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Rob Huff reflects on WTCC season-opener

For the 11th consecutive season I will be racing in the FIA World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) and I’ve been given a badge by the organisers to prove it.

For the duration of the 2015 campaign, I’ll proudly sport a blue shield on the sleeve of my lurid yellow LADA SPORT ROSNEFT race suit, confirming my membership of the ‘200 Club’ – an exclusive honour shared only with my friend and fellow racer, Tom Coronel [Both Gabriele Tarquini and Yvan Muller also have over 200 starts – Editor].

It’s also my second consecutive year with the LADA SPORT team and it promises to be exciting, with the introduction of the all-new LADA Vesta TC1, a new title sponsor in ROSNEFT, a completely fresh approach and higher expectations, but with the same familiar and friendly faces.

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The opening round of the 2015 FIA WTCC took place in Argentina over the weekend (6-8 March), on a circuit that holds fond memories, as the Autodromo Termas de Rio Hondo was where, against all odds, I achieved LADA SPORT’s first ever WTCC podium finish in 2014.

This year would be tougher because, having only completed a few days of pre-season testing with the LADA Vesta TC1 in relatively low temperatures at Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours, much of the car’s componentry and geometry had yet to be shaken down.

But before that, I had to get there and that is no mean feat; a 13-hour flight from London to Buenos Aires, followed by a crazy taxi ride across town to the domestic airport (this is best avoided at all costs), where delays and bun-fights are commonplace. Last year, James ‘Jimmy’ Thompson had his trainers and swanky Jimmy jacket stolen!

Eventually, after another two hours on a plane, I arrive in Tucumán, which is some 1200km North West of Buenos Aires and another 90 minutes from Termas de Rio Hondo – singularly the most unlikely setting for a race circuit in the world, but a place that attracts a great deal of local support, particularly for reigning Champion, José María López.

I had a day to recover before heading to the circuit on Thursday (5 March) for my first glimpse of the new LADA SPORT setup. I was seriously impressed and I think everybody in the pit-lane shared my admiration, not only of the shiny yellow Vestas, but the seamless garage setup that boasts integrated LCD screens and some lovely creature comforts for us drivers, and striking new suits for the crew. All credit to Team Manager, Max, for his efforts and attention to detail.

So, what about the car? An all-new platform, built and developed by ORECA from a pre-production version of the forthcoming LADA Vesta road car, sponsored by Russian oil giant, ROSNEFT, as well as my personal sponsors OCC LASIK and Iconic Bet (thanks for your support) and driven by me, James Thompson and Mikhail Kozlovskiy – temporarily nicknamed Mikhail Dayoffskiy while he watched from the sidelines as his car was being readied back at base.

Jimmy T and I were genuinely curious to see what we have underneath us when we finally rolled out for Friday morning’s first 30-minute free practice session and we were pleasantly surprised when both cars ran well inside the top ten.

The second session was in essence more of a prolonged shakedown, as James’s car had only just been completed prior to flying out to South America, and the day ended with us being treated by Eurosport and the local Mayor to a typical Argentinian Parilla – a very welcome meatfest after plane food and the questionable paddock catering.

On Saturday, we got down to the real business. We thought the top 12 and a place in Q2 was achievable in qualifying and in free practice we explored the limits and, having spun while experimented with various settings, I ended FP2 in fifth place with a fairly decent qualifying configuration.

It was seriously hot as qualifying began, with a track temperature of 61 degrees Celsius and an ambient of 37 degrees. Inside the car it was nuclear and it was a mission to keep cool and hydrated by constantly drinking Gatorade. This proved to be a mistake, as my blue tongue didn’t look too good on the television interviews.

Placing the car comfortably inside the top ten during my first quali outing on old tyres gave me a lot of confidence for the new-tyre run. I put in a solid lap to go third quickest, despite narrowly missing a stray dog on the apex of Turn 7, but two fresh tyres led to purple sectors – a milestone for LADA SPORT – and provisional pole, with James also making it through to Q2.

This would prove to be the crest of the weekend, as things began to unravel from there. LADA SPORT looked solid in Q2 and had a shout of breaking into the top-five shootout for the first time ever when Mehdi Bennani, missing the Moroccan desert sand, threw his Citroen into the gravel and brought out the red flags.

Unfortunately, my car developed some overheating-related problems and I cruised back to the pits to end qualifying in a disappointing 11th, while James was more fortunate by going tenth fastest to nab the reversed grid pole for race two.

The day culminated with a pleasant dinner with half the grid and I slid off to bed early as Termas de Rio Hondo raved on into the night, in the knowledge that I had a packed PR and TV schedule the following morning.

I arrived at the circuit on Sunday to find the crew had been hard at work. It was ferociously hot on the Race 1 grid and I sat waiting for the first green light of the 2015 season, slightly concerned about the untested start procedure that had been adopted following a rule change.

As it turned out, my start was okay and I passed James and a few others to settle into a battle with Bennani, Tom Chilton and Norbert Michelisz for seventh position.

I expected Bennani in the Citroen to be a headache and I was proven right when an over-ambitious lunge resulted in contact with my right-rear , broken suspension and retirement.

The Moroccan carried on his way until the stewards caught up with him, handing him a deserved drive-through penalty. He had climbed to fourth place by that point and you shouldn’t be allowed to capitalise on ruining somebody’s race.

Both cars were quickly pieced back together for race two, after Jimmy suffered the same fate at the hands of John Filippi. However, while everything looked rosy as James took up his place on pole position and I started from the pits, it was clear that there was more damage under the skin and we had no other choice but to retire.

So we’re all facing a long trip home with no points and only a few scars to show for LADA SPORT’s efforts. My on-track spat with Bennani led to a few comical exchanges off the track, as he somehow believes I hit him!

We now have a month to test at Magny-Cours and Portugal before heading to Morocco, where we will see the results of LADA SPORT’s continual development work and whether my popularity is as high as it once was.

For more on Rob Huff’s racing activities, please visit the official website, ‘like’ his Facebook page or follow @HuffSport on Twitter.

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