Photo: Citroen Racing

José María López claims pole ahead of Mehdi Bennani in Morocco

José María López has claimed pole position for the second round of the 2015 FIA World Touring Car Championship in Marrakech in a mixed up qualifying session, which saw a red flag in the one-lap shootout, and with Yvan Muller taking a strategic reversed grid pole for race two in the sister Citroën.

In the first part of qualifying, the Citroëns set the early pace with José María López leading the way in the early stages. They were briefly deposed by three of the Chevrolets, with the two ROAL Motorsport cars of Tom Chilton and Tom Coronel working together to use the slipstream effect to ensure they both made it the second part of qualifying, while Campos Racing’s Hugo Valente was able to pull out a time on his own which was quicker than both of his Chevrolet rivals to hold P1 for a short while.

The Citroëns then all surged forward on the next run however, with Yvan Muller going quickest ahead of López and Sébastien Loeb with a few minutes left in the 30-minute qualifying segment.

With the top 12 going through to the second part of qualifying, attention was now on the middle of the pack, as Gabriele Tarquini was out of position and outside of the top 12. The Italian managed to go fifth fastest in his Honda and dropped Ma Qing Hua’s Citroën out of the top 12, but the Chinese driver responded by going fastest overall in his Sébastien Loeb Racing-run car, which then dropped Lada’s Rob Huff to 13th. The Briton made an error on his final opportunity to break back into the top 12 and so had to settle for 13th, where he’ll start race two, whilst he goes to the back of the grid for race one due to an engine change penalty.

In Q2, things became more strategic as with the number of penalties in play with five engine changes and with a five-place grid penalty overhanging Yvan Muller, there were more drivers manoeuvring for tenth spot, as it was a foregone conclusion that one of the other Citroëns would be on pole.

A late run from Ma Qing Hua saw him improve from 12th to second, which dropped Honda’s Tiago Monteiro to P11, which would mean the Portuguese driver would miss the all-important top ten reversed grid for race two. This forced Monteiro to push hard on his final run, and with the Honda driver scrambling to improve, the other drivers near the back of the top ten felt the need to improve their times as well, which saw Hugo Valente jump up to second in his Chevrolet and Tom Chilton to fifth, while Monteiro made it into the top ten with the seventh fastest time, dropping his Castrol Honda team-mate Gabriele Tarquini to 11th.

At the end of it, Yvan Muller finished the session in tenth position and so will start the second race from pole position with the reversed top ten. Although the Frenchman will take a five place grid penalty for race one, the Frenchman will still start race one from 13th due to the five engine change penalties for James Thompson, Rob Huff, Hugo Valente, Gregoire Demoustier and Tom Chilton, with Campos’ John Filippi also serving the same five position penalty starting behind him.

The top five drivers went into the one-lap shootout, but Tom Chilton opted to sit out his run claiming concerns for the gearbox of his Chevrolet Cruze, which meant Mehdi Benanni was the first to set the target lap of 1:44.109 in the Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée. Ma Qing Hua was next up but couldn’t improve on Bennani’s time, while Campos Racing’s Hugo Valente, who was set to start from the back of the grid anyway due to an engine change, ran off at the first corner and into the tyre barriers, causing a red flag.

After a small delay to extract Valente’s car and rearrange the barriers, López took to the track and set a time of 1:43.854 to secure his fifth consecutive pole in the WTCC, dating back to Shanghai last October.

Mehdi Bennani will start second on the grid in front of his home crowd, with Ma Qing Hua third. Although Hugo Valente and Tom Chilton qualified fourth and fifth, the two drivers engine upgrades this weekend mean they’ll move to the back, with Norbert Michelisz and Tiago Monteiro promoted to fourth and fifth for Honda, with Citroën’s Sébastien Loeb sixth and the ROAL Chevrolet of Tom Coronel eighth.

Gabriele Tarquini will therefore start race one ninth with Stefano D’Aste completing the top ten for Münnich Motorsport following Yvan Muller’s five place grid penalty.