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A new season and a revamped driver line-up. Just how important is 2017 for you and Polestar Cyan Racing?
“It’s a lot more important because the first year was a learning season but now we are coming with a different view and we really want to beat the others.”

How much does that ramp up the pressure?
“A lot. I got the whole of last year to drive without pressure and now they ramp up the pressure – but they also are giving us a lot more testing and things like this. So, it’s back to normal like I am used to. If you are going to win the championship you always have to perform. And what I can do is try to perform as good as I can and get some help from my team-mates, and then the whole team can go faster. So it’s a good feeling.”

Is it fair to say you are more prepared for a season of racing than ever before?
“This is absolutely correct. A lot more work has been put in to prepare and we know the tracks, so definitely, a lot more preparations have been done.”

What changes have been made to the Volvo S60 Polestar TC1 for 2017?
“In general terms it’s the same basic car but there have been some small adjustments, I would say many small adjustments. With the experience we got from last year on all the different tracks we are trying now to put together what can be good on this track, what can be good on that track. It’s different things, no big thing has changed.”

But were there key areas where you were looking for significant changes to be made?
“At some tracks we were definitely looking for more traction to gain against the others and to be able to be fast where the others were fast. Last year, when we arrived in the season, we did not know where the other cars would be fast and that we have learned. Now we try to be better.”

What difference will a three-car team make?
“When you have three cars you have a lot more to do for the mechanics and for the team, but it’s also building you a stronger team that goes for the title. In the world championship three is the number you need for doing the WTCC MAC3 [team time trial]. It feels great and there is a good team spirit already. I have got to know Nicky more and more each day we drive together. Also, Néstor is a really good guy. I will try to learn everything they know to be faster than them!”

From what was an all-Swedish team before how will the dynamic change?
“It changes a lot but I believe the team is ready for this, it feels like we can get experience from everywhere, put it down and just work with it. It feels good, but it’s definitely different.”

Honda will be a big rival in 2017. What do you make of the testing they have been doing and their likely performance level?
“If we saw the Honda is testing we have been testing as well, but it’s hard to say what they have done and they don’t know what we’ve done. They’re a big competitor because they have so much experience and they have some good drivers, and that’s why our team is trying to pitch in knowledge from different categories to compete against them. More than that I don’t know. We will know much more in Marrakech.”

With three very competitive drivers in the same team there’s always the risk of on-track contact and disputes. How do you plan to handle those situations if they arise?
“For example, in Marrakech last year with Nicky, I have been racing all my life and when he hit me I don’t get angry, I just try to restart, continue driving, because if I finish I get some points. When I saw the braking tracks from his car on the next lap I thought if I had done these marks I would be apologising to the other driver – and that’s exactly what happened. He came and apologised, so it depends on the situation. I have so much experience that if they try to do something with me I will know what they’ve done and just have some good feeling they won’t do it [again]. We will have a good game plan from the beginning and try to follow that. If you see the other Honda drivers, everybody is so professional. If you get hit, well, everybody can do a mistake. I think if it’s happening in our team we will talk about it. I am very calm now but I think it can be like this and that is the key to the championship if we can do this.”

It will be your first season doing the WTCC MAC3 team time trial. Excited by the prospect?
“Really excited. It adds to the weekend what we are doing to get more points for the manufacturers. Also, it feels like we do the start and it’s like warming up for the real race. In the start it’s chaos, but it feels like a good weekend to do this: training, qualifying, MAC3 and the races, so I really look forward to it.”

A quick word on Néstor who, like you, is now a Gothenburg resident. What tips do you have for him?
“He can call me any time he wants. We are 15 or 20 minutes apart, just a short drive. I think he’s a little bit cold now but when we start to get to April and May he will really start to enjoy Sweden because the weather changes and it’s fantastic."

Finally, if you won’t win the WTCC title this year who will?
“If I don’t win it Nicky will win it. And if I don’t win it and Nicky doesn’t win it then it will be Bebu [Girolami]."

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Your 2017 testing programme with the Castrol Honda World Touring Car Team began in Aragon last month – how did it go?
“Very good, I enjoyed getting back in the car because too much time has passed since [last season’s final round in] Qatar and I really missed driving the Honda Civic. It was fun, but on top of that I was really happy because we did three days [of testing] and the car was working very good. We had some updates and all of them were working fine. You always need reliability with the car, but we managed to get that so everyone is really happy inside the team.”

But what about performance, were you happy with that?
“The target was not to exploit maximum performance now; it was just about seeing how all the new parts are working and if they are a good combination. Then we have many more test sessions coming where we can focus on performance rather than reliability.”

Has a successful test raised your hopes for the year ahead?
“I was quite confident already in November and December with the updates that were coming. The potential of the car is there; we just have to exploit it and I’m sure we will do that.”

Your new team-mate Ryo Michigami was testing. Was it good working with him and how much did you help him?
“We had two cars at the test. My main focus was on driving the updated car, but whenever I had some time I was keen to help Ryo. I like him a lot, he’s very focused. I’ve known him since Motegi last year. I really like his attitude – calm, quiet and focused 100 per cent on what he is doing. He did a lot of running and that was useful for him because he has the least experience. He improved quite a lot from the first lap to the end of the third day. He will be a strong contender.”

How much will you miss your former team-mate Rob Huff?
“Having a world champion in a team is a big asset. I loved having Rob in the team, but seeing Ryo’s improvement in performance I am sure he will be there as well. Of course, it’s bad to lose an asset like Rob, but with Ryo we have another very strong asset inside the team.”

Do you see Rob, now at Münnich Motorsport, as being a title threat?
“Of course. I know especially after last year that he’s a world-class driver and with the Citroën it will be a very strong combination. He’s a really strong contender, but not only Rob. I hear Volvo is testing a lot and rumours about a very strong line-up, so it will be an exciting season. I enjoy competition. I know we’ll be much stronger than in 2016 because we will have a better car, but I also expect some real competition from the others and this is why I am looking so much forward to this season.”

It’s your second year as a factory driver. How much easier will that make things for you?
“Now it’s a bit easier than at the beginning. I knew some people from testing previously with Honda in 2015, but on a race weekend you have to work with a new engineer and new mechanics, and there are not the familiar faces. To work together with them in testing is different to a race weekend where you have the pressure, where you have to perform. It’s a different environment and I have to say I really enjoyed working with JAS and Honda. They were always kind enough to understand it was a new situation for me and I got the support I needed. With the information from last year and knowing the team like I do now, we can form a stronger package for next season. I expect from the first moment to put in 100 per cent. Last year, especially at the beginning of the season, I was a bit affected by the new environment because it was a huge responsibility for me to work with Honda as a factory driver. Nice and difficult times have to be experienced to form a strong package. I really enjoy working with the people, not only because they are kind but because we understand each other 100 per cent.”

Do you have anything more to prove to Honda, or is your driving at its best?
“There’s always some pressure when you are racing for a factory team. But the biggest pressure is what I put on myself. I have high expectations, it’s not just the expectations from Honda. There is some pressure, but most of the pressure is coming from myself.”

Are you confident of winning the world title this year?
“I am always afraid of being too confident before the start of the season. Now it’s really important to keep the head down, to work in the same rhythm, with the same kind of approach we did last year. If we do that we will be a very strong contender for the title. There is still a long way to go with the development parts we have before the first race in Marrakech. I have to give 100 per cent to be ready for then, to be able to fight for the world championship. With the current information I have, if everything goes like we planned we could have the chance to fight for the title.”

If you don’t win the world title, who would you put your money on?
“For me, it’s [team-mate] Tiago [Monteiro]. He showed last season that he’s a fantastic driver. He’s improved a lot in terms of driving from 2015-16. Then most probably it will be Rob and all the Volvo drivers. It’s difficult to tell you only one name because I strongly believe there can be six to eight drivers fighting for the championship to the end.”

Macau and Monza are back on the calendar this year. What do you think of those venues?
“Yeah, I love them. In Monza, I won my first international race in 2008. And in Macau I won my first WTCC race in 2010. So I have really special and nice memories. Both of the tracks are among my favourites.”

And you’re going back to the Nürburgring Nordschleife – are you a fan or not?
“I absolutely love it. You cannot compare the Nürburgring to anything else. Previously I thought Macau was the most difficult circuit in the world, but when we visited the Nürburgring in 2015 I soon realised it’s on another level. During the race weekend, if it’s free practice or a qualifying session, you always have these cautious feelings because on this circuit you do one mistake and you can have a huge accident – because of the high speed, because of there not being any run-off area. The Nürburgring is really special because it’s really, really difficult. Because of this the whole approach on a race weekend is different to all the other places we have.”

‘Joker laps’ are new for this year. What’s your view on them?
“I think it’s a really good idea. It’s hard to drive on a street track, but I totally understand for Vila Real [the fans] don’t see that it’s not much fun for us. They would like to see some overtaking and some kind of action. ‘Joker laps’ can be a nice strategy for us and because of this possibility we should be able to do some overtaking, which is always nice, and it should also be nice for the audience.”

And how good does it feel knowing all the Hungarian fans are behind you?
“It’s amazing. It’s always huge pressure in the week before the races. But as soon as I jump out of the car in the second race I cannot wait to be back in the car racing in front of my fans. It’s the most special feeling I have racing at home. I have so many nice memories since my first podium there, since my first race in 2012. I remember the great feeling, just moments and memories for the lifetime. I hugely appreciate all the support I have from my Hungarian fans because it’s really special to have these people standing behind me. No matter what happens they are 100 per cent there and supporting me. It gives me an extra boost many times and extra energy, especially when things are not really going my way.”

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As a long-term member of the Honda World Touring Car Team line-up, Portugal’s Tiago Monteiro, 40, is a firm contender for FIA World Touring Car Championship honours in 2017.

He discusses new team-mates, title rivals and the WTCC’s return to Macau.

Apart from testing, how have you kept busy during the winter months?
“I had some time off with my family over Christmas and the New Year. It was good, just enjoying time with my kids and my family. After that we started shaking down the cars, and there were some PR and marketing activities. I’ve been all over Europe since the beginning of January. I even had one day of skiing for a photoshoot. Now it’s going to be full on until [the first race in] April. When I look at my agenda, February is very busy with testing and PR, it’s non-stop. March there are not a lot of days off and then the first race will arrive very soon.”

What do you think of the new Honda driver line-up with Ryo Michigami joining the team and Rob Huff taking up a new challenge elsewhere?
“The first time we were together was in testing. It’s new but it’s not that new, because we already know Ryo from last year when he did some testing and a race with us. Because it was not a race weekend it doesn’t seem that different so far. It isn’t the biggest difference not having Rob there – many times in testing we were not together. But I’m very glad for him he’s found a good opportunity. I think he will be a strong competitor, no doubt about it.”

Will you be there to help Ryo?
“Of course, that’s what we’re here for. I’ve done that already in testing. We’re here to help him to be up to speed. He has the talent and the experience. He just needs to learn this car, which is very different to what he’s used to. He’s proven he can learn fast and be up to date.”

You’ll obviously need him to be quick for WTCC MAC3. What do you think of WTCC MAC3? Have you enjoyed it, has it been a good challenge?
“It’s been much more fun than I expected. The impact with the points last year was too low and it’s changing for this year, which is definitely a good idea. It is really a challenging thing for the drivers, it’s interesting but also stressful. If the show is good for the fans, then it’s a great tool and it should stay. And we need Ryo to be up to speed and I am quite confident he will be. Of course, there will be some tracks that he doesn’t know but he should be okay.”

Macau and Monza are back for this year – you must be very pleased with Macau in particular because it’s like a second home race for you given the Portuguese influence?
“I am, I am, I am very pleased with Macau. I was so disappointed when Macau left the championship. To have it back is great. As you know, I was there last year to win the Guia Race because I love it so much. Macau deserves to be in this championship and vice-versa. Monza, although it’s a great name and story, it’s not the most exciting circuit. The races can be exciting but it’s not perfect for the drivers with long straight lines and hard braking. Okay, there’s one great chicane, but I am not a big fan but that’s the way it is. It’s a bit frustrating we’ve lost tracks where we were very strong. Paul Ricard we always won there, Slovakia and Moscow. But that’s the way it is and we have to deal with that.”

The WTCC also goes back to the Nürburgring, which was obviously a difficult event for you last year. Do you have any fears about returning following your accident in 2016?
“No fears no, but the Nürburgring is always a challenge. The fact I had the accident is okay. Right after the accident I went back in the car and things were good. In my experience in motorsport I have not had too many big accidents. It’s part of the game and thank God it hasn’t affected my physically or psychologically. Of course, I will always think about the crash, but it was a place where you wouldn’t really crash but for a mechanical problem. It’s a challenge going back with or without the crash.”

If you don’t win the title this year, who will win it?
“Of course Norbi [Michelisz] will be probably my main competitor in the same team, same car and he can fight for the world championship. But I have no doubt Rob [Huff] in the Citroën will be a very strong competitor. Even if it’s not a works team the car is still faster than us at the moment. He has the material upper hand, no doubt about it. I don’t discount Volvo because they have been really coming back strong. They’ve worked hard and I know they’re signing some good drivers. They are reinforcing the whole team. I cannot say how they have been testing, but I am sure they will be a strong competitor. Right now, I will say Rob and Norbi will be my main competitors, but let’s not forget Volvo.”

And what about testing, reason to be optimistic?
“It’s looking positive. We have a lot of new things on the car, both aerodynamic and engine-wise and all the hard work that has been done over the winter looks great in terms of numbers. Now we have more testing before the first race so things will come bit by bit to the car.”

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There will be a duel in the desert when the 2016 FIA World Touring Car Championship reaches its climax at WTCC DHL Race of Qatar on Friday 25 November, as second and third in the final standings are decided at the Losail International Circuit.

But while the thrilling on-track battle for positions will take centre stage during the pair of night races, two motorsport greats will sign off from WTCC duty. Although José María López hopes to return to World Touring Car action in the future having made it three consecutive WTCC titles this season, Yvan Muller will retire from the championship following unprecedented success.

No driver has won more titles (four) and races (48), claimed more pole positions (29), set more fastest laps (38) or led more races (571) than the 48-year-old French legend. And Muller intends to go out with a bang rather than a whimper by beating Tiago Monteiro to the coveted runner-up spot in the final standings behind his Citroën team-mate López. With a 31-point advantage over the Portuguese Honda driver, Muller has high hopes: “I realise it’s a special race and there might be some emotions. It’s also more than a race because I want to be second for my team. It’s always good to race at night so I hope it will be another special moment.”

For López, the WTCC’s desert duel also marks the end of an era. After claiming a hat-trick of drivers’ titles and breaking the record of most wins in one season (10), the Argentine ace has chosen the FIA Formula E Championship for his next motorsport challenge although he admits a WTCC comeback is part of a long-term plan. “It’s not a goodbye but a ‘see you later’,” he said. “I am still young and I can be back if I have still the doors open, which I think I will have. I think one day if I have the opportunity I will be back.”

While second in the final table remains Monteiro’s target, he will also be keeping an eye on fellow factory Honda drivers Norbert Michelisz and Rob Huff, who are 14 and 24 points behind respectively. “I lost quite a lot of points in China, but I’m not going to give up,” said Monteiro.

Bennani revved up for second WTCC ‘homecoming’

Mehdi Bennani heads to Qatar sixth in the WTCC Drivers’ standings with 176 points but could end up a career-high third if results go his way in Qatar. The Moroccan, who became the first Arabic driver to win an FIA world championship motor race when he won at WTCC Race of China in 2014, will head to the Middle East as the WTCC Trophy winner for 2016 following another impressive season driving a Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée WTCC. He describes WTCC DHL Race of Qatar as a second ‘home’ event. “Morocco and Qatar are very close, the people are very close because there are a lot of partnerships between both countries. And when I race in Qatar it’s really like Marrakech so I hope to have a fantastic race. It could be a bit more special now I am already world champion. And I think I will be even stronger because I will have nothing to lose and nothing to win and in the end it could good so I will do my best to do two strong races and get some good points overall.”

Weight falls for WTCC Hondas

The five Honda Civic WTCCs will run with 30 kilograms of compensation weight at WTCC DHL Race of Qatar, half the amount carried by the Japanese machines during the last event in China and 50 kilograms less than the extra load that will be fitted to Citroën’s pacesetting C-Elysée WTCCs in the Middle East. While the Citroëns have run with the maximum permitted 80 kilograms all season, the amount of success ballast in the Hondas has fluctuated throughout the campaign. Apart from the opening two events of the season in France and Slovakia, when they ran with zero additional weight, not since Russia in early June have the the Hondas run at 30 kilograms. Although the Civics have been competitive running with 80 kilograms, the drop in weight will doubtless benefit its quintet of drivers racing in Qatar. As at WTCC Race of China, the trio of factory LADA Vestas and pair of Volvo S60 Polestar TC1s will run without compensation weight at the Losail International Circuit. Drivers of the Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1 will also benefit from running at the 1100-kilogram minimum base weight in Qatar. The compensation weight system is designed to equalise performance in the WTCC through a lap time difference in seconds calculation based on average lap times from the previous three race weekends.

Qatar set for WTCC MAC3 magic

There will be more on-track drama in store from 16h00 local time on Friday 25 November when the Manufacturers Against the Clock team trial takes place. New for 2016 and timed by TAG Heuer, the WTCC’s Official Timing Partner, the Tour de France-inspired competition puts squads from Citroën, Honda and LADA against the clock over two timed laps of the Losail International Circuit. The three makes (Polestar will participate when it enters a third Volvo from 2017) nominate three drivers to take part in WTCC MAC3, which follows Qualifying Q3 once all cars have been refuelled and fitted with new Yokohama tyres. Running in reverse Manufacturers’ championship order, as soon as a team’s three cars leave the grid side by side, the clock starts and stops once the last car completes two flying laps. Failure to get all three cars over the line – or if the second or third car doesn’t finish within a maximum of 15 seconds after the first car – means no points. And in what is a team-based competition, a mistake by one member can have serious consequences for the rest of the squad, which proved to be the case for LADA in Russia earlier in the season when a jumped-start by Gabriele Tarquini cancelled out victory. And the competition in WTCC MAC3 has been close – even too close to call. After Citroën won the inaugural event in France by 0.030s, the spectacle was raised even further when it tied on time with Honda in Slovakia, meaning both makes picked up 10 points towards their Manufacturers’ championship totals. And Citroën will be out for revenge in Qatar after Honda took the WTCC MAC3 honours in China, its fifth outright triumph and sixth in total.