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Mid-season review: Citroën lead 11-to-1

Photo by FIA WTCC MediaWith the World Touring Car Championship resuming after a mid-season break shortly after the half-way stage of the season, TouringCars.Net analyses the year so far.

Since the resurrection of the WTCC in 2005 there had never been as many unknowns as there were heading into the 2014 season. New regulations introduced for the start of the season meant that all of the top teams would be running with new machinery for the first race of the season – something which even the 2005 season couldn’t boast, thanks to the carry-over from the European Touring Car Championship previously.

The 2014 season has also boasted a number of first for the championship, both good and bad. There was an unwanted first – a cancelled race. That feat occurred in the second race at the Slovakiaring, where persistent rain prevented the race from going ahead. However there was also a first-ever win for a Chinese driver in an FIA World Championship, when Ma Qing Hua won in Russia.

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Photo by FIA WTCC Media

Citroën dominate European events

As expected, Citroën hit the ground running, taking pole position and a brace of victories in the season opener in Morocco. The performance was expected, due to an extensive pre-season testing programme which began in winter 2012 when the marque converted a DS3 rally car into a circuit racing ‘laboratory vehicle’. The preparations paid off, with all three of the French manufacturer’s cars being more than a second faster in qualifying for the season opener in Marrakech.

Citroën’s lead heading into the mid-season pause was not only down to the well-prepared C-Elysée, however. In José María López, Yvan Muller and Sébastien Loeb the team has three very capable drivers with 13 FIA World Championships behind them (nine for Loeb in the WRC and four for Muller in the WTCC). Moreover, López has secured the prestigious Argentinian TC2000 championship three times.

After 14 of the scheduled 24 races it is López who leads the pack, with reigning champion Muller 39 points adrift. The Argentine has won five races to Muller’s four, and López has only failed to finish one race to Muller’s two.

A pivotal moment in the battle for the 2014 championship came in the second race in Salzburg, with Muller starting from tenth on the grid and López from seventh. As Muller tried to pull alongside López heading towards turn one the Argentine squeezed the Frenchman out, putting him onto the grass. The result saw Muller forced onto the grass and abruptly rejoin the circuit, leading to contact with the LADA of Rob Huff and his second retirement of the season.

Photo by FIA WTCC Media

All four Citroën drivers have scored 49% of all of the available points thus far and already series leader López has more than twice as many points as the top non-Citroën driver. The title has looked likely to end up in a Citroën driver’s hands ever since the start of the season (some would even say since 2013).

In addition, Citroën have already generated history, with part-time fourth driver Ma Qing Hua becoming the first Chinese driver to take victory in an FIA world Championship in Russia. The result meant that the French manufacturer continued to dominate the headlines, both with regard to the title fight and away from it.

The story for the remainder of the season will surely be about the inter-team rivalry within Citroën and how hot the battle will become between López and Muller.

Photo by FIA WTCC Media

Honda struggle to match up

One of the biggest disappointments of the season so far has been Honda’s inability to take the fight to Citroën. Four Civics, in the hands of experienced drivers such as Gabriele Tarquini and Tiago Monteiro, should have been able to deliver more after 13 races.

The Japanese marque committed to racing four new Civics for the 2014 season, with two going to private teams Zengő Motorsport and Proteam Racing. However the cars were ready only weeks before the start of the season and with little testing and development started on the back foot compared to their French rivals.

An accident in second practice for Tarquini ahead of the season opener in Marrakech essentially wrote off one of the new Civics before it had even contested its first race. That meant a race against time for JAS Motorsport to complete a new car for the second meeting just one week later.

Whilst successful in turning the marque’s test mule into a new race car for Tarquini, Honda were thereafter left without a development car for the next few months. Indeed the Japanese manufacturer has only just completed building a new test car to allow it to fully get on with development work in the second half of the year.

Nevertheless, the team have enjoyed a degree of relative consistency since the opening rounds, despite having yet to score a win. Monteiro in particular has enjoyed his strongest start to a WTCC season, finishing on the podium four times and retiring just once.

Chevrolet strong in numbers

The most numerous car on the 2014 grid is once again a Chevrolet Cruze. Six cars were built by touring car experts RML to be run by three different teams. Two went to ROAL Motorsport, two to Campos Racing and two to Münnich Motorsport in a last-minute deal, after bamboo-engineering failed to find the backing to continue for 2014.

The Cruze has proved to be a reliable and competitive chassis and to-date remains the only car to have broken the Citroën stranglehold, with Gianni Morbidelli scoring a sensational maiden WTCC win in Hungary. Morbidelli is also the only non-Citroën driver to have scored a pole position, taken at the Salzburgring later on in May.

Photo by FIA WTCC Media

The results have shown that the independently-developed Cruze is one of the quickest cars on the grid.

Perhaps surprisingly, Tom Coronel is the top Chevrolet driver in the championship, despite having missed the second meeting of the season. The Dutchman had until that point contested every race in the WTCC since 2005, but a sizeable shunt in the season-opening meeting in Morocco almost wrote off his Cruze after only two races.

Frenchman Hugo Valente has shown flashes of pace in his Campos Cruze, with the 22-year-old scoring two podiums and a fastest lap already – the only Chevrolet driver to achieve the latter.

Photo by FIA WTCC Media

LADA lacking low-drag, lightweight car

LADA ramped up their efforts for 2014, expanding to three cars with former champion Rob Huff joining James Thompson and Mikhail Kozlovskiy in the Russian team. Although expectations were fairly modest ahead of the season start – the team didn’t even participate in the group WTCC test session in Valencia – the season has been little other than a struggle.

A lack of aerodynamic performance – the LADA Granta is said to be exceptionally high in drag – has left the team lacking on the faster circuits. Although both Kozlovskiy and Huff have already equalled the team’s best-ever WTCC results, the lack of pace is clear to see, with the experienced Brits regularly more than two seconds off the pace.

Thompson in particular has been seen to be struggling, with the Brit experiencing problems with his car which are proving perplexing for the team.

An all-new car beckons for 2015, leaving the LADA team with an overweight outgoing car for the final five meetings of the year. Expect the trio to continue to struggle, although don’t count out a surprise result from Huff or Thompson if conditions turn wet.

Photo by FIA WTCC Media

One-man show in TC2

A second-tier was introduced to the WTCC for the first time at the start of the season in order to keep grid numbers high, although the category has proven to be a one-man show.

Only three drivers have competed regularly for the entire season, although that number will drop to two when Pasquale di Sabatino misses the forthcoming Argentina rounds.

That leaves lead driver Franz Engstler with an almost unassailable lead, with the 52-year-old German having already scored 11 out of 13 victories in the category.

TC2 may be reinvigorated for the Asian rounds of the championship, however, when the Eurosport Asia Trophy begins for the second successive season.

WTCC Supergrid 2014
Statistical representation of each driver’s average percentage of the fastest lap of the race weekend.
WTCC Podiums 2014
Podium finishes scored in the first 13 races of the 2014 season.
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