International touring cars return to Imola after seven years
The fourth race meeting of the TCR International Series takes place this week at Imola, on another legendary racetrack in motorsport history that is named after Enzo and Dino Ferrari.
The event marks the return, after seven years, of an international Touring Car series to the Italian circuit that was home of the 1980 Formula 1 Italian Grand Prix and the San Marino Grand Prix between 1981 and 2006.
Inaugurated in 1953 as a semi-permanent road course, the circuit hosted in 1963 an F1 non-championship race won by Jim Clark’s Lotus-Climax and in 1968 the Cycling Road World Championship with the victory of Italy’s Vittorio Adorni. The layout of the track was redesigned in 1972 and then it was slightly modified twice in 1994 and 2006.
The whole TCR International Series action took place on the Sunday, with only one 60-minute Free Practice in the early morning, followed by Qualifying in the late morning and the two races that ran back-to-back in the early afternoon.
Alain Menu and Mikhail Grachev join WestCoast in Imola
WestCoast Racing has significantly reshuffled its driver line-up for the upcoming TCR International Series event that takes place at Imola.
Touring Car legend Alain Menu and Mikhail Grachev replace Aku Pellinen and Kevin Gleason at the wheel of two of the team’s three Honda Civic TCR cars; they will join Gianni Morbidelli who is currently third in the Drivers’ Championship.
According to the team, after winning his maiden TCR race in Spa, Pellinen cited budget complications after his key sponsor was no longer able to commit to the series as the reason for his departure, TCR regular and race winner Gleason has also been forced to step down while negotiations with a key backer continue.
Returning to the championship after a couple of appearances last year in the Top Run Subaru, Menu said: “It’s nice to be back and I am grateful for this opportunity. WestCoast is one of the top teams in the series with one of the front running cars, so I am very much looking forward to it, although it will be tough as I haven’t had any opportunity to test the car ahead of what will be a single day event.”
As for Grachev, he has switched from the Liqui Moly Team Engstler for which he had driven since the past season: “For me it is important to grow as a driver and in a team such as WestCoast with an experienced team mate such as Gianni Morbidelli now I fully have it.”
Team Owner Greger Petersson commented: “Grachev has shown commitment to the TCR International series and we are delighted that he sees WestCoast as a team that can help him meet his racing goals. And with Alain we add great experience in Touring Cars that would be a benefit to any team. Of course we are very disappointed to have lost Aku and Kevin with Aku, but this is the reality of racing where commercial partners are needed to meet budgets and hopefully both of them will be able to return to us and the series soon.”
Liqui Moly Team Engstler hires Jordi Gené for Imola
Experienced Spanish Touring Car driver Jordi Gené has been hired by the Liqui Moly Team Engstler for the TCR International Series event at Imola.
Gené replaces Mikhail Grachev and joins Davit Kajaia in the second Volkswagen Golf Gti TCR run by the German outfit.
The Spaniard was one of the leading players in last year’s TCR International Series; he scored three race wins for Craft-Bamboo Lukoil at Sepang, Sochi and Singapore, and eventually was classified third in the Drivers’ Championship.
He also knows the Golf Gti TCR very well as he took part in the technical development of the German car.
Carlotta Fedeli and Diego Romanini join with B.D. Racing
Two Italian drivers will join the TCR International Series field for their home event at Imola. Carlotta Fedeli and Diego Romanini will drive a couple of SEAT León cars run by B.D. Racing Motorsport.
Fedeli, 24 years old from Rome, has built enough experience in recent years, taking part in SEAT Italia’s one-make trophies. She was classified a brilliant sixth in the 2014 Ibiza Cupra Cup and improved to fifth last year; in both seasons she managed to claim podium results at Imola.
She has been upgraded to the León Cup for the current season, achieving an outstanding third place for B.D. Racing in the opening round at Adria.
A former competitor in the FIA Touring Car championships and the Superstars Series, the experienced Romanini will return to the TCR International Series after making a few appearances last year in a Ford Focus.
B. D. Racing will field a León TCR for Fedeli and a Cup Racer for Romanini; the team directed by Davide Bernasconi had already visited the TCR International Series last year, running Antonio D’Amico’s SEAT at Monza.
Jordi Oriola rejoins the championship at Imola
After taking part in the TCR International Series opener at Bahrain, Jordi Oriola will make his return to the championship at the wheel of a Honda Civic TCR run by Target Competition.
Target team manager Walter Gummerer explained the situation: “Following the decision taken by Opel Motorsport to have a break from racing and focusing on testing to develop the Astra TCR, we have been looking for an alternative solution that could enable Jordi to rejoin the championship. Now the plan is to race at Imola and Salzburgring with the Honda. Afterwards we will reconsider the situation according to any further developments.”
Success ballast for Pepe Oriola and Jean-Karl Vernay
It would have been the WestCoast Racing Honda Civic of Aku Pellinen to carry the maximum 30-kilos of success ballast at Imola. In fact, the young Finn was the highest point scorer in Spa, with a victory (his maiden one in TCR) and a fifth place in the two Belgian races that, added to third in qualifying, granted him 38 points. However, Pellinen will not take part in the event.
This will leave Craft-Bamboo Lukoil’s Pepe Oriola – who retook the championship lead in Spa – and Leopard Racing’s Jean-Karl Vernay – the other rookie winner in Belgium – as the only drivers with the ballast. Oriola will carry 20 extra kilos on board his SEAT León, while the remaining 10 kilos will be imposed to Vernay’s Volkswagen Golf Gti.
In terms of the title fight, Oriola’s closest competitors – his team-mate James Nash and WestCoast Racing’s Gianni Morbidelli – will have the advantage of driving ballast-free cars on the ups and downs of the Italian racetrack.
Morbidelli was on pole position for his home event
Italian fans’ favourite Gianni Morbidelli achieved his first pole position of the season for his home event at Imola. The former F1 driver set the pace throughout the Qualifying session, posting the fastest laps in both Q1 and Q2.
His best lap of 1:53.228 was only 0.057 faster than Pepe Oriola’s 1:53.285, which promises a very close fight between them in Race 1.
Davit Kajaia and Stefano Comini will fill the second row of the grid, while Mikhail Grachev and Mat’o Homola will share the third row.
The Qualifying session was also incredibly close, with the nine fastest drivers covered by less than eight tenths.
Jordi Gené and Sergey Afanasyev qualified in tenth and ninth respectively and will be on the front row of the top-ten reversed grid for Race 2. Actually James Nash had posted the ninth fastest lap, but he was demoted to 11th after the Stewards disallowed his fastest lap for trespassing the track limits.
Morbidelli said: “I think this was the maximum we could do and we scored five points for the championship, so I am happy. I wasn’t able to do better than this, even though I expected a little bit more, but when the temperature goes high for us it’s a little bit complicated. The SEAT is very close, even when Oriola has extra kilos, it’s unbelievably quick; twenty kilos in Imola is worth around half a second. Let’s see in the race. Imola is my home circuit and the atmosphere is good so we are happy. Up until now we’ve done a good job but we have to carry on.”
Comini and Grachev shared race victories in eventful day
The all-in-one-day event at Imola provided plenty of drama, glory for new faces and a shake-up on top of the Drivers’ Championship.
Stefano Comini (Leopard Racing Volkswagen Golf Gti) and Mikhail Grachev (WestCoast Racing Honda Civic) shared the race victories. It was the first one in the season so far for Comini and the first one ever for Grachev.
Two other drivers were able to achieve the first podium results for themselves and their teams: Mat’o Homola (B3 Racing SEAT León) who was second in Race 2, and Davit Kajaia (Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf Gti) who finished third in Race 1.
The dark side of the day consisted in the merciless bad luck that hit Gianni Morbidelli and James Nash. They both had arrived in Imola with the hopes to move further up in the standings, but eventually came away empty-handed, and not because of their faults.
Pepe Oriola was able to stay away of troubles and scored precious points that stretched his leadership to 15 points ahead of Comini, who is now his closest competitor.
Maybe it a prelude to a repeat of last year’s duel that ended up only at the last race in Macau. But it’s not granted, because the fight is closer than ever and provides continuous surprises as it is proved by the fact that seven different drivers in three different types of cars have been victorious in the eight races held so far.
Stefano Comini wins a Race 1 full of drama
Reigning champion Stefano Comini claimed his first victory of the season at the end of a race that was plenty of drama and gave Leopard Racing amd Volkswagen their second consecutive win after Jean-Karl Vernay’s in Spa Race 2.
The outcome of the first race in Imola spoke in favour of Pepe Oriola as far as the title fight is concerned, because the Spaniard’s closest rivals – Gianni Morbidelli and James Nash – were both scoreless. The Italian seemed on the way to secure a comfortable win when a power steering failure resulted in a dramatic incident that involved his own team-mate Alain Menu. As for Nash, he was first slowed down by engine misfire and then hit by another car.
Door-to-door fights resulted in a number of contacts and clashes that eliminated or slowed down some of the top players such as Jordi Oriola, Borkovi ć and Vernay .
The Frenchman was later demoted from 6th to 12th by the Stewards who imposed him a double penalty for trespassing the limits of the track and for his incident with Borkovic.
Attila Tassi, Carlotta Fedeli and Alessandra Neri managed to finish in seventh, ninth and tenth positions respectively and scored their first points in the championship.
Race One Key facts:
Start: Morbidelli takes the best start ahead of Comini, Kajaia and Pepe Oriola who nearly stalled the engine
Lap 1: Comini tries to overtake Morbidelli on the outside line at the Tosa, but to no avail
Lap 2: Kajaia defends third place from P. Oriola; Nash drops with his rear bumper hanging loose
Lap 3: Kajaia struggles to keep P. Oriola behind; Grachev is fifth right behind them
Lap 4: P. Oriola tries an overtaking move but drives wide at Rivazza 2 and drops to fifth
Lap 5: Morbidelli struggles with power-steering problems, slows down before the Variante Alta and is hit by Menu; they both are out of the race
Lap 6: Comini is now leading from Kajaia, P. Oriola and Grachev
Lap 7: The safety car is deployed to recover Menu’s car
Lap 8: The race resumes and P. Oriola manages to steal second from Kajaia
Lap 9: Homola and J. Oriola make contact and the latter retires
Lap 10: P. Oriola sets fastest lap and chases Comini
Lap 11: Grachev makes a mistake and drops from fourth to ninth
Lap 12: Genè defends fourth place from Afanasyev, Borkovi ć and Vernay
Lap 13: Gené also makes a mistake and drops to seventh; Borkovi ć and Vernay have a tough fight for fifth, they make contact at Rivazza 1 and Borkovi ć spins off onto the gravel
Lap 14: Comini wins from P. Oriola and Kajaia; Afanasyev finishes fourth ahead of Homola, Vernay and Gené.
Mikhail Grachev claims first victory in new car
Motorsport can be funny sometimes. The very same car that had won Race 1 in Spa, was victorious in Race 2 at Imola, but with a different driver: Mikhail Grachev who has just joined WestCoast Racing in the place of Aku Pellinen.
The Russian had reasons to rejoice, as this move granted him that first TCR race win he was chasing since last year. And the icing on the cake for him was that he took the lead overtaking the very same car he had driven until the previous event.
Mat’o Homola finished second and climbed on the TCR podium for the first time, while Stefano Comini secured third place after an epic battle with Pepe Oriola.
With both, Gianni Morbidelli and James Nash sidelined by technical issues, Oriola and Comini are now first and second in the Drivers’ Championship, separated by only 14 points.
Race Two Key Facts:
Grid: Borkovic and Nash are missing, as their cars could not be repaired; Menu takes the start from the pit lane
Start: Gené darts from the pole, followed by Grachev, Tassi and Homola; Afanasyev retires with a broken drive-shaft
Lap 1: Morbidelli recovers to 10th after starting from 13th
Lap 2: Morbidelli slows down and retires with brake problems
Lap 3: Tassi tries to defend the third position, but is passed by Homola and Pepe Oriola
Lap 4: Grachev steals the lead from Gené
Lap 5: Comini and Vernay run abreast fighting for sixth; Homola and P. Oriola overtake Gené moving up to second and third
Lap 6: Gené drops further down behind Tassi and Comini
Lap 7: Gené and Vernay overtake Tassi who drops to 7th; Vernay passes Gené for 5th
Lap 8: Kajaia skids wide over the gravel at Villeneuve, but rejoins
Lap 9: the leading quartet – Grachev, Homola, P. Oriola, Comini – is covered by 1.5 seconds
Lap 10: Grachev creates a gap; Homola is chased by P. Oriola and Comini
Lap 11: Comini overtakes P. Oriola for third at Rivazza 2; Kajaia passes Jordi Oriola for eighth
Lap 12: P. Oriola loses also the fourth place to Vernay
Lap 13: Grachev takes the chequered flag ahead of Homola, Comini, Vernay and P. Oriola
What the two race winners had to say
Stefano Comini, Race 1: “The most important thing about this victory was from Leopard Racing. They did an incredible job with the Volkswagen; now the car is competitive. To win here in Imola is like winning at home, since Lugano is really nearby. The race was quite perfect – I managed my tyres as I didn’t want to stress them too much, the car was consistent and I think I did a perfect job. It’s good for me, good for Leopard and good for the Championship because I was the Champion last year and I want to be Champion again this year. The fight with Pepe was very fair and quite fun. I wanted a little more combat with him, but I was faster as I think he had stressed his tyres. I wanted more of a show for the people watching at home and the people here in Imola.”
Mikhail Grachev, Race 2: “I am very, very happy with this victory. I’m afraid I don’t have the words to say how happy I am, as I’m not used to saying this! I will have to learn some more English words, I think. The deal for me to drive the Honda was quite late in being done, so I have to thank WestCoast Racing for all their hard work and for welcoming me. We had a problem with the car after we tested, so they had to put in a lot of work to fix the problem. I want to thank them and say well done to the team for this result. It was somehow strange to chase what was my car until the previous race, but it made things easier because I know it well and figured out where and how to overtake it.”
VERNAY’S PENALTY MEANT POINTS FOR B.D. RACING GIRLS
Jean-Karl Vernay was stripped of his sixth place in today’s Race 1 after the Stewards imposed him a double penalty for not respecting the track limits and for causing the incident that eliminated Dušan Borkovic.
This dropped the Frenchman down to 12th and promoted a number of other drivers, including the B.D. Racing pair of girls: Carlotta Fedeli and Alessandra Neri.
Even without Vernay’s penalty, Fedeli would have pocketed one point for her tenth place, but she was eventually promoted to ninth and scored two.
As for Neri, who was also commentating the race live from the inside of the cockpit on SKY Italia Formula 1 HD channel, she advanced to tenth and scored as well. Considering how many drivers, with much more experience than them, ran into troubles in today’s races, the two girls deserved the respect of the paddock.
The series will resume in fifteen days at the Salzburgring, Austria, on June 4 and 5, for rounds 9 and 10. (One of my personal favourite tracks that often lends itself to fast and furious racing action, plenty of slipstreaming and overtaking…)
As per usual, I will be keeping things up to date on here with the blog as well as the members of the TCR Talk Facebook Group who will also be sharing their thoughts as well as any news from the series.
Until next time, all the best!