Fia Wtcc Moscow: Driving Is The Easiest Part

In my last post I left off with Charles on cloud nine after qualifying in ninth, which put him on the front row for WTCC race two at Moscow Raceway. But as you Speedhunters can probably already tell, things did not go exactly as planned.

With the opportunity to start on the front row and with the lap times that Charles was pulling off, there was a good chance that he could have earned his first podium in his second year competing in the global series.

The racing gods that day did not see it that way, they had other plans for the young Chinese driver.

It was such a beautiful day at the track that it almost looked like a painting. Fans from all over the Moscow area made the trek to check out touring car racing.

It was surprisingly hot the whole weekend, so after every practice session the drivers would hang their suits out to let them dry.

The officials wanted to make sure everything ran perfectly, security was very tight and for the first time ever I had to walk through metal detectors entering a race track.

The first thing on the agenda for race day was an opportunity for the fans to meet the drivers during the autograph session.

Charles is always one of the first drivers to attend and one of the last ones to leave, he just loves taking photos and giving out stickers.

The star of the FIA WTCC series, Yvan Muller, was also nearby. He was starting on pole for race one and starting in 10th position for race two. As I mentioned in my last article, he was leading the points race by almost double, so he was most definitely the favorite to win both races that day.

Charles and his teammate Franz Engstler enjoyed the sun and had a great time meeting fans, but it was time to get serious.

In the drivers meeting they went over the procedures for the two race starts. Race one would be a rolling start, and race two would be a standing start, which gives the rear-wheel-drive cars a chance to make up a few positions right from the start.

The drivers jumped in their cars for a quick 15-minute session to warm everything up. This was the last chance to put down a fast lap or two and maybe practice some stop-starts going out of the pit lane.

The Russian fans were very hardcore and many of them came for qualifying day. The locals seem very proud of the world class facility that was built in their backyard, and they did their best to enjoy it.

With just a few moments to go, the drivers get ready to pull out onto the front straight for the grid walk. Pitted right next door to the Liqui-Moly Team Engstler pit box was Darryl O’Young, another Hong Kong native.

He too is struggling with the handicap of the aging BMW 3 series chassis and power plant, and although driving for a factory-backed team helps it’s still not enough for him to be a frontrunner in the series.

It’s a wonder why BMW has not stepped in to the series to help out as there are still eight teams competing with the 320 TC.

Team chassis engineer Gabby checks his watch and it’s time to go. All he was hoping for was a clean first race, so Charles would have a shot at a podium finish in the second race.

With 40 WTCC race starts it all comes down to this moment. This was the big one – this one meant the most. All of his family back home in Hong Kong were watching on live TV.

Charles pulled out of the pits and joined the rest of the grid on the front straight.

This is one of my favorite moments of these type of events. It really gives the fans a chance to feel like they are a part of the race.

I headed down to the outside of turn one and made sure I got a great spot to shoot the start. From my experience, there is almost always an incident as 30 touring cars try to enter the same corner at the same time.

The drivers were given one warm-up lap to prepare for the 13-lap sprint race…

… then before I knew it, the pack of touring cars were coming at me at full speed with Yvan Muller leading the pack.

All of the cars bunched up super-tight going into the first corner and I thought to myself there is no way everyone will come out of this clean. I was concentrated in my viewfinder, but out of the corner of my left eye I noticed an incident in the middle of the pack.

I put down my camera to see who got caught in the scuffle and I couldn’t believe my eyes. My heart sank and I stopped taking photos. I just kind of stood there.

After I watched Charles crawl out of the car I realized that I was not shooting. He ran towards the outside of the track and once again I picked up my camera and started firing away, but in the back of my mind I was wondering what had happened. There were just so many cars I hadn’t seen a darn thing.

I yelled at Charles asking what happened, and all he could say was that one moment he was starting the race and the next he was sideways on the track. He seemed to be in a little shock.

Then I heard someone yelling “Charles!”. It was a fan who had come down from the stands to ask for an autograph. I thought to myself, what an inopportune time, although it actually helped because it got Charles out of the daze that he was in.

With no tow vehicle in sight we both watched the track workers struggle to move the car. The race was red flagged with 11 laps remaining.

Charles told me that he felt about five hard hits, and that his hand was sore. I figured he must have been holding his steering wheel tight when the incident occurred.

After watching his on-board footage, and outside footage from WTCC, the team pieced together what happened. He was hit from behind going into the turn and there was absolutely nothing he could have done to avoid it.

More time went by. As the track was still very new the marshals are somewhat inexperienced in dealing with major incidents.

Charles was unscathed, but he could not believe what happened to him. He even told me that he tried to stay to the inside of the track as much as possible just so he can avoid getting smashed into from any dive bombers from behind.

After the marshals pushed the car out of harms way Charles had a chance to check out the damage. It was not as bad as he thought and limited mostly to cosmetics. But the radiator, front crash box, and both tie rods needed to be replaced.

I checked out the BMW that hit him and it looked much worse. Even if his team could have fixed it, the driver, Fredy Barth, injured his arm and was not in a condition to race again.

There was no way for Charles to communicate to the team as the radio was no longer working, I ran over to the pits and showed the pictures of the damage to the mechanics and they laid out all the necessary parts for the repair. All they needed was the car to arrive.

The tow truck finally arrived, but it was not a flat bed and there was no way it could tow the damaged BMW all the way back to the pits.

Time was running out as the race had already restarted. The team had only had 15 minutes in between races to repair the car.

It’s fair game for the team to repair the car during the race, but Charles’ BMW was nowhere to be found.

Everyone was so anxious. There was still a chance Charles could start at the front of the line in race two, but that window of opportunity was disappearing fast.

Finally the track marshals sourced a flatbed to extract the car and bring it back to pit lane, but it took over 45 minutes.

There was only four laps remaining in the race, so the team had less than 30 minutes to fix the car. If they went over the allotted time they would be penalized and Charles would have to start at the back of the grid.

The crew chief for Liqui-Moly team Engstler protested with the FIA asking for some extra time to fix the car due to the tardiness of the inexperienced extraction crew and the fact that the incident was clearly not Charles’ fault. But the FIA stewards were not having it.

It was all hands on deck as soon as the car was lowered, so I did my best to stay out of everyone’s way.

The repairs started with the large German fellow smashing his hand on the hood, which got everyones attention. After four or five smashes, the hood was straight again, and everyone went back to work.

The original bumper was still back at turn one, but it was not salvageable anyways.

This crew is so fun to watch because it is made up of Germans, Italians and British, and their driver is Chinese. Sometimes things get lost in translation, but not this time. There were very little words exchanged between the boys.

The race was over and the team was barely removing the damaged parts. Things were not looking good for Charles.

But little-by-little the car started to look whole again. All Charles could do was stand and watch on as the clock ticked down.

It’s a wonder how these guys get around without tripping over each other.

Just five minutes to go before parc ferme rules were in effect and the team was already adding water to the brand new radiator.

Things were looking good. I figured that it would come down to the wire, but the car was almost ready.

There was just a few more temporary fixes that needed to be done. At this point Charles was thinking of trying to push the team to let him take the car out in it’s current condition without an alignment, just so he would have the chance to start the race at the front row, but he bit his lip and did not say anything, because he knew that was not the right thing to do.

A quick check of the alignment and it all looked good. The car was ready. It seemed like they were going to make it.

Even Charles’ girlfriend/manager had been helping out by taping up the missing quarter panel. She got her five seconds of fame.

I took one final photo of the team bleeding the coolant while the car was running.I figured it was going to pull out any moment so once again I headed out to turn one.

I waited and waited, and the car finally appeared. But it did not go to the front of the grid. The team did not finish the car in time and they had to break parc ferme.

Apparently as they were about to roll out one of the mechanics noticed the front right coilover was completely bent in half. They went 15 minutes over the time limit replacing the damper assembly.

Even though Charles started from the last row he easily passed three cars right off the bat. The BMW was running pretty well with a minor oversteer on left turns which was manageable. Not bad for a 45 minute repair job after a major incident!

However, a few turns into the first lap of the race and bad luck struck again. One of the local drivers who petitioned to the FIA to be in the race crashed into Charles after trying to pass in a gap that did not exist.

He was sandwiched between two cars. This time the right-side kingpin broke and once again the car was disabled.

I never saw Charles come by on the second lap so I figured he either got taken out again, or something on the car gave away from the first incident. I went on to follow the rest of the race and the battle between Mehdi Bennani in the BMW 320TC and Michel NYKJÆR in the Chevy Cruze.

Lap after lap Michel tried to make the pass as the Chevy was clearly much faster, but as the laps went by Michel was getting slower and slower due to tire wear. With four laps to go Michel made a very clean pass on the inside and not long afterward Mehdi got passed again by points leader Yvan Muller.

With two laps remaining Robb Huff in his SEAT Leon made the move on Mehdi in his BMW as he struggled to stay within podium range.

Hesitant to getting passed Mehdi closed the gap which resulted in contact…

… which eventually spun him out. Yet again it was an all front-wheel-drive podium.

Some cars may be more handicapped than others, but it still does not make it any less exciting. Although because the cars are already limited in horsepower, just a little bump in power makes such a huge difference.

Next year there will be very big changes, and it is rumored that the FIA will rewrite much of the rulebook for much closer racing.

I am very excited to see how it will all play out as Citroën will be entering the series as an official manufacturer and has World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb on-board for the entire season.

As for Charles Ng, it honestly seems like he just can’t catch a break. After reviewing the incident, the team found out that it was not caused by the BMW that crashed into Charles – it was actually a chain reaction caused by a car behind. There is still the second half of the season left for him to once again prove that he is worthy to start on the front row. I will check on his progress again when he comes stateside to Infineon Raceway. Until then, enjoy the desktops!

Larry Chen
Instagram: larry_chen_foto

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