LADA Sport makes best of Suzuka weekend and places all bets on Macau grand finale
Rob Huff received the chequered flag in 11th position, James Thompson and Mikhail Kozlovskiy, ran quiet races to finish 12th and 13th.
LADA Sport made the best of what was always predicted to be a tough weekend, battling on the cusp of the top ten in Rounds 21 and 22 of the 2014 FIA World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) on Japan’s Suzuka International Circuit (Sunday 26 October).
Conditions remained warm and dry for the main event on Sunday and, while it was felt LADA Sport could mount a challenge for strong points finishes at Suzuka after featuring in the top ten during free practice, a troubled qualifying session placed the team in the middle of the grid.
Aerodynamic efficiency and high top speeds are key to extracting the most from Suzuka’s long straights and protracted turns and Rob Huff’s most realistic shot of graduating to the second part of qualifying was ruined by an untimely red-flag stoppage midway through Q1.
We fought hard and scored no points, but if anybody had told us we’d be within 1.5s of the pace at Suzuka, we would have been very happy.
Qualifying concluded with the Iconic Bet-backed Huff 13th, James Thompson 14th and Mikhail Kozlovskiy 15th and the LADA Sport trio could only maintain position outside of the top ten during Sunday’s opening 11-lap contest.
The field had spread significantly by around half-distance of what was a fairly uneventful race on the 5.8km Suzuka Grand Prix circuit.
Proteam Racing’s Mehdi Bennani held 11th and headed former World Champion Huff in the lead LADA Granta Sport by approximately 2.5s, while Thompson and Kozlovskiy kept watching briefs in 13th and 14th respectively.
Much like the earlier race, Huff once again led the LADA Sport contingent in Round 22. The Briton latched on to the rear of Tom Chilton’s Chevrolet Cruze after the ROAL Motorsport racer lost out at the start, and continued the chase in the hope of deposing his countryman for the final point.
A collision involving the Citroens of Yvan Muller and Sebastien Loeb took Campos Racing’s Hugo Valente out of the equation with terminal damage on lap five, promoting Chilton and Huff to tenth and 11th places respectively.
Chilton had his rear-view mirrors full of Huff’s LADA Granta Sport during the initial stages and the gap between them reduced from more than 1.2s to six tenths of a second, before gradually re-extending as tyre wear came to the fore.
As a result, Huff received the chequered flag in 11th position, agonisingly close to achieving another points finish for his LADA Sport team and comfortably ahead of teammates Thompson and Kozlovskiy, who ran quiet races to finish 12th and 13th.
Huff said: “On the whole, while it was a difficult weekend, it actually brought more than we expected and we’re feeling more disappointed to miss out on points than we perhaps should be, as a result. James (Thompson) and I hung on to Tom Chilton, Tiago Monteiro and Gianni Morbidelli for most of race two and any error by them would given us points.
We fought hard and scored no points, but if anybody had told us we’d be within 1.5s of the pace at Suzuka, we would have been very happy. We thought it would be a repeat of Spa-Francorchamps and our performances show how far we’ve come and that the results in Argentina and Beijing weren’t just flukes.
“Now we head to Macau. The Circuito da Guia is the longest circuit we visit, with the longest middle and last sectors. We may struggle in the first sector, but I think our chassis’ mechanical grip should keep us in touch. There’s one round left and we have achieved far more this year than we ever believed, so there are high hopes and expectations for next year.”
Thompson said: “The last circuit we visited that is even remotely like Suzuka was Spa-Francorchamps and we were much closer to the pace this time, so there are many positives to take from the weekend. We spent the second race hanging on the coattails of the guys who finished at the top in race one and this highlights the improvements made to the LADA Granta Sport.
The truth is, our focus has been on Macau, as we see this as our most realistic chance of taking a result. Both Rob (Huff) and I like it there and I was on course for a podium finish last year until I was involved in an incident. We’ve always had one eye on the season finale.”
Kozlovskiy concluded: "This weekend confirmed the importance of pre-race testing on a new track and the importance of good pace in qualifying – it was hard for us, as we struggled on the long straights in the third sector, so we had to make very good starts to gain positions in sectors one and two, which was a difficult thing to do from the middle of the grid. I look forward to the final WTCC round in Macau.
This must be a special race – new WTCC cars on a narrow, dangerous city circuit promises a good fight and an action-packed weekend! Keeping the cars alive and pushing hard, the drivers will have to show all their talent to find this balance and the show for the spectators will be unforgettable."
The ambitious LADA Sport team is now fully concentrated on the highly-anticipated final round of the FIA World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) on the streets of Macau (14-16 November).
The Russian squad will arrive at Circuito da Guia in a determined frame of mind because, not only do Huff’s six wins mean he holds the record as the most successful driver on the dangerous city track, but Thompson came close to achieving LADA Sport’s maiden podium finish there last year, before being punted out of contention by Pepe Oriola.
LADA Sport will also bid a final farewell to the LADA Granta, which will be replaced by the brand new Vesta model in 2015.
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