The final round of the WTCC took place in Qatar today, with the championship on the line we were set for a dual in the desert. The fight was down to one of 6 drivers who mathematically could win the title. With 60 points on offer, Esteban Guerrieri has a true outside chance, with a 50.5 point deficit to leader Thed Bjork. Tom Chilton was 45 points behind, and just a point away from Volvo’s Nicky Catsburg who sat 4th. Top Privateer was Mehdi Bennani, 39.5 points away from the leader in 3rd. In practice it would be a 2 horse race, between Bjork and Honda’s Norbert Michelisz. Michelisz would have to overcome a 6.5 point gap if he was to become champion.
Guerrieri would get his bid off to the best start, by taking pole for the main race, and the 5 points that comes with it. Nicky Catsburg would start alongside the Honda, with Rob Huff starting 3rd. Championship leader Bjork would line up 4th, taking 2 points while the returning Yvan Muller would start 5th. Muller’s sole job is to act as a rear gunner for Bjork. By contrast, Michelisz would be outside the top 10, leaving him 11th for both races. Race 1 would see RC Motorsport’s Kevin Gleason alongside John Filippi on the front row. Kris Richard would be the top Chevrolet in 3rd, with Mehdi Bennani in 4th. His team mate Tom Chilton would start 5th.
When the lights went out for Race 1, Kevin Gleason held the lead into turn 1, defending from the trio of SLR Citroens. Behind them, the Volvos were flying in formation, with Rob Huff trying to split them. It didn’t take long for Huff to get passed Catsburg, which put him into the clutches of a fast starting Michelisz. The start of the 2nd lap saw Bennani take a dive into the 1st corner to take the lead, while independents title rival Chilton made it up to 3rd. Chilton wasted no time repeating the move his team mate put on Richard, then set about catching his team mate. Further down the field, Michelisz was struggling to get passed Catsburg, with his team mate Guerrieri trying to hurry his team mate up. Michelisz released Guerrieri to try and catch Catsburg, in the hopes he would be able to back him into Norbey.
Within 2 corners, Guerrieri was attacking Catsburg, while just in front, Huff was fighting with former team mate Muller. The two were locked in an intense battle, with Huff trying everything to pressure the Frenchman into a mistake. Meanwhile, Bjork was starting to apply the pressure on Filippi, who was struggling to come to terms with Gleason’s Volvo. At the front, Chilton was starting to real in his team mate, by the 7th lap, the two Citroens were nose to tail. With the pair just 2 points between the pair, in Bennani’s favour, it would change the face of the championship. at the start of lap 8, the pair started to really fight. Chilton went to the inside, forcing Bennani to out brake himself, bring the Britt alongside. The pair were door handle to door handle for over half the lap, before Bennani edged passed. Chilton then chucked the car down the inside of turn 12. The pair rubbed, but Chilton made the move stick, and started to build a gap.
Chilton would go on to claim his 3rd win of the season, allowing him to leapfrog Bennani in the championship. Gleason would hang on to his first WTCC podium with John Filippi taking a career best 4th and Championship leader Bjork extending his lead on Michelisz. In the final lap, it looked like Michelisz would take a dive on Catsburg, but he couldn’t pull it off. That now gives Bjork a 16.5 point lead on Michelisz, meaning a 4th in the final race would hand him the title.
Off the start, Guerrieri would lead from Huff with Catsburg in hot pursuit. Further down the order, Bennani would get pushed out wide, leaving him on the back foot in the independents title race. Behind, the Volvos of Catsburg and Bjork were in hot pursuit. Chilton would sit behind the pair of Volvos with fellow independent Kris Richard behind him after a mega move on Yvan Muller. As the race developed, it appeared the Muller was acting as a true rear gunner, keeping Michelisz from making any progress. With the championship on the line, Catsburg allowed Bjork to move through to 3rd, which would easily hand him the title. One drivers championship that would come to an early end was Bennani. After contact at the start, a puncture would force him into the pits and out of the title hunt. The race then settled down into a rythem, with the only change coming on the final lap, when Bjork handed the podium finish back to Catsburg when he knew the title was in the bag.
The race ended with Esteban Guerrieri 3.7s clear from Rob Huff. Catsburg came home 3rd while the new champion Thed Bjork in 4th. New independent champion Tom Chilton came home in 5th, with Kris Richard scoring his first points in 6th. Yvan Muller brought his battle scared Volvo to the finish in 7th while Vice champion Michelisz was 8th.
The result meant that Bjork claimed the title by 28.5 points to Michelisz, it also gave Volvo a healthy win in the manufactures championship at only their 2nd attempt. The independents title went the way of Tom Chilton after Bennani’s retirement, it also meant that Huff moved to 2nd. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, as Sebastien Loeb Racing taking the teams title.
This race could also mark the end of the Super2000 TC1 era of the WTCC, with a switch to TCR on the cards for 2018. Now we look towards 2018, with some new cars due and potentially new teams to boot. 2018 could be an exciting year for the WTCC.
Words: Tom Gibson @WA10Tom
Image: FIA WTCC