*López and Monteiro the twin winners for Citroën and Honda in two titanic touring car battles
*LADA’s Huff underlines Motegi’s perfect-for-overtaking layout with R2 charge from P13 to P3
*Michelisz and Valente share Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy honours
The FIA World Touring Car Championship returned from its summer break with two 13-lap thrillers as Twin Ring Motegi hosted JVC KENWOOD WTCC Race of Japan for the first time. Both races delivered action and overtaking aplenty and vindicated the switch of venues from Suzuka to encourage more on-track battles.
Yokohama-shod Citroën driver José María López claimed win number seven of 2015 in the opening event before Tiago Monteiro scored a hugely popular home win for Honda in race two. While his victory in the opener enabled López to extend his championship advantage, he couldn’t add to his tally in race two when contact left the Argentine’s C-Elysée with a punctured front-left tyre, forcing the reigning world champion to retire for the first time this season. But with team-mate Yvan Muller also dropping out, López will take a 74-point title lead to China later this month and can now be beaten to the crown by Muller and fellow Citroën star Sébastien Loeb.
Despite starting race one from pole, Norbert Michelisz was forced to settle for second with Gabriele Tarquini third in another Honda. Like Michelisz, Hugo Valante was also unable to hold pole in race two but the Frenchman leaves Japan with a second-place finish and Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy success. Meanwhile, Rob Huff proved just how good Twin Ring Motegi is for overtaking by charging from P13 to P3 for his and LADA Sport Rosneft’s second podium of the campaign after the Russian team worked through the night to rebuild his Vesta TC1 after mechanical problems intervened on Saturday.
RACE ONE ROUND-UP: CITROËN’S LÓPEZ IN SEVENTH HEAVEN
José María López said his seventh victory of the year was unexpected after he rocketed away from second place on the grid to squeeze ahead of Norbert Michelisz by turn one. The WTCC title leader feared Twin Ring Motegi’s combination of shorter straights and medium-speed corners, coupled with the 60 kilograms of success ballast his car carries, would rule out a win. But he delivered another perfect performance to take top spot. Michelisz remained a constant threat with Gabriele Tarquini giving chase although the Italian was ultimately unable to climb higher than third having shown considerable speed earlier in the weekend to top the timesheets in testing and Free Practice 1 and 2. Ma Qing Hua pulled off a sensational late-braking passing manoeuvre to snatch fourth from Citroën team-mate Yvan Muller, who took fifth ahead of Sébastien Loeb with Mehdi Bennani seventh and Rob Huff eighth following a thrilling three-abreast battle with Tiago Monteiro and Hugo Valente. Nicolas Lapierre finished P11 on his WTCC debut but ROAL Motorsport twins Tom Coronel and Tom Chilton both retired, crashing out on consecutive laps at turn five.
RACE TWO ROUND-UP: MAGNIFICIENT MONTEIRO WINS FOR HONDA
Victory for Honda driver Tiago Monteiro rounded out a thrilling weekend of racing at Twin Ring Motegi with Hugo Valente and Rob Huff joining the Portuguese on the podium. Monteiro, who celebrated WTCC start number 200 in race one, recovered from a tough beginning to the weekend when he was ordered to the back of the grid for an enforced engine change. He snatched the lead from pole-sitter Hugo Valente on the sprint to turn one to take a comfortable second win of 2015 and Honda’s third. Valente, in a Chevrolet RML Cruze, resisted early pressure from Yvan Muller to take second as Muller was forced to pit when the bonnet of his Citroën partially opened. He rejoined following repairs before calling it quits with three laps remaining when it became clear a points finish wouldn’t be possible. Muller’s misfortune handed third to Huff who, having battled through the field, determinedly fended off Sébastien Loeb – and then Gabriele Tarquini for a time – in a dramatic battle for the final podium spot. Loeb retook Tarquini at the final corner and beat his rival by 0.089s. Ma Qing Hua inherited fifth from Tarquini, who was handed a 30-second penalty and demoted to P12 following his clash with Ma. And Ma will be looking for an even better result when his home city of Shanghai hosts ROSNEFT WTCC Race of China from 25-27 September. Meanwhile, López’s exit was triggered when contact from behind sent him crashing into team-mate Loeb’s car, which punctured the front-left tyre. Behind Toms Chillton and Coronel, Lapierre scored his first WTCC points in eighth with Stefano D’Aste climbing from the back of the grid to ninth. Mehdi Bennani finished P10 but LADA’s Nicky Catsburg retired from both races with mechanical issues.
YOKOHAMA DRIVERS’ TROPHY: MICHELISZ AND VALENTE SHARE SUCCESS
Norbert Michelisz and Hugo Valente both claimed an outright pole position and podium plus top Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy points in the two races. Mehdi Bennani was second in race one followed by Valente, Grégoire Demoustier, John Filippi and Stefano D’Aste. Tom Chilton made up for his opening-race exit to finished second ahead of Tom Coronel and D’Aste. Bennani was sent spinning at turn one but fought back to take fifth in class. Filippi and Demoustier rounded out the finishers as Michelisz’s Honda dropped onto two cylinders, which prompted the Hungarian’s retirement.
RACE WINNER QUOTES (full transcript available soon athttp://media.fiawtcc.com)
José María López (race one winner): “Sometimes everything goes in the right direction and sometimes everything happens in favour of me. I did a fantastic start again and passed Norbi. I was surprised that with the  kilos [of success ballast] it could have been difficult after the laps. But the car was fantastic and I could pull away and to gain a win for Citroën was very important and it was a very important win for me in the championship. The objective was done in the first race but in the second race I got hit quite hard from a car behind at the first corner. I was very frustrated and really angry saying how could somebody hit me like this. But it’s racing. That’s why I always try to do my best because you can always lose points like this. But I go to Shanghai with a good lead. My objective here was to hold the difference but I am going there with 74 points so it’s looking very well. Japan is a good country for me.”
Tiago Monteiro (race two winner): “It’s even more amazing and even more pleasant to win the home race of Honda and my second home race really. Having started on the back foot a little bit with the engine change [on Friday] we knew we had to focus and use the rules to our advantage. You have to forget about it and do the best job you can and get the best car as you can as well. I knew the second race would be important and something was possible. I pulled away very well as you could see and just managed my tyres but pushed like crazy on the first laps to get a good gap. It was important because there have been a few unlucky situations for me this year when I have lost a lot of points. This weekend I was very confident with the car and a good balance overall. The weight also helped, the track, the updates, everything we had made us more competitive. We go through many tough moments but we fight like crazy to try to catch our competitors who are very strong. We thank Honda for all their support and I hope this is a good reward for them in their home race.”