The World Touring Car Championship was in action for its final time this season in Qatar this weekend (25th Nov). While this was not only the last time we would see the cars racing in 2016, it was also the last race for many drivers and manufactures on the grid. Reigning champion Jose Maria Lopez and Yvan Muller have both decided to hang up their WTCC helmets at the end of this season, Lopez will focus on a new career in Formula E while Yvan Muller will be taking a step back from full time touring car racing.
It was also the final time we would see the factory Citroen team in action. The French Marque has dominated during its 3 year campaign, winning every title on offer to them in the C-Elysee’s, making it one of the most successful cars in WTCC history. Also leaving is Lada. The Russian manufacture deciding to focus on domestic series in Russia, as a result they are currently developing some TCR spec Vestas for the Russian touring car championship.
It would be WTCC Trophy driver Mehdi Bennani who would grab the head lines as he scored pole, with Volvo’s Thed Bjork just 0.036 seconds behind him. It was looking like Lopez would be a sure bet for pole, having broke the lap record in the first qualifying session, but a mistake in the final sector would see him end up on the second row, with Muller alongside him. Disaster would strike for Tiago Monterio, as he clipped a tyre stack in the shootout, damaging his suspension, this still meant that he would line up 5th for the main race. By virtue of his 10th place qualifying, Bennani’s team mate would be on the front row with the Lada of Gabriele Tarquini alongside him.
It was clear that Monterio’s night wouldn’t get any better, a poor start would drop the Honda down the field, before contact with Muller and Hugo Valente would snap the rear suspension crippling the Civic. This brought the safety car out and then a red flag so the marshals could move the Civic.
When the race restarted, Tarquini managed to send his Lada down the inside of Chilton’s Citroen to take the lead in Lada’s final race. Behind them, the battle for second was truly on. Rob Huff was pressuring Chilton with Muller, Michelisz, Bjork and Dahlgren all looking for a piece of the Citroen. Further down the field, it wasn’t going well for Lopez as he was now under pressure from Zengo Motorsport’s Daniel Nagy, the 18 year old having a fantastic run under the lights.
At the front Tarquini drove away at the front to take the win for Lada in their final weekend. Chilton managed to hold off the pressure from Huff to take the second spot on the podium, Lopez would only be able to manage 9th in his penultimate race of his career, while Daniel Nagy would come home 11th, his best result to date.
When the lights went out on the final race of the season, Bennani had his work cut out for him, as Lopez jumped up into second behind the Sebastian Loeb Racing driver, with the fast Volvo of Thed Bjork in hot pursuit. Once again there would be first lap drama as Catsburg and Valente found themselves off in the gravel on the first lap leaving both with punctures, while Dahlgren’s Volvo would grind to a halt bringing out the safety car. Chilton would also pull into the pits with problems after the first lap.
After the restart, Bennani managed to hold off Lopez’s Citroen, creating a small gap. Mostly because Lopez was busy defending against Bjork’s Volvo. The blue machine was trying everything to get passed the tripple world champion, and eventually managed it on lap 6 with a late dive at turn 1 paying off. Now he set after race leader Bennani.
Bjork pressed on and managed to catch the leading Citroen, matching his every move but it would be Bennani who would win the final round of the 2016 season. Lopez would get on the podium in his final WTCC race, Muller would finish his last race down in sixth while Tarquini would be the only Lada to finish their final race in seventh.
That win would allow Bennani to overtake Huff for fifth in the championship, and consolidate his WTCC Trophy victory, a title he won by 35 points over his SLR team mate Chilton. That was nothing compared to Lopez, who finished the championship 124 points clear of Yvan Muller in the overall championship, while Citroen would finish 282 points clear of second place Honda in the manufactures championship.
With 2016 in the history books, all eyes now shift to 2017. With many drivers leaving the series, and half of the manufactures leaving two, will the series be able to survive in it’s current form? The WTCC has had only two manufactures before, back in the S2000 days. However, the huge costs required to run the current spec cars has put many independents off entering the series. Rumours have it that the “Class 1” regulations proposed for DTM and Super GT may be coming to the WTCC, what effect that might have is anyone’s guess.