The 2012 FIA World Touring Car Championship gets underway this weekend at the Monza circuit in Italy, where Chevrolet will be looking to kick off their defence of both titles.
Having been the venue for the third race weekend of the 2011 campaign, Monza becomes the opening venue for the first time since the 2006 season, and the this weekend will see a number of drivers making their debut in the series, as well as a new team.
Reigning Champions Chevrolet return with the same driver-car-team combination which took them to the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles for the past two seasons, with triple Champion Yvan Muller looking to become the first driver since Andy Priaulx to win three Championships on the trot, and the first to take four overall.
Team-mate Huff, however, will be looking to defeat his French team-mate and secure his maiden World Touring Car Championship crown, having missed out by just three points in 2011 – this despite securing a double win in the season finale at Macau.
For the teams’ third driver, Alain Menu, he needs to have a strong campaign and remain consistent all season if he is to have a chance of beating Muller and Huff. Having failed to score in four races last year, Menu needs to find a way of beating the other two Chevrolet drivers on a consistent basis.
Rickard Rydell is also on the grid for Monza, in a Chevrolet Cruze 1.6T entered by Chevrolet Motorsport Sweden. For Rydell, the Monza race weekend is likely to be a one-off appearance as he prepares to defend his 2011 Scandinavian Touring Car Championship crown.
Entering their third WTCC season, bamboo engineering have got upgraded Chevrolet Cruzes’ for the 2012 campaign, and a whole new driver line up as they look to secure the Independents title for the first time. They have signed former BTCC works Chevrolet driver Alex MacDowall and former Auto GP racer Pasquale Di Sabatino for their assault on the 2012 campaign.
Out of the rest of the field, who is most likely to take the fight to Chevrolet?
On the face of it, the SEAT’s are in the best position, with their new 1.6T engine, developed by SEAT Sport instead of SUNRED who developed the turbocharged unit last year. Gabriele Tarquini (Lukoil Racing Team) and Tiago Monteiro (Tuenti Racing Team) are the drivers most likely to challenge the Chevrolet camp, while the returning Special Tuning Racing team and their drivers, Darryl O’Young and Tom Boardman could cause a surprise.
Tarquini and Monteiro will be looking for a better campaign than in 2011; Tarquini secured the only SEAT Victory in 2011, with the TDi engine at Zolder while Monteiro, despite not securing a victory all season, had been leading the charge until the mid way point of the year.
Aleksei Dudukalo, Andrea Barlesi, Pepe Oriola and Fernando Monje will also feature on the grid in SEAT’s, Dudukalo is once again partnering Tarquini in the Lukoil Racing Team to be run out of SEAT Sport in 2012. Oriola will partner former Formula One driver Monteiro in the SUNRED-run Tuenti Racing Team while Barlesi and Monje will race under the SUNRED Engineering banner. Bizarrely, Monje won’t feature on the WTCC grid at Monza as he will instead be racing in the supporting European Touring Car Cup.
The BMW attack will be led by Tom Coronel and the ROAL Motorsport team. Coronel secured a popular victory for the team in Japan, and he finished the 2011 campaign as ‘the best of the rest’ behind the Chevrolet trio. The ROAL Motorsport team have expanded to tow cars with 2011 International Superstars Champion Alberto Cerqui joining Coronel in the team.
The only other non-Chevrolet victory saw another BMW driver, Franz Engstler, secure his first WTCC victory at Oschersleben. Engstler returns for another campaign and is joined for the full season by Charles Kaki Ng. Engstler’s 2011 team-mate, Kristian Poulsen, has stepped down from WTCC racing duties.
The Zengő Motorsport outfit have, like ROAL Motorsport, expanded to a two car operation with the 2010 SEAT León Eurocup Champion Gábor Wéber joining former Macau winner Norbert Michelisz. Michelisz will be hoping for a stronger campaign, having lost out on the Yokohama Independents title with some bad luck towards the back end of the season.
Proteam Racing have entered two BMW 320 TC’s for Moroccan Mehdi Bennani and Spaniard Isaac Tutumlu, the latter being a late replacement for the previously confirmed Javi Villa, who is missing due to sponsorship issues.
The final BMW 320 TC on the grid comes from Wiechers-Sport, with the German outfit running Stefano D’Aste for the entire season. The Italian driver made sporadic outings for the team in 2011 and starred from Pole Position in the second race at Porto.
A new team brings the Ford name back into the World Touring Car Championship for 2012. The Arena Motorsport-run Team Aon will enter two Ford Focus S2000 TC’s for 2010 British Touring Car Championship Independents Champion Tom Chilton and the reigning BTCC Independents Champion, James Nash.
Chilton has always stated his intentions to race at a world level while for Nash, it is somewhat a return to European circuits having raced in the SEAT Leon Eurocup before switching to the BTCC. Chilton isn’t eligible for the Yokohama Independents while Nash is, and the all British line up will be interesting to follow as the only team entering a new car for the entire season.
Confirmed for later in the season is LADA, with TMS running James Thompson in the LADA Granta car at the Hungaroring and at Estoril, and if the two events in 2012 go well, the manufacturer intends to return for a full campaign in 2013.
Honda and JAS Motorsport will return to the series for the Asian rounds with the European Honda Civic, with a view to a full campaign in 2013. No drivers have been confirmed for Honda, although the project is separate to the British Touring Car Championship project.
2012 will see four new circuits making their WTCC debut, including the eagerly anticipated trip to Sears Point in the United States, for the first WTCC race of the USA. Slovakia also makes its debut, with the series heading to the Slovakiaring after it was confirmed that Argentina couldn’t host it’s planned event.
Also joining the calendar is Austria with the Salzburgring and China with the Chinese Grand Prix venue, the Shanghai International Circuit. The Salzburgring has been a regular host of the European Touring Car Cup while the Shanghai International Circuit had been earmarked for the 2011 race after Guangdong announced that it couldn’t host the 2011 race. Instead, it went to the unpopular Tianma circuit.
So twenty four races, twelve circuits, twenty plus car grids and two manufacturers due to join later in the season and the 2012 FIA World Touring Car Championship is all set for another enthralling season. The question on everyone’s mind is, can anyone stop the Chevrolet and Yvan Muller pairing from securing their third consecutive title?
Monza will give us the first indication and you can follow it all on Touring-Cars.net.
Qualifying will be live on Eurosport 2 at 13.30 Saturday, 10 March with the opening two rounds live on Sunday, 11 March. Race one will be live on Eurosport 2 at 12.00 while race two will be live on Eurosport from 15.45.