The 2012 FIA WTCC kicks off this weekend at the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza, Italy's temple of speed and one of the most glorious racetracks in the world.
This superfast circuit that is home to the Italian F1 Grand Prix, hosted the first ever WTCC event back in 2005. The championship paid a stop in Monza nearly every year since, with the exception of 2009, when the WTCC Race of Italy was temporarily moved to Imola.
WTCC is one of the favourite events for the enthusiastic Italian fans who always come to fill the grandstands in overtaking places such as the first chicane and the Ascari.
All the most competitive manufacturers have managed to win at Monza. SEAT's turbo diesel cars claimed an impressive streak of six consecutive victories between 2007 and 2009, BMW won three times and Alfa Romeo twice, while Chevrolet triumphed in the last three races, with Rob Huff scoring a double last year.
The race weekend will be opened on Thursday, March 8, by a full test day made of five one-hour sessions.
A Strong Field Of 25 Drivers
The new WTCC season will start in style, with a strong field of 25 drivers coming from 14 different countries and at the wheel of four models: Chevrolet Cruze, BMW 320, SEAT León and Ford Focus.
The latest additions were Tiago Monteiro, who joined Pepe Oriola at Tuenti Racing Team, Isaac Tutumlu, teaming with Mehdi Bennani at Proteam Racing and he duo Andrea Barlesi-Fernando Monje signed by SUNRED Engineering.
Although he entered for the season, Monje will race at Monza not in WCC, but in the FIA European Touring Car Cup.
For the second consecutive year Yvan Muller and Chevrolet are the defending champions.
In 2011 the Cruze cars dominated the field re-writing all WTCC records and statistics, while Muller and his team-mates Rob Huff and Alain Menu filled the championship podium.
The question is: will they be able to repeat such a triumphant season?
"It is impossible to say now," Muller commented. "You may work a lot during the wintter, but until you face your competitors at the first event you don't know where you are. I know that we have done a good job and advanced a little bit compared to last year. But starting the season 40 kilos heavier than the rest of the field will complicate our life. As for the others, I cannot say how competitive they will be, although I'm sure that SEAT cars will be faster now that SEAT Sport is looking after them."
The challenge for the rest of the field is dethroning double champions Muller and Chevrolet and competition on track is due to be even more exciting this year.
The arrival of Team Aon brings the Ford brand back to the championship for the first time after 2005; the team's Focus cars in the hands of young and talented British drivers Tom Chilton and James Nash appear to have a great potential.
2009 champion Gabriele Tarquini's and Tiago Monteiro's expectations to fight back for the world title have been strongly enhanced since he signed to race for the Lukoil Racing Team at the wheel of a SEAT León car fitted out with SEAT Sport's new 1.6-litre turbo engine that will also power the cars of Special Tuning Racing and SUNRED Engineering.
The list of is completed by a bunch of competitive drivers in BMW 320 TC cars, led by race winners Tom Coronel and Franz Engstler and the experienced Stefano D'Aste.
The Green Tide
One of the most interesting aspects of the new season is the significant rejuvenation of the competitors. Although touring car racing has always been considered as a category dominated by drivers in their forties, and even older, the 2012 WTCC is drastically reversing the trend.
For the first time half of the field is made up of drivers under-30, including a few promising teen-agers such as Pepe Oriola (17-years old) the youngest ever in WTCC, Alberto Cerqui (19) reigning champion of the Italian Superstars.
It is the proof that WTCC is now regarded as a serious alternative to formula cars in building a professional career and the championship may now welcome young racers coming from single-seaters such as Mehdi Bennani (World Series), Fernando Monje (F3 Open) and Pasquale di Sabatino (Auto GP).
A truly global championship, the WTCC will visit twelve countries over four continents.
The new venues compared to the previous years are the modern Slovakia Ring, located nearby Bratislava, the superfast Salzburgring with its beautiful setting amid the Austrian mountains, Sonoma's spectacular Infineon Raceway that will host WTCC first ever visit to the USA, the Shanghai International Circuit, home to the F1 Chinese Grand Prix, and Marrakech's street circuit that reappears in the WTCC calendar after a one-year break, bringing the championship to North Africa for the third time.
The Key Factors
A few technical and sporting features might prove crucial in the fight for the titles.
ENGINE RELIABILITY - 2012 is the second season for the 1.6 turbo engines that were introduced last year, increasing performance significantly. The period of adjustment is over and now the new engines must last for the complete season, allowing a huge saving in terms of running budgets.
COMPENSATION WEIGHT - the system that allocates extra weight according to the cars' performance on the track will come into force from the third race meeting. However - following an agreement among the represented manufacturers - the Chevrolet Cruze cars (2011 champion model) will be laden in Monza and Valencia by the maximum ballast of 40 kilos.
QUALIFYING SYSTEM - not only the qualifying will award championship points to the top five drivers in Q2, but the whole system has been revised for adding thrill to Saturday's action. Twelve drivers instead of ten are now allowed to advance from Q1 to Q2 and fight for the top positions on the grid for Race 1. From this year the final results of Q2 are also deciding the grid of Race 2 that is drawn up by reversing the top-ten drivers classified.
European Touring Car Cup Ready To Go
The 2012 FIA European Touring Car Cup will kick off next weekend at Monza as well. The series will be also part of the WTCC events at Slovakia Ring (29 April) and Salzburgring (20 May) before being concluded by a stand-alone event at Imola (24 June).
Eligible cars are FIA Super 2000 (as per 2010 regulations, with 2.0L normally aspirated or turbodiesel engines), Super 1600, Super Production and Single Make Trophy.
A field of twenty-six cars will race at Monza in two back-to-back 50 km races on Sunday.
In the S2000 class Aytaç Biter, Petr Fulín and Igor Skuz are among the BMW drivers who will face Honda (Christian Fischer and Peter Rikli), Peugeot (Tim Gabór), SEAT (Ferran Monje) cars. An former WTCC Alfa Romeo 156 will be in the hands of Ferenc Ficza, 15-year old Hungarian, the youngest driver ever in ETCC.
A trio of Chevrolet Aveo cars run by Maurer Motorsport will fight against a platoon of Ford Fiesta in the S1600, while reigning champion Aleksandar Tosic (Honda) and Fabio Fabiani (BMW) will resume their fight in the Super Production. The field is completed by few SEAT León Cup cars in the new Single Make Trophy.