Iconic street track in Portugal marks a step into the unknown for all WTCC drivers.
The challenge never stops in the FIA World Touring Car Championship. Having mastered three purpose-built tracks in quick succession in Russia, Slovakia and France, the WTCC drivers will take on the iconic Vila Real street circuit in Portugal next week for an historical step into the unknown.
Despite hosting its inaugural car race in 1931, OSCARO.com WTCC Race of Portugal will be the first FIA world championship event to take place in Vila Real, a picturesque city in northern Portugal 100 kilometers east of Porto. And it will be a street race with a difference with the 4.775-kilometre layout featuring an exciting blend of twists, turns, climbs and descents. While a handful of chicanes have been installed for safety reasons, the spectacle remains with top speeds of 240kph expected on the final downhill section.
I’ve never driven there but funnily enough I remember my first images of race cars live was in Vila Real when I was eight or nine.
One driver in particular aiming to go as fast as possible in Vila Real will be Tiago Monteiro. The Porto resident is a WTCC race winner and Formula One podium finisher and heads the Honda challenge alongside Gabriele Tarquini from Italy. Monteiro has a strong record on street circuits and came within a handful of laps of winning in the former Portuguese enclave of Macau last November only for a mechanical failure to lead to heartbreak.
After a collision dropped him out of the podium battle in France, Monteiro will be anxious for a change of fortune on home soil. Although the 38-year-old watched racing in Vila Real as a child, like his WTCC rivals, he has no experience of the demanding street circuit, known as the ‘Nürburgring of the South’ due to its similarities to the famous Nordschleife in Germany.
With 14 rounds run in 2015, the chase for WTCC success remains tightly poised. José María López might top the standings by an increased margin of 39 points following his fifth victory of 2015 in France last weekend, but French Citroën team-mates Sébastien Loeb and Yvan Muller have done plenty of winning this season and will again provide formidable opposition to Argentina’s reigning world champion. Muller was one of two winners when Portugal last hosted the WTCC in 2013 at the Boavista street circuit in Porto.
Ma Qing Hua from China completes the factory Citroën line-up while Mehdi Bennani will pilot a privateer C-Eylsée WTCC and will be eager to make up for his mistake at Circuit Paul Ricard. Lining up in pole position for race two, the Moroccan accidentally jumped the start and received a drive-through penalty for his troubles.
Briton Rob Huff, the 2012 WTCC champion, has forged a reputation as the ultimate street racer with 10 round-the-houses victories to his name. After a tough outing in France, the LADA driver will be hoping for a return to form in Portugal where he enjoyed WTCC success in 2011. Dutch pair Nicky Catsburg and Jaap van Lagen complete the LADA attack. Hungarian Norbert Michelisz will be a contender in his Zengő Motorsport Honda, while Argentina’s Néstor Girolami is back on WTCC duty having scored on his debut in Slovakia for Honda Racing team Sweden.
ROAL Motorsport drivers Tom Chilton and Tom Coronel arrive in Portugal on the back of an in-season test at Paul Ricard in their Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1s. Grégoire Demoustier, Stefano D’Aste, John Filippi and Hugo Valente also rely on Chevrolet power and will target Yokohama Drivers’ Trophy success.
Q&A: Tiago Monteiro
He’s the home hero all Portuguese fans will be cheering and, like all of his FIA World Touring Car Championship rivals, the challenging Vila Real circuit will be a step into the unknown for Tiago Monteiro. Well sort of in any case as the Castrol Honda driver reveals ahead of OSCARO.com WTCC Race of Portugal…
Do you have any experience of driving at Vila Real?
“I’ve never driven there but funnily enough I remember my first images of race cars live was in Vila Real when I was eight or nine. We have some family from around there who had a house where you could see the track from the garden. The whole family would go there for a big nice weekend event. It was fun and it’s funny that almost 30 years later I go there as a racer in a world championship. It’s fantastic and I’m very excited about it.”
But a home race brings its fair share of demands, right?
“For me it’s a highlight of the season. It’s an important one but a busy one and a bit of a love/hate situation. It’s great and I’m blessed and very lucky to be racing in my country. There are a lot of international drivers in the WTCC and many of them don’t have a home race so I’m very lucky to have it for some time now. But at the same time it’s very busy, very demanding psychologically, even physically because you travel a lot for it. And the last week will be a crescendo of activities but I guess it’s a good thing.”
Did those early visits to Vila Real fire your interest in motor racing?
“It would be nice to say yes but not really! I always liked motorsports but I was a lot more into motorbikes to be honest. Although I liked cars and to watch the racing was quite exciting, I was more into motorbikes until I was 16. I don’t think going to Vila Real had a direct interference in my life but for sure it sparked some interest.”
What knowledge do you have of the actual track and the layout?
“I started to look already at some YouTube videos to understand it a little bit but it seems very fast. It seems like a mix of Pau, but much faster, like Macau a little bit and with a bit of a Nürburgring Nordschleife feeling with ups and downs and blind corners. Everything seems very fast so I am expecting a big challenge.”
You spent some time going to the Nürburgring to prepare for the WTCC races there in May. Do you have a similar plan for Vila Real, even though it’s obviously a street circuit?
“In this case it’s probably better to watch videos and do a track walk with the engineers, maybe some laps on a bicycle. It’s the same for everybody, everybody is new there and it’s up to us to get up to speed quickly.”
What’s the secret to learning a new track?
“I have a secret but I can’t tell you because it won’t be a secret any more! The only thing I can say is walking the track helps a lot. Looking at every detail, the grip level, the bumps, it’s very important. If you have a good simulator you can also learn a bit from there. Videos also help but there are also some other tricks.”
What kind of welcome are you expecting from the Portuguese fans?
“To be honest Porto was always a huge success in terms of attendances and you feel that support everywhere, it’s crazy! I must say gearing up to the race in Vila Real I’ve felt a lot more demand from the people, more enthusiasm, more motivation around Vila Real so I think there could be more people. There is a lot more curiosity about it, even more than Porto.”