Rules are made to be broken, but it helps if you know what they are in the first place. Faces in the paddock on Sunday morning were as threatening as the sky. No one was happy about the perceived lack of clarity in WTCC rules or the qualifying penalties. SEAT boss Jaime Puig was particularly vocal and the SEAT news site summed up their weekend. The last three headlines before, during and after? 'SEAT is ready to tear up the streets of Pau'; then 'Regulation changes by the FIA hinder SEAT from competing at top level in the WTCC'; and finally 'Disappointing weekend for SEAT Sport'.
Overheard BMW conversations seemed to mostly involve swearing. They'd woken up to see poleman Priaulx lose all his times from the top 10 shoot-out and were still angry about finding out in Marrakech that SEAT's turbo pressure had an FIA tolerance applied. Also disappointed was longtime Dutch independent runner Tom Coronel: he lost his impressive third place and dropped to sixth. However, another independent, BMW driver Franz Engstler, would be even more upset by the end of the weekend due to the poor implementation of rules – specifically the safety car shown above…
26 WTCC cars lined up on Friday, which is a pretty healthy number, but only four manufacturers are now entered: SEAT, BMW, Chevy and, yes, Lada. It's pretty disappointing to have so few marques: I really feel the series has suffered from the Alfa Romeo pull-out (and not just from personal bias!) and then Honda's withdrawal of support for the Nordauto Accords last year, just as they seemed to be coming good. 26 to start… how many would finish in one piece?
The first race on Sunday was very much about two classes: the BMWs and Chevys on the one hand, and then a long train of dog-slow SEATs. Farfus led away from pole in a blur of white BMWs, interspersed with a couple of blue Chevys: a great start from Brit Robert Huff meant he was second by the first hairpin at La Gare and Swiss Alain Menu's sister car was in sixth.
La Gare was a blur of cars as expected, but thankfully we didn't have the carnage that so often occurs. This four wheel drift from Italian legend Alessandro Zanardi was more impressive than race-ending. Of course, unfortunately in touring cars going sideways doesn't earn you points, and the slide meant lost places up the hill to the Pont Oscar hairpin. Huff stuck to the bootlid of Farfus' BMW – but then Farfus slid wide as he hit oil at Pont Oscar. Huff slithered through on the inside and took a lead he would keep to the end.
The race then settled down: there were two close packs of cars at the front, with Farfus and Jorg Muller crawling over the back of Huff, then a small gap to the second Chevy of Menu with Priaulx in tow. Further back the petrol Leons were clearly faster than their diesel cousins – Coronel, making up for his grid penalty, was in seventh when he was pushed out of the way by Porteiro and Engstler. Brit youngster Tom Boardman was also impressing, after an overnight rebuild of the right hand side of his car.
The state of Porteiro's BMW was pretty typical: getting past anyone at a tight street track like Pau always requires a combination of bravery and aggression, meaning plenty of missing panels.
Priaulx managed to find a way past Menu at the first corner halfway through the race; the Chevy man tried to fight back into Pont Oscar, but they touched and Menu was forced wide, dropping him down a couple of positions. He then deliberately slowed towards the end of the race to drop back to eighth position – and to claim pole in the reverse grid second race.
On the podium Huff seemed genuinely surprised to be on the top step, and the Chevy team were besides themselves. Three wins in a row! For most teams, it was time for slapping on lots of tank tape to fix smashed or missing body panels: only one hour till the next race!
For SEAT, all they could hope for was to salvage some points in race two.
RACE ONE RESULT
1: Rob Huff (Chevrolet Cruze) 27m10.540s
2: Augusto Farfus (BMW 320si) +0.261
3: Jorg Muller (BMW 320si) +0.892
4: Andy Priaulx (BMW 320si) +1.105
5: Sergio Hernandez (BMW 320si) +1.943
6: Felix Porteiro (BMW 320si) +9.241
7: Franz Engstler (BMW 320si) +9.544
8: Alain Menu (Chevrolet Cruze) +9.550
9: Tom Coronel (SEAT Leon TSFI) +11.050
10: Tom Boardman (SEAT Leon TSFI) +23.983
Race two didn't even get to the end of the first lap before there had been three separate incidents – followed by an even more serious accident. I sprinted up to the Pont Oscar hairpin for the start and settled in behind the armco barrier. I needed to: Priaulx and Muller had already collided at the Station hairpin just a few hundred yards after the start; the pack then streamed up towards me vying to make up positions. Independent BMW runner Frank Engstler led them through, having made a great start, hotly pursued by Menu's Chevy. But behind them, ProTeam's Felix Porteiro lunged up the inside of Team Italy/Spain's Sergio Hernandez: there had been the sniff of a gap, but not one that was necessarily BMW sized. Hernandez was tipped into a spin, and ended up broadside across the track right in front of me – under the bridge, around a blind corner.
The remaining 22 cars then piled into the hairpin. I kept looking through the lens, but there was a lot of squealing brakes and the sound of car hitting car as drivers desperately tried to both avoid collecting Hernandez's stricken BMW and also to not lose places. Amazingly, everyone else made it through with only bent panels: Hernandez, the back of the car stoved in, then tried to spin turn to get going again but the back of his car had been pushed in against the exhausts. As he got going, the rear of the car caught fire, but Hernandez took off up the hill, unaware of the flames. He got as far as the Foch chicane when the car really caught, and he was forced to stop the car and jump out. In front of him was Boardman: he had side-swiped the wall at Foch and gone off, bending his left rear wheel – to add to the rear right he took of the day before.
Track workers at the Pont Oscar seemed to be getting mixed messages: yellows came out, then a safety car board or two… and then seconds later there was frantic waving of red flags. There had been a massive accident on the startline straight. The safety car had taken to the track, but joined straight into the racing line, just around the super-fast kink after the startline. Engstler, leading his first race, had piled through the kink at over 100kph and straight into the rear left of the safety car: bodywork and wheels flew everywhere, and both cars rolled to a halt. Cue red flags for the first time – but not the last. Check out YouTube or the WTCC site for a video of the incident. Reports after the race suggest the safety car was never given a green light to even join the track…
It took almost half an hour to clear the debris from all the incidents, but finally the race restarted – and took on a familiar feel: Chevy from BMW, this time with Farfus tailing Menu, then Priaulx on Huff. And then the inevitable SEAT convoy.
Around Pau there are loads of great places to watch the action, but the Foch chicane at the top of the park is where you really see touring cars at their best. At this spot you can almost reach out and touch them as they fire past on two wheels. Here's Zanardi pushing on about 10 seconds behind the Huff/Priaulx battle. His progress the field had been phenomenal – he'd started 20th!
The kerbs are enormous all round the track: the cars have to attack them to get the times. I've no idea how the suspension holds up to the abuse! Here's a shot looking up the hill towards Foch. Check out the angle!
Then on what would have been the penultimate lap, French independent SEAT pilot Eric Ceyrolles got the bottom chicane all wrong: as is typical around Pau, it's all kerbs and wall. Get it wrong and it's race over – and did Ceyrolles get it wrong. Unfortunately he also caught up Larini's Chevy in his accident, spinning it out, with Larini ending up facing the wrong way against the barrier. With so much debris and the barrier smashed in, another red was shown, and this time the race was called.
And so it finished: Menu for the win. another amazing result for Chevrolet; BMW taking away a decent points hall; and SEAT having a weekend to forget. However, championship leaders Tarquini and Yvan Muller did at least make it into the points.
Only two more races to catch the Lada 110 for those with slightly more eclectic taste… Then the 'new' Priora comes in.
This time few cars made it to the end unscathed, but even worse is the damage done to the reputation of the FIA. 15 more cars were judged to have broken the same rev limit/turbo pressure rule during the races, but the FIA decided not to press penalties this time, perhaps recognising that teams were angry enough already, and fans left bewildered by the behind-the-scenes problems. Let's hope things are sorted for the next race in Valencia, Spain, on May 31st. SEAT's Yvan Muller is still leading the championship, but there may be trouble ahead…
RACE TWO RESULT
1: Alain Menu (Chevrolet Cruze) 52m22.260s
2: Augusto Farfus (BMW 320si) +0.351s
3: Robert Huff (Chevrolet Cruze) +3.066s
4: Andy Priaulx (BMW 320si) +3.325s
5: Alex Zanardi (BMW 320si) +16.153s
6: Gabriele Tarquini (SEAT Leon TDi) +17.728s
7: Yvan Muller (SEAT Leon TDi) +19.686s
8: Eric Cayrolle (SEAT Leon TFSI) +22.425s
9: Nicola Larini (Chevrolet Cruze) +22.581s
10: Kristian Poulsen (BMW 320si) +23.297s