WTCR crashes to a close as Azcona becomes champion

28th November 2022
Damien Smith

Ever watched the World Touring Car Cup? If you haven’t, it’s too late now. The series came to a close last weekend in Jeddah on a shortened version of the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix track, as talented Spaniard Mikel Azcona became the final WTCR champion. He did so without any need to even start either of the two night races, which ended with a thump – and then a whimper, behind a safety car. No one wanted that.


Crash, bang, wallop in the WTCR

The series was born out of the old World Touring Car Championship five years ago, based on the TCR rulebook that has proven so popular and successful around the world thanks to its relative simplicity and economical common sense. Despite its strong foundations, the WTCR has always had its blips thanks to the artificial sour taste sometimes left by Balance of Performance. But with factory-supported customer teams representing the Chinese Lynk & Co brand, Hyundai, Honda, Audi and Cupra – plus a decent cast of star drivers both young and old – it’s offered plenty of bang for its buck. It’s just a shame the strength of the British Touring Car Championship and a lack of UK interest kept the French-run series from travelling across the Channel.

Then this year the wheels came off the WTCR. Grids had dwindled already before a spate of Goodyear tyre safety concerns led to an embarrassing call to cancel the jewel-in-the-crown races around the Nürburgring Nordschleife – just 15 minutes before the first was due to start. Reigning champion team Cyan Racing, running five Lynk & Cos with drivers that included impressive double champion Yann Ehrlacher and his uncle Yvan Muller, was the most vocal in its complaints against Goodyear – so when trouble reared again in the heat of Vallelunga, where Muller crashed in qualifying after a tyre failure, it was never going to end well. All five Lynk & Cos were pulled in at the end of both warm-up laps in some kind of protest. Then shortly after, the Swedish Cyan Racing team took away its ball completely and flounced out of the championship, decimating the grid further.

The French promoter put on a brave face. But after so many setbacks, including the after-effects of the pandemic that inevitably hit the global series hard, it eventually decided to terminate its contract with the FIA early and bring the WTCR to a close (at least in this form). So ends a series that has its roots not only in the old WTCC but also in the European Touring Car Championship that preceded it. What a shame.


Azcona is the bright spark of 2022

But it hasn’t all been doom and gloom. In Mikel Azcona, the WTCR has provided a global platform for a true talent who, at 26, is only just emerging into the light. The Spaniard came through the ranks with Cupra, but this year switched to the BRC Hyundai squad as the replacement for retiring legend Gabriele Tarquini – who became his team manager. The move has been fully vindicated by four victories and a relatively easy first world crown for Azcona, who wrapped up the title in the middle of qualifying in Jeddah when his only points rival Néstor Girolami failed to score and slumped to 12th in the Q2 session.

“What a fantastic feeling,” said Azcona, whose efforts with team-mate and 2019 champion Norbert Michelisz also delivered Hyundai the teams’ crown. “Honestly, this is something that I’ve been working for basically all my life. This season was a perfect one, since the first moment I entered into the team. If you are next to good people, good things come.”

Also a star for Hyundai in the electric-powered Pure ETCR sister series, Mikel Azcona will likely win more titles, even if he’s been robbed of the chance to defend his first world crown. Remember the name.


Hero to zero for Nathanaël Berthon

In contrast, the Jeddah races proved ultimately disappointing for French Audi ace Nathanaël Berthon. On Saturday, as Azcona clinched the title, Berthon finally took his first pole position of 2022. Then he followed that up in the first of the two night races with his second victory of the season, as he chased down Néstor Girolami to be WTCR series runner-up.

Just five points separated the pair ahead of race two as Girolami grappled with a disaster of a weekend. Not only had he lacked pace in qualifying, he’d also lacked fuel… In fact, his Munnich Motorsport Honda didn’t have enough for the requisite sample for FIA testing, which meant he was dumped to the back of the grid for both races.

An open goal for Berthon? It looked that way after his victory in race one. But it quickly collapsed in race two, as the WTCR ended in typical controversy.


Poor driving, sad ending

Hungarian Attila Tassi started on the partially reversed-grid pole position and was fortunate to escape a second-lap attack as Argentinian Esteban Guerrieri came skating up his inside into Turn One and spun. Tassi wasn’t so lucky a lap later.

Audi’s Franco Girolami, Nestor’s younger brother, let the blood rush to his head as he made a dive on Nicky Catsburg – and wiped out both the leader and the second-placed Hyundai in a single moment of ineptitude. That handed the lead and a third victory of the campaign to Gilles Magnus, who had suffered his own moment of madness two weeks earlier in Bahrain, where he clobbered into former team-mate Mehdi Bennani.

“Man, did I need this,” said Magnus. “For the team, for myself, for my confidence. We’ve been through tough times. Bahrain was tough. Now I can give something back I’m really happy.” So was his ‘wildcard’ team-mate Viktor Davidovski. The inexperienced Macedonian had started on the front row beside Tassi, slumped to sixth, then rose back to second amid all the troubles ahead of him. He could barely believe it. Azcona blessed his luck too as he finished his masterpiece of a season with a podium third.

As for Berthon, he desperately tried to fight his way past British ace – and Goodwood Revival favourite – Rob Huff, who was back behind the wheel of a Zengo Motorsport Cupra after missing the Bahrain rounds because of the team’s financial shortfall. Huff knows all the tricks and Berthon just couldn’t find a way to unlock his defences. Then he tried a dive at the final turn, collided with the Cupra and broke his Audi’s right-front wheel. Game over – and for the series too, as the clock ran down before the mess could be fully cleared. As Berthon fumed, the safety car led Magnus across the line and a touring car era came to a close. Yes, the WTCR did deserve better. But given what had come before across a tumultuous five years, some might say it was a fitting end too.

Images courtesy of WTCR

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