Rounds 13 and 14 of the World Touring Car Championship at Donington Park may have been when the gloves came off in the battle for the 2011 crown.
Before he realised what he’d said, Yvan Muller told Eurosport’s reporter Louise Beckett that the collision with team-mate Rob Huff in Race 2 in Britain, which allowed him to take the lead, gave him back what had been taken from him in Porto.
It was not a statement he later repeated, preferring to insist that since we’d all seen the pictures, we should make our own decision on the incident.
The bare facts are these. It’s lap 2 of Race 2 and Menu, Huff and Muller have started 8th, 9th and 10th on the grid. Menu has made good progress and is already challenging the leaders, while Huff and Muller lie 7th and 8th.
Heading into Goddard’s, the adverse-camber 180-degree left-hander that ends the lap, Muller is behind Bamboo Engineering Chevrolet driver Darryl O’Young, who in turn tails Rob Huff, lying 6th. As Huff turns in, O’Young follows and Muller, popping over the rise into the braking area and taking advantage of the late-turn-in-lete-apex nature of the corner (and O’Young’s non-defensive line) lunges inside the Bamboo driver. Deep into the corner he brakes, passing O’Young cleanly but clattering into the left rear corner of Huff’s Cruze, knocking the Englishman into a lurid slide.
As the tail of his car heads off towards the grass, Huff applies Rule #1 of driving a front-wheel-drive car and keeps his foot hard in, using the front wheels to draw the car straight as he exits wide onto the pits straight.
Muller is faster onto the straight, draws alongside and is ahead by the line, Huff unable to gather enough momentum to attempt a counter-attack into Redgate, the first corner.
And that was that. By lap 3, the duo were third and fourth, team-mate Alain Menu – who had lain third before tangling with Javier Villa’s BMW – having already dropped back to 6th. A lap later, the Chevrolets had both passed leader Franz Engstler – whose prime concern is Yokohama Trophy points – without drama to take first and second.
Huff admitted after Race 1 that his car was simply not as quick as Muller and so it appeared in Race 2 as well. Try as he might, Muller could not escape but neither could Huff so much as attempt a pass for the lead. Yvan would pull out a small advantage and within a lap, Rob would have reeled him back in again. Barring intervention from the weather (possible,) mechanical woes (unlikely,) or a rabid last-lap lunge from the Championship leader (unthinkable) Muller only had to keep it on the island to claim his second win of the weekend.
And so he did, having halved the points gap at Donington, leaving him just 14 adrift of Huff, with 10 races remaining.
In Porto, Yvan was so incensed by the Race 2 contact between himself and Huff – and the team’s refusal to order Rob to hand the lead back – that he immediately stalked off to see the Race Director, asking whether anything was going to be done. Miloslav Bartos told him that in his opinion it was a racing incident and – as such – would not warrant subsequent investigation.
During and after the race, RML’s Project Director Ron Hartvelt conferred with the engineers and, to the dismay of Yvan’s engineer Chris Cronin, decided that the team would accept that decision and not protest the actions of one of their own drivers.
In Donington, too, Ron’s remit was to make the best decision for the team. Cue more pit-wall discussions with Cronin and Duncan Laycock, Rob Huff’s engineer. Once again, unable to accurately judge the manoeuvre from one look on the TV screens, the decision was to wait and see whether there would be an investigation.
Replays gave them more information and when the message came that the incident would be investigated, Cronin got onto the radio to Yvan suggesting that a possible 30-second penalty would drop him well out of the points and might he consider ceding the place to Huff?
His suggestion fell on deaf ears and Muller raced on in the lead to the chequered flag, determined – if not happy, perhaps – to take his chances with the Stewards.
The final decision of the enquiry was to hand Muller a 3-place grid penalty, suspended for the next two races. A reprimand, in other words, suggesting that he might take a little more care with his passing but not materially affecting the result.
Which is probably reasonable.
It’s possible that Muller knew his lunge on O’Young would result in him hitting Huff. It’s also possible that as experienced a touring car driver as Yvan could have probably judged – roughly – how hard he’d hit his team-mate and what effect it would have on both Huff’s car and his own.
It’s possible that diving inside the accomodating O’Young gave Yvan the ‘cover’ he needed to punt Huff off and pass his team-mate.
But all of that demands a very large degree of forethought and accuracy from Muller. I think it more likely that he was set on passing O’Young, so that Huff did not have any chance to escape and the contact – while not exactly unanticipated, perhaps – was not the primary intent.
I have said many times of penalties I considered too harsh that this is tourinf gace racing, not single-seater racing and that the Stewards have to let the drivers RACE, which may from time to time, involve some contact.
I do not wish to see Dodgems, nor do I wish to watch a procession. Somewhere, a happy medium must be found and in Porto and Donington, I agree with the decision not to sway the Championship battle with penalties.
Especially seeing as Gabriele Tarquini’s more-hits-than-Elvis Race 2 went entirely un-commented on!
Gabriele has clearly managed to find Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility, for none of the numerous impacts he was involved in registerd sufficiently on the Stewards’ radar to invoke a penalty.
His team-mates Tiago Monteiro and Michel Nykjaer might feel miffed at that, as Gabriele’s lung inside the former into Coppice cannoned the Portuguese into his Danish team-mate, firing Nykjaer off into the gravel, and leaving Tiago hobbling to the pits and retirement for the second time of the weekend.
WTCC returnee Colin Turkington – in the Wiechers Sport BMW – probably doesn’t feel too pleasantly disposed towards the former British and World Touring Car Champion either, having been fired off when on target for a podium on what looks likely to be his only race in the series this season, having started 4th. By the end of lap 2, Tarquini was 4th, the Ulsterman 16th.
One lap later, Gabriele was in 3rd – from 11th on the grid! – but, unable to pass leader Engstler, he fell prey to first Muller and Huff, then Tom Coronel’s ROAL BMW and eventually Menu’s Chevrolet and Robert Dahlgren’s Volvo.
Black rubber marks on both corners of his front bumper, a wheel mark in his driver’s door and more rubber marks on he right REAR wheel arch were legacy of how hard Gabriele was battling, on a track he knows better than most in the field, courtesy of his years in the BTCC.
Not many had raced at Donington Park before – former BTCC Champs Muller, Menu and Tarquini had, of course, as had Huff… and Dahlgren.
Eh? The Scandinavian touring car ace knows Donington?
Indeed. Robert started his track-racing career in single-seaters, after all and was a factory Van Diemen driver for 2 years, winning the British Formula Ford Championship in 2001. He also raced in British Formula 3 for two seasons, so he’s had a lot of time lapping Donington – most, probably, in similarly cool, damp conditions to those experienced by the WTCC visitors.
Little bit of trivia. Who gave the Swede his first drive in British Formula Ford and the Formula Ford Festival? Alain Menu Motorsport. Yes, that Alain Menu!
Despite that experience, Robert and the Polestar Racing team miscued at the very start of qualifying and the Swede found himself 29th fastest, outside the 107% rule on probably the only track he’ll visit this season that he actually knows well.
This season’s qualifying rules, of course, meant that he’d start 29th for BOTH races. Double jeopardy. But, in fact, he lined up 30th for Race 2, as he’d ridden spectacularly up the back of a rival’s BMW in Coppice in Race 1 and the C30 Drive needed remedial work between races, the team breaking parc ferme and taking the single-place grid drop to last as a result.
The C30 has shown on occasion this season that it’s got a sparkling chassis and the addition of more grunt from the 4-cylinder 1.6 turbo in place of the wonderfully sonorous 5-cylinder Super2000 unit has proved that Volvo has got a seriously effective bit of kit in its hands.
Doubly disappointing, then, that former BTCC champion – and Volvo works driver – James Thompson was at Donington only as a visitor and not a participant. The Yorkshireman has not yet driven the new engine, as he’s racing the Super2000 motor in the STC but what a boost it might have given Volvo’s development efforts to have two cars at Donington, doubling the work done – not to mention the undoubted PR value of adding Thommo to the field.
That much was realised, as the showcar C30 in the public area was actually liveried with Thompson’s name, rather than Dahlgren’s.
But what a second race the 31-year-old Swede had. Losing nothing, it seemed, to even the Chevrolet’s engine in might, the C30 provided Dahlgren with the tool he needed to slice through the field, charging from 30th to a barely-credible 6th. Although his rush from 29th to 8th in Race 1 – notwithstanding his aviating incident – should have given us warning of intent. Should Volvo not decide to bring a full effort to the WTCC in 2012, we will certainly have lost out!
For now, though, it’s to Oschersleben and that ridiculous handbrake-turn of a first corner, whrere contact, damage and penalties flying like broken bodywork are the norm. For our World Championship contenders, qualifying will be doubly crucial and avoiding contact especially vital. Especially contact from your team-mate.
The gloves really are off. The question is, will the blows be low?