WTCR ace on the verge of winning the title
Mikel Azcona has come a long way since the contrite rookie who ruined Esteban Guerreri’s title shot in a frenetic World Touring Car Cup final in 2019. The then 23-year-old Spaniard didn’t could only offer a creeping apology at the post-race press conference after nerfing the Honda ace sped into a heart-pounding night race at Sepang, clogging the Civic’s radiator full of weed. He was clearly mortified to have interfered in a title showdown that fell in favor of Hyundai’s Norbert Michelisz, thanks in part to Azcona’s blunder. “There is always revenge,” was Guerrieri’s grim response.
Three years later, Azcona is on the verge of becoming world champion himself for Hyundai, and the health of his points lead with two weekends and four races to go is such that it’s hard to imagine the karma get up to hit him where it hurts. From the moment he stepped into his Elantra N TCR this year, having left Cupra to replace no less a figure than retired tin-top legend Gabriele Tarquini, Azcona has been brilliant. Three race wins and six more podiums, smoothing out the usual ups and downs of the weighted performance balance, left him 35 points clear of closest challenger Nestor Girolami, Munnich Motorsport’s “other” Argentinian. and teammate of a still uncrowned Guerrieri.
Azcona takes nothing for granted, of course. He’s learned enough since 2019 not to make that kind of rookie mistake. Still, he readily admits his first season as a Hyundai works driver was “better than expected”.
“Normally when you make this kind of change – the brand, the car, the team, everything – you need time to adapt,” says the rider from Arrigorriaga, in the Basque region of northern Spain. . “But from the second day of the first three-day test in Aragon, I felt very good with the car and the team. He also reports that Michelisz, who now plays second fiddle to his unwitting 2019 “kingmaker,” “helped from the start.”
“It’s very impressive what we’re doing right now,” concedes Azcona. “Every race weekend we got podiums, and in Aragon and Vallelunga we got two podiums every weekend, which is incredible. I am very impressed with this. But then I have a very good team and a very good car, and a very good atmosphere – incredible tools to be in first position.
Azcona admits it was an “easy decision” to join Hyundai, even though he was “very comfortable” at Cupra. TCR Europe champion twice, he grew up with the Spanish brand. “But at the end of last season, when I got a call from [now departed Hyundai sports boss] Mr. Adamo, and he said they were very interested in me… I was very happy.
Azcona credits Tarquini as key influence behind WTCR title chase
Photo by: WTCR
The success vindicated the decision, which also reflected on Tarquini, who rose from the cockpit to the BRC team manager’s perch on the pit wall. “Mikel is having a fantastic season,” raves the 2018 WTCR first king and 2009 World Touring Car champion. scoring points and he doesn’t need a lot of help with his riding. I tried to help him with the performance, but on the track he doesn’t need any help.
But Azcona does not hesitate to recognize the direct influence of Tarquini. “I’ve known Gabriele for a long time, sort of. Even when I raced in karting, I watched the WTCC on Eurosport. Now it is very curious to replace it. He’s such a good driver, a world champion, kind of an idol for me, and now he’s my team manager. As a driver, he teaches Norbi and me a lot, giving advice on qualifying, racing, tire preparation, overtaking – how to make life easier for the driver. He is also a very good person, the best in my opinion. He helps me a lot every day. »
But Tarquini would surely prefer to be sitting where Azcona is now… “I can imagine,” smiled Mikel. “When you’ve been driving all your life then stop, but you’re there in the paddock out of the car… if I don’t drive I can’t go on the track. Too frustrating!”
“My opinion on BoP is that I like the rule otherwise the championship would be killed very soon. If we are like Formula 1 without BoP and the best car wins every weekend then the championship will die. It is very necessary , this tool” Mikel Azcona
But there are still clouds in what has been a difficult time for WTCR. The grid had already shrunk to just 17 cars over the winter before controversy erupted over Goodyear’s specification tires, leading to an embarrassing last-minute cancellation of the Nurburgring Nordschleife races. It was pretty bad. But when Cyan Racing then withdrew its five Lynk & Cos on the way to the grid at Vallelunga to protest further tire failures, the WTCR apparently hit a new low – only to dip further when Cyan pulled out of the series fully before August. on the unknown circuit of the Ring of the Rhine. It’s been a torrid season for a series, insists Azcona, which is still “the highest-level touring car championship in the world.”
More: How the toxic farrago tire engulfing the WTCR exploded in Vallelunga
What a shame Azcona was robbed of the chance to beat two-time defending champion Yann Ehrlacher on the track. What did he think of the tire dramas? “When you put the car on the limit with the maximum camber, changing the setting to gain the last tenth, it is obvious that the tire suffers a lot,” he says. “When we have these tire problems, you have to think and find a compromise. If you get super aggressive, you will have problems. What is frustrating on the Nordschleife is that I competed in the 24 Hours with the same car, same tyres, same compound Lynk & Cos had one-lap problems in WTCR qualifying, and with the same tires at the 24 Hours I did nine laps.
Azcona has little sympathy for Lynk & Cos after his early withdrawal from the WTCR 2022 campaign
Photo by: WTCR
The Lynk & Co were not the only ones to suffer from punctures, as we also saw in Vallelunga. “OK, the high track temperatures of 55 degrees didn’t help anyone, and the track was very aggressive on the left front tire,” Azcona explained. “But if you see the races, I was dodging all the curbs, avoiding compressions on the front left. I was driving so carefully and that’s part of the game. Why should we cancel the race weekend because ‘ Do they have exploding tires?You have to adapt and make the car survive with the tyre, otherwise the championship is canceled every weekend.
But Hyundai has not been immune to controversy itself. New regulations mean qualifying speed dictates the offset weights each manufacturer will carry on the next lap, which has led to some sharp practice. At Motorland Aragon, Girolami accused the Hyundais of sandbagging on Saturday, sacrificing a pole shot for a better grid position in the second reverse-grid race – and securing a lower level of compensation weight for next time out. VillaReal.
Tarquini denied the request at the time, but Azcona is a bit more…open. “My opinion on BoP is that I like the rule, otherwise the championship would be killed very soon,” he says. “If we are like Formula 1 without BoP and the best car wins every weekend, the championship will die. It is very necessary, this tool. The regulations state that the BoP works like this and that as a team and manufacturer, you have to use this tool in the best way possible, if you do all the poles every weekend you will get the maximum number of kilograms and for sure the next weekend you will not be as competitive.
So you backed off? “When you’re fighting for the championship, you always have to be very smart in those moments,” he replies. We’ll take that for a yes then!
Let’s get back to the more positive aspects. As he did last year with Cupra, Azcona is doubling down this season by also racing in the electric-powered Pure ETCR, now known as the eTouring Car World Cup, sometimes on the same bill. At Vallelunga he was crowned ‘King of the Weekend’ for the first time in a Hyundai, while securing podiums in WTCR.
“It’s very difficult when you have a maximum power of 700 hp,” Azcona says of his mighty rear-wheel-drive ETCR Veloster. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve done. The characteristics are very particular, the car is heavy, does not have a good differential and we use semi-slick [Goodyear] tires. Doing a perfect lap without any type of tire lockup is tough. But if you do a perfect lap, you really appreciate it because the car is so fast. As soon as you put maximum power on the accelerator pedal, you really feel the acceleration. It’s a rocket.
So what about the future? At 26, he potentially has decades ahead of him, especially if he imitates his team leader and runs until he’s 59! At age 15, Mikel and his father chose to cut back on karting and focus on touring cars rather than single-seaters, thanks to an ingrained sense of their financial reality. A wise choice. Endurance racing and specifically Le Mans is appealing, but racing drivers tend to live in the present and Azcona is no different. Winning a world crown for Hyundai is all that matters now and, with four races to go, the clock is ticking. Guerrieri is probably best avoided just to be safe.
Azcona remains on track for 2022 WTCR title
Photo by: WTCR