“I’m always stronger when I’m in danger. Last year, I didn’t have any factory contract and I needed to show my potential”
After finishing the 2020 WTCR − FIA World Touring Car Cup in third overall following a David versus Goliath-style performance, Jean-Karl Vernay was determined that his WTCR adventure didn’t stop there and then.
Having joined the Hyundai Motorsport family from Romeo Ferraris for the all-new PURE ETCR series, the Frenchman was the perfect choice to double up by embarking on his fourth WTCR season when he will drive a Goodyear-equipped Hyundai Elantra N TCR.
The 33-year-old – whose CV includes stints racing single-seaters, GTs and, more recently, TCR cars – will partner Luca Engstler at Engstler Hyundai N Liqui Moly Racing Team, the German-based outfit owned by Luca’s FIA World Touring Car race-winning father Franz.
A new season, a new team and a new car, how excited are you as you prepare for the first race of 2021?
“It’s quite fantastic and a wonderful opportunity. Hyundai know how to win the WTCR title, they’ve won it two times already and it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss to join them and continue learning from them and to be stronger. After last year, when we did something really incredible with Romeo Ferraris, this is like the next step and I’m very excited. I just can’t wait to see where we are compared to the other competitors.”
Were you always determined to stay in WTCR − you’ve had three strong years after all?
“Before joining TCR I was not thinking I would do front-wheel drive. And then I did TCR and WTCR, and the first years of WTCR have been amazing and I always wanted to stay. Last year, because of the help of many people we were able to be on the track and I also did a lot of effort to be there. That shows how important it is for me to be here because I really like the competition, it’s one of strongest series in the world, the visibility is big and I have a great relationship with the promoter, Eurosport Events. I want to stay with all the other guys I’m racing with.”
Despite the difficulties you faced last year you were in title contention, so does this give you even more motivation to succeed this year?
“It was quite amazing what we did in 2020 and I think I’m always stronger when I’m in danger. Last year, I didn’t have any factory contract and I needed to show my potential. I think I’m at the top of my potential when I am in this case. But, really, we knew it would be impossible to win the title. Now I am with three team-mates, like the other teams, we have a new car, a strong car and the target is to win the title. I’m happy and I’m confident and Hyundai are also confident in me to win all the series I am involved with, PURE ETCR, WTCR and also the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. It’s a nice mark of confidence from Hyundai and now I just need to put results on the table to thank them.”
As you say the Hyundai Elantra N TCR is a new car but can it be a winning car?
“It depends on a lot of things but Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing have done a fantastic job in developing the car and it’s quite amazing to drive. Now we need to see because we were not able to compare to the other guys so we have to wait. But the team has done a great job. Now we need to use our influence in the best way possible. You never have enough time but for sure we will be ready for the first race.”
Does starting the season on the Nordschleife fill you with dread or excitement?
“For me, it’s quite exciting. I have some mileage on the Nordschleife and we’ve shown we can be very, very quick there.”
You’re set for a busy week with all the WTCR track activity and other commitments, plus you’ll be doing the 24-hour event. How intense will things be?
“It’s going to be a long and tough week, I’m expecting a very tiring week, especially mentally because I never did the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. Maybe it will be the toughest race in the world because there’s so much traffic, you need 100 per cent focus because of the difficulty of the track. I’ll be driving the Hyundai i30 N TCR, which is also a different car for me. It’s a nice challenge and definitely my focus will be on both races. It’s something interesting and a good challenge to prove to myself that I’m at the level to do this kind of stuff because I’m going to have a double weekend three times after that with PURE ETCR and WTCR. It will be a nice experience to see how I should work when I have a double weekend and what I should improve.”
What problems do you foresee switching between PURE ETCR and WTCR?
“It’s different of course but I already swapped cars from one test to another and my main quality is adaptation. Augusto [Farfus] is proving it too doing electric and other races, and he’s right away there [on pace]. We are professional drivers and we can’t lose time, we just need to be ready for the team and ready to work as soon as possible.”
A return to Asia is in the planning for 2021 and that should mean a ‘home’ race for Hyundai in Inje, South Korea. How good will that be?
“I can’t wait to be honest to travel a little bit again. I raced once in Korea for Bentley but it was in Yeongam where they had the grand prix. I’ve never been to Inje but it will be new for everyone. The fact I will be racing in both PURE ETCR and WTCR could be an advantage because I will have more track time than the others and this is good. Definitely we are going to have to be at our best for the Korean fans and the Hyundai fans. This race will be near to the end of the season and hopefully we will be in contention for the title to get extra support, to do even better.”
You’ll be teaming up with Luca Engstler to drive for his family team this year. What do you think that will be like?
“I have a very good relationship with Luca. We did one race together, the 24 Hours of Dubai, and we won it so we start on a high. He’s young but not that young in TCR racing because he’s been racing for three or four years already. He’s done a lot of mileage and won a lot of national championships. For sure, he’s going to push me and that’s what I need. Like I said I’m always very good when I’m in danger and I need these team-mates who are pushing me a lot to put my level higher always. He’s the right guy because he’s very fast. Of course, he has less experience than Gabriele [Tarquini], Norbi [Michelisz] and myself, but he will also be in contention for the title. We have a great team with Team Engstler, we have great engineers and we have all the tools to fight. Now we need to do the job.”
Finally, one of your rivals, Tiago Monteiro, will be supporting you this year through his Skywalker management company. How will you avoid complications in the heat of battle?
“We were talking for many years but we only started working together last year. For sure, you want to push him like I do everyone I race against. Last year, I took a lot of penalties because of mistakes but I always tried to be fair. Nothing will change much with me and Tiago. I don’t tell him what we are doing in testing, that’s for sure. But I’m very happy to work with Tiago and his team because he’s not alone and they are doing a great job. I’m confident in them and that’s the most important thing for the future of my career.”