All change at the top for tourers
WTCC axed to accommodate new-look premier global saloon series
The FIA World Touring Car Championship is no more. In name at least. A series than began its modern history in 2005 will become known as the WTCR (or the WTCR – FIA World Touring Car Cup in full) after the adoption of TCR tin-top regulations for the 2018 season.
Switching to the low-cost TCR category was arguably the only solution for a championship that had no firm commitments from manufacturers for next season and a waning supply of privateer machinery built to the outgoing TC1 rules. TCR, on the other hand, is arguably the motor sport success story of the second half of the present decade. The category has spread around the world in just three short seasons: there will be 15 national series, including one in the UK from 2018, and approximately 600 cars have been built by 11 manufacturers, including Volkswagen, Audi, Seat, Honda, Hyundai and Peugeot.
The FIA and the WTCC promoter, the events arm of the Eurosport TV channel, have agreed separate licensing deals to use, respectively, the rules and the name of TCR with its founder, Marcello Lotti. That’s a significant step for the WTCC because the Italian was the architect of the current WTCC a dozen years ago. He might have sold the company that ran the series in the middle of the 2000s, but he didn’t leave his role at the head of the organisation until early 2014 in what amounted to a difference of opinion over the series’ future direction.
As part of these licensing agreements, Lotti has called time on his TCR International Series, a global championship with races on the Formula 1 undercard that helped promote the category. Its continuation would clearly have mitigated against Eurosport’s efforts to put together a grid for the WTCR.
WHAT IS TCR?
TCR was launched by Lotti after his departure from the WTCC. Originally called TC3, it clearly tipped its hat at the GT3 sports car category in concept as well name. Launched in 2013, Seat’s Leon Eurocup one-make racer provided the template and the idea is that any manufacturer with a front-wheel drive hatchback of the required dimensions and a turbo engine up to a maximum capacity of two litres can come and play in the same way that GT3 provides a platform for makes with anything resembling a sports car, from a Morgan Aero 8 to a Bentley Continental GT.
The onus is on providing affordable racing. There’s a price cap of €129,000, and a running budget for the WTCR is predicted to be not far north of €400,000 for a single car. That’s less than half the cost of a campaign with a top-tier TC1 car in WTCC. An engine lease on its own sets the teams back more than that.
WHY HAS THIS HAPPENED?
The TC1 category never gained the traction it needed to become fully established. Only four manufacturers ever produced cars specifically to a set of regulations that was heavily driven by Citroën, ahead of its 2014 WTCC entry with Sébastien Loeb on its driver roster.
The future of a category that was hardly built on solid foundations was undermined — fatally wounded, even — when WTCC boss François Ribeiro outlined a vision to the manufacturers that involved a switch to the Class 1 regulations of the DTM touring car series. Honda, a stalwart of the WTCC, committed to the 2017 season but not beyond and said it wouldn’t develop a TC1 car on the next Civic Type-R. Volvo, which returned to the WTCC in 2016 and won the drivers’ title in ’17 with Swede Thed Bjork, had little interest in racing on with no factory opposition.
Privateer numbers didn’t pick up after the departure of the all-dominant Citroën factory squad departed the scene at the end of 2016. Just 10 independents regularly joined the six works entries from Honda and Volvo on the grid this season.
WHAT WILL CHANGE?
Apart from the name and the cars, not a lot. Ribeiro is promising continuity, though the WTCC name has disappeared courtesy of the licensing agreement with TCR and because there is no championship for manufacturers. WTCR will be for privateers only, hence its ‘cup’ status.
“There will be much continuity, the same promoter, the same regulator and more or less the same calendar,” says Eurosport Events boss Francois Ribeiro. “It will have the same look and feel — Eurosport has a certain expertise in filming touring car racing. Everything we have learnt in the WTCC era, we will be able to transpose to WTCR.”
The lack of overt manufacturer participation, something on which the WTCC was reborn in 2005, will not be a problem, says Riberio.
“The history of the WTCC has always been about manufacturers and privateers,” he insists. “TCR was launched as a customer category, and we all agreed that having factory teams in the WTCR was not the best objective.”
Riberio says that not offering manufacturers a title is a clear signal of intent. But he isn’t saying that the brands who’ve built cars for the class shouldn’t support teams “sometimes with drivers or engineers, the way they do in GT3”.
THE LIKELY GRID
Ribeiro wants quality and not quantity. That is why the WTCR grid has been limited to 26 cars, plus the chance to add two wildcards for local teams or drivers at each round.
“We don’t feel that going after 30 or 35 cars is necessary to deliver the best possible championship,” he explained. “I prefer a smaller grid of 26 cars, which is actually already a big grid if you look at other championships.”
Ribeiro is confident that he will hit his target. He says he is expecting the majority of the current crop of WTCC drivers to be on the grid next year, as well as an influx of teams from TCR International.
Reigning TCR International champion WRT, best known for its exploits with Audi GT3 machinery, expanded into TCR at the outset and believes that it has a bright future with Eurosport.
“TCR International was a great championship and was always going to grow into something bigger,” says team boss Vincent Vosse, whose lead driver Jean-Karl Vernay won the title at the wheel of a Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR. “It didn’t have the visibility in the past, but now it can really take a step forward.”
Eurosport is playing its cards close to its chest about what might happen beyond the two-year deal with TCR. The Class 1 plan remains on the backburner at a time when the long-running efforts to bring the rules for the DTM and Super GT Series in Japan fully in-line appear to be coming together. Witness the displays of Super GT cars at DTM’s season finale and vice versa.
The cars from the two series already share a common monocoque, but the DTM is set to adopt Super GT’s two-litre turbocharged engine formula for 2019, the year Mercedes will disappear from the series. The other significant area of divergence, the aerodynamic rules, is likely to be addressed at the same time.
That might allow for the rebirth of the WTCC proper, but the level of costs would be far in excess of even TC1 levels. The adoption of the TCR rules by Eurosport offers an accessible platform. A WTCC for high-tech Class 1 cars, or whatever they might be called, would be something different altogether.