The Balance of power

At the two-thirds point of the 2011 FIA World Touring Car Championship, as the teams waved goodbye to their cars and equipment, following the Valencia race weekend, it seems there has been a major sea-change in the race for the title. Early season leader Rob Huff has been caught and passed by his team-mate, defending champion Yvan Muller, the Frenchman enjoying a searing run of good form while misfortune has stalked his English rival.

It’s an old truism that you don’t win Championships with luck alone but you do need luck to be on your side and that’s especially true when your sternest rival is in identical machinery. The sort of luck that keeps you safe when accidents happen around you; that sees other cars pick up crucial problems; that allows your momentum to build. – that’s the luck you need.

It’s at the stage when luck is on your side, when things are going well, that drivers are at their most confident; when races seem to flow, when decisions made with engineers prove to be a step forward, when rivals unwittingly hand you an advantage, when you feel you can do no wrong. That’s when drivers say ‘you make your own luck’ because, to a degree, you do: freed from the need to over-analyse everything, the driver is at his very best, making instinctive decisions that almost invariably prove to be correct.

Conversely, when that form has deserted them, drivers agonisine over decisions, they start to rethink their instincts, second-guess their rivals’ moves, try to change something – anything – to reverse the situation. Remaining zen-calm and ignoring what the results sheet is telling you can be hugely difficult and it may be that ability, as much as anything that the driver does behind the wheel or peering at the laptop, that decides the fate of championships.

Winning races is hard enough in the WTCC, winning the title requires the driver to maintain his speed, his form and his calm from March 20th to November 20th – eight long months of trials and tribulations, of highs and lows, of frantic activity and periods of waiting. No wonder that the men who have taken the crown are rightly regarded as the very best in the business.

Let’s chart the season’s meandering path and spot the major landmarks…

Curitiba, Brazil, March 20th: Rob Huff claimed the opening race of the season, Yvan Muller and Chevy guest Caca Bueno ensuring the blue cars’ first 1-2-3 of the season. Alain Menu claimed win number two of the season, with Tom Coronel in second and with Muller and Huff 3rd and 4th, it was the man from Cambridgeshire who left South America as the Championship leader. This was something of a change in form, as Muller has made a habit of winning the opener and leaving Curutiba atop the points. Indeed, only once has a Muller not won the season opener – in 2006, when Andy Priaulx triumphed on Curitiba. Alright, so Dirk and Jörg won in BMWs, but Yvan has almost made Race 1 in Curitiba his own, victorious since 2008.

Zolder, Belgium, April 24th: Huff was on form again, claiming victory in Race 1 at the Belgian track and, although he went off after clashing with Gabriele Tarquini in Race 2 while battling for the lead, he managed to recover to 6th place, as the Italian won, from Menu. Muller failed to score at all, so Rob managed to maintain his Championship advantage, Menu moving into second place, just one point behind. No question, Huff enjoyed a slice of luck, when his car remained largely undamaged by the clash with Tarquini.

Monza, Italy, May 15th: The Italian track gave Rob Huff no breaks last season, the Briton battling Tarquini for the lead, before punctures on the final lap hobbled first the Italian’s SEAT, then Rob’s Chevy, allowing a bemused Andy Priaulx to sneak through in the Parabloica to snatch the win, the Chevrolet driver hobbling home in 3rd. In 2011, however, those lessons about front wheel camber angles had been well and truly learned and there were no disasters – well not for Huff anyway… As Rob romped to a double-race-winning weekend tally of 50 points, Yvan claimed two second places and it was poor Alain Menu who was the big loser, failing to score in Race 1 after contact with Muller put him into the barriers. Huff, it seemed, could do no wrong.

Hungaroring, Hungary, June 5th: Rob was back on the podium again on the series’ first visit to the Hungaroring, in front of more than 70,000 fervent Hungarian fans, roaring every move (and groaning with every disappointment) of local hero Norbert Michelisz’s weekend. Menu, ‘Norbi’ and GP2 refugee Javier Villa claimed the podium spots in Race 1, Muller, Huff and Tarquini the 1-2-3 order in the second encounter. Top scorer was Yvan, with 35 points for the weekend, Rob taking 30, Alain 25, meaning the Chevy drivers again swapped places in the standings, Huff on 150, Muller 119 and Menu 104.

Brno, Czech Republic, June 19th: The Czech track has often been a favourite with the BMW teams, ROAL Motorsport having a particularly enviable record of wins and 1-2 results in recent years but in 2011 – such is the competence of the Chevrolet Cruze – only one BMW driver managed to claim a podium spot and fittingly, it was ROAL’s Tom Coronel who claimed the runner-up spot in Race 2. The wins went to Huff and Muller, the Briton claiming his 5th victory of the season, the Frenchman his 2nd.

Porto, Portugal, July 3rd: And then there was Porto. The streets of Portugal may, in retrospect, come to be seen as the turning point of the season… It all started very encouragingly for Eric Neve’s men, with Alain Menu claiming a brilliant pole for Race 1, a full third of a second clear of Muller and Huff, who were seperated by just 4/1000ths. In this situation, it was vital for the trio to hold the top three positions into the first corner and so they did, Menu leading his team-mates as Tarquini, Coronel and Monteiro squabbled behind, the Chevy triumverate remaining in that order to the flag. So far, so good.

Except that Yvan Muller was not happy with his car. From the start of Race 1, he felt he had a problem with his differential and was keen to rectify that, working with his engineer Chris Cronin between the races to change the settings for the second encounter, where he would again line up on the outside of the front row, this time with the BMW of Stefano D’Aste on pole, Huff again in third.

D’Aste had been recruited at very short notice to fill the Wiechers Sport seat vacated by Swiss Urs Sonderegger after Brno and the Italian knew he had a golden opportunity to claim an outright victory – something he had never achieved in his previous years of WTCC racing as an Independent. The BMW shot away from the standing start, with Muller and Huff in hot pursuit but it very quickly became evident that his near-zero experience with the turbo-charged BMW 1.6 engine was likely to be his undoing. The 2011 BMW is very different indeed to the normally-aspirated versions he had driven before, with light-switch power delivery, courtesy of the turbo.

From the outside, D’Aste’s all-arms-and-elbows attacking style was hugely entertaining, as the BMW skittered sideways out of corners and off kerbs, power-sliding its way round the streets in the lead. In D’Aste’s cockpit, however – and those of Muller and Huff, undoubtedly – there was a very different view. Stefano was wrestling the car around, fighting its wicked power delivery as Yvan and Rob waited for him to either fall off his knife-edge of balance or destroy his tyres. Either way, Stefano looked highly unlikely to win this one.

But still, the Chevys had to find a way past on the narrow streets. Yvan attacked from the start and on lap 3 he was past, leaving Rob bottled up behind the sideways Italian. The Briton knew there was no time to waste and spent only one more lap behind D’Aste, relegating the BMW to third place on Lap 4. By now, however, Yvan was already 2.8 seconds up the road.

Next lap, the gap was 2.5sec, then 1.9, 0.9 and by the time they flashed over the line at the end of lap 8 (of 11) Huff was right on Muller’s back bumper.

Muller was struggling again with his differential and simply couldn’t find the pace to stay away but all he had to do was cling on ahead of his team-mate for three laps and he’d be home and dry. Not too much to ask on a street circuit, surely?

Huff had other ideas. He’d caught his team-mate quickly and he knew his car was faster than Yvan’s; he was determined to try and claim the win. Onto lap 9 and flying uphill towards the city, the sea at their backs, they tore along the Avenida da Boavista, towards the first – right-left – chicane. Muller was on the defensive, his car plumb in the middle of the road, guarding the inside line, as Huff pulled alongside, his Chevy nosing in front, half-way ahead as they braked in extremis.

As Huff turned right into the chicane, his right rear door and Muller’s left front made contact. Rob’s car twitched viciously and as he collected the slide, he jumped the kerbs of the first element of the chicane, foot buried on the throttle, relying on the driving wheels to pull him out of danger, emerging ahead of his team-mate, who’d managed to make it safely through the chicane.

Huff was ahead but long before the end of the lap, the Chevy team radios were alive. Yvan wanted Rob to hand the place back, since he’d gone off track to take the lead. Rob clearly didn’t.

Yvan’s engineer Chris Cronin asked Ron Hartvelt, the head of the WTCC project at RML, what he should tell Yvan. The pair conferred with team manager Stuart Cowie and Eric Neve, as they waited to see whether the Stewards and Race Director would apply a penalty.

When none was forthcoming, the decision was taken to leave the order as it was, Huff from Muller, the gap nearly 2 seconds at the line.

Chevrolet had another 1-2 result but dark clouds were immediately evident, as Muller stalked away from the podium, to see Race Director Miroslav Barthos, frustrated that the team did not want to protest Huff’s move.

Muller had no luck there, either, Mirek clearly of the opinion that minor contact between two professionals racing for the lead was incidental and it was the touch between them that had led to Huff’s run over, rather than through, the chicane.

Huff was delighted to win after what he believed was a clean battle between team-mates but Yvan disagreed and his attitude at Donington and thereafter (see my previous column ‘When the gloves come off’) was very markedly different to before Porto. Huff may have claimed 40 points to Yvan’s 36 but at what cost? He’d well and truly trodden on the lion’s tail…

Donington Park, Gt Britain, July 17th: Up to this stage of the season, Yvan had claimed two wins to Rob’s six but at Donington, all that began to change. While the Leicestershire track was new to the majority of WTCC drivers, those who had previously raced in Britain knew it well. Count among them BTCC Champions Tarquini, Menu, Muller and Colin Turkington (in the Wiechers Sport BMW that D’Aste had driven in Porto), fellow BTCC graduate Huff – plus Swede Robert Dahlgren, the 2001 British Formula Ford Champion, who also raced at Donington in British F3 in 2002 and 2003, before converting to touring cars the following year.

In very mixed weather conditions, Muller regrouped after a lurid moment to snatch a last-gasp pole by just 8/100ths of a second, with Huff and Menu lining up in second and third for Race 1. Despite the tricky conditions. The Chevy drivers claimed the fourth 1-2-3 result of the season for the team.

The trio lined up 8th, 9th and 10th for Race 2, with Menu ahead of Huff and Muller. Poleman Tom Coronel took the lead in his ROAL BMW, as a wild race began to unfold. On lap 2, a mistake by the Dutchman saw Javier Villa claim the lead in his ProTeam BMW, with Menu already up to 4th, that becoming 3rd by the end of the lap, as he passed Turkington.

At the end of Lap 2, Huff dived inside 6th-placed Darryl O’Young’s Bamboo Engineering Chevy at Goddards, the tightening left-handed downhill corner that ends the lap. Muller saw his chance to do the same, as O’Young was off-line but as the Frenchman lunged into the corner, he tapped Huff into a lurid half-spin. As Muller slipped past, Huff recovered his composure and – thanks to O’Young battling Kristian Poulsen’s BMW on the exit of the corner, crossed the line just behind his team-mate, in 4th.

Next time round, Menu came off worst in a 4-way lead battle at the Esses, after tangling with Villa’s BMW, Muller shooting by as the Swiss recovered from the gravel.
By the flag, Muller and Huff had both left the pack behind, the Frenchman making it a double-winning weekend, Huff taking second ahead of a thrilled Franz Engstler’s BMW.

Oschersleben, Germany, July 31st: Muller was on a roll, the month of July rejuvenating his Championship. He took a dominant pole for Race 1, half a second clear of anyone else, with Huff third behind Robert Dahlgren’s Volvo. In streaming wet conditions, the Chevys emerged 1-2 from Oschersleben’s hairpin first corner and – after Huff skated off track attacking Muller – that’s how they stayed, the Englishman rallying and harassing Muller all the way, just inches from his rear bumper as they raced to the flag.

Franz Engstler started on pole for the second encounter, following heroic efforts by his team to fix the front of his car in the 15 minutes repair time between races, after he’d been rudely punted into the barriers on the final lap of Race 1 by Alexey Dudukalo.
The last time the German Independent driver had started from a Race 2 pole had been in Pau, 2009, when his chance to win had been taken away by an errant Safety Car, which blundered, unbidden, into the track as the pack approached at full-tilt. This time, there was to be no repeat, though the Safety Car – in the much more professional hands of permanent driver Bruno Correia – was required after a start-line shunt mid-pack which eliminated a number of cars.

Once racing got underway again, Menu led the Chevys through the field, Engslter grabbing the lead as Norbert Michelisz spun out on lap 8. Menu gave chase but couldn’t find a way past, 47-year-old veteran Engstler claiming his first outright WTCC victory, at home in Germany, in front of several thousand guests of long-time sponsor Liqui-Moly.
Muller was again the top-scoring Chevy driver, with 35 points to Huff’s 26 and Menu’s 28; Huff’s lead – 25 points before Porto – was now a slender 6.

Valencia, Spain, September 4th: And so to Valencia, the final European race of the 2011 WTCC. A quick start from Huff, on the soutide of the front row, caught poleman Muller a little by surprise and, as the pair battled into Turn 1, the man who has made lightning getaways his trademark – Gabriele Tarquini – slotted inside them both to grab the lead, Huff and Muller chasing him. On lap 2, Muller lunged inside Huff for 2nd and, mid-corner, Huff was again in a spin, this time after team-mate Menu was knocked into him, domino-style shunting him into the rear of the number 2 Chevy. As Huff recovered, Muller took only 2 more laps to pass leader Tarquini. As the Frenchman led Menu to a comfortable 1-2, Huff rolled his sleeves up to grab 5th place by the flag.

Muller Huff and Menu started 5th, 7th and 9th for Race 2 and – after a wild defensive side-swipe from Muller to keep Huff at bay mid-way round lap1, the trio had front-row seats watching a three-way BMW battle for victory. It all went sour for the German manufacturer, however, as Villa and Coronel tangled, holding up Michelisz, allowing Muller to dive by for the lead. In the very last corner of the race, the Hungarian was shaping up to attack Muller, but saw Huff coming – fully committed on the inside – and opened his line to avoid contact, drilling the throttle on the exit of the corner, to try and re-pass before the line, succeeding only in looping the BMW into a spin, as Menu shot around the outisde, for Chevy’s fifth 1-2-3 result of the year.

Muller claimed his second double-winning weekend of the season, with a perfect 50 points, to Huff’s 28 and Menu’s 33, the Championship lead slipping from Huff’s grasp for the first time all season, Yvan on 333, Rob 317 and Alain 253 with the three fly-away weekends remaining.

Sixteen points is Muller’s advantage, with 150 still on the table but, after out-scoring Yvan for the first three weekends, Huff only managed to grab more points than his team-mate on one further occasion in the next six meetings.

What the six-week layoff will do for the morale and dtermination of the protagonists remains to be seen. But Yvan has three times gone to Macau with a good shot at the title and – barring a trivial washer failure in 2008 – has come away with the highest accolade. That said, he had to break Andy Priaulx’s string of successes to do it, so Huff will know that even the very best are beatable.

With equal machinery guaranteed, this will come down to a battle of wills and the rub of the green.

May the best man win.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One response to “The Balance of power

  1. Thanks Martin. I’ve not been able to follow the WTCC as closely as I’d like this year, so this has brought me up to speed perfectly. And I’ve just noticed that the Japanese round is at Suzuka which is one of my favourite tracks anyway, on a weekend with no other motorsport – bring it on!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s