Three races, three winners: Super-tight WTCR season delivers at Suzuka

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Johan Kristoffersson completed the WTCR Race of Japan weekend a winner but it’s Esteban Guerrieri who leaves Suzuka on top on the Road To Malaysia, where the 2019 WTCR – FIA World Touring Car Cup will be decided at the Sepang super-finale in December.

After languishing in P10 in Race 2, Honda-powered Guerrieri – competing at the Japanese make’s home track – hit back to follow Kristoffersson (SLR Volkswagen) home in Race 3. Those points, added to his Race 1 victory, means the Münnich Motorsport driver tops the standings with a six-point advantage over Norbert Michelisz, who took the Race 2 win for BRC Hyundai N Squadra Corse.

Kevin Ceccon completed the Race 3 podium in unusual circumstances when he profited from a “miscommunication” by Tiago Monteiro. The Portuguese, thinking the race had run its course under the safety car, headed to the pits in error from third. While he quickly realised his mistake, it was too late to the extent Team Mulsanne’s Ceccon and Cyan Racing Lynk & Co’s Thed Björk had moved ahead.

By re-passing Björk, Monteiro received a 10-second time penalty for overtaking under the safety car and slipped to P15 in the final order. Ceccon, meanwhile, was demoted to sixth after he picked up a five-second penalty for a clash with Rob Huff earlier in the race. Björk therefore inherited third with Gabriele Tarquini moving up to fourth and Andy Priaulx taking fifth following his hefty Race 1 crash. With 24 races run, Björk is third in the standings.

Huff scored his first 2019 podium with second place in Race 2 at the wheel of his SLR VW Motorsport Volkswagen Golf GTI R5 as Tarquini held off the charging Ceccon for third.

PWR Racing’s leading rookie Mikel Azcona was eighth in Race 2 but a slow start meant he was unable to convert his third-best Second Qualifying lap into a Race 3 podium for CUPRA.

Michelisz’s 53.888s best in Race 2 earned the Hungarian the TAG Heuer Best Lap Trophy. However, with eighth place the best he could muster in the closing race of the weekend, he will head to WTCR Race of Macau next month playing catch-up in the title chase. In the battle to be crowned top team, Cyan Racing Lynk & Co narrowly heads Münnich Motorsport.

Japan’s Ryuichiro Tomita scored the best finish of the wildcard drivers with P17 in Race 2 but joined team-mate Ritomo Miyata on the DNF list for Race 3. Hong Kong’s Jim Ka To finished all three races on his WTCR debut.

RACE 3 REPORT: KRISTOFFERSSON CONVERTS DHL POLE INTO VICTORY

Johan Kristoffersson took victory in an incident-packed Race 3 as runner-up Esteban Guerrieri moved back to the top of the WTCR – FIA World Touring Car Cup presented by OSCARO.

Kristoffersson started from the DHL Pole Position, but lost out to fellow front-row starter Tiago Monteiro from the getaway, only to nudge the Portuguese at Turn 2 and take the lead for his second WTCR / OSCARO victory.

The Suzuka race was interrupted by a safety car period at the end of the first lap after wildcard entry Ritomo Miyata collided with Tom Coronel and Ma Qinghua, leaving the Audi and CUPRA stranded in a gravel trap.

The action resumed on lap eight with Kristoffersson leading from Monteiro and Guerrieri, who had benefited at the start from third place starter Mikel Azcona stalling on the line. It soon became clear from radio conversations that KCMG’s Monteiro would eventually give up his second place to Münnich Motorsport’s Guerrieri to help his fellow Honda driver’s cause in the title race. They swapped positions on lap 28 of 30.

Team Mulsanne’s Kevin Ceccon was the man on the move in his Alfa Romeo Giulietta Veloce TCR. Having started seventh, he’d lost a place leaving the grid but the Italian nudged Rob Huff to retake the position, then passed Gabriele Tarquini and Andy Priaulx on consecutive laps.

Late in the race Ceccon also got by Thed Björk for fourth, then claimed a surprise podium in odd circumstances. The race finished behind the Audi R8 safety car after wildcard Tomita Ryuichiro went off. Monteiro then almost pulled into the pitlane early rather than take the chequered flag, allowing the Alfa to get ahead.

“A miscommunication, I would say,” he explained. “I thought it was the last lap and in fact you have to finish the lap of course. I was talking on the radio, didn’t pay attention and started coming into the pits. I came out right away but Kevin passed me, so it’s a bit of strange one because it’s still the safety car. But the stewards decide like this. With the decisions made this weekend, I’m really confused. Very tough to take.”

Monteiro finished fourth on the road ahead of Björk, Tarquini and Priaulx. Huff was eighth, while ninth was not enough for Race 2 winner Norbert Michelisz to retain his WTCR / OSCARO points lead. Jean-Karl Vernay completed the top 10 in his Audi.

The other points finishers were Nicky Catsburg, Benjamin Leuchter, Frédéric Vervisch, Néstor Girolami and Yvan Muller. KCMG’s Attila Tassi lost ninth place on the road with a five-second penalty for not lining up in the proper position on the grid.

RACE 2 REPORT: MICHELISZ BEATS FOR FOURTH WIN

Norbert Michelisz grabbed the victory in a frantic reverse-grid Race 2 at WTCR JVCKENWOOD Race of Japan to retake the WTCR / OSCARO title advantage.

The BRC Hyundai N Squadra Corse driver started from the Pole Position and robustly defended his lead from fellow front-row starter Rob Huff off the line, then led the SLR VW Motorsport driver for the rest of the 24 laps.

Huff was always within range of making a move, but Michelisz never gave the Briton a chance to pass. The only shadow on Michelisz’s race was being shown the black and white flag for driving standards after moving far to the right off the line and into the pitlane exit to defend his lead from Huff.

Behind the leading pair, Kevin Ceccon chased Gabriele Tarquini hard for the final podium position. The Team Mulsanne Alfa Romeo Giulietta Veloce TCR drew alongside the BRC Hyundai N Squadra Corse Hyundai i30 N TCR several times into Turn 1 and on one occasion Tarquini nudged Ceccon wide, but the younger Italian wasn’t quite able to make a move stick. “It was quite hot with Kevin,” admitted Tarquini. “He was the fastest driver in the race.”

Thed Björk held of Tiago Monteiro, Johan Kristoffersson and Mikel Azcona for fourth, while Jean-Karl Vernay rose from P13 on the grid to finish ninth. Guerrieri, who started the race sixth, slipped back to P10, banking safe points for the title and avoiding the risk of an incident.

SLR Volkswagen’s Benjamin Leuchter was P11, ahead of Néstor Girolami, Frédéric Vervisch and Yvan Muller. Yann Ehrlacher was the final points finisher in P15. Niels Langeveld retired following a clash with Augusto Farfus. Attila Tassi placed 24 after running off track.

RACE 1 REPORT: GUERRIERI WINS FOR HONDA

Münnich Motorsport’s Esteban Guerrieri claimed the WTCR / OSCARO points lead with a strong win from the DHL Pole Position at Honda’s home track ahead of Comtoyou Team Audi Sport’s Niels Langeveld and KCMG’s Tiago Monteiro.

At the start, Comtoyou Team Audi Sport’s Frédéric Vervisch challenged Guerrieri for first place on the outside of Turns 1 and 2, which allowed team-mate Langeveld up the inside to take the lead. But on lap two the Dutch driver made a mistake at the final turn, which allowed Guerrieri to take a lead he would not lose.

There was bad luck for Vervisch, who lost his third place on lap seven when debris got lodged between the front-left brake caliper and wheel, splitting the rim in the process and triggering a safety car interlude Vervisch stopped on track.

The racing action resumed on lap 10 with Guerrieri leading from Langeveld, ahead of Monteiro – who had started fourth rather than from the DHL Pole Position as one of a number of driver to incur a grid penalty after qualifying.

On lap 14 there was further Audi misfortune as impressive wildcard  Ritomo Miyata dropped out of seventh place in his Audi Team Hitotsuyama RS 3 LMS with a paddle-shift failure.

The race ended under the Audi R8 safety car following a high-speed crash involving Andy Priaulx and Nicky Catsburg. The Cyan Performance Lynk & Co driver, running in P13, was defending into Turn 1 from BRC Hyundai N LUKOIL Racing Team’s Catsburg.

The Hyundai i30 N TCR made contact with the Lynk & Co, with Priaulx shooting across the gravel trap and hard into the barrier.

Behind the top three, Thed Björk finished fourth for Lynk & Co, ahead of SLR Volkswagen’s Johan Kristoffersson who held off Leopard Racing Team Audi Sport’s Jean-Karl Vernay for fifth.

Gabriele Tarquini was seventh, ahead of Team Mulsanne Alfa Romeo Giulietta Veloce TCR duo Kevin Ceccon and Ma Qinghua. Volkswagen-powered Sébastien Loeb Racing driver Rob Huff completed the top 10 followed by Yvan Muller – from P25 on the grid – Yann Ehrlacher, erstwhile title leader Norbert Michelisz, Catsburg and Aurélien Panis, the first CUPRA driver home in P15.

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