HUFF PUTS HONDA ON TOP IN WTCC THRILLER
The 2016 FIA World Touring Car Championship fired into life in spectacular fashion at Circuit Paul Ricard with Rob Huff and JoséMaría López taking the wins and Honda coming out on top of the WTCC Manufacturers’standings following two electrifying races.
Huff, celebrating WTCC start number 250, took the JVCKENWOOD WTCC Race of France Opening Race spoils on his debut for Honda after powering ahead of LADA’s Hugo Valente at the start. López then made the most of his DHL Pole Position Award to claim the Main Race victory for Citroën by a scant margin of 0.284s as Tiago Monteiro gave chase.
Mehdi Bennani’s second place overall in the Opening Race ensured the first of two wins in the WTCC Trophy for independent drivers with Norbert Michelisz, who beat Bennani to last season’s privateer title, twice finishing third on his first outing as a factory Honda driver.
Polestar Cyan Racing began its long-term commitment to the WTCC with Thed Björk and Fredrik Ekblom both scoring, while LADA was twice in the top five through Valente and Nicky Catsburg.
Victory for López, who now has 51 WTCC starts to his name, means he leads Tiago Monteiro by four points heading to Slovakia from 15-17 April with Huff and Michelisz in close pursuit.
Rob Huff enjoyed a perfect start to life as a Honda driver in the WTCC, taking his first win since Macau in 2014, 504 days ago. Starting from second under the new-for-2016 reverse-grid format for the first race at each WTCC weekend, Huff made a better start than pole-sitter Valente to take the lead. The 2012 WTCC champion quickly built an advantage of two seconds over Citroën driver Mehdi Bennani on his way to winning on his first outing for Honda. While Bennani, who was starting his 150th WTCC race in front of his watching team boss Sébastien Loeb, claimed the WTCC Trophy honours, Honda enjoyed a hugely successful first race of 2016 with Norbert Michelisz taking third and Tiago Monteiro finishing fourth, the latter climbing from ninth place on the grid. The pair both got past LADA driver Valente with three laps to go, pushing the Frenchman down to fifth. Defending champion JoséMaría López finished sixth for Citroën despite falling to 11th on the opening lap. He benefitted from a jump-start penalty for team-mate Yvan Muller, as well as a spin for Fredrik Ekblom and contact between Nicky Catsburg and Tom Coronel on lap five. There was a further clash between the Dutch duo on the final lap, giving Thed Björk seventh in the first race for the Volvo S60 Polestar TC1. Gabriele Tarquini joined Ekblom in retirement after contact from Grégoire Demoustier, who took P10
JoséMaría López held off a charging Tiago Monteiro to win the Main Race and grab a four-point championship lead. While López led the race from pole and pulled away out front, Monteiro had to recover from losing second place to Yvan Muller. On lap nine he finally got ahead of the four-time champion after contact at the final corner, with his Honda team-mate Norbert Michelisz following him through into third. Monteiro set about cutting the gap to López and the lead pair were running nose to tail starting onto the final lap. Howeve, Citroën driver López just held on by 0.284 seconds, denying Honda a double victory in France. Muller finished fourth ahead of Nicky Catsburg (LADA). Opening Race winner Rob Huff was forced wide at the first corner after contact from Gabriele Tarquini, but recovered brilliantly to finish in sixth after passing Hugo Valente, who was also involved in the Turn 1 skirmish. Mehdi Bennati took the WTCC Trophy honours for the second time in eighth overall ahead of his Sébastien Loeb Racing team-mate Tom Chilton. Polestar’s Fredrik Ekblom completed the top 10, but team-mate Thed Björk failed to finish due to an electrical issue. Tom Coronel beat John Filippi to P11 by just 0.024s in an all-Chevrolet battle.
Rob Huff had double reason to celebrate at Circuit Paul Ricard when he was handed the inaugural TAG Heuer Best Lap Award for his lap-record performance in the Opening Race. Going to the driver setting the fastest lap of all during both races, the prize is presented by the WTCC’s new Official Series Sponsor and Timing Partner.