Photo: TCR Media

Stefano Comini leads the championship after Sepang

The TCR International Series offered a good show this weekend at Sepang, Malaysia, for its inaugural event. The newly-formed championship, which features five different manufacturers and some high-profile racers, produced two entertaining races in the suffocating Malaysian heat.

In qualifying, Kevin Gleason provided a surprising pole position in his WestCoast Racing Honda Civic TCR, as the whole weekend had been dominated by SEAT until then. The American was as little as 0.021s quicker than Target Competition’s Andrea Belicchi, with the second row featuring the sister SEAT driven by Stefano Comini and Franz Engstler’s Audi TT, although the German failed to finish in both races.

Excitement in the paddock came when Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone visited the pioneers of this new branch of the touring car world. Campos Racing were however fully concentrated on their Opel Astra OPCs, particularly Igor Skuz’s, as the car struggled with the scorching Malaysian heat, forcing them to sit out of most of the weekend. The Spanish team was however successful in bringing out the Ukrainian for Race 2, after a redesigned radiator was built on the spot, resulting in a lot of late-night work rewarded with the satisfaction of seeing the driver on track in the second race.

Proteam Racing endured a tough weekend as their newly-built Ford Focus was also hit by several issues, forcing them to sit out most of the weekend. The team now hope to be ready for Shanghai, China, in two weeks.

An entertaining Race 1 saw Stefano Comini take the lead early on in the race and finishing ahead of Team Craft-Bamboo Lukoil’s Pepe Oriola and Sergey Afanasyev, making it an all-SEAT podium, with Gianni Morbidelli the leading Honda in fourth ahead of Belicchi.

Michel Nykjaer was one of the unluckiest men on track, as the Dane was forced out of Q2 due to a technical problem and was not able to do better than eighth in Race 1. During the following race, which started just before the Formula One Malaysian Grand Prix, he was involved in a first-lap accident which saw him and Afanasyev retire from the damage, which also involved Liqui Moly Team Engstler’s Lorenzo Veglia.

The entertainment was however elsewhere, as reversed-grid pole sitter Jordi Gené resisted throughout the race to the clean but ferocious attacks from team-mate Pepe Oriola. Gianni Morbidelli was in the mix as well, and the protagonist of a last-lap fight with Belicchi which resulted in the Honda driver taking the final podium spot at the last corner, with a clean and yet aggressive move on his compatriot, who slipped down to fifth in the process. The move earned the former Grand Prix driver the Man of the Race award, beating other contenders Kevin Gleason, Pepe Oriola and Igor Skuz.

However, the biggest smile is on Stefano Comini’s face, as the Swiss driver leaves Sepang leading the championship by four points ahead of Pepe Oriola. Jordi Gené’s win put him up to third, with a consistent Morbidelli in fourth closely followed by Belicchi.

All in all the TCR International Series provided two entertaining races in Malaysia, despite the field not being complete due to the tight schedule and a lot of minor problems for the new models such as the Opel Astra and the Ford Focus.