The 2016 FIA World Touring Car Championship fired into life in spectacular fashion at Circuit Paul Ricard today with Rob Huff and José María López taking the wins and Honda coming out on top of the WTCC Manufacturers’ standings following two electrifying races.
Huff, celebrating WTCC start number 250, took the JVCKENWOOD WTCC Race of France Opening Race spoils on his debut for Honda after powering ahead of LADA’s Hugo Valente at the start.
López then made the most of his DHL Pole Position Award to claim the Main Race victory for Citroën by a scant margin of 0.284s as Tiago Monteiro gave chase.
Mehdi Bennani’s second place overall in the Opening Race ensured the first of two wins in the WTCC Trophy for independent drivers with Norbert Michelisz, who beat Bennani to last season’s privateer title, twice finishing third on his first outing as a factory Honda driver. Polestar Cyan Racing began its long-term commitment to the WTCC with Thed Björk and Fredrik Ekblom both scoring, while LADA was twice in the top five through Valente and Nicky Catsburg. Victory for López, who now has 51 WTCC starts to his name, means he leads Tiago Monteiro by four points heading to Slovakia from 15-17 April with Huff and Michelisz in close pursuit.
OPENING RACE REPORT: HUFF ON A HIGH FOR HONDA
Rob Huff enjoyed a perfect start to life as a Honda driver in the WTCC, taking his first win since Macau in 2014, 504 days ago. Starting from second under the new-for-2016 reverse-grid format for the first race at each WTCC weekend, Huff made a better start than pole-sitter Valente to take the lead.
The 2012 WTCC champion quickly built an advantage of two seconds over Citroën driver Mehdi Bennani on his way to winning on his first outing for Honda. While Bennani, who was starting his 150th WTCC race in front of his watching team boss Sébastien Loeb, claimed the WTCC Trophy honours, Honda enjoyed a hugely successful first race of 2016 with Norbert Michelisz taking third and Tiago Monteiro finishing fourth, the latter climbing from ninth place on the grid.
The pair both got past LADA driver Valente with three laps to go, pushing the Frenchman down to fifth. Defending champion José María López finished sixth for Citroën despite falling to 11th on the opening lap. He benefitted from a jump-start penalty for team-mate Yvan Muller, as well as a spin for Fredrik Ekblom and contact between Nicky Catsburg and Tom Coronel on lap five.
There was a further clash between the Dutch duo on the final lap, giving Thed Björk seventh in the first race for the Volvo S60 Polestar TC1. Gabriele Tarquini joined Ekblom in retirement after contact from Grégoire Demoustier, who took P10.
MAIN RACE REPORT: CHAMPION LÓPEZ HOLDS ON FOR VICTORY
José María López held off a charging Tiago Monteiro to win the Main Race and grab a four-point championship lead. While López led the race from pole and pulled away out front, Monteiro had to recover from losing second place to Yvan Muller. On lap nine he finally got ahead of the four-time champion after contact at the final corner, with his Honda team-mate Norbert Michelisz following him through into third. Monteiro set about cutting the gap to López and the lead pair were running nose to tail starting onto the final lap.
However, Citroën driver López just held on by 0.284 seconds, denying Honda a double victory in France. Muller finished fourth ahead of Nicky Catsburg (LADA). Opening Race winner Rob Huff was forced wide at the first corner after contact from Gabriele Tarquini, but recovered brilliantly to finish in sixth after passing Hugo Valente, who was also involved in the Turn 1 skirmish.
Mehdi Bennati took the WTCC Trophy honours for the second time in eighth overall ahead of his Sébastien Loeb Racing team-mate Tom Chilton. Polestar’s Fredrik Ekblom completed the top 10, but team-mate Thed Björk failed to finish due to an electrical issue. Tom Coronel beat John Filippi to P11 by just 0.024s in an all-Chevrolet battle.
HUFF TAKES TAG HEUER BEST LAP AWARD
Rob Huff had double reason to celebrate at Circuit Paul Ricard when he was handed the inaugural TAG Heuer Best Lap Award for his lap-record performance in the Opening Race. Going to the driver setting the fastest lap of all during both races, the prize is presented by the WTCC’s new Official Series Sponsor and Timing Partner.
CITROËN MAKES MOTORSPORT HISTORY BY 0.030s WITH WTCC MAC3 BEST
Motorsport history was made in the FIA World Touring Car Championship on Saturday afternoon when Citroën won the inaugural WTCC MAC3 competition, the team trial inspired by professional cycling events such as the Tour de France. In a dramatic finish, the Citroën team of Mehdi Bennani, José María López and Yvan Muller edged LADA (Nicky Catsburg, Gabriele Tarquini and Hugo Valente) by 0.030s after two flying laps of the 3.841-kilometre Circuit Paul Ricard.
Honda was forced to settle for third after a slow start from Rob Huff meant it took the Japanese make 2.453s longer than Citroën to get its three cars over the line with Nobert Michelisz and Tiago Monteiro also in action for the team. Citroën scores 10 points toward its FIA WTCC Manufacturers’ Championship total with its WTCC MAC3 victory. LADA earns eight points while Honda collects six.
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The WTCC 2015 Car pack contains all the cars that fought for domination in the World TouringCar Championship. From the all new Lada Vesta to the Honda Civic, the Chevrolet RML Cruze and the dominant Citroen C Elysee which remained the car to beat of the 2015 campaign.
You get all the racing teams and all liveries, including the special Sabine Schmitz design.
Photos FIA WTCC, RACEROOM, ALL4YOU-PR (Klaus Bitzer)