*Honda and LADA drivers aim to continue impressive Japan form in China
*Shanghai sensation Ma Qing Hua to carry the hopes of a nation
*Citroën closes in on WTCC Manufacturers’ Championship glory
*Overtaking opportunities aplenty at Chinese Grand Prix venue
José María López might be 74 points to the good in his quest for back-to-back FIA World Touring Car Championship crowns, but his rivals aren’t about to let the Argentine start his title celebrations early when the Shanghai International Circuit hosts ROSNEFT WTCC Race of China next week (25-27 September).
With Honda driver Tiago Monteiro scoring a dominant victory and Rob Huff bagging a standout podium for LADA in the second of two WTCC races in Japan recently, the prospects are strong for two action-packed races and a Shanghai surprise or two. And with local hero Ma Qing Hua firmly in the mix for success at a track known for its overtaking opportunities, a thrilling weekend of touring car racing is in store.
Shanghai-based Ma partners López in the Citroën Total WTCC line-up and became the first Chinese to win an FIA world championship motor race when he triumphed in Russia last season. And Ma, who was also victorious when the WTCC visited Portugal in the summer, knows that two good results on home soil will boost his chances of a top-four championship finish, while also helping Citroën secure the 58 points it needs to take the WTCC Manufacturers’ Championship for a second time.
Ma finished second to López in the opening race at Shanghai in 2014 and would relish going one better this year. However, fourth place for Ma in the final standings is far from clear-cut with Japan race one polesitter Norbert Michelisz and fellow Honda drivers Gabriele Tarquini and Monteiro all in hot pursuit.
In the battle for overall title honours, only Yvan Muller and Sébastien Loeb can now prevent López from securing a second successive WTCC accolade, but both French drivers need points. And fast. Muller struggled to achieve top form in Japan and non-scored in race two. Loeb faired slightly better and can take heart from the fact he beat López in a straight fight in Argentina and France earlier this season.
Shanghai holds a special place in Mehdi Bennani’s heart after the Moroccan scored his first victory – and the first for an Arabic driver – in the WTCC in race two last season. The Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy contender ended a frustrating run with a promising showing in Japan last weekend and will aim to make more progress in his Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée WTCC in Shanghai. Like Bennani, Huff and fellow Briton Tom Chilton were WTCC winners in China last season when Beijing also hosted a pair of races. Huff heads the LADA Sport attack, which enjoys significant support from WTCC Race of China sponsor ROSNEFT, and is partnered by Nicky Catsburg and new recruit Nicolas Lapierre, the Le Mans 24 Hours class winner who scored points on his WTCC debut in Japan.
Like ROAL Motorsport team-mate Tom Coronel, Chilton has finished on the WTCC podium in 2015 in his privately-entered Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1 and will be a contender for Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy honours in China where his class rivals include Grégoire Demoustier, Stefano D’Aste, John Filippi and Hugo Valente, who placed a fine second in race two in Japan in his Campos Racing Chevrolet.
Q&A: MA QING HUA
The Citroën Total WTCC team’s Chinese charge is firmly established as a frontrunner in the FIA World Touring Car Championship and will be a strong contender for top honours when his home city of Shanghai hosts ROSNEFT WTCC Race of China. The 27-year-old discusses his hopes, aspirations and go-karts…
The WTCC is returning to your home city of Shanghai. How special is this for you? “It’s very special to be racing at home and at a circuit I quite like. Last year I did some good results at Shanghai – I was second in the first race and fifth in the second – and there were a lot of spectators watching. Hopefully we’ll have full grandstands again and high broadcasting figures on TV. I’m expecting a fun weekend.”
What’s the Shanghai International Circuit like from a driving point of view? “There are lots of chances to overtake and that’s really good. There’s a long straight but some very technical corners with some high-speed and some low-speed corners. It takes a lot from the engineering side to judge how to set up the car right.”
How easy is it to learn the track? “It’s not easy to learn especially Turns 1-3. Normally every driver has a different line and on a different lap you can see the different lines. Turn 13 as well is quite difficult to see where is the best way to go – it depends a lot on the weather and track conditions.”
What’s good about Shanghai as a city? “It’s a great city and it’s always good to be there but even better when the WTCC comes. We did some good events last year like cooking the Shanghai dumpling and the karting with the other drivers. It was the first time I entered this one restaurant for cooking and not eating so it was a good experience! The karting attracted a lot of fans and while it’s sometimes nice to relax it’s also good to be on the track with the other WTCC guys. I have several karting circuits in Shanghai but this one was in a very nice location in the centre of the city with lots of nice views.”
Earlier this season you claimed your second WTCC career win in Portugal. What did that feel like? “The target was to be in the front of the grid for race two and we did a good job to make it happen. I did a good start and had good pace in the race to the end. It was a really good feeling to be on top of the podium again. I was thinking not to do anything crazy and really focus on the track. It was a street race and a lot of things can happen. I saw some dust on the track and tried to avoid anything strange happening to the end. In the last lap when my engineer told me the race was finished that was fantastic, I was really happy about that.”
How important was that victory for Chinese motorsport? “It was another good moment to hear the Chinese national song again at an international top-level championship. I was really happy for all of my country. It was good news for Chinese motorsport.”
And for you personally because, up until Portugal, you were the only factory Citroën driver not to have won in the WTCC this year… “Everyone in the team is trying to win. This season especially the gap is very, very close and we are all pushing really hard to chase the last tenths. It’s not easy, especially for me without the experience they have. I have to look to every detail around the circuit, the car, the driving to catch the gap.”
What are your team-mates – José María López, Sébastien Loeb and Yvan Muller – like? “They are good teachers. I’ve learned a lot from them but now there is more competition between us. Last year I was not fighting but this year we are team-mates but fighting as well.”
How happy are you to be racing in the WTCC as part of the factory Citroën team? “I’m very happy to be with the Citroën Total WTCC team for a full season because it’s important for me in my career to get a full season in an FIA championship. It’s a good chance for me to show what I can do. I learned something from my five races last year so I had some ideas about the cars and the teams, and this year we have been trying to put everything together to get the good result as much as we can.”
Was it difficult switching to touring cars from single-seaters? “When I came in the middle of last season it was with a new car, new team, everything was new and I was quite struggling. This year I was able to prepare well, I have been more relaxed and have been able to think more about my strategy and have time to change things. Last year everybody was 10 steps ahead of me and I was trying to catch everything in a short time and it was quite difficult. Now I also feel very comfortable in the car and this helps.”
What can you achieve in the remaining races of this season? “Because of the experience I have everything is easier than it was last season. Everything is always possible but of course it’s going to be difficult to win. This championship is getting stronger and stronger and everything is getting more and more close. With three champion team-mates it’s hard to beat the people in my team. I also have much less mileage in the car and have to work much harder than everyone else to get the victory. But of course I will do my best to make it happen.”
Name: Shanghai International Circuit
Location: 29/F Jiushi Towers, 28 Zhongshanng Road (South), 200010 Shanghai, China
Length: 4.603 kilometres
Race distance: 2 x 14 laps
Lap record (qualifying): José María López (Citroën C-Elysée), 1m48.782s (152.33kph), 11/10/14
Lap record (race): Ma Qing Hua (Citroën C-Elysée), 1m50.833s (149.511kph), 12/10/14
WTCC appearances: Three (2012, 2013, 2014. Tianma Circuit hosted WTCC Race of China in 2011)
Time zone: GMT +8 hours
Sunrise/sunset: 04h52/19h02 (Sunday 27 September)
Average temperature: 20°C-27°C (for September)
DID YOU KNOW?
Ma Qing Hua, 27, who is taking part in his first full season of WTCC competition with Citroën Racing in 2015, is a Shanghai native and double winner in the FIA World Touring Car Championship.
THE BIG WTCC NUMBER: 1950
The vessel organised by WTCC Logistics Partner DHL to transport cars and equipment from Japan to China will have travelled 1950 kilometres when it docks, as scheduled, in Shanghai on Sunday following its journey from Tokyo. In total, 26 containers were transported.
ON THE VERGE OF MORE WTCC TITLE SUCCESS
Citroën can secure a second straight FIA World Touring Car Championship Manufacturers’ crown if it scores at least 58 points in the two races at Shanghai. Its season average, for the record, is 87 points.
FOUR WTCC FIRSTS
1 First WTCC Race of China takes place at Tianma Circuit, Shanghai in 2011. Menu and Muller win
2 Mehdi Bennani takes his maiden WTCC triumph at Shanghai in 2014, the first victory for an Arabic driver
3 LADA celebrates its first WTCC success when Rob Huff wins race two at Beijing in 2014
4 China becomes the first country to host two WTCC events in the same year with Beijing’s Goldenport Park Circuit and Shanghai International Circuit staging the action in 2014
COMPENSATION WEIGHT CHECK
Honda’s success in Japan last weekend means the Civic WTCCs will carry compensation weight in China. Having run without any success ballast at Twin Ring Motegi, the Hondas will now carry 40 kilograms, which is 20 less than the amount carried by the Citroën C-Elysée WTCCs. Meanwhile, the LADA Vesta and Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1 will compete in Shanghai without any additional weight.