New cars, teams and tracks for WTCR in 2021 »TouringCars.Net
The FIA World Touring Car Cup is back in full force this week, as the world’s greatest touring car drivers prepare to take on the gruesome Nürburgring Nordschleife for the first round of the new season. However, before things start in Germany, let’s see what to expect in the year ahead.
How does the WTCR work?
Over the past few years there have been a variety of changes to the World Touring Car format, and this season is no different.
Perhaps the biggest change from last season is the number of races per weekend. Triple heads are a thing of the past now, but luckily there will still be the same number of races during the season as the schedule has been extended to eight rounds. The pandemic had resulted in significant travel restrictions around the world last year, and as such, the WTCR was limited to just six events, all in Europe. Now that the borders are starting to open again, the World Cup has a little more freedom to move to different places around the world.
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In addition to the general drivers ‘and teams’ championship, there are two other honors to fight for during the 2021 season. The WTCR Trophy returns, which will once again crown the best of non-constructor affiliated drivers, including five on the wire rack. Additionally, the WTCR Rookie Award has been renamed to a much more prestigious FIA Junior Driver title. Another sub-championship had been planned for the new campaign to celebrate the achievements of the riders, but that idea has been shelved for now as only Jessica Backman was able to register for the full season.
Qualifying will again be divided into three eliminatory rounds, with the top five fastest drivers of the first and third phase of the session being awarded between five and one championship point / s in descending order. The grid order for the first race of a weekend will be decided by reversing the top 10 drivers from phase two, while the starting positions for the second race will be decided by the combined result of the three qualifying phases. However, things will work out slightly differently in this week’s opener at the Nürburgring, as a single 40-minute session will run without different elimination stages due to the length of the circuit. As such, the top ten from this single session will be reversed to set the order of the grid for the first race, while the overall session result will set the grid for the second race.
As always, points will be awarded to the top fifteen drivers from both races, over a schedule that will hopefully include a return to Asia as well as a tour of Europe. Following this weekend’s trip to Germany, Estoril will debut as a WTCR venue at the end of the month, having taken over the Portuguese slot of the Vila Real street circuit (which unfortunately cannot be used in due to the restrictions of Covid-19). Then in July, the championship crosses the Iberian border into Spain for a round instead of last season’s final, Motorland Aragon.
A trip to Italy via the newly refurbished Adria Raceway will be next on the cards, while Round 5 sees the WTCR complete its European leg at the Hungaroring. If the medical climate permits, the championship will then head to South Korea and the Inje Speedium to mark Hyundai’s very first home race. Then, the season will end with a trip to the Ningbo Speedpark in China, and finally the legendary Macau Grand Prix circuit in November.
Will it finally be the year of Honda?
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, the various racing versions of the Honda Civic from JAS Motorsport impressed world touring car competitions for almost a decade. However, this first drivers’ title remains elusive, although Honda-equipped competitors have come together tantalizingly in recent seasons.
Tiago Monteiro had looked doomed to victory in 2017 before a late-season crash in testing, while Esteban Guerrieri fell to the last hurdle for the past two years on the rebound. The Argentine in particular will surely believe the time has come to break Honda’s duck, as he enters 2021 as one of the pre-season favorites. For such a determined and spirited driver like him, it is surely only a matter of time before Guerrieri is crowned King of the WTCR?
Well, not if defending champion Yann Ehrlacher has anything to do with it. The young Frenchman has always shown great form throughout 2020 and was a very deserving champion at the end of the year. However, with just one pole position and two race wins under his belt last season, Ehrlacher’s display of victory looked more like a preview of what was to come, than a showcase of the finished article. Rather worrying for the rest of the field, it looks like there is a lot more potential in the 24-year-old who has yet to be realized.
That said, it would be naive to assume that last year’s two main protagonists wouldn’t be bothered by the rest of the pack. Aside from Ehrlacher and Guerrieri, there are plenty of drivers on the entry list for the 2021 season who could realistically throw their names in the hat of title contenders.
Cyan Racing, for example, is a well-oiled machine and even within his own team Ehrlacher is prepared to face some tough competition. Yvan Muller has moved into a bigger supporting role lately, but anyone counting the four-time world champion should do so at their peril. Then in the other half of the garage, Thed Bjork cannot be reduced either. The 2017 World Champion is one of the fairest team players on the grid, but maybe he’ll feel like it’s time to take back control of the Cyan Racing ship. Then there is Santiago Urrutia. The Uruguayan has had an exceptional rookie season, and after securing his first victory in the final race of the year, he will be marked as a player to watch in the next campaign and beyond.
While Cyan Racing often ran like clockwork in 2020, the drivers at Munnich Motorsport were sometimes not quite on the same page. On Slovakiaring, for example, poor communication led Guerrieri to challenge his teammate Nestor Girolami, the points leader, which ultimately left ‘Bebu’ vulnerable to attacks from behind. The net result was a heavy and preventable incident for Girolami which could have been avoided had Guerrieri played the supporting role, which saw the balance of power between the two teammates shift to Guerrieri in the points table. As a result, Girolami will no doubt have some regrets from 2020 onwards, so keep an eye out for the Argentinian as he looks to win this intra-squad battle this year.
Zengo Motorsport, meanwhile, could be billed as the greatest dark horse of all. With a year of development under its belt, the Hungarian team now have a very powerful car in the Cupra Leon Competicion TCR and also have the necessary knowledge of its quirks. When it comes to piloting talent, Mikel Azcona is a star who has shone in the World Cup since his debut in 2019, and now in his third year, he will likely aim to mount a serious title challenge. Rob Huff also returns to WTCR with Zengo Motorsport, after spending a year in the TCR Scandinavia Championship, which he later won. Fresh out of this feat, the 2012 world champion feels rejuvenated for the coming season and will surely be at least a contender for race victories.
New cars and teams
There are a lot of new cars and new faces to get used to this year. Perhaps the biggest title of all is Hyundai Motorsport’s decision to provide their customer racing teams with the new Elantra N TCR, instead of the venerable I30 N. The latter had been one of the cars to beat throughout throughout its TCR lifespan, but a change to the balance of performance metrics last season was seriously hampered. A change was clearly needed, and it appears to have come in the form of the Elantra – a much longer sedan model, compared to the older, shorter I30 N hatchback. French ace Jean-Karl Vernay is also new to Hyundai. Vernay takes the place of Engstler Motorsport, which was owned by several different drivers last season, and if his performances with Team Mulsanne’s independent crew are anything to go by, he should be a strong contender now that he has the Hyundai automaker’s support for 2021. The switch to the Elantra will also hopefully lead to resurgence in the form of fan favorites Norbert Michelisz and Gabriele Tarquini, both of whom have struggled desperately with the Machines of the Year last. Luca Engstler, too, will look to impress in the new car after a less than ideal set of circumstances for his rookie season last year.
The new Elantra will become the most numerous model on the grid, as this year the WTCR welcomes the independent Target Competition outfit in the paddock. The Italian team have been a powerhouse of TCR in Europe and beyond since the settlement was put in place in 2015, and will now make their full-time debut on the world stage with a pair of Elantras. In 2020, Target Competition has appeared as a wild card with Jose Manuel Sapag driving Motorland Aragon, but this season they will welcome Swedish siblings Andreas and Jessica Backman, who are also new to the championship.
Finally, Audi Sport officially returns in 2021, with the Belgian Comtoyou Racing team elected to drive four brand new RS3 LMS TCRs. Although the cars are fresh off the production line, Comtoyou Racing will compete with four slightly more familiar drivers. Audi Sport mainstay Frederic Vervisch returns after a year of absence and will be joined by compatriot and reigning rookie of the year Gilles Magnus. Nathanael Berthon had a decisive campaign last season and as a reward he was invited to drive one of the DHL-backed RS3s alongside resident paddock wildcard Tom Coronel.
The season officially begins this Thursday – June 3 – as the cars hit the track for the first practice session of the year at 2:30 p.m. local time (1:30 p.m. BST).