Loeb and Muller battle for runner-up spot
Michelisz and Bennani in fight for Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy
Home hero Al-Attiyah to make WTCC debut
The chase for FIA World Touring Car Championship success reaches its climax in Qatar next week when the curtain comes down on a 2015 season jam-packed with action, drama, excitement and the odd dose of controversy. And with Losail International Circuit staging the WTCC’s maiden night race and the championship’s first visit to the Middle East, an historic occasion awaits.
It’s been 264 days since José María López got his title defence off to a flying start with a popular home win in his native Argentina. By claiming his ninth victory of the campaign in Thailand earlier this month, the Citroën driver made it back-to-back WTCC crowns*. And another triumph in Qatar would equal his record of 10 wins in one season set in 2014. “Sometimes you need to put more pressure on yourself to get a bit more,” said López. “I am a little more relaxed now I have won the title but I don’t race for the records, I race to enjoy in a fantastic team with fantastic team-mates. It’s a new race for us and will be very interesting. I have seen the track from the MotoGP races and it looks nice. Hopefully we’ll have a great weekend and a fantastic fight once again.”
Two of his team-mates who will be among the drivers taking centre stage at the highly-acclaimed MotoGP venue on 27 November. Just five points separate Frenchmen Sébastien Loeb and Yvan Muller in the battle for second place in the final standings with Loeb, the nine-time world rally champion turned WTCC contender, in the ascendency. While Muller, a quadruple WTCC title-holder, faltered with two non-finishes in Thailand, Loeb inherited his fourth win of the year following Portuguese driver Tiago Monteiro’s exclusion due to a technical infringement. With a future in cross-country rallying planned, Qatar could be Loeb’s WTCC farewell.
Monteiro’s misfortune means he will face a tall order in WTCC DHL Race of Qatar if he’s to beat Gabriele Tarquini (Italy) and Norbert Michelisz to the honour of finishing 2015 as the leading Honda driver. Like Loeb and Muller, Michelisz is embroiled in a close fight for WTCC glory. The Hungarian is seven points ahead of Morocco’s Mehdi Bennani in the Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy. Although Michelisz has claimed two more class wins than Bennani, three of Bennani’s six triumphs have come in the last four races, while Michelisz hasn’t won since mid-September, increasing the prospect of a wide-open contest.
While Bennani and Michelisz will be focused on claiming the Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy, Ma Qing Hua is on course to finish fourth in the final table following the Chinese pilot’s podium brace in Thailand where the going proved tough for LADA. Although Briton Rob Huff produced two battling performances to snatch 16 points and climb to eighth in the title table, team-mates Nicky Catsburg (Netherlands) and Nicolas Lapierre (France) were eliminated – along with Dutchman Tom Coronel – in a first-corner clash in race one. Hugo Valente became embroiled in a separate incident on the opening lap in Thailand so will be hoping for better fortune in Qatar where he starts a solitary point behind fellow Chevrolet privateer Tom Chilton (Great Britain).
Chilton has sought advice from younger brother about racing at night: Chilton Jr took part in two Singapore Grands Prix, which was also run after hours and required drivers to adjust their body clocks.
Other drivers in action in Qatar include Frenchmen Grégoire Demoustier and John Filippi and Italy’s Stefano D’Aste, while home hero and Middle East sporting legend Nasser Al-Attiyah will make his WTCC debut in a privateer Chevolet. All four will be competing for Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy honours in their RML-built Chevrolet Cruze TC1s.
Q&A: NASSER AL-ATTIYAH
Nasser Al-Attiyah will make his FIA World Touring Car Championship debut when the 2015 season reaches a spectacular climax in his native Qatar for the inaugural WTCC night race. This is what the Middle East sporting hero had to say ahead of the action getting underway at the Losail International Circuit.
What does it mean to you that the WTCC is coming to Qatar?
“I was proud when I learned the WTCC would be coming to Qatar but I’m even more proud to say that I will be part of the action. It will be real honour for me to represent my country when it hosts the FIA World Touring Car Championship for the first time. Qatar has successfully staged MotoGP events for a number of years and securing an FIA world championship will only enhance the country’s reputation as a sporting destination.”
How excited are you to be competing in the inaugural WTCC Race of Qatar?
“I’m very excited because this is something I’ve never done before. I really want to see the top drivers racing in my own country and to be a part of it. Most of the drivers I know really well, people like Sébastien Loeb from rallying, [José María] López from when I have been to Argentina. It’s an important race and I was really pushing for this from the beginning with our federation, the QMMF. The WTCC coming to my country is really good and I’m really excited about this.”
Are you expecting a tough challenge?
“Of course it will not be easy because I have not raced a World Touring Car before or in front-wheel drive for that matter. But I have the opportunity to be in this championship for one round, I realise it will not be easy but I will do my best to enjoy and maybe try to be in the top eight in the races.”
You are obviously very experienced when it comes to rallying but how much circuit racing have you done during your career?
“Actually I did a few years ago the Porsche Cup in GT3. It was really nice and I enjoy a lot. It was one season but then I was really so busy with rallying and the cross-country so it was not possible to do more.”
What’s your target for WTCC Race of Qatar?
“Of course I want to get the experience of the World Touring Car Championship and to finish the two races. But I also want to push myself to the limit for this kind of race. I know the Losail International Circuit really well and this will be maybe the key to having a good weekend. I have done a lot of testing and a lot of races at the track so I know the corners and what to do. Even though the racing will be completely new to me it’s important that I will be racing at a place I know well. And while I want to be competitive, my objectives will be different to my rivals: I’m an ambassador for Middle East motorsport and I’ll be doing all I can to further highlight Qatar’s position on the motorsport map.”
And what of the track? What’s it like for a driver?
“It’s a fast circuit and there are some parts that are not easy. You need a good line and if you are not in a good line in some places you miss the other corner. It will also be a night race and this will be maybe different for a lot of the drivers because I know it’s the first time the WTCC will race at night. Most of the drivers will enjoy but one thing that is different about the circuit is it does get dusty and this will not be easy for the drivers coming from outside. It does change the grip levels you have on the track.”
It’s been a great 2015 for you. How satisfied are you with what you have achieved?
“Absolutely! I am really very happy. To win Dakar, then the FIA Cross Country World Cup, the FIA Middle East Rally Championship again and the FIA WRC2 Championship it’s been a good year! I think I have achieved a lot this year and we also have the WTCC to enjoy in my own country. I am now looking for somebody to help me collect the trophies I will get at the FIA Prize-Giving Ceremony in Paris!”
You are universally known for your achievements in rallying but you’ve also excelled in skeet shooting. Are you still active in that sport and what are the chances of an appearance at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio?
“Absolutely, absolutely! I am doing a lot of practice. I have an event in February 2016, which will be the qualifying event for Rio. My dream is to go for the Olympics because it will be my sixth time in the Olympics representing my country Qatar and after getting the bronze medal in London 2012 my target is to achieve a really high level in Rio.”
Name: Losail International Circuit
Location: Al Wusail, North Relief Road
Website: www.circuitlosail.com, www.qmmf.com
Length: 5.380 kilometres
Race distance: 2 x 12 laps
Lap record (qualifying and race): To be established
WTCC appearances: None (Qatar is hosting the WTCC for the first time)
Time zone: GMT +3 hours
Sunrise/sunset: 05h59/16h43 (Friday 27 November)
Average temperature: 22°C-29°C (for November)
The venue: Opened in 2004, the Losail International Circuit can operate for 24 hours a day thanks to a state-of-the-art floodlighting system. An ever-present on the MotoGP calendar since its inauguration, the rack hosted the 2006 Grand Prix Masters of Qatar, which was won by Nigel Mansell. The track is located 20 kilometres from the Qatari capital Doha and 30 kilometres from the city’s international airport.
The timetable: ?All the track action will be contained within a two-day period with Testing and Free Practice 1 and 2 scheduled for Thursday 26 November with, uniquely, qualifying and the two 12-lap races timetabled on a Friday to coincide with the Arabic weekend when television audiences in Europe, Central and South America will be at their peak.
DID YOU KNOW?
WTCC rookie Nasser Al-Attiyah doesn’t just possess a prolific record in motorsport, he’s also vastly successful when it comes to skeet shooting with myriad triumphs in the Asia Games plus a bronze medal in the London 2012 Olympics.
THE BIG WTCC NUMBER: 249
By taking part in both races in Qatar, LADA Sport Rosneft’s 2009 world champion Rob Huff will extend his record of WTCC starts to 249.
THREE WTCC FIRSTS
1 WTCC Race of Qatar is the championship’s first night race, the first to take place in the Middle East and the first to be run on a Friday
2 Nasser Al-Attiyah will make his first start in the WTCC when he drives for Campos Racing in his home event
3 DHL, the leading global brand in the logistics industry, is the WTCC Race of Qatar Event Presenting Partner, the first time this season it has performed the role this season
COMPENSATION WEIGHT CHECK
While the Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1s will carry zero compensation weight in Qatar, the Citroën C-Elysées and Honda Civics will run with 60 and 40 kilograms of success ballast respectively. And having run at the base weight in Thailand, the LADA Vestas have had 10 kilograms added to their total weight.