Morocco’s Red City, Marrakech, plays host to the FIA World Touring Car Championship for the fourth time and provides the first street-circuit test of man and machine, in 2013’s campaign.
The race proved to be an instant success with the drivers and teams. From the first visit, the warm welcome and enthusiastic crowds have ensured everyone enjoys returning to the African stop on the calendar and – a real bonus – the track has always managed to provide exciting and dramatic racing.
The fact that such a new, temporary, street circuit (the Circuit Moulay el Hassan was first used in 2009) has become such a firm fixture in the WTCC calendar speaks volumes about the efforts of the organisers and promoters, as well as underlining the inherent appeal to drivers of street-racing. The WTCC’s slogan “Real cars, Real racing” couldn’t be more appropriate when the action takes place on real roads and – for the drivers – street-racing is the ultimate distillation of what they do. No mistakes, no second chances. Everything has to be spot-on or you’re uncompetitive – or worse – in the wall, contemplating a pile of steaming wreckage.
No place to make your WTCC debut then. Which means it’s likely to be a baptism of fire for Russian newcomer Mikhail Koslovskiy. The 23-year-old from St. Petersburg has been drafted into the factory LADA team, to make his international racing debut. He and the team are up against it, racing to even make it to Marrakech, after both cars were wrecked in an unfortunate qualifying accident in Monza.
Monza may mark the lowest point to date in LADA’s WTCC experience but the silver lining to the cloud that hung over them in Italy is that, after their first-ever run in qualifying with the new machines, James Thompson was fourth-fastest and Alexey Dudukalo 10th, when they exited proceedings stage left.
Monza, the team hoped, would play to one of the Granta’s strengths; namely a narrow frontal area and slippery, low-drag set-up. So it seemed, the Russian car and French-built engine working well at high speeds. Marrakech, they will be hoping, will play to another of their perceived strengths; that of a narrow bodyshell on narrow city streets.
You may think that a few centimetres here or there can’t really make that much difference but when you see how few centimetres drivers leave between themselves and the walls, you’ll appreciate that every little helps! It certainly didn’t harm Chevrolet’s Lacetti, which fast became king of the streets in WTCC terms.
Honda, after claiming a podium finish in their very first full race weekend, also hope to exploit one of the Civic’s design aspects in Marrakech. The neat little hatchback boasts a shorter wheelbase than most of its rivals. This, designer Andrea Adamo contends, should make the car turn into corners with an alacrity and eagerness that its longer rivals will struggle to match. Throw Gabriele Tarquini’s otherworldly starting abilities into the mix and we may see the Japanese/Italian team claim more podium finishes.
Will they win? Well, it seems that might be a little much to ask this time out, first street-race and all. If Monza taught us anything, it’s that the RML Chevrolet Cruze is still the WTCC performance benchmark and that Yvan Muller again knows that he has the equipment to be World Champion. Don’t expect him to let the opportunity slip.
Do however, watch out for Morocco’s own Mehdi Bennani. He truly burst onto the WTCC scene on the series’ first visit to Marrakech, playing a starring role in his Exagon Engineering-run SEAT. Draped in the national colours, he has since been the undoubted focus of local attention, a focus which has heaped extra levels of expectation on his shoulders. Sometimes, home support can have the opposite effect to that desired – just ask Tom Coronel about the weekend in Zandvoort, or Norbert Michelisz about Hungary. But you sense that, this year, Mehdi may be more relaxed in his role as national sporting hero and standard-bearer, a little more in-tune with his Proteam BMW, a little closer to producing the big result he and his fans fervently desire. Here’s hoping…
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