Rivals out to catch Citroën ace López in title chase

Tiago Monteiro to join the WTCC 200 Club 

First start for new LADA recruit Lapierre

Motegi is third of five new venues on 2015 schedule

The FIA World Touring Car Championship is back from its summer break and back with a bang as the season-closing tour of Asia and the Middle East kicks off in Japan next week when Twin Ring Motegi hosts the all-action WTCC for the first time from 11-13 September.

With the championship fight still a three-way tussle between Citroën trio José María López, the current WTCC pacesetter, Yvan Muller and Sébastien Loeb, JVC KENWOOD WTCC Race of Japan is set to be another highlight of the 2015 campaign when six different drivers have tasted the victory champagne and 11 have stepped onto the podium.

While the bulk of the grid racing in Japan will be familiar to WTCC fans around the world, Nicolas Lapierre will be starting his WTCC adventure at Twin Ring Motegi, which is located 150 kilometres north of the capital Tokyo. The Frenchman will bring his considerable expertise and pedigree from single-seater and sportscar racing to LADA Sport Rosneft where he will link up with 2012 WTCC champion Rob Huff from the UK and Dutchman Nicky Catsburg.

For Tiago Monteiro, JVC KENWOOD WTCC Race of Japan takes on added significance: not only is it his Castrol Honda World Touring Car Team’s home event at a track owned by the motor giant, race one on Sunday 13 September will mark WTCC start number 200 for the talented Portuguese. Gabriele Tarquini (Italy) and Hungary’s Norbert Michelisz also form part of the Honda attack.

Hugo Valente is racing in memory of his late friend, ex-Formula One driver Jules Bianchi and has vowed to do all he can to land the podium finish that eluded him in the closing stages of race one in Japan in 2014. Like Michelisz, Frenchman Valente is chasing points in the Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy for independent racers, while trying to break into top five overall in his Campos Chevrolet RML Cruze. John Filippi completes the Campos line-up while Stefano D’Aste, once a team-mate of Valentino Rossi in motorbike racing, will welcome some good fortune following a luckless Portugal weekend in his Münnich Chevrolet.

Grégoire Demoustier (Craft Bamboo Chevrolet) and ROAL Motorsport duo Tom Chilton and Tom Coronel will also be in action at Twin Ring Motegi. Briton Chilton will be aiming to maintain his place in the championship top 10, while Dutchman Coronel has more WTCC wins in Japan to his name than any other driver having triumphed on three occasions. Ma Qing Hua, from China, won last time out in Portugal where fellow Citroën driver Mehdi Bennani was also in action.

Following testing on Friday 11 September, the WTCC drivers will take part in two Free Practice sessions and Qualifying on Saturday ahead of a pair of 13-lap races on Sunday from 14h15hrs local time.

Japan’s rich WTCC heritage
A WTCC mainstay since 2008, Japan is home to long-term partners Honda, JVC KENWOOD and Yokohama, which celebrates 10 years as the WTCC’s official tyre supplier in 2015. After four successful seasons at Suzuka, the WTCC is switching to Twin Ring Motegi, a popular MotoGP venue within easy reach of Tokyo.

As an established member of the Castrol Honda World Touring Car Team, Italian Gabriele Tarquini is about as close as it gets to a ‘home’ driver for JVC KENWOOD WTCC Race of Japan. The popular and vastly experienced racer looks back on his season so far and his hopes for success at Twin Ring Motegi.

Like most WTCC drivers you’ve probably never driven at Motegi before, right? “No, I drove a Honda Super GT car during a Honda thanks day with my team-mate Tiago [Monteiro]. We did seven or eight laps.”

From that short test do you have an idea of what it will be like when you race your Honda Civic WTCC at Motegi? “It matches very well with the characteristic of WTCC and I think the races can be much more exciting than Suzuka. Suzuka is one of the best tracks in the world to drive but it’s very difficult to overtake the car in front of you in these cars. It’s quite a shame because normally our race is a fight race so I hope in Motegi the show will be different than last year’s races in Suzuka.”

It’s obviously closer to Tokyo than Suzuka. Does that make it more important for Honda? “I don’t have an Italian WTCC race so for me it’s the home race. Last year I had a chance to win the second race in Suzuka so it was a great event for me and for Honda. This year it’s really important because Motegi, like Suzuka, is owned by Honda. It’s a Honda base for R&D, very close to Tokyo so for us it’s a very important event.”

Is it perhaps even more important because this season hasn’t been so successful for Honda? “We are quite far from the Citroën pace, especially in qualifying. For me the first part of the season wasn’t really good, not in terms of performance but in terms of the result. I will be focused to do a great race in Motegi.”

As a driver is it tough to cope with the fact the success isn’t coming as regularly as it used to, particularly given your past record? “No because my target is to come back to the pace. I push and Honda and JAS push to develop an engine and chassis to be close to Citroën. But it’s not easy. We tested a lot last winter and during the summer. Our target is to close the gap to Citroën and not accept this status quo and fight for the fourth and fifth place on the grid. We are focused to close the gap, to come back to win the first races.”

How much more competitive will the car be based on the work you have done during the summer? “For sure the speed will not be very important in Motegi and at the moment our car is far away from the top speed of Citroën and Chevrolet and the acceleration is also not very good. The best for our car is the twisty track. Motegi is not very fast but not very twisty with medium speed corners so I think we can be competitive.”

Turning back to Japan, what’s special about the country? “It’s my favourite food, the sashimi, sushi, teppanyaki. I like the attitude and education of the Japanese people. They respect the law much better than other countries. It’s also a country with a long history in motorsport, especially Honda. They want to be on the top again in F1 and other categories and I am sure with their technology and the engineers they will be back.”

And the fans are pretty special too… “They love motorsport. The attitude they have is very similar to the Italian fans with the passion. They make a lot of effort to follow motorsport very closely. Even though they only have one race in Japan, they know everything about WTCC and my long career.”

You raced in four Japanese grands prix – what was better, racing in Japan in F1 or in the WTCC? “My best memory of Japan is the WTCC. In Formula One I was fighting to place my car on the grid so I don’t have great memories of that. But one of my best memories was in Japan last year when I won in front of the Japanese fans. And winning in a Honda made it even more special.”

Twin Ring Motegi

Location: 120-1 Hiyama, Motegi-machi, Haga-gun, Tochigi Pref. 321-3597, Japan
Length: 4.801 kilometres
Race distance: 2 x 13 laps
Lap record (qualifying): To be established
Lap record (race): To be established
WTCC appearances: None but Japan has hosted the WTCC on seven previous occasions
Time zone: GMT +9 hours
Sunrise/sunset: 05h22/17h53 (Sunday 13 September)
Average temperature: 20°C-26°C (for September)

Japan holds a special place in the heart of Citroën’s José María López, who won the FIA World Touring Car Championship at Suzuka last season. While the Argentine can’t make it back-to-back crowns in Japan this year, Citroën will move a step closer to a second makes’ title with a strong showing at Twin Ring Motegi.

A container ship carrying some 200 tonnes of WTCC cargo spent 37 days at sea from leaving Antwerp in Belgium to arriving in Tokyo, Japan. DHL, the WTCC’s logistics partner, organised the sea and air transportation of all WTCC cars and equipment from Europe to the Far East.

Twin Ring Motegi’s name comes from it having two race tracks – a 2.49-kilometre oval and the 4.801-kilometre road course the WTCC drivers will race on.

1 First time Twin Ring Motegi has hosted WTCC Race of Japan
2 First of four WTCC season-closing races in Asia and the Middle East
3 First appearance in the WTCC for Nicolas Lapierre
4 First winner of a WTCC race in Japan was Rickard Rydell in 2008

While the Citroën C-Elysée WTCCs will continue to run with the full 60 kilograms of success ballast due to their standout success in this year’s championship, the Honda Civics WTCCs and LADA Vestas won’t carry any additional weight at Motegi although the Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1s will carry 10kgs.

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