A new world order

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SEAT’s diesel has risen to the fore in this year’s World Touring Car Championship, to the consternation of its petrol-powered rivals. And the battle’s coming to Britain soon
By Rob Widdows

The Pyrénées are hidden in heavy cloud. The rain is falling on Pau, ‘ville de soleil et de jardins’. Every gust of wind, every passing cloud, brings new anxieties for those who race around the streets of this lovely town in the foothills of the mountains.

Twisting and turning, plunging and climbing along tree-lined boulevards, this is truly a driver’s track. The weather will play a big part in the 68th Grand Prix de Pau, a welcome wild card in a pack that has become increasingly predictable just four races into a new season of the World Touring Car Championship.

The peace of the Pays Béarnais is briefly shattered by the only street race to be held in France. The sharp exhausts of BMWs, Hondas and Chevrolets echo off the ancient walls.

Then there are the whispering ones. Those yellow SEATS, sneaking up with their diesels, waste-gates popping, are beginning to dominate this series.

‘Doing amazing things with diesel’ – that’s the natty slogan from SEAT. Not to be outdone, the FIA promotes real racing, with real cars. Well, yes, real cars. You can go out and buy a SEAT Leon TDi. Alright, it may not be quite to the specification that Gabriele Tarquini has at his disposal – for it was the Italian who led the series after Pau – but you can find the Leon in a showroom should you feel so inclined.

But real racing? Now entering only its fourth season, the jury is deliberating. Just four manufacturers make up the WTCC, with cars from BMW, Chevrolet, Honda and SEAT. There are also Ladas, run by Russian Bears Racing, but they are considered ‘independents’. The first three are in something of a panic. As at Le Mans, diesel rules, and only a slug of lead ballast is going to redress the balance.

And this is where the racing comes in – how real can it be when Tarquini carries an extra 61kg of ballast into the race at Pau? Well, that depends on how you define reality. Rules is rules, and under Section 79c of the FIA sporting code it is made quite clear that wins mean weight. Get ahead of your rivals and you will find a hefty bag of ballast in your boot. Those who like a flutter on the horses will be familiar with such a process.

The WTCC is one of only three championships sanctioned by the sport’s governing body. The man in the firing line at the FIA is Jonathan Ashman, president of the Touring Car Commission and chief of the ‘FIA Bureau’ that massages the rules race by race to ensure that the racing is as close as possible. It is the bureau – sounds like the KGB – that decides which cars must be helped, or hindered.

Behind the blue glass of the FIA’s blue bus it feels a little like an aquarium where sharks may lurk. “Establishing the rules is about finding a balance,” says Ashman, the biggest fish in a big pond. “We try to equate rear drive and front drive, petrol and diesel. We don’t want either fuel to become the must-have power source.” Incidentally, though the cars carry Repsol logos, the fuel in the churns comes from Panta, and is branded ‘the wonderfuel’. Get it?

Anyway, Ashman continues thus. “We say that if a manufacturer is more than half a second off the fastest car, we’ll help them recover that. From half a second to the front, that’s up to them to find. We don’t look at lap times, or results, it’s way more sophisticated than that. We now have extraordinarily detailed data from the cars and so we think what we are doing is absolutely correct, and fair. The problem with the SEAT is not the diesel, it’s that it’s turbocharged. So we put a rev limit on it, just as the petrol cars have a rev limit. Everybody goes on about the advantage of the diesel but it’s not that, it’s more complex, but nobody is ever satisfied – they are competitive.

“We see this purely as a sport and we want to make it as fair a sport as we can. I think we are getting it right and we are succeeding in keeping the costs under firm control. And remember, last year the championship went down to the wire, to the last race at Macau. All the talk is about SEAT’s dominance – but we are monitoring that in very precise detail and I would put money on the 2008 series being wide open until the final race.”

‘Doing far too well with diesel’, that’s what SEAT’s rivals say. There is much muttering about the Leon TDi having an unfair advantage with its turbocharged torque – especially useful on the long climb up Avenue N Bonaparte – governing your entry speed into the twisty bits through Parc Beaumont. The men from BMW are becoming impatient with trailing a pride of Leons. This, after all, is a car from the Volkswagen family. Bear in mind at this point that BMW has won every WTCC manufacturers’ championship since the inception of the series, and that it has sold more than 50 racing kits of the 320si to international customers. A lot is at stake.

“We cannot win with the rules as they are,” says BMW’s Friedhelm Nohl, a passionate engineer who owns two Mini Coopers and is restoring a Frogeye Sprite in his spare time. “Certainly we are not happy with the situation in WTCC right now.” This despite the FIA reducing the minimum weight of the 320si by 15kg this very weekend. “There is very high pressure on us to win,” says Nohl, “and, if it is the only way to win a race, then we have to do a diesel car, but we are talking now to the FIA about this situation.”

In endurance racing BMW runs its 320d, claiming a class win at the Nürburgring 24 Hours in May. So why not run this engine in WTCC? “It’s not so simple,” explains Nohl. “If we change, then all our racing customers have to change, and that’s going to be expensive for the independents. It’s not fair for them to make this change after two years. No, we want fair regulations, not to change to diesel. There is no proper balance between the petrol and diesel cars. At present it’s not possible for us to beat the SEATs – there should be more restrictions on them. Petrol cars are the future for racing because there must be a big noise, we need the noise for the racing, yes?” Yes.

Shock and awe then when said BMW goes and wins both races. No sooner had Herr Nohl made his points than BMW went out and made the SEATs, and the rest, look silly. Unless my old eyes deceived me, feisty young Brazilian Augusto Farfus won by more than 15 seconds in the hot, dry race and Andy Priaulx won the next one in torrential rain. What is going on?

The answer is not easy to find. A hastily painted “Caution Heavy Car” on the back of Tiago Monteiro’s SEAT might be a clue.

As in so much of modern motor racing there is plenty of politicking, a lot of smoke, and many mirrors.

A man who should know is Priaulx, having won four FIA touring car titles in a row. He has always been the hunted; now he is the hunter, and until Pau it hurt. He’s a bright chap, Priaulx, and he knows exactly how to play the game of chess that is the WTCC. Rules dictate that the grid for the second race of the weekend is decided by reversing the order of the first eight cars in the first race. Still following this? Well, the multiple champion came eighth in race one, thereby starting race two from pole and taking a fine victory in heavy rain.

“We really are not on terms with the SEATs,” says Priaulx. “They are playing around with us, that’s my opinion. In the dry race it’s my feeling that they hung back, let Augusto get away, and he agreed. They are heavier than us and yet they are still scoring big points. But we are paid to race, that’s what we’re here to do, and this weekend we put in a good, solid performance. My gut feeling is that SEAT is still a long way ahead of us at the moment, more than it may appear. But I look for a positive in every race I do.”

Looking for positives, a phrase the champion uses a lot in conversation. “Yes, I really want to win the championship again,” he smiles. “Look, I know there is a strong desire out there for me not to win again, and there has been for years, but I aim to stay at the sharp end.”

There were long faces at SEAT. “We have plenty of power,” says Yvan Muller, the pre-race favourite, “but with nearly 100kg on board the car just wasn’t raceable out of the slow corners.” Had they been playing games in the first, dry, race? No comment.

Chevrolet and Honda are watching with interest. General Motors is in the midst of a huge marketing campaign in Europe, using the Chevy Lacetti as one of its tools. Originally a rather ordinary Daewoo, the car has made mighty leaps forward under the stewardship of the hugely experienced Ray Mallock and his team. Robert Huff was victorious in Valencia, while Alain Menu and Nicola Larini have hardly been hanging about, mixing it with Tarquini, Jordi Gené, Rickard Rydell and Muller in the aforementioned SEATs.

We don’t yet know if Honda can get on terms. The Accord Euro R Super 2000, prepared by Mauro Sipsz and his NTechnology team and driven by James Thompson, did not get to grips with the streets of Pau. But it’s early days, the team having started the season late in Valencia, and the driver is as upbeat and confident, as you’d expect of a double BTCC champion.

“Yeah, it’s a great team, and that’s why I’m here,” says Jimmy T, back with his long hair and looking every inch the rock star racer. “This team knows how to win, and the car is coming along. We need to improve, yes, but between the races they will work harder than most. By the time we get to Brands Hatch we’ll be right up there, and the Honda is good in the wet. I love Brands, know every inch of it, and I’m looking forward to being back in front of all the fans.”

Perhaps the last word on this highly charged and labyrinthine series should go to its promoter. Marcello Lotti of KSO, a subsidiary of Eurosport, is the ‘Big Man’. He put the deals together, secured the global television coverage, and worked with the FIA to make the WTCC what it is today. “Am I worried about all the rules, the weights and the equality between the cars? No. Look, the manufacturers, they are like the women,” he grins, spreading his arms wide. “They are never happy. I mean, some weekends some of them can be happy, but on Monday they are angry again, something has changed. Seriously, we are working well with the marketing departments of the big manufacturers, deciding what to do, where to go in the future. This is a good world championship, with a huge global TV audience now, and we are looking at going to many new countries in the future. There are big things coming, you will see, good racing on the track and lots of entertainment.”

Sensations Fortes! Le Spectacle Continue!” proclaims La République des Pyrénées on the weekend’s events. Well, the spectacle will reach Brands Hatch on July 27 and a lot of ballast will have shifted by then, so make sure you know who is carrying what in Kent. If that all sounds a bit demanding, just sit back and enjoy some good old tin-top racing.

*****

Rules for duels

The BTCC’s more open rulebook is preventing a diesel domination

While SEAT is the subject of much muttering and murmuring within the World Touring Car Championship, its performance in the British Touring Car Championship has been less controversial.

SEAT’s Darren Turner (above), a respected tester, racer and sports car ace, believes that the BTCC is a far more open book.

“The British championship is very level, wide open, I think,” he says. “Vauxhall still seem to have the edge at most places. SEAT has gained a lot of performance over the winter, moving to the diesel engine, and it does have lots of torque as well as straightline speed. But we also have more weight over the front axle and so I think there will be lots of very close racing this year – and different cars will be weaker, or stronger, at different tracks. We are in a stronger position than we anticipated at places like Croft and Brands but everyone is developing all the time – it’s very open.”

So we’re not likely to see a repeat of the diesel domination that threatens the WTCC?

“Well, when you’re not winning, you’re whingeing, that’s motor racing,” says Turner, “and it’s not easy to make race cars from road cars and then have them all equal in performance. Creating the rules for this type of racing is never easy and there will always be arguments as to who has an advantage. I’m really enjoying the BTCC – it’s so different from anything else I’ve done. There’s not much power, not much in the way of aero, but it’s good close racing, and the SEAT is so much fun to drive.”

The next round of the 2008 BTCC is at Snetterton on July 12/13.

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