Despite it being a new era for global touring car competition, seven tin-top action heroes are still setting the benchmarks
Remember that movie The Expendables? If it passed you by, you can be forgiven (it was never going to trouble the BAFTAs). But it’s the one where all those cheesy action heroes of the 1980s and ’90s – Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li and more – unite for ‘one last mission’.
Why bring it up here? Well, our heroes in the FIA World Touring Car Cup are warming to The Expendables theme – and let’s just say the shoe fits. As they jostle for position in our photo shoot, this bunch of bantering ‘tin-top’ touring car superstars can’t hide the old competitive instincts.
And like The Expendables, our seven – with a combined age of 316! – just don’t know when to stop. As Motor Sport discovers while catching up with this grizzled band of brothers at the Vila Real street races in Portugal, a few miles on the clock are no barrier to bravado. They all love what they do – and more importantly they’re still fast in a series that has legitimate claim right now to be the most competitive touring car competition in the world.
If ‘Huffy’, as he is universally known, really was an Expendable, he’d be the Jason Statham character – and not just because he’s follicly challenged… He grins at the comparison. “Ha! And I’m the best-looking too!”
The 38-year-old – a mere youth – has been a mainstay since 2005 of what until last year was known as the World Touring Car Championship, becoming a proud world champion in 2012. Today, he remains fiercely competitive and represents the archetype of the touring car professional: kind of the modern equivalent of Steve Soper.
“I’ve seen this series go from 36-car fields down to 14 and come back to 27 where it is at the moment,” he says. “From a spectator’s point of view what we have now is one of the best we’ve seen. Lots of manufacturers involved, lots of teams, lots of drivers new and old. But the biggest difference is the doors are open to both young and experienced drivers.”
Huff, who races a Sébastien Loeb Racing VW Golf this year, is enthusiastic about the series – with reservations. WTCR, which is promoted by the events operation of the Eurosport TV channel, is a WTCC reboot, now using the TCR regulations that have become a modern-day touring car phenomenon. Launched by tin-top tsar Marcello Lotti in 2014, 19 TCR national series have sprung up around the globe, including in the UK this year. The premise is simple: it’s a set of rules for front-wheel drive, four- or five-door saloons or hatchbacks using turbocharged production engines, with a capacity of between 1750-2000cc and with a maximum power output of 350bhp. Production bodyshells, suspension and gearboxes keep a cap on costs, with upgraded brakes, aerodynamics and Yokohama racing tyres a welcome concession to a racier spec.
Manufacturers have flocked to build more than 600 cars in the past few years, attracted by smaller budgets and the banning of factory teams. Instead, they sell cars to customers – which explains the downgrading from world championship status to a ‘World Cup’. Most feel that’s a small price to pay for full grids, with a total of seven car brands represented.
Huff admits he misses the old TC1 cars, which were proper manufacturer-built racers – and were thus much more expensive to run and attracted thinner grids. But they were faster, to the tune of around five to six seconds around the 2.9-mile Vila Real track.
“From a driver’s point of view, my personal choice is to go faster, not slower,” he says. “It’s not ideal, but the racing now is better.
“Your Expendables have learnt tricks over the years, but they don’t work in these cars.”
“The joker in the pack”
You don’t interview Tom Coronel, you just listen. The Dutchman, 46, has always been a force of nature during a vast career that has taken in everything from Formula 3, a spell in Japan, Le Mans, Dakar rallying with his identical twin brother Tim (yes, there’s two of them), and what has turned out to be his first love: touring cars.
“I’m the longest here, since 2001,” he says, referencing the production-based European series from which the WTCR’s origins can be traced. “At the last race in Estoril I had a big fight with Gianni Morbidelli on the podium. I was leading the race and he pushed me out two laps from the end and I finished P3. I ran up the podium and started to hit him… I was young, I was aggressive – but that changed, of course.”
Today, Coronel is more likely to hug a rival than punch him. “I like touring cars, I like the bumping, I like the play,” he says. “I’d rather come second with a big fight than win a race by 10 seconds. I’ve seen the series have its ups and downs and my opinion is it is now as high as it can be. You see the mixture of the drivers. A lot of people went away, but they all came back. I’ve never left! I’ve seen it as the ETCC, then become the WTCC to WTCR. I’ve seen all the politics, I’ve seen all the fights and I know all the secrets…”
He’s a great salesman. But while on the one hand there’s a rampant ego at play, Coronel is also refreshingly honest.
He is driving a Honda Civic Type R, in his usual DHL yellow, for Boutsen Ginion Racing, a team named in deference to former Belgian F1 racer Thierry Boutsen, but actually run by his sister-in-law. Up to Vila Real, Tom hadn’t featured too highly. But he just loves being a part of this “circus” – especially with so many old friends having returned. “When I saw Yvan Muller announce his comeback, I texted him… what the f***, man! You finally left and gave me a spot up – because he is better than me, I accept it” – there’s that honesty – “But he came back. The same with Gabriele. These are funny things.”
Gianni Morbidelli & Fabrizio Giovanardi
“The Italian stallions”
You can’t help but be impressed by Gianni Morbidelli, veteran of 67 Grands Prix and the man who briefly replaced a sacked Alain Prost at Ferrari in 1991. At 50, it would be wrong to say he looks young, but he does look amazing – as Motor Sport blurts awkwardly upon meeting him.
“Thank you so much, I try to do my best,” he smiles politely in a way that suggests we’re not the first to say so. The guy looks like he’s made of teak, such is his deep tan, and he’s all sinew – reminiscent of another little Italian charger: Tazio Nuvolari.
“This series is a mix of experienced drivers like me and [Yvan] Muller, Fabrizio [Giovanardi] and [Gabriele] Tarquini, and many young drivers,” he says, in perfectly clipped English. “This makes the championship very interesting, you know? And I think it will get better.”
Morbidelli forms half of an Italian ‘dream team’ this year with Fabrizio Giovanardi, multiple Italian, British and European Touring Car champion and a race winner in Formula 3000 all the way back in 1989. He’s 51 now, and while it would be a blatant lie to say he’s in the same physical nick as his team-mate, Giovanardi reckons he still has something to offer.
“Touring car racing is about experienced driving, it’s not F1 where you have to be an iron man,” he says. “You have to use all your clever tricks… It doesn’t change. I don’t want to defend old guys, but it’s true. It’s the game.”
So far, the pair have yet to hit their full stride in their Alfa Romeo Giuliettas (what else?) from race to race, stymied by strict homologation rules freezing major developments. The pair have both knocked on the door of the top 10, but in a season where nine different drivers and five different car brands have tasted victory in the five triple-race weekends up to Vila Real, they haven’t yet been close. What a story it would be if either of these veterans could turn it around.
“The humble one”
“I’m pretty rusty, to be honest,” says the dude with the long hair and beard. James Thompson was never one for bull. A quiet character who was a bright young star of the so-called BTCC ‘golden era’ of the 1990s, the 44-year-old Yorkshireman is as surprised as anyone to find himself back racing at this level. But a late call-up from Münnich Motorsport pitched him straight into a Honda Civic. In the circumstances, his performances have been more than respectable.
“The tracks that I’ve known have been okay, but there’s no substitute for mileage and doing pre-season testing, but obviously that wasn’t an option,” he says. “You’ve just got to get on with it.
“The series is great,” he adds. “I think there is a buzz. For me, it was exciting to come back and race against some of my old sparring partners, Fabrizio, Gabriele, Yvan… Guys I’ve spent a lot of time with over the years. That was an exciting aspect for me.
“Obviously I’m not the driver I was in my heyday, probably mainly due to mileage. Back in the day, we were doing a couple of days of testing a week, but just jumping in the car and racing as we do today is very different.”
He’s pulled himself away from a comfortable life in Ibiza – “I’m very lucky” – to get back on the road and admits the travel has made him “anxious”, that the youngsters make him feel “a bit of a dinosaur”. But there’s paradoxical assurance in those words; you can only be so honest when you’re older, with nothing to prove.
Here’s another Brit who doesn’t need to be doing this. That Gordon Shedden has joined the world trail does him enormous credit. The 39-year-old Scot had a comfortable life in the BTCC: 11 years at Team Dynamics, three hard-won titles… Like Jason Plato and Matt Neal, he could have stayed put for as long as he wanted. Then, out of the blue, he left to join WRT’s team of Audi RS3 LMS in the new WTCR. This is a man with wider horizons.
“I had nothing else to prove,” he says. “I always wanted to try and do the ‘worlds’, but there wasn’t the opportunity. Also, the timing wasn’t quite there. You want to do it on as much of a level playing field as possible.”
It’s been tough so far, and generally his team-mate Jean-Karl Vernay has shaded him – but not by much. Shedden has purposely put himself out of his comfort zone, and to his great credit, he’s relishing the experience.
“I’m loving this,” he says. “It’s nice to try different cultures and different parts of the world, and different types of circuits too. But I keep banging the drum for a race at Knockhill!”
He might have to wait a while for that. With the BTCC so dominant in the UK, there’s little incentive for promoter Eurosport to bring the WTCR to these shores.
Shedden is also making the most of racing against some of his heroes. “I vividly remember going to Knockhill with my dad in 1994, my first touring car event, and that was the year Gabriele barrel-rolled the Alfa down at McIntyres,” he smiles. “Being there as a little kid, gasping through the fence… I never thought I’d drive any type of race car, let alone make it into that series and beyond.”
And so, we come to our own Sylvester Stallone. Of all The Expendables, Muller is the true A-lister. A four-time world champion, he’s best known in the UK for his BTCC years. His French insouciance is legendary, and he seems to relish the role of aloof villain.
Now 48 (also his race number), Muller sports a heavy grey beard that must only intensify his air of intimidation. He has a natural charisma, like all great racing drivers carry, and he definitely knows how to use it.
Muller retired from driving at the end of the 2016 WTCC season, but took up a consultancy role with the Polestar Cyan Racing Volvo squad last year. The team’s 37-year-old Swede Thed Björk won his first world championship in the final year of the TC1 regulations in 2017 and was happy to acknowledge Muller’s contribution to his success. Now Björk finds himself driving for Muller, who has set up his own eponymous team to run a pair of plain white Hyundai i30s, currently the benchmark car in the new WTCR era – and Yvan himself couldn’t resist: he’s now back, handling the other one.
Muller has a twinkle in his eye when we talk about the comeback. Like all our Expendables, he’s clearly addicted to his sport. “It was not in my plan to return at all,” he insists. “Last year I didn’t want to come back. I had a proposal during the winter and I refused it. But then I had a proposal to do my own team. I thought I have to give this team a chance…”
As a driver, he’s clearly lost very little with age. At Vila Real he added another victory, his second of the campaign. Off-track, he unashamedly uses his position to speak up for the best interests of his team. The Balance of Performance (BoP) – considered a necessary evil in modern motor sport to allow cars of varying concepts to compete on a supposedly even playing field – is his particular bugbear. The Hyundais dominated at the start of the year, then at Zandvoort suddenly found themselves pegged back as also-rans. In Portugal, they were pacesetters once more. You can understand his frustration.
But after Vila Real he had every reason to crack a smile behind that beard. That race one win followed the “best worst start” of his career: he plummeted down the order off the line, but that just meant he missed the nasty multi-car pile-up up front triggered by Rob Huff and team-mate Mehdi Bennani, who collided at speed. More than two hours later the race restarted, and Muller claimed an unlikely victory – then as team boss faced the prospect of having to rebuild Björk’s car, which was badly damaged in the smash. Björk would repay his mechanics for pulling an all-nighter by winning the final race of the weekend in dominant fashion.
While Muller left Portugal on top of the standings, he has since been displaced by fellow legend Tarquini, who took a fourth victory of the year during round six in Slovakia. The Italian was an enigmatic figure in Portugal, struggling with a bout of flu (he was a no-show for our photo shoot). How he got through the weekend is a testament to his physical attributes – at the incredible age of 56! More than one of them has chuckled at the connection. In reality, the old guard are proving that they are anything but expendable.
NEW POWER GENERATION
The strength of the new World Touring Car Cup lies not only in the roster of familiar names on the grid, but also in the impressive batch of new talent pushing them all the way. Here’s a selection:
YANN EHRLACHER (22)
Nephew of Yvan Muller, son of ex-F3000 racer Cathy Muller and former professional footballer Yves Ehrlacher. He comes from pretty good stock, then. Was leading the points until Vila Real. Considered a massive talent with true star quality.
THED BJORK (37)
No spring chicken (he’s of a similar age to two of our Expendables!), but Bjork is a multiple Swedish and Scandinavian champion who won the last WTCC title in 2017. Great over one lap and has all the credentials to win more titles.
NORBERT MICHELISZ (33)
The Hungarian has been around the WTCC for a while and is now teamed with Gabriele Tarquini at BRC Hyundai. Has been in the Italian’s shadow so far, but with more luck has the potential to string big results together.
BENJAMIN LESSENNES (18)
Stand-in for Portuguese ex-F1 driver Tiago Monteiro, who is recovering from awful eye and head injuries sustained in a testing crash last year. Monteiro rates Lessennes highly and has taken him under his wing.
JEAN-KARL VERNAY (30)
Former Red Bull junior and Indy Lights champion, who has successfully converted to tin-tops. Already a race winner for WRT.