Anatomy of a disaster – the crash at Vila Real

Last week, we saw the most devasting incident in the World Touring Car Cup’s short history, and a crash so violent, ten cars would fail to make the restart, with three cars out for the rest of the weekend. We analyse what happened, and what the next steps are likely to be to prevent something like this from happening again.

What happened

The qualifying result was key to everything that happened for Saturday evening’s first race. 2012 WTCC drivers’ champion Rob Huff took his second pole position of the year in the Sébastien Loeb Racing Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR, but only just. Huff was a remarkable 0.027 seconds ahead of his Moroccan team-mate Mehdi Bennani. Remarkable as the gap was so small, around the 4.785km circuit, a two-minute lap.

The SLR team have often been referred to as one of the most professional operations in the paddock, they faced a quandary now, with both Huff and Bennani, the only two Volkswagens in the field, set to battle for the lead from the front row, with the Volkswagen seemingly the car to have at the Vila Real circuit.

This is Huff’s first season with the French team, which carries the name of nine-time World Rally champion Sébastien Loeb. Huff is also a test driver for the Volkswagen Motorsport programme, and effectively their ‘works’ driver. Bennani meanwhile has been with the Sébastien Loeb Racing team for a while, racing with them since 2015 and has been racing in the World Touring Car Championship since 2011, so he’s an experienced driver and front-runner, who even had an almost already forgotten about outside shot at the overall championship going into last year’s season finale at Qatar against the factory squads from Volvo and Honda.

Basically, there would be no team orders at the team. No; “he’s on pole” or “he’s the lead driver” or “whoever gets to the first corner first” rules, it’d be down to the two drivers to duke it out, and at the famously difficult to pass Vila Real street circuit, where a ‘joker lap’ has been introduced just because overtaking is frankly impossible, it would all come down to the start.

At 16:00 local time, the formation lap began, and the cars circled the track and lined up on the grid.

At the start, Huff had a good getaway from pole on the right-hand side of the grid, but all eyes were on row three, where the two YMR Hyundais of Thed Björk and Yvan Muller were starting, as Muller had a nightmare of a start, with his i30 N TCR falling backwards.

Unnoticed up front, Mehdi Bennani had made a fantastic launch from the (drivers) left-hand side of the grid; one driver told me it was too good a getaway and he almost certainly jumped the start, but that doesn’t seem to matter now.

As they swung through the first sequence, Bennani had his nose ahead as the track veered right, with Huff having the best line towards the upcoming right-hander.

Neither driver gave a quarter, but then nor did either driver close the door on the other, but as the two battled towards the next turn, Huff edged the nose of his Golf ahead as Bennani was the first to brake, but Bennani then began to edge right towards the corner, with the front-right of Bennani’s car touching the rear of Huff’s Golf.

Huff’s car was immediately unsettled and lost control, spearing into the upcoming barrier at almost 90 degrees right in front of Bennani, who crashed straight into him.

Bennani’s door was ripped off the car as it also slammed into the barriers and launched up into their air and bounced across the track, while Huff’s car spun around, with its engine now detached and the car completely destroyed, leaking oil.

The field behind slammed into the pair, with Norbert Michelisz the first car behind them, and slightly to the right in his BRC Racing Team Hyundai, the only one to make it through the corner and around the circuit.

Michelisz didn’t escape without incident, and arguably came away with one of the more significant physical injuries. The Hungarian clipped the rear of Huff’s car as he passed by which severely damaged his Hyundai i30 N TCR, with Michelisz also suffering an arm injury in the process. The Hungarian would go off for X-rays as it was suspected it could well have been broken.

As the field all ground to a half and race was inevitably red-flagged, drivers leapt out of their cars to each other’s aid.

The official footage doesn’t give the velocity of the incident its due justice compared to the various trackside videos.

Leaping heroes

The Gabriele Tarquini ran to the aid of Rob Huff who was unable to get out of his car, as he was severely winded in the crash, with brevity key as Huff’s engine oil had now ignited as it poured over the YMR Hyundai of Thed Björk alongside him.

Mehdi Bennani clambered out of his car screaming in pain, and was also reportedly disoriented, demanding to get back in the race, despite barely being able to move, with fears he could have damaged his ribs.

Thed Björk was in trouble too. His car was wedged in, with the Campos Racing Cupra TCR of John Filippi blocking him to the right, and his door blocked in against Huff’s Golf.

With the oil from Huff’s car igniting on top of Björk’s i30, the Swede hit the fire extinguisher switch and then tried to escape from the car, opting to smash the window in order to make his escape.

Yann Ehrlacher, at this point the championship leader, was right in the centre of the incident as well, with his Münnich Motorsport Honda Civic TCR having been pierced by the guard rail which had been broken apart by the two Golfs’ collision. With the fire just ahead, and with Ehrlacher’s car pinned between the barrier and Zsolt Szabo’s Cupra TCR, he was unable to escape from his car too.

A few cars behind, two-time BTCC champion James Thompson had leapt from his car and run towards the accident, recognising his team-mate’s jeopardy and opening the boot of the hatchback Civic, allowing Ehrlacher to clamber out through the rear.

Tom Coronel films the aftermath with his personal camera right after the incident

The longest clear up ever

With the barrier destroyed, and almost all of the field damaged in some way, the race was suspended for over two hours, with the race starting behind the safety car at 18:15 local time.

The grid was drawn based on the running order across the start-finish line, as no one besides Michelisz had completed a single sector.

With ten cars unable to make the restart, and almost all of those at the front of the field, it was Yvan Muller who was drawn on pole position despite the fact his car was figuratively going backwards as it passed the finish line.

Last year’s TCR International Series champion Jean-Karl Vernay also lucked out. He’d qualified tenth a few hours earlier but managed to crash out on his final run in qualifying with his WRT outfit unable to repair his car in time meaning he started from the pit lane, but his transponder effectively granted him a top three starting slot for the restarted race.

The new race was relatively pedestrian, with Muller cruising to victory relatively unchallenged, with the Honda of Esteban Guerrieri and the Campos Cupra of Pepe Oriola completing the podium.

Sunday’s races were also more well behaved, with no notable incidents, and only three absences, with the Münnich Motorsport team working through the night to repair the championship challenger Yann Ehrlacher’s car, and opting out of sparing time and resources fitting a new gearbox to James Thompson’s cars.

The Sébastien Loeb Racing team quietly disappeared overnight, with Rob Huff not returning to the track, and Mehdi Bennani making a short visit to see the FIA doctor. Bennani’s head injury prevented him from flying home until later in the week, while SLR didn’t make an official comment about the incident until Thursday.

What’s next for Vila Real?

A freak accident, yes. “Macau-esque” I’ve also heard. The confines of a tight street circuit and a large field definitely played their part in this rather dramatic accident. If these were the previous generation WTCC TC1 cars, costing between 750k to 1m EUR each, a few team’s budgets would be irreparably dented, and some cars would not be back for the next round.

However, they’re not – and with a TCR car costing 130k EUR, and with a fairly healthy supply globally, all cars will be back on the grid at the next round. 25 of the same cars from Vila Real, while SLR will have two brand new Volkswagen Golf GTI TCRs for Rob Huff and Mehdi Bennani.

Is the track to blame? Partly. And it’s worth noting this anomalous Portuguese track has delivered some controversy in its short four years hosting FIA World Touring Car events. In the first year, the Ladas of Jaap van Lagen, Nicky Catsburg and the Honda of Tiago Monteiro were in a bizarre starting incident, with the race eventually given up on when Catsburg hit the wall later in the restarted race.

Year two got by quite quietly – well, not quietly, as a horde of Portuguese fans celebrated a fantastic victory for Honda’s Tiago Monteiro.

Year three, with the joker lap proving to be a talking point for all the wrong reasons, with the new concept almost abandoned as the teams and drivers protested it on safety grounds on Saturday night, with the joker lap moved to meet their requirements, there was also the infamous incident between the Chevrolet of Tom Coronel and an ambulance, as a barrier was reportedly not in-place.

This accident itself however, was not a one in a million event; nearly 30 touring cars racing around such a tight, tricky circuit, with everyone so close in terms of pace, this was always a highly possible scenario.

The drivers all said they’d seen nothing like it, and even the track-blocking crashes we’ve seen at Macau over the years don’t compare to what we saw at Vila Real. At Macau, the track usually gets blocked in slower corners, with only Mandarin, the fastest corner on the calendar, less likely to produce such an incident as the track is significantly wider at that point.

The biggest safety consideration after Vila Real is to prepare for an event like this in the future. The drivers were the first responders in this incident, and that’s something that certainly needs to be addressed.

As for the teams, there’s no question that teams where the drivers are successfully working together wouldn’t have had such a drama. Teams such as YMR, Münnich, BRC Racing Team would have a plan if both their drivers had been side-by-side through Turn 1. The set-up of the SLR team make it understandable as to why they didn’t, but you can be certain that will now be addressed in future, as the team cannot risk another faux pas like this in the future.

However, that really only covers if two team-mates are battling it out into Vila Real’s Turn 1 – hopefully next time if the guy in second has such a good start to run alongside the pole-sitter into Turn 1, the driver in whichever’s the faster car of the two just remembers there’s still the joker lap, which might be a better option than ending his weekend straight away with his car in the wall.