The 2017 WTCC season begins this weekend in Morocco, and could be one of the most competitive campaigns for a long time, despite grid numbers being the lowest in the championship's 13-year history.
Since 2010, every year in WTCC there has been an obvious pre-season favourite, although on two occasions an admittedly unexpected outcome followed.
In 2010, when SEAT pulled out and BMW's ageing 320si was left to face the fast-developing RML Chevrolet, which had just signed Yvan Muller from SEAT, few would have bet against Muller.
Sure enough, the Frenchman became the first driver to win the championship even before the WTCC got to the final race weekend.
In 2011, armed with the knowledge of the previous season, and with BMW now gone as well, it was Muller’s for the taking - and he took it, though this time he was run close by teammate Rob Huff.
If you were daring, you’d have bet on Huff in 2012, but the safe money would have been on Muller – but after a season which strained team harmony and team management at Chevrolet, Huff walked away with his first title, narrowly beating Alain Menu and Muller in that order.
The following year, Muller lined up in a privateer Chevrolet, and a double-win in the season opener at Monza was a clear sign of the way the season would pan out.
Then the Citroen years came. Knowing the effort that they’d put in to developing the car, and with their five-star driver line-up of Muller, Sebastien Loeb and Jose Maria Lopez, the French marque couldn’t fail.
Of course, we all predicted that four-time champion Muller would lead Citroen to glory. And of course, that would be the second time after Huff’s title year the favourite failed to deliver.
So, with Lopez teaching his more illustrious teammates how the game would be in 2014, the last two years have been the Lopez show.
This time, however, there is no favourite to mount an upset against. It is anyone's guess.
Can Honda overcome the private Citroens?
Citroen, as a manufacturer at least, and the top two drivers from last year - Lopez and Muller - have left the grid, so what happens now?
Well, behind them in 2016 were the two Hondas of Tiago Monteiro and Norbert Michelisz - who this year are joined by Ryo Michigami in a third works Civic - so this should be easy to work out, right?
If only it were that straightforward.
Honda made great gains at the start of last year, but even then, the Japanese marque was regularly fighting against the privateer Sebastien Loeb Racing-run Citroens of Mehdi Bennani and Tom Chilton.
Both of those two are back again with the same team and car, and the Citroen is still believed to be the best car on the grid. It’ll take some catching, so has Honda done the work necessary to get ahead?
But Bennani and Chilton probably won't be the ones giving the Honda mechanics sleepless nights, especially going by the results of the pre-season test at Monza three weeks ago - when Munnich Motorsport and its new signing Huff topped every session with the ex-Muller Citroen.
The Honda refugee has returned to the privateer team which harboured him after Chevrolet’s departure in 2013, and most are predicting right now is that the Brit is on target for his second world title, not believing that anyone else could have caught up with Citroen over the winter.
Volvo's secret weapon?
Out to prove the consensus wrong will be Volvo, who like Honda last year, has significantly changed its approach. Dropping its all-Swedish philosophy, the Polestar Cyan Racing squad has hired new team members and engineers from other front-running teams, as well as two non-Swedish drivers - the fast and feisty Nestor Girolami and Lada convert Nicky Catsburg.
They join Volvo's “safe” pair of hands Thed Bjork, a tough racer with four STCC titles to his name as well as a WTCC race victory in China.
Their biggest key signing for Volvo though is undoubtedly four-time champion Muller, who comes on board as development driver and senior advisor – and in that capacity, Muller’s job will be to make sure all three of their drivers succeed.
Citroen often spoke of the amount of help that he brought to them when it entered the WTCC, and so with the French marque's secrets going the way of Volvo via Muller, will that be enough to help the team catch and leapfrog Honda as well as the privateer Citroens?
A chance for underdogs
Behind the obvious frontrunners are a number of privateer entries who are looking for strong seasons in 2017. Shock wins will be the name of the game, with just 16 cars entered for the season.
Two Chevrolets, both still strong and fast cars, will be on the grid. These will be driven by WTCC stalwart Tom Coronel and top Argentinian driver Esteban Guerrieri, who will drive for the ROAL and Campos squads respectively.
John Filippi has ditched his Campos Chevrolet and made the move to a Sebastien Loeb Racing Citroen, and will be hoping to at least break onto the podium a few times in his fourth season in the championship.
Zengo Motorsport will field two Honda Civics for Aurelien Panis and Daniel Nagy, with Panis running a 2017-spec car. The team will hope the Frenchman will bring them the same kind of success, and maybe occasional victories, that its former star driver Michelisz did.
A Lada Vesta run by RC Motorsport for Yvan Muller’s nephew Yann Ehrlacher could be quickly written off as grid-filler, but the young Frenchman showed good pace in testing at Monza.
Although the momentum that the former factory Lada team showed last year is unlikely to continue, there’s certainly a chance of a few surprise results, especially as we wait for the team to confirm a second “pro driver” to help steer the team.
The 2017 WTCC should be the closest season in years. The champion will likely come from one of three different manufacturers – a privately-run Citroen, or a works Honda or Volvo – and one of six different drivers could easily be champion at the end of the year.
After the Monza test, you’d be brave to bet against Huff and the Munnich Citroen, but both Honda and Volvo will have the pressure from above to succeed, as well as the ability to develop throughout the year on their side. Will it be enough?
We probably won’t know until December, when the season ends under the lights in Qatar.
Neil Hudson / Touring Car Times
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