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Portimao ends European season

The Autodromo Internacional do Algarve or the Portimao circuit marks the end of the European season for the 2012 FIA World Touring Car Championship. After Portugal, the cars will be shipped over to America for the Brazilian and USA Races before the Asian leg at the end of the season.

Twelve races in and the 2012 season has seen six different race winners from three different manufacturers and a Championship battle which has tightened up after the Austrian weekend.

Portimao first hosted the WTCC in 2010 when SEAT Sport ran the TDi Engine and both victories went to SEAT drivers – Tiago Monteiro securing a popular home victory while Gabriele Tarquini took the second victory of the weekend.

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The second visit to the circuit sees the drivers’ Championship being led by the reigning Champion Yvan Muller, while Chevrolet lead the way in the Manufacturers’ standings.

Chevrolet secured a 1, 2, 3 finish last time out in Austria before seeing all three cars suffer punctures in the second race, and the punctures meant that Muller saw his Championship advantage slashed to eight points by team-mate Rob Huff. Huff secured the first victory of the Austrian weekend before backing that up with a second place finish in round 12.

Muller leads the way after a strong start to the season – he took three out of three in the opening three races and has won five races to date. Muller also has consistency, having secured a top ten finish in all of the races to date in 2012.

Huff secured his second victory of the season in Austria and has been consistent apart from his retirement in Slovakia. Having started the season off slowly, he is starting to find some form as the season progresses.

Alain Menu in the third Chevrolet is starting to fall back from his team-mates after his Salzburgring retirement. The Swiss driver has been a regular on the podium – ten races finishes out of 12 and eight podiums including two victories. Two retirements have hit his hopes somewhat but is hanging in there.

The two Independent Chevrolet Cruzes of bamboo engineering have shown the speed but results haven’t matched the potential shown. Alex MacDowall and Pasquale Di Sabatino are both in their debut season of WTCC and the British Touring Car Championship graduate has proved that a lack of track knowledge hasn’t been a major hindrance.

MacDowall has secured a best result of sixth and an outright win in the Yokohama Independents’ while former Auto GP racer Di Sabatino has found it tougher, having secured a best result of 12th three times. This leaves him 11th in the Yokohama Independents’ while MacDowall is sixth.

As in Hungary, BMW secured a race win in Austria. After 141 races, Wiechers-Sport and Stefano D’Aste broke their duck in the second race, taking the win on the final corner after the leaders suffered punctures.

For D’Aste, the Austrian victory backed up his outright podium finish from Valencia and has left him right in contention for the Yokohama Independents’ trophy. His run of race finishes came to an end in the opening race at Salzburgring, after he was forced to retire after early race contact.

Despite his victory, the Italian isn’t the best placed BMW driver in the Championship. Tom Coronel in the ROAL Motorsport BMW 320TC is currently best of the rest behind the leading Chevrolet trio.

The Dutchman saw his chances of taking his first victory of 2012 disappear at the final corner of the Salzburgring after he opted to go to the left and found his route blocked. Coronel has finished every race of the season to date and has two non scores to sit fourth overall.

Team-mate Alberto Cerqui continues to show glimpses of potential and has a best result of fourth, and sits joint sixth in the Yokohama Independents’ trophy classification.

Norbert Michelisz took the first BMW victory of the season in his home race at the Hungaroring. Michelisz is the second best BMW driver in the outright drivers’ Championship and leads the German companies charge in the Yokohama Independents’ trophy battle. Team-mate Gabor Weber has found the going tough in his maiden season in the WTCC and Portimao could be his last weekend of the season.

Having been reduced to a single car outfit, Proteam Motorsport have rediscovered their form and Mehdi Bennani has slowly started to show his potential. His form has picked up since Isaac Tutulmu left the team prior to the Slovanian weekend.

Other BMW representation comes from Liqui Moly Team Engstler and their drivers, Franz Engstler and Charles Kaki Ng. The experienced German racer has been racking up the points finishes throughout the season and finds himself fourth in the Independents’ standings despite having not claimed a class win.

For Hong Kong team-mate Ng, the opening half of the campaign has been tougher as he has limited knowledge of the circuits and this is shown with a best result of 13th. He has six points in the Independents’ battle, ahead of two drivers’ who have since dropped out the series.

Leading the SEAT Sport charge is Slovakia Ring winner Gabriele Tarquini. The Italian racer has proved the Skoda based Oreca engine has potential as he took the opening Pole Position of the season at Monza.

The 2009 Champion has seen his season interrupted by retirements and finds himself fifth overall but with a potent package underneath him. Tarquini will hope that Portimao can kick start his season.

Tarquini’s team-mate in the Lukoil Racing Team operation is Russian Alexey Dudukalo. Like his experienced team-mate, Dudukalo has shown that the 2012 engine has promise and Dudukalo himself has had promise but he has been unable to convert that promise into results. He has a single points finish to his name which was his maiden podium finish at Slovakia Ring, chasing home Tarquini for a SEAT 1, 2.

Another driver looking to kick start his season is Special Tuning Racing’s Tom Boardman. The British driver will get the new 1.6litre turbocharged engine for Portimao, having had to cope with the older 2.0litre turbocharged diesel engine for the first half of the season. Special Tuning Racing team-mate Darryl O’Young has had the new engine for the whole season but is also looking for a better second half, after a number of retirements and other issues have limited his true potential. He did secure a run of four top ten finishes on the bounce earlier in the season.

Current Yokohama Independents’ trophy point’s leader, Pepe Oriola, has also shown the potential of the new engine. Having made his debut in 2011, the Spanish teenager has been a revelation in 2012 and has had a consistent season to date but still chases his maiden podium finish.

Still awaiting the new 1.6litre turbocharged engine is Tiago Monteiro. The former Formula 1 driver is still using the SunRed 1.6T engine from 2011 and despite the handicap; he has produced some positive results during the opening half of the season.

Rounding out the first half of their debut season with a double top ten finish in Austria were Team Aon. The British outfit have brought the Ford name back into the WTCC and they head to Portimao believing that the circuit will suit their Ford Focus racers.

James Nash is leading the way for the team in the Championship, having secured their best qualifying result (fourth in Slovakia), their best race result (sixth in Marrakech) and the first Ford driver to lead a race (Marrakech) and the 2011 BTCC Independent Champion has 12 Championship points to his name.

Nash has also suffered plenty of bad luck to date while team-mate Tom Chilton has finished in all but once race but hasn’t the results to back up his consistency and has seven Championship points to his name. Chilton became the first Ford driver to score a point in the WTCC when he finished seventh in Marrakech.

Both drivers will be looking to continue their progress and development to achieve the aims which the team are looking for – regular top ten results.

LADA rejoin the field for the Portimao weekend, having made their first appearance since 2009 in Hungary. The Russian manufacturer are using the two weekends to evaluate a full time return in 2013, using the LADA Granta Sport.

The team have been testing at Magny Cours with double BTCC Champion James Thompson behind the wheel. The car showed promise in practice during the Hungarian races but failed to finish either race.

It is unknown if LADA will do any future races in 2012 or if they will continue to develop the car ready for 2013.

Portimao, the end of the European season and with temperatures expected to be hotter than in Austria, could punctures be a factor for the front wheel drive cars or will the various lines play to the strengths of the Chevrolets?

All the answers will be played out over two 11 lap races, which can be watched live via Eurosport player while they will be shown recorded on Eurosport at 9.15pm and 10.30pm on Sunday, June 3rd.

Touring-Cars.Net will provide full coverage of Free Practice, qualifying and the races as well as a live text feed via Twitter: @Touringcarsnet.

Touring-Cars.Net Portimao Predictions:
Pole Position: Rob Huff
Race 1: 1. Rob Huff, 2. Yvan Muller, 3. Gabriele Tarquini
Race 2 Pole Position: Norbert Michelisz
Race 2: 1. Norbert Michelisz, 2. Tom Coronel, 3. Stefano D‘Aste

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