*Citroën star secures provisional back-to-back WTCC crowns with ninth victory of 2015
*Loeb inherits race two win to set up tense battle for runner-up spot with Muller in Qatar finale
*Bennani closes on Michelisz in fight for Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy
*WTCC racers hail state-of-the-art Chang International Circuit following twilight spectacular
José María López capped a hugely impressive second season in the FIA World Touring Car Championship by making it back-to-back titles in style with victory in the opening WTCC Race of Thailand* for Citroën at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram today.
Honda’s Tiago Monteiro claimed the win in race two, which was halted with three laps left for safety reasons due to fading light, only to be excluded from the results following post-event technical checks. Honda Racing Team JAS has announced its intention to appeal the decision to the FIA International Court of Appeal. The race had been due to run for 14 laps and finish in twilight but its late start following the safety car period in the opening counter meant officials were left with no alternative other than to bring proceedings to a premature conclusion as darkness descended with Sébastien Loeb closing on Monteiro for top spot.
With Loeb taking a win and a second place and Yvan Muller twice failing to score due to contact, the nine-time world rally champion is five points ahead of his Citroën team-mate heading to the WTCC’s inaugural night race in Qatar later this month, where the Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy title for independent racers will be decided between Mehdi Bennani and Norbert Michelisz.
RACE ONE ROUND-UP: DOUBLE WTCC JOY FOR LÓPEZ IN THAILAND
López made the perfect getaway from the DHL-presented pole position and resisted race-long pressure from Loeb to secure his ninth victory of 2015 with Ma Qing Hua and Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy winner Mehdi Bennani completing a Citroën top four. Gabriele Tarquini charged through from P12 on the grid to take fifth in his factory Honda ahead of LADA pilot Rob Huff, who started on the back row after a technical infringement in qualifying resulted in his times being disallowed. In a dramatic contest, Muller was eliminated in the second of two multi-car collisions on the first lap, which resulted in the safety car being deployed. The four-time WTCC champion was involved in a clash with Monteiro, Norbert Michelisz and Hugo Valente with only Monteiro recovering to reach the finish in his battle-scared Civic. The Portuguese finished seventh ahead of Stefano D’Aste, Grégoire Demoustier and Tin Sritrai, who marked his WTCC debut with his first world championship point. Tom Coronel and LADA duo Nicky Catsburg and Nicolas Lapierre retired in a separate incident at the first corner, while Tom Chilton dropped out of fifth place with a puncture on lap 10. John Filippi retired with damaged front-left suspension when an overtaking move on Monteiro at the hairpin failed.
RACE TWO ROUND-UP: LOEB INHERITS WIN IN THE THAI TWILIGHT
Once Monteiro had demoted fellow front-row starter Michelisz on lap two, the Portuguese knew he had to push flat out to keep the advancing Loeb at bay. While Loeb felt he had the pace to snatch victory, Monteiro was convinced that he could hold on for his third triumph of 2015 even if the race had not been red flagged. However, Monteiro’s celebrations were cut short when the left-hand side of his Honda Civic WTCC was found to be below the required minimum 60mm ground clearance. Ma Qing Hua followed up his race one podium by resisting López for what became second after brief contact between the pair. Chilton, who ran third for a time, took fourth after several battles for position with Tarquini, Huff and Bennani next up. D’Aste and Sritrai scored more points in eighth and ninth respectively with Demoustier and Filippi following him home. Pole-sitter Michelisz was running second when he was ordered to put for a drive through penalty due to a parc fermé infringement after race one. He wound up P12. Frantic efforts to fix the cars of Catsburg, Coronel and Lapierre during the OSCARO.com Repair Time failed and all three, like Valente, were non-starters. Muller retired following contact with Bennani at the first turn.
YOKOHAMA DRIVERS’ TROPHY: BURIRAM BOOST FOR BENANNI
A win and a second place for Mehdi Bennani means the Moroccan will start the final two races in Qatar firmly in the title fight with Zengo Motorsport’s Norbert Michelisz. Bennani, who last year became the first Arabic driver to win in the WTCC, is just seven points behind Honda pilot Michelisz in his Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën. Stefano D’Aste claimed a season-equalling best of second in race one before finishing third in the second event with Grégoire Demoustier bagging his maiden class podium of 2015 in race one despite stalling at the start. Thai driver Tin Sritrai was fourth in both races in his first weekend in the WTCC with Demoustier, Filippi and Michelisz completing the scorers.
RACE WINNER QUOTES (full transcript available at http://media.fiawtcc.com)
José María López (race one winner and provisional WTCC champion): “I am so happy. I want to congratulate everybody and thank all the people who have been around me in my career for 23 years, starting with my family, my father especially, my brothers who gave up a lot of things to help me race in Europe, my girlfriend Victoire who has stopped me from being very alone in Europe, everybody in Argentina and the team. I wouldn’t be here without them. They gave me the opportunity to race and compete with my team-mates at the same level, my mechanics, my engineer and my team-mates as well for always pushing me. We have had some very nice battles inside the team and we improved the car to a very good level. But this is just a dream, two world championships. It’s something I never expected but somehow life gave this to me so I really thank everything and I look forward to celebrating with my friends. When I say my friends I mean everybody in the WTCC because everybody has been so kind to me. With Tiago we had a little moment but we are friends. It’s a nice championship with a nice atmosphere and I really enjoy it. It’s been an amazing year for me but really hard. The competition has been harder, my team-mates have worked harder and never gave up. To win the championship three races before the end is a massive result looking at the competition and the level. We were really equal in some races and I am looking forward to it continuing like this.”
Tiago Monteiro (race two winner prior to exclusion): “First of all I would like to congratulate Pechito because being two times world champion is amazing. He’s deserved it and was very strong. Regarding the race I didn’t do the best start and I was behind Norbi. I started to push very hard because if I was faster somewhere and could find his weak points I could see that I could have a chance. I tried my move on the second lap at Turn 3 and it worked. After that I was trying to get away to gain as much room as possible because I knew the Citroëns were going to come at some point. I opened up a thee-second margin but I knew it wouldn’t be enough so I kept pushing on like qualifying laps. The car was nice to drive all weekend even though there were some small mistakes. Seb was catching up and was three tenths of a lap quicker, sometimes more, sometimes less but he was there and I knew the last lap would be very hot. It was getting darker and I was pushing hard and getting ready for the last fight, trying to save the tyres for the last two laps because I knew I would need them. We’re quite optimistic with our pace, which has improved. It’s not enough so we need to keep working and that’s what we will do until the end.”
RACE RESULTS: Results and points are available to download at: http://media.fiawtcc.com/race-of-thailand
Race one pole position (presented by DHL): José María López (Citroën C-Elysée WTCC)
Race one Yokohama Performer: Sébastien Loeb (Citroën C-Elysée WTCC)
Race two pole position (presented by DHL): Norbert Michelisz (Honda Civic WTCC)
Race two Yokohama Performer: Gabriele Tarquini (Honda Civic WTCC)
CHAMPIONSHIP POSITIONS: Provisional standings available at http://media.fiawtcc.com/statistics/
NEXT RACE: WTCC Race of Qatar, Losail International Circuit, 26-27 November: http://www.qmmf.com
*All results remain subject to official FIA confirmation