The 2017 World Touring Car Championship season begins in Morocco this weekend with 15 cars, and although there are a number of changes, the same problems underlie the FIA championship.
The WTCC has struggled with grid numbers ever since the introduction of the TC1 regulations in 2014. In fact, back then there were even two more top-tier cars on the grid than there are for this weekend’s races.
The championship was struck with a double blow at the end of 2016, when LADA followed Citroën out of the championship as works entrants.
That blow has only been marginally softened with the expansion of Volvo to three cars, a move which had been on the cards ever since the Swedish marque announced plans to enter in late 2015.
Despite the gloom, there are a number of genuine positives ahead of the new season. Aside from perhaps the 2013 season, the year after Chevrolet pulled out their works team, we enter the most open season in years.
Some might predict that Rob Huff in the Münnich Motorsport Citroën will walk away with the title this year, but don’t forget that this is the driver who only won one race in 2016. You cannot underestimate the Brit, but on paper he’s hardly got the numbers to say it’s going to be easy for him.
Then there are the works teams from Honda and Volvo Polestar. Honda have their best shot since they joined full-time in 2013, with Tiago Monteiro and Norbert Michelisz likely to be equal favourites for the top honours. Japanese GT convert Ryo Michigami will be playing the supporting role in the coming season.
The departure of Gabriele Tarquini means that, aside from Huff, Tom Coronel will be the only other driver to continue the run of having contested every WTCC race since the series was resurrected.
However, the deal came late for the Dutchman, who continues with ROAL Motorsport in one of only two Chevrolet RML Cruze cars on the grid.
Sébastien Loeb Racing will be the quasi-Citroën team in 2017, fielding three C-Elysées once again for Mehdi Bennani, Tom Chilton and the incoming John Filippi. With the works cars gone, expect both Bennani and Chilton to grab more wins than in previous years, although whether both are able to string together a title-challenging campaign remains to be seen.
It was recently confirmed that whilst joker laps will not feature in this weekend’s races on the streets of Morocco, the plan to use the new rule later in the season at Vila Real remains in place. It again goes to show that, along with the likes of the MAC3 manufacturers time trial, the WTCC is keen to try out new techniques in order to win fans.
Argentina remains a key market for the WTCC, and Eurosport’s François Ribeiro knows this all too well. The fact that we have two Argentine drivers, in Polestar’s Néstor Girolami and Campos Racing’s Esteban Guerrieri, is thanks in no small part to the efforts of Ribeiro. Expect both to be regular challengers for wins, with both having proven themselves in the ultra-competitive South American racing scene.
Zengő Motorsport too are upping their game for the coming season, signing Frenchman Aurélien Panis alongside rapid Hungarian Dániel Nagy. Panis, the son of former F1 driver Olivier, is an unknown quantity in a touring car, whilst Nagy has hardly had much more experience. In an older-spec Honda the duo will be up against it, but the team’s prospects are arguably brighter ahead of this season than they were 12 months ago.
The final entry of note is perhaps one of the most significant, although at first glance it might not seem it. Just weeks before the start of the season a deal was put together for new team RC Motorsport to make their WTCC début, with Frenchman Yann Ehrlacher in charge. So far, so unremarkable.
Yet the deal also sees a former factory LADA remain on the grid – in an independent capacity for the first time – and boosts the grid numbers by at least one car.
Without the Magny-Cours-based team, we would have been looking at a World Championship with just four brands and 14 cars – fewer even than in 2014 when the grid was so small that TC2 cars were brought in.
There are no lower-class cars this year, thanks to TCR manufacturers withdrawing or simply not submitting homologation for their cars, scuppering Eurosport’s plans to have a second-tier WTCC-2 class, even if the PR line might suggest the change of plans was for other reasons.
It is quite feasible that the late RC Motorsport entry came about with more than a bit of help from Eurosport, keen to bolster the grid size after finding out about the non-starting WTCC-2 category.
Either way, the entry keeps the grid size at just about the number of cars that Ribeiro himself sees as necessary for a world championship – although only just.
This journalist at least is hoping that the openness at the front of the field in this year’s WTCC more than makes up for the uncertainty surrounding the future of the championship.
There is no testing on Friday anymore, with the track action taking place the following day. There will be two practice sessions on Saturday followed by a three-part qualifying session and the manufacturer’s MAC3 session, before two action-packed races late on the Sunday afternoon and early evening. Times, in BST (Morocco shares the same time zone as the UK) and CEST, are detailed below:
|Day||Time BST (CEST)||Session|
|Saturday||09:00 – 09:45 (10:00 – 10:45)||Free Practice 1|
|Saturday||11:45 – 12:30 (12:45 – 13:30)||Free Practice 2|
|Saturday||15:15 – 16:25 (16:15 – 17:25)||Qualifying|
|Sunday||16:35 – 17:00 (17:35 – 18:00)||Round 1|
|Sunday||17:45 – 18:15 (18:45 – 19:15)||Round 2|
Unsurprisingly it is three-time champion José María López who holds the lap record around the new Marrakech layout, which has only had one run in 2016 since the circuit was redeveloped. The time of 1:21.457 was a mere 0.0006 seconds faster than the Hondas last year (even though they were subsequently excluded), so expect the Civics to be near the sharp end this time.