The saying is “anything can happen in Macau?”. And this year, pretty much everything did. The Guia Race of Macau was memorable for a plethora of reasons.
Politics played a strong role in the build-up to the weekend, which had become quite clear as the format of the event had somewhat changed in the lead-up to this year’s prestigious touring car race.
First, the TCR International Series were not going to be recognised as the only championship able to field entries this time. Other non-TCR series affiliated entries were also to be allowed, but on top of that we also saw both British and China Touring Car Championship cars permitted to enter the race, with the event being promoted back to its pre-WTCC era guise as a standalone event for the world’s top touring car drivers and cars.
The last-minute nature of the change didn’t really flesh out the potential of that concept. None of the BTCC teams had the time or the budget to field any of their cars in the race, which would have undoubtedly taken over as the leading class ahead of the lesser-powered TCR-specification cars.
The CTCC class entry wasn’t substantial either, with just five cars on the final entry list, one of which didn’t even make it through qualifying. The main threat in the CTCC class on the provisional entry was to be driven by BTCC driver Adam Morgan. Although he’d be driving a less capable Mercedes compared to the factory Volkswagen he drove in the CTCC, he was still expected to shake things up a bit, but in the end he was a no-show, staying in the UK to work on next year’s BTCC programme instead.
As a result, we had a 30-car entry of TCR cars, plus five CTCC cars, with a strangely two-tier event. On one hand, it was the finale of an epic TCR International Series season, with the WRT Volkswagens of Jean-Karl Vernay and Stefano Comini heading into battle against the Craft-Bamboo SEATs of Pepe Oriola and James Nash, all in contention for the drivers’ title.
And on the other hand, we had the Guia Race of Macau. A standalone touring car race that is a badge of honour on a touring car racing CV arguably, as valuable as a victory at the Bathurst 1000km.
To that effect, Honda flew in Tiago Monteiro as their wildcard to try and win the event after missing out last year, adding to the already capable, but no fan of Macau, Gianni Morbidelli. Monteiro was a late addition, while the plan was originally for “Macau master” Rob Huff to be the man at the wheel of the JAS-prepared Honda, but the first round of politics saw a change in the eligibility criteria which caught out the 2012 WTCC champion, as Huff had not driven a TCR car in a racing capacity all year, while Monteiro had in Belgium and The Netherlands.
Over the weekend
While the Macau Organizing Committee and the FIA handled the event, with the new FIA GT World Cup and FIA F3 World Cup the top two races of the Macau Grand Prix weekend, the Guia Race played its supporting role just as it did last year, but the TCR International Series finale was quietly tucked away, with the championship not even recognised as part of the weekend.
The end result was complicated and awkward. The TCR International Series felt hard done-by with its exciting season finale becoming a B-story, while those who were promised an opportunity to fight in a one-off touring car battle without having to get involved in someone else’s championship also angry.
The CTCC teams arrived and found themselves immediately ballasted with 100kg of weight in order to ensure balance of performance with the TCR-spec cars. With no real benchmarking between the two cars, this weight quickly dropped off during the weekend as it emerged that the fastest of the CTCC drivers were outside of the top 12, but it was difficult to assess what part of the speed deficit was car performance or driver ability, making balancing out the differences a little bit too close to guess work.
However, the TCR championship was still the biggest part of the race and were the most influential on how things were managed, with the TCR standard Michelin S9 tyres proposed as the tyres to run despite a new regulation allowing any tyres to be used. Teams could run alternate tyres, but at a penalty of 20kg, a decision which some teams came in accepting, and one other team chose to take up during the weekend, and found themselves removed from the TCR classification.
For the media covering event, those without knowledge of what was going on would find it tricky. The official notifications by Macau made no mention of the TCR class cars in the paperwork, you’d have to have worked out which cars were CTCC cars or TCR cars from the Balance of Performance paperwork only. As for who was running which tyres, you’d have to actually look at the tyres that were on the cars.
The TCR championship meanwhile, simply ignored the presence of the CTCC cars and the three wildcard Yokohama-shod TCR cars altogether in all their race reports and stats sheets.
When the red lights go out, it’s all about the racing. However, the amount of racing this year was greatly curtailed.
The first problem was getting the event started. There was a 45-minute delay as repairs to the barriers at Reservoir and Mandarin took place after two nasty shunts in the preceding CTM Macau Cup for national drivers.
Their event, which ran the full distance and was just suspended twice behind the safety car, had started at 8:30am, while the Guia Race’s qualifying race (or Round 21 of the TCR International Series), was due to start at 10:00.
A messy first lap saw three incidents necessitate a red flag. One of the CTCC drivers, Sunny Wong, had crashed out at Reservoir. Further around the lap, TCR irregular Antti Buri had knocked Gianni Morbidelli into the wall at Mandarin, ending a frustrating season for the Italian on the spot, while the non-TCR but in a TCR car guest driver James Tang crashed his Honda further up the hill.
With less than half a lap of racing done, the time kept ticking down. This was certainly new, and showed there were clearly concerns over the timetable. The race resumed on lap four, but a crash between championship leader James Nash and Mat’o Homola at Lisboa blocked the track, with the safety car called as Homola’s car needed winching away, which saw the time run out, and the race called after just two half-laps of racing.
The drivers all saw the safety car pull in and the green flags waved, not realising the race was over and they all began to battle again, with the race director forced to call for another red flag to explain that they’d had their go.
Stefano Comini was the race winner, which was in effect all down to his start, and the nervous Swiss was the unhappiest race winner on record, declaring the proceedings as “not a race”.
The cars were fixed and sent out again for the Guia Race of Macau, and this times things were much smoother to start with. Tiago Monteiro leapt into the lead from the second row as the cars battled their way around the first two laps, with James Nash, chasing his fading championship dream, carving his way through the slower cars and into the points.
On lap three, Sunny Wong, back out in his duct-taped Citroen, smashed into the wall at one of the narrowest parts of the track, instantly blocking it and was collected by the Volkswagen of Kevin Tse and the SEAT of Attila Tassi.
The race was red flagged again…and the clock kept ticking down.
It took even longer to sort this than the last time, and the prospect of another 4-5 lap race loomed.
A number of cars were sent out to make up the lap they’d skipped by pulling straight into the pits at the red. One of them, the CTCC Audi of Jiang Tengyi, crashed at Lisboa while just doing this, further threatening the deadline.
For a moment, it seemed as though the race wouldn’t even be restarted, and the day’s touring car races could have been close to a total right off, as the clock hit zero while the cars were still in the pit lane.
A decision was made however to allow three more laps of racing, one behind the safety car and two green flag laps.
Monteiro held on, as Jean-Karl Vernay passed his cautious team-mate Comini for second, who was soon also passed by Pepe Oriola to complete the podium of the 2016 edition of the Guia Race of Macau.
The drivers all shook their heads and wondered what had happened. Some saw fit to apologise for what the fans had just seen, without being sure what had happened at all.
The overrunning timetable, the need to not run into the timetable of the headline FIA events, the inexperienced drivers who kept finding the walls, all combined gave us another Macau to remember.
My hope is that we don’t see two events run as one again, as it causes unnecessary confusion and friction. It’s either the Guia Race, or it’s a round of the championship. The still forming plans of the FIA in regards to next year’s event, and how the WTCC could play a part in it remain to be seen, but hopefully they’ll take some learnings from this weekend in that respect.
As for the race itself, in the end, it was mostly just another crazy Macau race. However, should a number of less experienced drivers be able to play such a big role in how a championship that’s been running all year turns out?
And should the quality of the event be reduced to just a smattering of laps because the entry requirements allow drivers with limited experience to tackle the circuit, and continue to bury their cars in the walls, while eight-time race winners sit and watch from a hotel balcony above the track?
Having an entry criteria sounds great, but maybe it should be a little more inventive than – “has this driver competed in this type of car this year?”, to something like “Has this driver finished a race in this type of car; at a street circuit; is a race winner in an FIA accredited event; is a champion in an FIA accredited event”, and maybe put those at the front of the queue. And maybe…draw a line in that queue as well. I’m sure we’d all rather see 22 cars do 20 laps, than watch 28 cars do four.