In the next two weeks, the World Touring Car Championship will visit two eastern European tracks, the Slovakia Ring and then the Hungaroring – one a new facility, just three seasons old, the other now open for over 25 years and firmly established as Eastern Europe’s only current Grand Prix venue.
Last year’s first-ever WTCC trip to Slovakia was a scorcher, with soaring temperatures and some highly entertaining racing. Gabriele Tarquini’s SEAT claimed victory in Race 1, while Chevrolet’s Rob Huff took the honours in Race 2. The forecast for this year’s race weekend suggests that teams will worry about tyre- and-brake-wear once more, as it’s going to be a hot one. The tight nature of the track produced some fairly robust moves from a number of drivers in 2012 and if they want to avoid penalties, everyone will have to mind their manners this time round.
So, who can we expect to see at the sharp end of the grid? Well, Monza proved to be an RML Chevrolet benefit, with Yvan Muller winning both races. Most expected Marrakech to follow form, as Chevrolet has always fared well on street circuits and last year, romped to 1-2-3 finishes in both races. But that was not the case. As RML struggled to convert their pace into dominance, we had not one but two feel-good stories, with Michel Nykjaer and Pepe Oriola claiming overdue maiden wins.
Both had to hold off hugely-experienced rivals; in the case of Nykjaer, the charging Gabriele Tarquini (17 WTCC wins), in his Honda, while Oriola had Yvan Muller (32 wins) breathing down his neck in the RML Chevrolet. Emotions ran high in both camps, the Nika Racing team winning in just their third WTCC race, while Pepe Oriola Sr’s tears of joy were indication of just how much the win meant.
Last year’s races in Slovakia showed that almost anyone can be competitive. Norbert Michelisz took pole with his BMW, while the Lukoil SEAT cars of Gabriele Tarquini and Aleksei Dudukalo claimed a 1-2 result in Race 1 and Chevrolet’s Rob Huff and Yvan Muller did likewise in Race 2.
The Castrol Honda team looks poised to make the move to the top step of the podium, although their cousins in orange and black at Zengö Motorsport could do with a little change in fortune – they only luck they’ve had this season has been bad; when was the last time you saw a car taken out of a race by someone else’s broken brake disc? The ‘Norbi’ Barmy Army would certainly relish their man producing the form of last year, as a warm-up to Hungary…
And what about LADA? Captain Jack Sparrow (James Thompson) has proved that the new Granta Sport has plenty of potential. Once their fortunes change, the Lukoil cars should be consistent front-runners. What more fitting place for it all to finally come together than at the scene of their sponsor’s best day in the WTCC?