So it begins; the Cold War of the FIA World Touring Car Championship, when drivers and teams have to readjust from the frantic schedule of race, repair, travel, race to the month-long gaps between events.
When they waved their cars and equipment goodbye after Porto the teams knew they would not see them back at base until after Christmas, so now the skills of the mechanics to repair damage and keep the machinery sweet will be doubly important, as there may be limited time – and spares – to effect repairs on fly-away weekends.
First stop on the global adventure is Argentina and a new circuit – not just to some but to all, as the Autódromo Termas de Río Hondo is a brand-new facility, which has had precious few visitors.
Opened in 2008, the facility has just emerged from a major overhaul and is due to receive a visit from MotoGP in 2014, making the FIA WTCC the first major international event at the track.
Racing at a new track throws up all sorts of problems for the teams and drivers.
Without much data to go by, they must make educated guesses (engineers like to call them predictions) as to what set-up will work best and then react quickly, if they miss their target.
Drives have little time to learn the track and must also provide feedback to the team on how the car is behaving, to try and fine-tune its performance, taking into account the way that the track is changing, as it is cleaned up and rubbered-in by the cars.
It’s easy to assume that, since no-one has a wealth of information, the playing-field will be reasonably level. Usually, however, the reverse is true – the best teams will have the experience and engineering ability to react better and new tracks often end up favouring the established pace-setters. Don’t expect Yvan Muller to be off the pace, I’m saying!
Argentina’s home-grown (and hugely popular) Super TC2000 touring car series raced here last month, in very cold, damp and slippery conditions. The race was won by Renault driver Leonel Pernía (who competed in the WTCC at Monza with Nika Racing in 2010) but it wasn’t a happy encounter for three-time champion José María López, whose Fiat was badly damaged early in the race.
López, who raced in single-seaters in Europe – winning the Formula Renault V6 title in 2003 – and who was (extremely) briefly a nominated driver for the still-born USF1 outfit, will be back at the track for the WTCC weekend, as he’s filling in at Wiechers-Sport for Fredy Barth, who has other commitments.
This is very much a home race for López, who comes from the neighbouring province of Córdoba, famed as the location for Rally Argentina and he’ll be hoping that good weather will give him a chance to shine, flying the flag for Argentina.
The fast, open nature of the track might well suit the BMWs, so López – with track knowledge – may well feature near the top of the time-sheets, once he adapts to his new, turbo-charged mount. He’s proved to be a good, adaptable racer in the past, capable of beating the likes of Robert Kubica in their junior days, so the fans should have plenty to cheers.