Writing about racing. Most of it is NASCAR, but occasionally I write about other series too.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

WTCC champ visits Sacramento

By Keri Luiz
Assistant Editor
(NOTE: this is a 'reprint' of the WTCC story I wrote which ran in the sports section of the Benicia Herald July 17, 2012). Running it here since most of the motorsports stories are in the Sports section, and do not get posted on the Herald's web site. 

Three time WTCC Champion Yvan Muller and the Chevy Cruze on the steps of the California State Capitol. Photo by Keri Luiz.

Yvan Muller looks ahead to September debut

The FIA World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) is bringing its intense, paint-swapping, fender-banging style to the raceway in Sonoma in September — the first time the event will take place on American soil.

Three-time and current WTCC champion Yvan Muller joined track president and General Manager Steve Page Monday in on the steps outside the state Capitol in Sacramento, and Muller's car — a Chevy Cruze — was on hand for fans to view.

"We're always looking for new forms of quality racing that we can bring out to Sonoma," Page said. "We have such an incredible, loyal fan base that supports everything else we do … NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA, which is coming up soon.

"We look globally to see what other kinds of events that would be appropriate for our track, and would be entertaining for our fans."

Page observed that the WTCC's "no kid gloves approach" to racing is likely something Sonoma's fans will enjoy. "There does not appear to be any aversion to contact," he said. "For those of you that are familiar with our NASCAR event, it was a very familiar look and feel.

"We think our fans are going to respond to it. We are excited to host this series. We think it's going to be great for the track, it's going to be wonderful for our fans."

Two very different types of horse power.
Photo by Keri Luiz
Thirteen million people live within 90 minutes of the race track, Page said, and bringing in the international race teams, sponsors and visitors will benefit the North Bay region. "When we looked at whether we wanted to bring the series here — and frankly when the manufacturers and organizers of the series were looking where to introduce the series for the first time in the United States — we became their immediate first choice, not only because of the big population in Northern California that we have to draw from but because part of what makes this series and all motor racing series is the relationship with sponsors," he said.

In a WTCC race, 21 cars compete. Qualifying is done in a "shootout" style: The first leg is 20 minutes and involves all the cars. The second leg is a 10-minute shootout between the 10 fastest cars in the first leg.
The first race's starting grid is based on the combined results of two qualifying sessions. Race two is based on the results of the first race, plus the combined qualifying results. On top of that, the top 10 seeds are reversed in the second race. "Imagine, second race, you put the fastest guy in tenth position — that creates an exciting race," Muller said.

Muller, a native of Altkirch, France, said if the no-holds-barred urgency of the WTCC's short races aren't exciting enough, the Series has a way to keep the racing exciting. "We have a weight penalty. When you win, like the old ways, they give you some weight. That will slow you down," he said.

"When you put additional weight, you are putting more stress on the front tire." That's difficult to manage, especially since the cars are front-wheel drive. "We have to cope with it, and it makes the racing interesting."
There are no spotters during the race as in a NASCAR event, and there is no pitting. "We don't do any pits. It's more like a sprint. If you stop, that's over for the race," Muller said.

"We have contact only with the engineers. Most of the time I prefer he doesn't talk to me."

Muller's Chevy Cruze.
Photo by Keri Luiz
The WTCC, which began in 2005, has a large following in Europe, but has yet to gather similar interest in the U.S. "This is a new Series for our track, and a new Series for North America," Page said. "We have no question on the quality of the racing and excitement of what goes on with the track. It is going to make for a terrific show.
"On the other hand it is a new Series. It hasn't raced here. It is followed on a weekly basis by 40 million fans who follow it on Eurosport."

WTCC races currently are not televised live in the United States — a challenge for Sonoma in this first of a three-year commitment to the Series. "Over the course of that time we expect to build a larger following," Page said. "We're very excited that they chose Sonoma and our market."

Race weekend, Sept. 21-23, will be busy. A 30-minute practice session will be held Friday afternoon, followed by two 30-minute practice sessions on Saturday, then qualifying Saturday afternoon. Warmups will be Sunday morning and both races, each about 30 minutes long, will be in the middle of the day.

Muller hasn't had a chance to drive a lap at the Sonoma track yet. Before Monday, he'd only had a brief glimpse of it. Though it is a brand new track for all of the WTCC's competitors, that's a source of excitement for the drivers, too. "We're looking forward to coming to race on this new track," Muller said.

WTCC drivers aren't the only ones. That weekend will also include the U.S. debut of the Trofeo Maserati Gran Turismo and Auto GP World Series, as well as the U.S. Touring Car Championship series (USTCC). "There's going to be racing pretty much from the time we open until the time we shut down at the end of the day," Page said.
Right to left: Eric Nève, Director Motorsport at Chevrolet Europe; Steve Page, track president and general manager of the raceway at Sonoma; Yvan Muller, three time champion of the WTCC. Photo by Keri Luiz

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