Sochi preview: Pepe Oriola and James Nash joint championship leaders as TCR goes to Russia

The Sochi Autodrom will host the seventh round of the TCR International Series, closing the European leg of the season before the Asian flyaways. The championship battle is tight as can be, with Craft-Bamboo Lukoil’s Pepe Oriola and James Nash leading tied on points and Oschersleben race winner Mat’o Homola third in the B3 Racing SEAT, four points behind his stable-mates.

Sochi will also be the home race for three drivers in the championship, as both regulars Sergey Afanasyev and Mikhail Grachev, as well as guest driver Vladimir Sheshenin will be home heroes this time around.

Although the top three are really close in the championship, there are currently some seven drivers in with a realistic shot at the title, including Leopard Racing’s Stefano Comini and Jean-Karl Vernay, WestCoast Racing’s Gianni Morbidelli and Craft-Bamboo Lukoil’s Sergey Afanasyev. The latter is 34 points behind the leaders which, as the TCR International Series’ history has shown, can be turned around very quickly.

The fast layout of the Russian track should play in favour of the SEATs, as the updated 2016 version of the León has shown very good straight line speeds. Although the Volskwagen Golf GTI TCR is very similar to the Spanish car, the different aerodynamics mean the VWs struggle a little on straights. A new Balance of Performance measure allows the German cars to run 10 millimetres lower, which may help on a track which should in theory highlight the weak points of the Golfs.

James Nash leads the championship courtesy of failing to score just twice at Imola, Italy. The Brit boasts a race win and, even more significantly, six podium finishes, meaning he finished in the top three in half of the races run so far: “I’ll be running just 10 kilos heavier than Pepe (Oriola),” said Nash. “Considering I raced reasonably well despite the extra weight, the reduction for this weekend gives me another reason to be optimistic for my chances. That said, hopefully, it’ll be me out on my own leading the championship on Sunday night. A win or two would definitely help with that and I’m determined to give my all to make the aim a reality.”

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Pepe Oriola took his third win of the season in Germany last time out, despite an incident in the first race with Antti Buri. The Spaniard aims for more consistent results, as he scored five points in Portugal and none in Austria: “I hope to get something positive from Russia, circuit in which I had so much fun last year. Not only because of the podium in both races, but because the series of the series of left-right corners, which put the skills of the drivers to the test. I would like to repeat the success of last season, where I finished second in both races, so no doubt I’ll try, although consistency should be the order of the day. For sure the win in Oschersleben gives me a lot of confidence and morale going into Sochi.”

Afanasyev is still in the fight for the championship, although as an outsider, but his home race motivation may trigger a good result, as the Russian still chases his maiden win in the season after a pole position in the Bahrain curtain raiser: “I believe that the homeland will help us to make this event the best of the year. Hopefully, we should be able to get some nice weather after (getting rain) the last two rounds and I am really excited to race at home. It motivates me to go for even better positions this weekend, so let’s keep on pushing and everything will come.”

Mat’o Homola is third in the championship, but will have to carry a 30-kg ballast after being the top scorer in Germany, with team-mate Dusan Borkovic on 20 and James Nash on 10. The Slovakian will have to deal with a ballast-free Oriola, who did very well last year in Russia and could repeat the feat. A radiator issue put Stefano Comini’s Race 1 to an end in Oschersleben, and the difficult weekend continued after making contact with Gianni Morbidelli. The Leopard Racing driver may now benefit from a ballast-free Golf GTI TCR, as well as a favourable BoP due to a reduced ride height. The same goes for Jean-Karl Vernay, who made contact with Borkovic in Race 2 and scored no points in the second race.

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Gianni Morbidelli endured yet another difficult weekend in Germany, as the WestCoast Racing driver was involved in a series of incidents. The Italian will hope to give his title challenge a fresh start as the championship goes into the second half of the season, as he bids to get to Macau at least with a shot at the title.

The weekend will start on Saturday morning with Free Practice 1 at 10:00 local time, lasting 30 minutes, just like the second session, scheduled for 12:15. Qualifying will start at 15:20 and will feature Q1 and Q2 as usual. Action will then resume on Sunday, with a shakedown scheduled for 9:10, lasting 10 minutes. The 11-laps races will start at 12:35 and 14:05.

2016 TCR International Series Russia Entry List

No – Driver – Nat – Team – Car
1 – Stefano Comini – SUI – Leopard Racing (WRT) – Volkswagen Golf TCR
2 – Jean-Karl Vernay – FRA – Leopard Racing (WRT) – Volkswagen Golf TCR
7 – Davit Kajaia – GEO – Liqui Moly Team Engstler – Volkswagen Golf TCR
8 – Mikhail Grachev – RUS – WestCoast Racing – Honda Civic TCR
9 – Attila Tassi – HUN – B3 Racing – SEAT León TCR
10 – Gianni Morbidelli – ITA – WestCoast Racing – Honda Civic TCR
19 – Vladimir Sheshenin – RUS – Liqui Moly Team Engstler – Volkswagen Golf TCR
22 – Petr Fulín – CZE – Mulsanne Racing – Alfa Romeo Giulietta TCR
33 – Jordi Oriola – SPN – Target Competition – Honda Civic TCR
54 – James Nash – GBR – Craft-Bamboo Racing – SEAT León TCR
62 – Dusan Borkovic – SER – B3 Racing – SEAT León TCR
70 – Mat’o Homola – SLK – B3 Racing – SEAT León TCR
74 – Pepe Oriola – SPN – Craft-Bamboo Racing – SEAT León TCR
77 – Sergey Afanasyev – RUS – Craft-Bamboo Racing – SEAT León TCR
88 – Michela Cerruti – ITA – Mulsanne Racing – Alfa Romeo Giulietta TCR

TCR International Series Russia Timetable

Saturday 2nd July
10:00 – Free Practice 1
12:15 – Free Practice 2
15:20 – Qualifying

Sunday 3rd July
9:10 – Shakedown
12:35 – Race 1 (11 Laps)
14:05 – Race 2 (11 Laps)