington saw his hopes of a strong result at home disappear after three corners – he was forced off the track and plummeted down the order, eventually finishing tenth overall while Dahlgren had recovered from his qualifying disappointment to finish eighth. Franz Engstler completed the top six and secured the Independents honours.

Round fourteen saw the two principal Championship contenders starting back on row five after finishing as the fastest drivers in the first part of qualifying. Coronel lined up on Pole Position with Michel Nykjaer alongside him.

The balance of power in the Championship battle seemed to swing the way of Muller in the second race after the two of them made contact while dicing for sixth – the contact didn’t hamper their charge up the field.

All the drivers ahead seemed like they wanted to assist the Chevrolet charge – Coronel was the first race leader, then Proteam Racing’s Javier Villa and then Engstler – who was demoted to third on lap five but he held on for his career best result and his second Yokohama Independents victory of the weekend.

Leaving Donington Park, Huff continued to lead the way but his advantage had been slashed from twenty nine points to fifteen, after Muller became the second double winner of the season.

Michelisz continued to lead the way in the Yokohama Independents but his advantage had been slashed to two points while third was now O’Young, who was being consistent but not recording the victories.

Heading from Donington Park and to Germany for rounds fifteen and sixteen and Huff needed a strong weekend to ensure that he kept the Championship advantage over his fired up team-mate.

Muller stole the show in qualifying having demonstrated a serious turn in speed while second was another blue car but not a Chevrolet – Dahlgren had put his Volvo second on the grid, splitting the Chevrolets and showing that they may not have it as easy during the remainder of the season.

Huff lined up third with the fast starting Gabriele Tarquini in the Lukoil-SUNRED car fourth. Yokohama Independent Pole Position went once again to Michelisz, while local driver Engstler was third of the Independents in ninth.

Muller secured his third win on the bounce during the first of the Oschersleben races, having fended off the attentions of a recovering Huff. Huff made a potentially decisive mistake early in the race and slid off the road but he recovered to finish just under three tenths off Muller.

Tarquini rounded out the podium finishers, having beaten another recovering driver. Dahlgren, having started second had found himself down in eighth by the end of the opening lap but with a determined drive, he secured fourth overall and the best result for the Volvo team in the WTCC.

Yokohama Independent honours went to the returning D’Aste in the Wiechers-Sport BMW 320TC while the Championship leader Michelisz could only finish as the ninth best Independent and thus failed to score.

Round sixteen saw Chevrolet defeated for the second time in the 2011 season and with a podium that had an average age of 48.67!

Engstler started the race from Pole Position – having seen his Liqui Moly Team Engstler team rebuild his car in double quick time after his first race accident while Huff appeared to have the advantage over Muller – Huff lined up seventh while Muller was ninth.

Off the start, it was Michelisz who made the best start and moved into the lead as the field arrived at the tight first corner – while Independent rivals Poulsen and Proteam Racing’s Mehdi Bennani found themselves in trouble as they ended up in the pit wall.

The safety car was deployed to assist the clear up operation and once the race went live, Huff and Muller were on a mission to climb up the order, and soon Muller was ahead of Huff as the Briton tangled with Portuguese racer Tiago Monteiro.

Up at the front, Engstler was pressurising Michelisz and the young Hungarian racer spun himself out of contention at the final corner before seeing his race come to an end a couple of laps later as he hit the tyre wall at turn one.

Muller threw away the change to further cut his team-mates Championship advantage but he threw away fourth place in the closing stages – up at the front, Engstler provided himself with the perfect belated fiftieth birthday present – his maiden WTCC victory and the first for the BMW 1.6T engine. Completing the podium was Menu in second and Tarquini third – the Italian racer secured his second podium by 0.031s ahead of Coronel.

Huff had seen a twenty nine point advantage slashed to just six points in four races – Muller having secured three out of the last four victories and he had the momentum. Menu was slowly being cast adrift by his two team-mates, as he left Germany sixty nine points behind Huff.

Michelisz, despite two disastrous weekends in terms of points continued to lead the way in the Yokohama Independents but his advantage was a single point over Poulsen and O’Young – while the top six drivers were covered by ten points with eight races remaining.

Valencia, the final leg of the European season was the weekend where Chevrolet could secure their first title of 2011 and where their drivers could knock out the opposition in terms of the drivers’ Championship battle.

As in the previous two events, Muller continued his imperious qualifying form to secure his fourth Pole Position of the season and the ninth in nine events for the Chevrolet Cruze. Lining up second on the grid was Huff, with Tarquini and Monteiro third and fourth. Top Yokohama Independent entrant was Michelisz in seventh.

At the start of the race – Huff led the Championship. At the flag – his six point advantage had been eroded and he faced a nine point disadvantage. For the first time in 2011, Huff was playing catch up.

The key moment was on the second lap as Huff was caught up in an accident involving Monteiro and team-mate Menu. Huff spun down to eleventh while Menu continued, and followed Muller home for a Chevrolet 1, 2 with Coronel completing the podium ahead of top Yokohama Independent driver Poulsen. Huff could only recover fifth.

Chevrolet lucked into another victory in the final European race of 2011 – taking advantage of the chaos which the BMW drivers created as they squabbled over the race lead.

Coronel was leading the race from the front ahead of Yokohama Independent runners Villa and Michelisz while Muller was sitting in fourth, having moved up the order during the early exchanges while Huff follows behind.

As the race entered the closing stages, local driver Villa made his move on Coronel – Coronel retaliated a couple of corners later and this put Villa in the gravel. Michelisz, who had been third, was held up in the carnage and Muller inherited the lead.

The final corner saw Michelisz get on the power slightly too soon and spun away a podium finish as well as the Yokohama Independents’ victory – and in the process handed Chevrolet the 2011 Manufacturers title and ensured that either Muller, Huff or Menu would finish the season as Champion.

Heading to Japan for the Asian leg of the Championship, Muller had turned a twenty nine point deficit after Porto into a sixteen point advantage over Huff while Menu’s title hopes were very much an outside idea as he sat eighty points behind Muller. Coronel had moved back into the lead to be the best of the non Chevrolet drivers.

Coronel could no longer beat the Chevrolet drivers to the crown – he held a slender one point advantage over Tarquini heading into the final three flyaway races.

Poulsen, after his double Spanish victory moved back into the lead of the Yokohama Independents, with a four point advantage over Michelisz. The top six drivers were covered by twenty points, with over eighty points up for grabs.

The third circuit to make its WTCC debut in 2011 was Suzuka – just not the full length grand prix circuit, but the shorter East configuration. Wiechers-Sport’s saw Turkington return to the cockpit of their BMW 320TC while a number of local drivers saw the grid grow to twenty four cars – although the races only saw twenty three cars line up.

Qualifying ahead of the Japanese races saw Menu lead a Chevrolet 1, 2 as Muller finished the session second, with Dahlgren and the Volvo C30 splitting the Chevrolet drivers – Huff would line up fourth while top Yokohama Independent runner was SUNRED’s Nykjaer – who finished seventh overall.

A fourth Chevrolet was drafted in for the weekend for rally driver Toshihiro Arai – qualifying saw all of his times disqualified while Fabio Fabiani, who had been the sole Jay-Ten representative set a time outside of the qualifying maxima and wasn’t allowed to race the following day.

At the start of the first Japanese race, Dahlgren saw his race end prematurely having been pitched into the barrier before reaching the first corner and once the field arrived at the first corner, more carnage ensued as Coronel and Tarquini collided and behind, Monteiro, Villa, Fredy Barth and Hiroki Yoshimoto were all caught up in the accident. Tarquini and Villa managed to survive the accident.

Muller led in the early stages but had slipped back to fourth by the flag, handing Menu a clear victory ahead of Huff and Nykjaer, the latter winning the Yokohama Independents’ battle and securing his maiden podium finish in the WTCC. This meant that Huff had closed the gap to ten points over Muller.

The second race around the Suzuka East circuit saw Chevrolet defeated for the second time in three weekends’s as Coronel resisted the extreme pressure from Muller to secure his second WTCC victory, the first having come back in 2008 at Okayama.

Muller led home his Chevrolet team-mates for a 2, 3, 4 finish while Dahlgren rounded out the top five, the Swedish driver had been on for his maiden podium finish before the engine started to misfire and he dropped back.

As in the first race, Nykjaer secured the Yokohama Independent honours, with the impressive Turkington right on the tail of his Danish rival – Turkington was visibly quicker but the short layout meant he had to spend the entire race duration sitting behind the SUNRED driver.

With four races left of the season, Muller had seen his advantage cut to thirteen points by Huff while Menu was now relying on a miracle – he sat seventy three points off the Championship lead with one hundred left to race for.

His position was safe however as Coronel was 107 points behind the Swiss driver; the BMW driver was closing in being the best of the rest for 2011.

Poulsen continued to lead the way in the Yokohama Independents points, having opened up an eleven point advantage over Michelisz while the double win secured by Nykjaer had seen him move into third overall and with an outside chance of the glory.

The fourth circuit to make its debut in the World Touring Car Championship campaign of 2011 was the Chinese circuit of Tianma, a very late replacement for the Guangdong circuit. The series headed to Tianma as their first choice – the Shanghai International Circuit – had already been booked for the same weekend.

Arriving in China, it was looking like a two horse race for the Championship title as thirteen points separated Muller and team-mate Huff, while Menu required a massive slice of luck to go his way if he was to snatch the crown.

Qualifying saw Menu secure his fourth pole position of the season – the eleventh in eleven events for Chevrolet – with Huff alongside him for the first race and on Pole Position for the grid reversal second race. Both races would see him start ahead of Muller – a mistake in the second part of qualifying left the 2010 Champion down in seventh and fourth for the second race.

Top Yokohama Independent runner was Turkington in third overall while sharing the second row was Michelisz, the best of the Championship contenders. Poulsen would line up eleventh, Villa twelfth, Nykjaer seventeenth and O’Young eighteenth.

As was the case in Japan, Menu made the best start and sprinted away from the chasing pack, which saw Muller working his way up the order as he looked to restrict the points gap to Huff, who ended up finishing third after Turkington snuck ahead at the half way stage. Turkington wasn’t content with second and set about challenging Menu for the victory but the Swiss driver held on.

Turkington secured the Independent honours in the first race with Poulsen second and Bennani third – Michelisz had been on for a strong result but ultimately slipped back down the order to finish eleventh overall and fifth in the Independents.

The second race from Tianma should have been one for Huff to benefit from but he was unable to after early race contact with Tarquini saw him off the track, and then the Italian didn’t fight it hard when Muller came knocking.

Huff then found the 2009 Champion driving the widest SEAT in China while Muller sprinted away from the pack – pulling out a gap of over ten seconds while Huff was bottled up behind Tarquini.

Turkington proved that the tight nature of the Tianma circuit suited the characteristics of the BMW 320TC as he secured his second Yokohama Independents victory of the weekend on his last appearance in 2011. Poulsen once again finished as the second Independent driver and Engstler third – Michelisz failed to finish the race.

Mullers win coupled with Huff’s problems meant that heading to Macau, Muller led the way by twenty points while Menu was out of contention despite his race one victory. Menu left Tianma seventy seven points behind with a maximum of fifty to play for. Coronel had almost sewn up the title of best of the rest – he left Tianma twenty six points ahead of Tarquini with fifty to play for.

Poulsen almost had one hand on the Yokohama Independents trophy as he opened up a twenty three point advantage over Michelisz. O’Young was ruled out of contention after Tianma – he was forty four points behind with forty three to race for.

So it came down to two races of nine laps around the streets of Macau – a circuit Huff excels at, a circuit Muller has never won at and despite winning his first crown at the circuit in 2008, he lost out in 2007 after an engine problem meant he was unable to start the second race.

For Huff, the task was simple – Pole Position for both races, win both races and then hope that Muller didn’t score enough points, while for Muller, if he won the opening race, he was Champion.

Qualifying went the way of Huff – securing Pole Position for the first race and a second row start for the season finale, while Muller would line up second for race one but down the order in eighth position.

The second part of qualifying was interrupted for twenty five minutes after Dahlgren signed off his campaign early, as he crashed out on his first flying lap and brought out the red flags. Once the circuit was cleared, the session was restarted for the full fifteen minutes on safety grounds.

Race day – the penultimate round saw Huff lead away from the rolling start with Muller in tow but worst was to come for the third Chevrolet of Menu. He failed to make it out of qualifying one after contact with another driver – this left him down in twelfth on the grid and on the opening lap, he was caught up in Andre Couto’s accident at Mandarin.

The safety car was deployed to assist with the clear up operation and as soon as the track was clear, the safety car was withdrawn and the race was back live – for a whole lap, as O’Young and Bennani came together on the run to San Francisco Hill.

Once the Safety Car was withdrawn for the second time, Huff and Muller made their break and for the remainder of the race, Muller looked in determined mood to beat Huff and wrap up the title with a race to spare. Huff held on, Muller was second and the podium was completed by Tarquini, while Poulsen provisionally wrapped up the Yokohama Independents crown with a third in class finish, behind his fellow Dane Nykjaer and Engstler but with his nearest rival, Michelisz, finishing behind him.

Round twenty four, the season finale – Huff had to outscore Muller by fourteen points for him to take the crown. This meant that if Huff completed the double, Muller needed fourth place to secure his third title.

Pole Position for the final race went the way of Engstler with Nyjkaer lining up alongside him, but it was Coronel from fourth on the grid that made the best start and Huff was third, which became second when he made a brave move at Paiol corner.

Huff moved into the lead on the third lap – meanwhile, Muller had worked his way up to fourth and into a Championship winning position, having taken the position from Bennani.

The third Safety Car in two races was deployed at the end of lap three due to WTCC debutant Gary Kwok crashing at Mandarin – once the track was clear, Huff bolted while Muller played the Championship game and he ensured the title by moving into third at the expense of Nyjkaer – and he wasn’t going to be challenged from behind once Tarquini had slotted into fourth.

Huff took his eighth victory of the season and Chevrolet’s twenty first out of twenty four races while Coronel confirmed his position as the best of the rest with second place. Muller secured his third title in third while Tarquini was fourth.

Nykjaer finished fifth to secure his second Independents victory of the weekend ahead of Bennani and Engstler, with Michelisz fourth and the new Independents Champion Poulsen eighth.

So after twenty four races at twelve circuits, covering three continents, three points was the difference between Muller and Huff, while Menu finished 110 points behind his team-mate, but with a ninety point advantage over Coronel in fourth.

Poulsen ended the season with a two point advantage in the Yokohama Independents and after the Macau weekend, announced that he was retiring from the WTCC. Nyjkaer finished second and Engstler third, and the unlucky Michelisz wound up fourth.

Fabio Fabiani secured the Jay-Ten trophy for the cars who run with the 2.0l normally aspirated engine or the 2.0TDi engine. Fabiani was the sole representative for some of the season.

So after a breathless and hard fought 2011 campaign, it all gets underway again on the 10/11 March when the series heads to Monza for the opening two races, before visiting four continents and twelve countries with the traditional season finale at Macau over the 16/18 November.

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