Chevrolet, The WTCC’s only full manufacturer entry, have said they need competition to liven up the Championship as the US based manufacturer leads the way for the third season, with Honda, SEAT, Ford & Lada programmes on the way or in advanced talks for entry in 2013.
At the half way mark of the season, Chevrolet hold the top three spots in the drivers’ championship and are dominating the manufacturers’ title for the second consecutive season. The team have been the only fully supported manufacturer entry since BMW’s withdrawal at the end of 2010, though Volvo fielded a single car evaluation programme last season but have since withdrawn to race at home in Sweden.
Though the Chevrolet drivers are able to fight amongst themselves for the drivers’ title, the team are the first to admit that they need they also competition from the other manufacturers.
Looking at the efforts in the past two years, Volvo’s single car entry was never enough to challenge the Chevrolet team with their six years of experience and three experienced drivers with just a single driver, who was also new to the Championship.
This year, although Ford and SEAT both have involvement with the Arena Motorsport and Lukoil Racing Team programmes, the full ‘works’ funding which brings with it additional development time, team personnel, multiple cars and an all experienced driver line-up is still absent.
“We need the competition,” said Chevrolet Motorsport Manager Eric Nève to TouringCarTimes.
“Nothing comes for free,” added Nève. “When we came in in 2005 we just kept pushing and we’ve never released the pressure. What you saw in qualifying (in Austria) is again proof that the (other) drivers are on their own. We were the only ones slipstreaming as a team, it was worth half a second, and we were six-tenths ahead of (Gabriele) Tarquini.”
Nève’s point is an important one. Chevrolet’s rivals often claim that their drivers are not using the full potential of the car, which the Chevrolet drivers are always quick to deny. As a driver, in some cases finding the best justification as to why you’re not able to do better is almost part of the job description, and criticizing yourself or your employer is often not the best option, especially when you can criticize the age and development of your car when the manufacturer who built it is no longer present. Then again, there’s still some credence in the notion that the Chevrolet team’s budget and additional testing resource surely should have brought them a fairly significant edge.
They’ve not always had it their own way however. They were legitimately challenged on pace on more than one occasion in 2011, the last example of which was with Colin Turkington in the Wiechers-Sport BMW hounding Alain Menu’s Chevrolet Cruze for the win in race one at the Tianma Circuit in China.
This year, Chevrolet’s 100% pole position record was unable to defended as soon as the first race at Monza, with Gabriele Tarquini taking pole position in the new and improved SEAT León WTCC on its first appearance. Norbert Michelisz also took his first career pole position at the Slovakiaring for BMW.
In terms of wins, in 2011 Chevrolet dropped just three victories in the 24 race season to Tarquini, Franz Engstler and Tom Coronel. Now after just 12 races they’ve already dropped that same number to Tarquini, Michelisz and Stefano D’Aste.
And now with more manufacturers returning to the Championship, the competition will only get tougher and it could be back to being a fight between drivers at different manufacturers as soon as next season.
Honda are the only additional manufacturer to Chevrolet at present officially confirmed to be taking part in 2013.
Honda, with selected partners J.A.S. Motorsport and Mugen, will be developing a Super 2000-specification ninth generation Honda Civic with a 1.6 litre turbocharged engine, which will appear later this season before competing full time in 2013 with what’s currently scheduled to be a two car team.
Paddock gossip has been linking Gabriele Tarquini with the programme, with the Italian having driven for J.A.S. previously in the BTCC in the 1990s as well in the European Super Touring Championship in 2001. This is in the absence of a confirmed entry by SEAT for 2013 as yet and with Tarquini having been in advanced talks with both Volvo and Ford at the end of 2011.
British based Arena International Motorsport run the two Ford Focuses in this year’s WTCC, and though they’re primarily run as an independent operation they do receive some technical assistance from Ford already, and the team’s Ford 1.6 turbo Global Racing Engine is a Ford project, with the engine itself developed by long-time Ford partner Mountune and leased to the team.
Six races into the season and the team are already consistent point scorers, though as yet there’s no announcement from Ford that they will make a full entry in 2013. The departure of Ford’s previous motorsport and performance racing manager Jost Capito to Volkswagen may have caused a slight delay in proceedings.
The other three manufacturers linked with returns to the WTCC are returnees rather than debutantes. Spanish marque SEAT, which was with the WTCC at the start as well as the two prior seasons in the European Touring Car Championship, has already stepped up its involvement. They’ve developed several enhancements to their ageing SEAT León II, and with a brand new ORECA-built 1.6 litre turbocharged engine which rocketed to pole position at Monza.
SEAT were the dominant force in the WTCC in the late 00s with their turbo-diesel engine, and will be the marque that can bring to fight to Chevrolet in the shortest time of all, having only been absent from the Championship for two years whilst their cars were still being run by independent squad SUNRED Engineering.
A still to be seen third generation SEAT León is expected to be the car of choice for their potential return, and it could share development components with the Volkswagen Polo WRC, which will also be using a 1.6 litre turbocharged engine when it enters the FIA World Rally Championship next season.
However, yet again there’s still no formal commitment at this point from SEAT to take part in the WTCC, with their focus this year on their three customer teams Special Tuning Racing, SUNRED and the Lukoil Racing Team, though the latter is run almost entirely by SEAT Sport personnel.
Lada has already made one of two planned appearances in the WTCC this year, also using ORECA as an engine partner. The Russian manufacturer is hotly believed to be planning a two year programme with two-time BTCC champion and four times a WTCC race winner James Thompson leading the team. The Russian manufacturer competed in its first full season in 2009 after adding support to Viktor Shapovalov’s Russian Bears team, but then withdrew at the end of the year along with SEAT, both citing the economic climate as the primary factor behind their decisions.
Lastly and unfortunately least is BMW. Though the BMW 320 E90 is still a very capable chassis despite its age, the car and the new-for-2011 1.6 litre turbo engine is receiving little further development from the German manufacturer as their primary focus is on their return to the DTM.
Still with a strong presence on the grid thanks to strong support from the independent teams, BMW will still likely be present on the WTCC grid for a few more years, but any chance of a manufacturer entry would seem to be a few years away at best.
Honda will join the grid in Japan this year and so in 2013 at the very least it’ll be a two manufacturer battle between Chevrolet and Honda, as it was in the British Touring Car Championship between 2010 and 2011, but many are hoping that Ford, SEAT and Lada will be there in the mix as well.