The combined age of the four men who stood on the podium after Race 2 in Oschersleben was a mere 188 years. Winner Franz Engslter, the oldest driver in the World Touring Car Championship, was 6 days into his 50th year, runner-up Alain Menu and third-place Gabriele Tarquini days short of their 48th and 49th birthdays respectively, whilst J-Ten winner Ibrahim Okyay was the positive Spring Chicken of the bunch, just one day short of his 43rd year.
True, early race leader Norbert Michelisz is comfortably young enough to be the son of any of them at 25?? But Oschersleben proved yet again that – at an age when even most professional golfers would be staring retirement in the face – the World Touring Championship’s old ‘uns are very much a match for their younger counterparts.
For Engstler, victory could hardly have been sweeter. The BMW driver has been part of the touring car scene for the better part of two decades and has been a loyal BMW customer for all of that time, his fleet of cars winning chamionships in Europe and Asia both in his hands and those of others.
To claim his first WTCC win, at home in Germany, just a few days after he reached his half-century birthday, in front of 500 guests from long-time sponsor and associate Liqui Moly was the sort of fairytale of which he might only have dreamed.
Tenth-fastest in the first qualifying session earned Franz pole position for Race 2 but – as the 2009 Pau Safety Car disaster has taught him, anything is possible in the WTCC and nothing can be taken as read.
So it almost proved this time too. A late-race clash saw the Engstler BMW clattering into the barriers, damaging his cooling system. Though he managed to escape the wet grass and finish in 16th position, there was very genuine concern for the car, which was underlined as the team examined it during the 3-hour period between races.
The cars go into Parc Ferme conditions in their garages between races and any work done on them before the official 15 minutes of Repair Time (breaking Parc Ferme) results in an automatic drop to the back of the grid. The team was faced with a dilemma: break Parc Ferme, guarantee the car would be perfect but relegate the poleman to the back of the grid, or gamble – try to fix it in the 15 minutes and if they failed, Franz would be trapped in the pit-lane, from where he’d have to start. To make the decision, the Liqui Moly Team Engstler mechanics could only look at the car but that was enough to worry them. They would need to replace the radiator and associated cooling system to ensure Franz would survive Race 2 but that sort of job would usually require an hour to complete. They’d have just 15 minutes, in which time the car would also need to be refuelled, have fresh tyres fitted and leave the pit-lane. The pressure was really on.
What swung the decision to gamble was the long period between races. At a number of meeting this season, there’s been barely the 15 minutes of Repair Time between Race 1 and Race 2 but in Germany, the team had time to give the car a thorough look over, plan their assault, lay out all the parts and tools that might be required and muster enough hands on deck to get the job done.
Nontheless, it was a huge gamble. The tension was written all over Franz’s face as he sat in his car, suited, booted and belted in, as the frenzied work carried on around him. He stole the odd glance at his watch, which can’t have calmed him much.
Incredibly, with almost all his rivals already in their grid spots, the BMW dropped to the pit apron, there was a long churn on the starter, and to mass relief, it started. They’d done it! Engstler gratefully pottered out of the pitlane on the speed-limiter, onto the track, to take his place on pole. But in what turmoil must his mind have been just moments before? Hardly the ideal preparation for starting at the front, in front of a German crowd, with a golden opportunity to claim that fairy-tale first win.
On the plus side, it wasn’t raining!
As the lights changed, the BMWs of Engstler and Norbert Michelisz, who’d started third, charged away, as front-wheel-drive rivals Tiago Monreiro and Michel Mykjaer struggled for grip on the left-hand side of the grid.
The 26-year-old Hungarian made the better start and into Turn 1 grabbed the lead as Engstler tucked in behind.
The Safety Car was scrambled on lap 2, to allow the removal of the wrecked BMWs of Kristian Poulsen and Mehdi Bennani – who’d come off worst in a 4-car kerfuffle away from the grid, that also involved Yvan Muller and Stefano D’Aste – closing the field right up behind the leading pair.
A lap later, Michelisz and Engstler again leapt away at the head of the field, as Alain Menu jumped Monteiro and Gabriele Tarquini followed him through into 4th.
Michelisz never looked to have Engstler completely under control, the older driver staying clear of Menu and Tarquini as he tracked the orange and black 320TC in front of him, always in the mirrors yet never quite alongside.
For five laps, they jockeyed for an advantage, before the battle ended dramatically on the penultimate corner of lap 8.
Turns 12 and 13 at Oschersleben are a pair of critical mid-speed right-handers, treated as one long, tightening, double-apex turn, feeding onto the pits straight. The first element is absolutely critical for speed on the straight, the car exits running out wide to driver’s left, over the kerbs, shifting down before turning into the slower second element and drilling the throttle to carry maximum momentum onto the straight.
Get the first apex wrong and you’re still trying to re-balance the car, rather than pointing it precisely into Turn 13 and through onto the straight. Get it really wrong, and you run out wide over the kerbs and run-off area, onto the wet muddy grass and into a world of trouble.
There is another way. Turn in too early and the high apex kerb bounces your inside wheel into the air, pitching the car sideways, leaving you to sort it out as you spin to the outside.
That’s what Norbert Michelisz did at the end of lap 8, spinning off on the exit of Turn 12, scrabbling back on in 4th, just ahead of Tom Coronel’s BMW, as Engstler found the lead dropping into his lap.
But it was not comfortable. Menu and Tarquini has caught him by now, the Chevy a fraction over a second in arrears at the line and closing.
So, what was it to be? Would Franz be able to hold his pursuers at bay? Would be resist if they came knocking? After all, his focus is the Yokohama Trophy for Independents, not overall Championship points. We’ve seen him move over before, to preserve his Independents lead, rather than get tangled up with a driver he’s not directly battling.
What about the car? After that hasty work, was it OK? Would it last? Was he being scared by an array of flashing warning lights? Franz has led overall before, only to be denied by outside forces; mechanical woes, contact and infamously – as seen by millions, courtesy of YouTube – that errant Safety Car, driven by the local Police Chief in Pau. He must have felt that this was where the race win he was owed was finally going to be his, because – slowly but surely – he opened up the gap back to Menu, surviving his own Turn 12 apex moment, as he raced on in the lead.
Did he think of that Safety Car? Yes. Or a crash? Yes. Or mechanical intervention? yes. All of those things flashed through his mind and probably much more, as he focused on the job in hand.
The tension among the 500 Liqui Moly guests must have been all but unbearable. They’d greeted him with rousing cheers as he spoke to them at lunchtime, after that disappointing Race 1, now he looked poised to deliver an incredible result, as rival Norbert Michelisz watched, heart-broken, from the trackside, after a late-race clash with Coronel had put him out.
And, suddenly, it was all over. The Liqui Moly BMW was powering out of the final corner, Franz punching the air in delight as he took the chequered flag, the entire team on the pit-wall a mix of tears and cheers, as their boss took a historic win.
The oldest man in the Championship had claimed not only the first WTCC win in 2011 for BMW but also the first for the new 1.6-turbo 320TC.
In Parc Ferme, he was warmly hugged and congratulated by Menu and Tarquini, who could hardly have looked happier had they won the race themselves. His Liqui Moly team – his family – along with his real family, were beside themselves with joy and Franz was clearly very emotional.
Earlier that morning, reflecting on his 3rd position in Donington and his visit to the overall podium, his eyes had glinted as he’d recalled his delight. Now they were misty, as he stood proudly on the top step, at home, as the German anthem rang out.
With fellow old-timers Menu and Tarquini on the podium, Oschersleben underlined once again that age is no barrier to success in the WTCC. Age and guile is still a match for youthful exuberance.
A young man’s game? Don’t you believe it…