Hyundai TCR drivers Gabriele Tarquini and Alain Menu say ‘the expectation is very high’ for the car’s début in the TCR International Series in China, after almost a year of development.
With a combined age of 109 and 969 major touring car races behind them, Tarquini and Menu were the ideal pairing for developing Hyundai’s new i30 N TCR car.
Ahead of the first outing for the South Korean manufacturer in TCR, TouringCars.Net spoke with the drivers at the Zhejiang International Circuit.
TouringCars.Net: Alain has said that you introduced him to the Hyundai project Gabriele, but how have things gone since you two first teamed up? What’s it like working together?
Alain Menu: “He only got upset with me like once in 20 years and he doesn’t remember, so that’s why he called me!
Gabriele Tarquini: “We only just started; we completed two tests in Valencia, which was the first time for Alain, and I tried to give my feedback on the car because I have been in the car since the beginning, since March. We then started testing April. It was a long and hard job, but to be honest the base of the car was there. I didn’t work a lot on the set-up, because the base of the car was very good. We had some small parts to improve, because as usual with a new project some areas were not perfect, but to be honest the base of the car was really good.
TCN: Alain, when you first drove the car a lot of the development work had already been done, so did you have to change or input much else to the project?
AM: “Like Gabriele said, he didn’t work that hard on the set-up, so I had to do it all! I thought I would have a sorted out car…
AM: “Joking aside, the car was very good. If I’m completely honest, struggled a little bit in Valencia on the braking, as Gabriele’s style is slightly different to mine, but it was also mainly because I had not driven for quite a while, so I had to get back into it. But the car is pretty good, let’s put it that way.
TCN: What makes this car good in comparison to the various touring cars you have driven previously in tour career?
AM: “When it feels good – how do you define feeling good? We know you need a good balance and the car to be nice under braking. I don’t know how to explain it – you need an all-round good package. You don’t want a car which is good in slow corners and bad in the fast ones.
GT: “To be honest, I was a little bit afraid, because we never tested on a very twisty race track like here. When I was here at the media presentation, I saw the circuit and wasn’t sure if we would have a problem with a circuit like this; we never tested on very slow corners like here because we were focussing on the main European race track standards. We went to Aragon, Valencia, Bratislava and Vallelunga – very good European-style circuits, and after that I was a little bit worried about this track.
GT: “When I initially started testing here, I discovered that the car was easy to drive. Probably our best point is approaching the apex; braking and turning in is what I like more on this car. It’s quite an easy car to drive, because we are focussing also on customers and the car could be driven by anybody, so that was the target.
“We tested many different types of tyres, from Michelin but also Hankook and Yokohama, just to have a reference and to give customers the best idea about the set-up, because something must be changed [by customers] on the car. I discovered personally, because I never used the Michelin [TCR International Series tyre] before, that the set-up is a little bit different because the tyre is a completely different tyre. The Yokohama and Hankook are very similar, but Michelin is a different story, so you need to work on the set-up just to have a chance of somebody buying the car who doesn’t have the time or money to test on a race track like we did. To test the tyres on the car you need a lot of money and tools to set the car up around the tyres.
TCN: Is this the first time that you have been involved in developing a car exclusively for customer racing, instead of for a manufacturer-backed programme?
GT: “Yes and no, because I was also involved with Honda in a programme to build a car for Chinese races – CTCC cars and the Civic. At this time, about four or five years ago, the level was not very high, so we were focussing also on building a car which was very easy to drive, whether it was on Kumho tyres or other tyres. But this time from my point of view it was a little bit wider than normal, because compared to when it was with Honda or the LADA last year, the project was not focussing on customers, because we were concentrating on ‘real performance’ – if the car is difficult to drive, it means that it is probably faster.
TCN: What are your thoughts of the new Zhejiang International Circuit?
GT: “Watching from the outside it’s an unbelievable circuit for the facilities. The garages are Formula 1 standard and there’s a lot of space and room around, it’s unbelievable. The track itself is not fantastic – for me it’s too slow. They probably don’t have enough space to make a European-standard track of at least 4 km, they want to have a lot of corners but enough kilometres. There are 16 corners in 3.2 km. This makes the circuit a little bit too slow. For us, in TCR, it’s quite good – we don’t mind, and it’s probably better to fight on a circuit like this – but for GT or Formula cars, I don’t think the circuit is fantastic.
AM: “I agree with Gabriele; of course it’s challenging, but to be fair it’s the case on any circuit. I think on Sunday it will be a challenge, because it’s going to be very hard to do two races without making a mistake – I think it’s impossible. I’m not talking big ones. Because it’s low grip it is very easy to lose the front or the rear, and if you miss the apex [you lose out].
GT: “You must be very precise. It’s true that there is a line, but this is always the same, as the best is one line. On this track you must be very precise because if you miss the apex by 5 cm you pay much more than on a normal track, because of the completely new asphalt. I like this challenge, because it’s challenging and you must be very precise, concentrated and focussed. In terms of endurance, I did a long run and it’s quite hard because you don’t have time to relax, like you do on a long straight where you can relax a little bit. On a track full of corners, you have no time or space to relax.
TCN: Does that make it a good circuit for experienced drivers such as yourselves to race one, given your experience of different cars and circuits all over the world?
AM: “Maybe it’s an advantage initially. It could have been more of an advantage if we had not had free practice today, as if we had gone into straight into FP1 and FP2 and you only get two 30-minute sessions on the track before qualifying then experience would have been a bigger advantage. But by now after two hours everyone knows the track.
TCN: You’ve had a good start to the weekend with fourth and fifth in testing, but you’re not eligible for points. Obviously, you want to have the strongest possible weekend – what are your expectations at this stage?
AM: “My expectation? Gabriele wants to win and I want to finish in second! He is older than me, so I have to be nice to the old man…
GT: “Women and old people first! There are no women here, so…
AM: “I am lucky that there are enough seats here, otherwise I would have had to give him my seat!
Editor’s note: Gabriele is 55, and Menu is 54…
GT: “To be honest, the expectation is very high – we feel a little bit of pressure coming from Hyundai people, because we spent a lot of time to set-up and develop the car. We are newcomers in TCR, but to be honest the expectations are very high.
TCN: Do you feel any less expectation Alain, because you came in to the project at a later stage?
GT: “I think so, because if the car doesn’t work then they fire me, and Alain can continue!
AM: “Maybe I can take over! But, joking aside, it’s part and parcel of the job at the end of the day. When you are in the car you don’t think about the pressure. Like Gabriele said, the goal is to achieve the best possible result, which is to win, so for sure it’s in the back of our mind that we would like Hyundai to win one of the races.
TCN: Going forward from here, with the first deliveries being in December, how much longer will you be involved in the project?
AM: “After Dubai: November 19 is when I go home…
GT: “To be honest, at the moment we are working on these races, which are very important for Hyundai because they want to show the final car to customers, the media and everybody, so if we do a good job I would like to continue with Hyundai – this is my target. I am very pleased, because I feel big support from the manufacturer, who are giving me people who are working very hard around me. OK in the final product we can see I put my face on the car, but I am not alone – I have the tools to develop the car and really good people. The Italian BRC team have been with me from the beginning, so don’t forget that this is the final result of a lot of people’s work.”