FIA World Touring Car Championship, Rounds 23 and 24, Macau, China, November 15th/18th 2012
© Lynne Waite and Stella-Maria Thomas
Weather: Cool, cloudy.
At Macau this lunchtime another Titantic struggle for the WTCC title finally reached its climax with Rob Huff (Chevrolet Cruze) taking his first title in the marque’s final works outing, but not before he’d managed to make life incredibly difficult for himself by crashing and damaging his car in the first race, forcing himself into retirement. Wily veteran Alain Menu in another Chevy Curze thus went into Race 2 with his hopes still alive, needing to win with Huff seventh or less to claim the title, while Yvan Muller in the third Chevy could also claim the title if he won and Huff finished 6th or lower.
At the start of Race 1 in fact it looked as if Huff had at least one – and possibly one and a half – hands on the title but this is Macau where anything can happen, which was probably why the race was over half an hour late starting after a GT car got stuck in the wall, having wedged itself under the Armco. The rebuild took quite some time…
With both of last year’s victories going to Huff, the fact that he was also on pole for Race 1 and only needed 14 points to seal the title suggested you would have to be brave to bet against him. However, his team-mate Yvan Muller was alongside him, with Menu in 3rd and Gabriele Tarquini in a Seat Leon in 4th, so it was a tough ask even starting from the top slot. To add to the fun, Tiago Monteiro in the new Honda Civic was 5th and looking very strong too.
At the start Huff seemed to forget that all he needed was to finish 3rd to wrap up the title, and as they screamed down to Lisboa for the first time he was alongside Muller battling for the lead. Muller squeezed through but it was a close run thing, while behind them Tarquini took a look to see if he could pass Menu, backed off and settled in to play a waiting game just ahead of Monteiro. Behind the top six, however, an incident at Lisboa turned that section of track into something that resembled a car park as the rest of the pack piled into each other and got wedged. The marshals rushed to clear it and most of the competitors went on their way. The men who came off worst were Mehdi Bennani (BMW Pro-Team Racing) and Pepe Oriola (Seat, Tuente Racing Team) who were both unable to race on.
Needless to say it took a while to disentangle everyone, and when they finally got on their way again they were informed that the second sector was under yellows and was apparently slippery. Really? You think so? However, this news didn’t do anything to slow the men at the front with Muller leading Huff from Menu in a Chevy train. Huff took a good hard look at Muller at Lisboa but he had Menu right on his tail and backed off again, while behind them Tarquini was still 4th from Monteiro and local hero Darryl O’Young in a Bamboo-Engineering Chevrolet Cruze, the latter leading the Independents race. Further back Stefano D’Aste had also come to grief in the early lap frenzy and he now driving a sadly battered Weichers-Sport BMW with bits hanging off here and there. It was no surprise when he eventually pitted for repairs.
But at the front things remained much the same, the Chevys now glued nose-to-tail while Monteiro got the drop on Tarquini for 4th, while the Independents Race 3rd place was briefly with Norbert Michelisz in the Zengo Motorsports’ BMW. However he was having issues with Melco and the state of his car, and he too would pull in for repairs, leaving O’Young to watch his mirrors for Tom Coronel (ROAL Motorsport BMW), though the Dutchman was a long way back after being delayed in the Lisboa debacle.
On Lap three Huff was again on the move and was right up Muller’s exhaust. He passed the Frenchman at Lisboa, a brave move under the circumstances and as it turned out an unwise one. The championship leader clipped the barriers and damaged the suspension, the car developing a nasty straight line wobble that left Huff with no choice but to limp into the pits while the Chevy boys got to work in an effort to get the car repaired for Race 2. That let Muller back into the lead despite Menu looming menacingly in his mirrors.
A couple of laps later and Menu took a good hard look at Muller in the Mountain section, giving his French rival a bit of a nudge before thinking better of it and settling back in to finish second to keep his title chances alive into the final race.
And so Muller won Race 1 from Menu and Monteiro, giving Honda their first podium result on what was only their third World Championship appearance. In 4th was O’Young taking his first home win in the Yokohama Trophy race by holding off Coronel, who was ahead of Franz Engstler (BMW Liqui Moly Team Engstler), Fredy Barth (Seat Swiss Racing), Alex MacDowall (Bamboo Engineering Chevrolet Cruze) and Tom Boardman (Special Tune Racing Seat).
11th went to Alexei Dudukalu (Lukoil Racing Team Seat) ahead of James Nash (Team AON Ford Focus), Tom Chilton (Team AON Ford Focus), Fernando Monje (Tuente Racing Team Seat), Andre Couto (Tuente Racing Team Seat), Henry Ho (Five Auto Racing Team BMW), Jo Rosa Merszei (BMW Liqui Moly Team Engstler), Filipe de Souza (China Dragon Racing Chevrolet), Calio Alves Dias (China Dragon Racing Chevrolet) and Kai Cozzolino (ROAL Motorsport BMW). 21st was Ka Lok Mak (RPM Racing Team BMW).
And so Race 2 started with the championship still up for grabs provided Menu could win and Huff was no higher than 7th. Elsewhere Bennani was stuck in parc ferme, the repairs to his car taking longer than was allowed, while d’Aste had to start from the pit lane which gave the mid-section a bit of a shuffle it would not normally have had. With the top 8 reversed in this race, Menu would start from 6th, Muller 7th and Huff 8th. There was work to be done by whoever would be champion, given that Huff was now leading by just 17 points from Muller and 19 from Menu, with 25 still up for grabs.
When the race started Menu did everything he could to keep his hopes of the title alive, getting a blistering start that simply left the others in his dust. He was up to 4th as they reached Lisboa, while Huff remained back in 8th, and it wasn’t long before he found a way past Oriola, in a very smart overtaking manoeuvre. Now he needed to find a way past MacDowall and Michelisz, the pair of them battling for the lead. It was on lap two though, that the trouble started, kicking off a series of incidents that would eventually require a substantial Safety Car period and pretty much neutralise the race.
It all started when D’Aste hit Ho, pushing him into a spin that finished with him in the wall, while MacDowall nipped through into the lead, at least temporarily. Further back Tarquini was unable to resist the Chevy pair of Muller and Huff, losing 6th, then 7th to them having already lost out to Monteiro. That may have given some extra impetus to Menu’s push for the lead and he soon found his way past Michelisz, the latter sensibly not making an issue of it as he had his own title hopes to worry about in the Independents category.
MacDowall was the Swiss driver’s next target and he was soon dealt with as Menu grabbed the lead at Sao Francisco, MacDowall then dropping back to 4th as Michelisz and Oriola both nipped through, leaving him to and hold off Muller, the Frenchman now ahead of Monteiro in 5th. And that was the real crisis point. Muller hit MacDowall as they went into Mandarin, reckoning the British driver had braked earlier than normal, which caught the Frenchman by surprise. Whatever the reason, MacDowall spun and hit the wall, his stricken car dropping oil on the track, while Huff nipped past Muller.
In the following pack, it was Chilton who was unfortunate enough to find the oil, crashing as a result and spreading debris all over the place. With two cars in dangerous places there was nothing else for it but to deploy the Safety Car and start the clean up operation.
The order then was Menu, from Michelisz, Oriola, Huff, Muller, Monteiro, O’Young, Coronel, Tarquini and Engstler. In 11th at this point was Barth, from Dudkalo, Nash, Boardman, Monje, D’Aste, local hero Couto, Cozzolino, Merszei and de Souza. That changed when Coronel dragged his BMW into the pits with after a massive lock up that looked as if something critical was bent or punctured by the piece of carbon fibre embedded in its front bumper.
Eventually the Safety Car lights finally went out amid fire warnings that the track was slippery at MP3, the marshal’s post at Mandarin bend. The restarted race would run over 3 laps – at least in theory. It was a nice theory and it looked as if it might work as Menu made the perfect getaway and pulled out gap even before they reached Mandarin. Behind him Huff and Muller both got the drop on Michelisz and Oriola, for 2nd and 3rd, while in the resulting chaos Oriola hit Michelisz and they both crashed out at Lisboa, requiring the Safety Car to come straight back out to control the pack once more. And it stayed out until the end of the extended 11 lap race, thus effectively handing the title to Huff, from Menu and Muller, despite a fine race from Menu, giving Chevy their last WTCC race win in much the same way as he gave them their first win in the series back in 2006.
Monteiro finished 4th ending a great weekend for the Honda team, while O’Young took his second class win of the weekend, heading up Engstler, Dudukalo, Barth, Boardman and Monje. 11th went to Couto, ahead of Nash, Merszei, de Souza, Alves Dias, Mak, Ng and Eurico de Jesus (Five Auto Racing Team BMW).