Be careful what you wish for

Odd proverb, that – but one which springs readily to mind after the latest encounter of the World Touring Car Championship, on the streets of Porto. Particularly after the second race.

The grid for the first race of the day in Portugal’s second city featured a Chevy Cruze 1-2-3, with Alain Menu on pole, courtesy of a simply stunning qualifying lap which left his team-mates Yvan Muller and Rob Huff not only trailing by over a third of a second but also, frankly, a little open-mouthed at their Swiss colleague’s sheer pace in that most challenging and focusing of arenas, a street circuit.

The Circuito da Boavista was once home to the Portuguese Grand Prix and the cobbled, tram-line-strewn streets around the park and along the sea-front were undoubtedly a major challenge. In the days of Moss, Hawthorn, Brabham and the rest, the track was both fast and tricky. Overtaking was difficult and safety was pretty much par for the course in that era – you might have found a straw bale or two protecting you from the trunks of the trees that lined the Avenida da Boavista that formed the main straight.

Local enthusiasts revived the track in 2005, staging a historic race meeting on a new layout that followed in the traces of the earlier iteration but added length, winding further through the residential neighbourhood north-east of the park than did the original. The World Touring Car Championship made its debut the following year and returned in 2009 for more high-speed street-racing.

The track which greeted the drivers for 2011 is materially very similar but changes made in the intervening two years made the circuit both faster and – perversely, you might think – safer and less damaging.

A new chicane by the entrance to the pits dramatically cut down the damage quotient, while a reprofiled run onto the Avenida do Boavista changed what was a tight first-gear misery of a corner into a fast 3rd-gear challenge, feeding drivers onto the major artery that leads right to the heart of the city much faster than before.

Slightly disappointingly, two chicanes on the Avenida – which fed traffic contra-flow-style onto the other carriageway and then back – conspired a little against overtaking… there was simply not quite distance enough in which to complete a pass. More of which later…

How much faster was the lastest version of the track? Well, the 2009 qualifying mark left by poleman Gabriele Tarquini’s SEAT Leon TDI was 2m09.308s but Alain Menu’s effort lowered that to 2m04.946s. Fastest race lap (Augusto Farfus’ BMW) in 2009 was a 2m11.0, whereas Rob huff – truly on fire in Race 2 – left that benchmark at 2m05.8s. Parto fo the extra pace comes from the latest turbo-petrol engines but surely much of it must come from the changes to the track itself.

The extra speed did not, however, come at the expense of safety. Quite the reverse. As far as the WTCC was concerned, at least. Once Safety Car driver Bruno Correia has peeled off into the pits to release the field for the rolling start to Race 1, his services were not to be called upon again. A single red flag had been necessary all weekend and that only after the chequer has fallen to end the first session of qualifying.

How so? Kristian Poulsen was on a fast lap in the dying seconds of the session, desperate to put his Engstler BMW into the top 10, when he caught the cruising Yvan Muller on the entry to the final chicane. Muller clung to the left-hand wall as he come to enter the pits but as that’s also the racing line for the chicane, Poulsen’s lap was terminally compromised.

The Dane managed to scramble through and cross the line (at the exit to the chicane) beating the chequered flag by but 2 or 3 seconds, to start another do-or-die attempt. Through the first sector he was safely into Q2. By the end of Sector 2, he was still firmly on target. His was the last car on track, everyone else either cruising back or already in the pits but Poulsen’s progress was not interrupted this time and as he poured on the power downhill through the fast left sweeps to the final chicane, he was ekeing every last once of grip from his tyres, which had already given of their best on the previous attempt.

Through Turn 20, the total-commitment, flat-in-top-only-in-qualifying left-hander, his car twitched wickedly over the bumps and the tail was still jinking as he got onto the brakes hard at the 100m board. Or just after, perhaps.

Maybe his tyres had less to offer than he had hoped, perhaps he dared to brake even later than before; either way, Poulsen was in trouble from the first, left-hand, apex. He was launched off the large roll inside the shallow kerb and as the tried to sort out the car on landing for the right-left flick to exit, the BMW’s tail slewed wide.

In an instant Poulsen was on the brakes but the damage had been done and the car spun backwards across the line, clattering into the outside wall nose-first. His day was done; he’d just failed to make it into Q2. Ironically, if he’d stayed off the brakes, he might well have carried enough speed as he spun across the line to make it into the Top 10. The damage would have been considerably more severe, however. Poulsen was disappointed but phlegmatic, his mechanics doubtless relieved that the damage was not too bad.

Sunday in Porto dawned dull, grey and cool. This has been the trend of the summer, even Hungary and the Czech Republic failing to bring out the sunscreen in the paddock. Still, the WTCC escaped lightly – all over Europe, rain blighted race weekends at Imola, Mugello, Nurnberg and many more. Porto was, at least, dry throughout.

A little rain might have helped to enliven Race 1, though, which must go down as one of the least exciting in recent memory.

At the rolling start, it looked as though poleman Alain Menu had taken a flyer but, in fact, Yvan Muller had merely left enough room to tuck in behind his team-mate before they first turn, with Rob Huff slotting in behind the other two blue Chevys, leaving SEAT’s Gabriele Tarquini to try his luck around the outside into Turn 2.

Tarquini bumped Huff’s outside rear as he tried to tuck in, allowing his own team-mate Tiago Monteiro to shuffle the Italian back, as he squeezed into fourth. There was a little action in the increasingly close Yokohama Trophy battle amongst the Independent drivers but essentially, within 20 seconds, we had our podium. As far from unexpected as it was from thrilling.

Chevrolet Racing boss Eric Neve was nontheless happy and you can’t blame him. The team had done an exemplary job, qualifying first, second and third and sweeping the podium, with no unnecessary slip-ups. Even Rob Huff’s 11-lap attack at the rear of Yvan Muller for 2nd has been without real drama, the Frenchman holding his English team-mate at bay calmly, in a car which looked clearly less quick.

Smiles all-round on the podium then, especially from Alain Menu, who had his old sparkle back on Saturday morning and hadn’t lost it on Sunday. Hungary and Brno were clearly behind him.

It was a different story in race 2, though.

Thanks to the unique qualifying system introduced in the WTCC this season, the second grid is often a little jumbled-up. This time, we had a Wiechers Sport BMW on pole, courtesy of Stefano D’Aste, who made a welcome return to the WTCC, subbing for Swiss Urs Sonderegger.

D’Aste, a former Independent Champion, drove for both Protean and Wiechers in previous seasons and has been racing a GT4 Lotus Evora in 2011. He was delighted to receive a call mid-week to hurry to Porto and set about learning the tricks of the turbo-charged engine in the 2011-spec 320TC. Focusing, I’d say, given the… urgent nature of the unit’s power delivery. Urgent, in the way your light-switch is urgent at supplying power.

D’Aste showed his class, however, putting the car into the Top 10 in Q1, with a lap that eventually saw him finish 10th, and being rewarded for his efforts with pole position for race 2.

That must have been focusing too, given the difficulty all teams are having harnessing the rampant exponential power delivery of the turbo motors at take-off. Stefano had made three practice starts in practice (any more would really put the clutch in jeopardy) but stalled the BMW at the start of the formation lap. More pressure!

The Italian managed to re-fire the thing as others wriggled by him on the narrow grid and by the midway point of the lap was back in front, leading the train of cars around the streets. Surely, he’d have been sweating and trying to calm himself, as he paced the field back to the grid, checking out the patches of oil left by several support races that had filled the gap between the two races.

But he was probably still not as serene as you’d hope to be as poleman when he got to the number 1 grid spot. He parked his car a metre or so too far forward – out of his grid spot. A tiny but critical error.

As the lights went out, D’Aste took off like a scalded cat. It really was an epic start and he would have been delighted to see clear air between himself and the blue car in his mirrors as he turned onto the sea-front at Turn 2. The blue car was Yvan Muller, who’d been second on the grid, with Rob Huff already jammed up to his bumper, from third on the grid.

D’Aste may not have been racing in the WTCC this year but he’d have had to have been living on Mars not to know his predicament; the Chevrolet Cruze is clearly the best car this season and he had a pair of them giving chase.

The chase didn’t last long, Muller reeling him in before the end of Lap 1 and passing the increasingly-sideways BMW to take the lead on Lap 2. A lap later Rob Huff was also past D’Aste, leaving Tiago Monteiro and Gabriele Tarquini bottled up behind the Wiechers Sport car, as the Chevys sprinted away.

Muller was the better part of three seconds clear of Huff, as news came of a Drive-Through penalty for D’Aste. The Stewards had also noticed he’d started out of place and it was now only a matter of biding his time before Tiago Monteiro – who lives in Porto – could claim a podium spot, without risking a move on the luridly-sliding BMW.

As the drama unfolded behind, Rob Huff unleashed his speed. Yvan Muller must have felt he was back in a SEAT, so quickly was he being reeled in, the gap coming down in 5 laps like this; 2.8s (the lap in which Huff passed D’Aste,) 2.5s, 1.9s, 0.9s, 0.3s. There were three laps left, but Huff waited only a handful of corners, such was his speed.

Out of the Turns 4,5,6 sequence (essentially one long, double-apex left) he pulled to the left of Muller, powering past as they raced up the left-hand carriageway of the Avenida de Boavista, almost entirely ahead as he got onto the brakes for the first chicane.

Almost but not quite.

The left-front of Muller’s Cruze made contact with Huff’s right-rear panel and the championship leader had to gather up a major moment, as he skated across the run-off area inside the apex of the chicane, whereas Mulller kept to the grey stuff between the kerbs.

Huff was ahead, however and stayed there.

The air turned blue in Muller’s cockpit and he lost no time in demanding that the team force Huff to cede the position, as he’d gained it by ‘straight-lining’ the chicane. Huff was in no mood to give the place back, as he saw it as a genuine racing manoeuvre and the team made no demand for him to do so. By the end, he was almost 2 seconds clear of the reigning World Champion, as he swept to win number 6 of the season, from only 12 starts. A remarkable record.

One of the key moments in the film ‘Senna’ centred around the clash between the (then) McLaren team-mates at Suzuka in 1989. Senna’s move on leader Prost at the chicane had resulted in the pair tangling and stalling in the chicane. While Prost stepped out of the car, content that Senna could no longer challenge him for the World Championship, Senna urged the marshals to push-start his McLaren and, after pitting for a new nose, he completed a remarkable comeback to win and keep the title race alive. Or so he thought. Prost was filmed stalking up to the Stewards room and post-race, Senna was penalised for missing the chicane and Prost was handed the World title.

Those images came immediately to mind after the race in Porto. As Huff celebreated in Parc Ferme, Muller strode off in a state of high dudgeon, climbing the stairs to the Race Director’s office, before disappearing inside.

It didn’t improve the Frenchman’s mood when Race Director, Miroslav Bartos, told him that he saw the clash as a racing incident and Yvan ranted in the post-race interviews that ‘if you can now pass by going across the chicane then at the next race I will pass everyone by just going straight.’

Chevrolet still had their 1-2, Tiago had a hugely well-received podium finish and the order at the flag when the audience switched off has not been changed.

What has changed, surely, is the atmosphere within the Chevrolet team.

Muller’s problems, caused, it is believed, by a diff problem, left him vulnerable to attack from Huff and it seems likely that – even had Huff handed the lead back – it would have been only a matter of time before he passed the Frenchman’s Cruze again. That much is academic however, the major problem for Chevrolet will be handling their three drivers and trying to prevent a break-down in the so-far cordial relationships within the team.

Huff, Muller and Menu are not bosom buddies yet nor is there open resentment, they rub along well enough together and all have so far focused on their own third of the garage, trying to ensure that it is they, not one fo their team-mates, who will be best-place to win this year’s drivers title.

All three are now reaping the rewards of a six-year programme from Chevrolet and RML, developing first the Lacetti and now the Cruze from also-rans into winners and potential champions.

There seems no credible scenario in which a Chevrolet driver will not win the Championship but the danger for Chevy, after so many years of hard graft, is that it could so easily be over-shadowed if an inter-team wrangle breaks out.

Eric Neve has hired three of the very best drivers available, RML has engineered the Cruze into the class of the field; all seems set fair for that long-awaited success.

Halfway through the season, with 12 more qualifying sessions and 12 more races still to go, open warfare – a la Prost and Senna – will help no-one. Eric Neve may well have to be the hardest-working member of the set-up, if he’s to preserve the team spirit that’s been so key to Chevrolet’s success.

Be careful what you wish for.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Be careful what you wish for

  1. Fernando

    Hi Martin! After the race when I arrived home (300km North of Porto, in La Coruña – Spain), and wondering how I could send you the picture you kindly took with me on Saturday (now you might know who I am), I started searching on the Net and found this blog. Sadly, the last update was in August 2009, so I’ve left the idea for the future.

    So welcome to the future then, as here I am, checking on my Porto pictures again and after a new research, not knowing exactly how to send you the photo (if you want it, of course). To my surprise, you’ve ended up bringing your blog back to life, and… what superb reviews! Well… I’m a liar: if I only had time to read your Porto comments, I’m not able to evaluate the other texts beforehand hehe… But I’m sure they’re great too, and I’ll be reading them through the week.

    Hence, about the photo, let me know if you want me to send it to you, by e-mail or using the way you prefer. I believe my address will go along with this post, but I’ll leave it here anyway (in a different way trying to avoid bots and spammers): I use gmail, and it begins with macporteiro

    Well, about Porto: second race was indeed much better than the first. Chevrolet is doing a fantastic job this year, which guarantees a kind of boredom among spectators, but that’s the hard thing to balance: competitors’ performance versus the show itself. At least there were no Safety Cars – though we were dangerously close to that when Robert Dahlgren couldn’t start, cars passing on a very tight corridor between his car and the wall, where I actually was and dumb as I could be, looking to the left unaware of the rightside chaos possibility.

    Funny that you’ve mentioned Prost x Senna “event”. As a Brazilian myself, I have those 1989 images very clear in my mind. And yet a sour taste from the two F-1 seasons, since 1990 didn’t finish as we expected either. I mean, we were all so happy for Senna’s championship, but it could’ve been a bit different. Seeing Muller entering the FIA room did remind me of Prost while watching the VT of Eurosport on TV. And considering he pushed the manouver to the limit against Huff, I believe it would be unfair if the Englishman needed to give his position back to his team mate.

    As unfair as punishing D’Aste after his overtakes through the chicane, due to the bangs he received in his rear bumper. Although, if this were for his incorrect position on the grid… Anyway, race incidents.

    All in all, my third visit to WTCC in Porto (2007, 2009 and 2011) after discovering this fantastic championship back in 2007. It was a great pleasure to meet you in person, as I “hear” you for almost 5 years now and never knew where the voice came from! It’s always been fun watching the WTCC races with your narration. Sometimes we admire a person by his/her work or ideas, and it’s hard to show that admiration not looking like the common crazy-beatlemaniac-fan, you know what I mean?

    I can never forget the day I asked Brian May if he could take a picture with me, inside the British Museum, and he ran away as if I were, I don’t know, a thief? A monster? Hmm… worse: a fan? hehehe… Gee, some fans really exceed themselves, but not all of them I believe… I don’t get to see Brian May every day! Anyway, once again, thanks for being so kind back then, and let me know a “channel” where I can send you the Porto pictures through. Or only the one my friend in ProTeam took of us, whatever you prefer.

    Kind regards, Fernando Porteiro.

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