The most wide-open FIA World Touring Car Championship season in a decade will go down to the wire in the Middle East next week (30 November-1 December) when three coveted titles are decided at Qatar’s spectacular floodlit showdown.
After 18 races over nine weekends in four continents, it all comes down to the duel in the desert when the FIA World Touring Car Championship for Drivers and Manufacturers, plus the WTCC Trophy for independent racers are settled.
The third WTCC Race of Qatar will conclude a thrilling year of high-speed action and intense competition with 10 drivers having taken race wins and seven still in mathematical contention for the overall crown prior to some classic Friday night fever touring car style.
However, with 6.5 points separating the title top two, Polestar Cyan Racing’s Thed Björk and Castrol Honda World Touring Car Team’s Norbert Michelisz, Volvo Polestar 12.5 points in front of Honda and Tom Chilton a mere half a point ahead of Mehdi Bennani in the WTCC Trophy and Rob Huff only seven points behind Chilton, the 2017 season closer at the Losail International Circuit will be the ultimate winner-takes-all battle.
Who’s in contention? With 60 points up for grabs, Thed Björk (255.5 points), Norbert Michelisz (249), Mehdi Bennani (216), Nicky Catsburg (211.5), Tom Chilton (210.5) and Esteban Guerrieri (205) can all take world title glory for the first time. Tiago Monteiro’s total of 200 would also have been enough to keep him in the fight but the Portuguese will be in Qatar in a supporting role only while he continues his recovery from injuries sustained in a testing crash in September.
How did it come to this? Guerrieri, Monteiro, Catsburg and, latterly, Björk have all topped the standings at one stage or another during the season. After leading by 12 points following the trip to Argentina in July, Monteiro appeared to be in the ascendency on the back of a stellar start to his campaign. But having not raced since (see above), Björk – who was second in the table prior to the summer break – was quick to take advantage, moving in front in China and starting WTCC Race of Japan 32.5 points ahead of Michelisz on the back of the
disqualification of all Hondas from the results of the China races due to a technical infringement. By outscoring Björk to the tune of 16 points in Japan, Michelisz arrived in Macau 16.5 points behind his rival where he took another 10 points away from the Swede to narrow the gap to 6.5 points with two races left.
What could happen? With the Losail International Circuit not awash with overtaking opportunities, the results of qualifying could be key. Having taken more pole positions than his rivals, Michelisz might have the edge. The Hungarian will also take heart from the fact he won the WTCC Trophy title in Qatar two years ago.
But Björk was second on his Qatar debut last season and knows what it takes to win championships: he’s claimed the Scandinavian touring car crown four times. Having run 10 kilograms lighter than the Volvo S60s in Macau, the Honda Civics will be at the same 80-kilogram maximum compensation weight in Qatar, meaning no driver will have a weight advantage. The role of Björk and Michelisz’s team-mates could be a factor, however, after Esteban Guerrieri provided the perfect support to Michelisz in Macau by holding the ursuing
Tom Chilton at bay for much of the Main Race as Michelisz kept hold of a vital second place. Polestar Cyan Racing pair Nicky Catsburg and Néstor Girolami are more than capable of taking points away from Michelisz, which will add another intriguing dimension to the championship shootout.