Launched back in 2014 as the next big touring cars series and described as a cost-effective spin off to the WTCC (World Touring Car Championship), the TCR International Series created by Marcello Lotti has boomed and boomed. Now into its third season in 2017, TCR has grown in popularity and after attracting 20+ cars for the new season, the formula continues to spread across the globe, with 15 national series appearing and TCR becoming a class within the endurance series; such as 24 Hours Nürburgring, Creventic 24H Series and the German VLN.
As the third season of the TCR International Series got underway on the 1st and 2nd April at the Rustavi International Motorpark in Georgia and then moved to Bahrain for the second round over the Easter weekend. Six different manufactures competed in the opening two rounds; whilst the third round at Spa would see the seventh manufacture entry.
Before the season got underway in Georgia, the team entering as reigning champions and likely to be favourites was WRT with a brand new 2017 Golf GTI. After losing the double champion, the team’s main title challenger was Jean-Karl Vernay, who returned to the team from 2016. With only one Golf GTI entered for the first two rounds, the team added a second at Spa for Belgian teenager Maxime Potty, who was a regular campaigner of a Golf TCR in the Benelux Championship. Ahead of the Spa weekend, the team made a massive announcement with a third signing, bringing in Britain’s WTCC Champion Rob Huff to campaign the rest of the season alongside his Citroen/Munnich Motorsport WTCC commitments. The Golf GTI in the hands of Team WRT wasn’t the only VW to appear on the grid from round one as Swedish team WestCoast Racing switched from Japanese machinery to German, ending their relationship with Honda. Retaining the series of experienced Touring Car campaigner Gianni Morbidelli, the team were looking to be successful from round one and partnering Morbidelli was young Italian Giacorno Altoe.
Another manufacture from the VW group to look for in 2017 was the SEAT, run by British team Craft-Bamboo. After missing out on the title in 2015 and 2016, the team return to the grid with another strong line up and the potential for either one of their drivers to challenge for the title. With former BTCC/WTCC driver James Nash returning to lead the team and hoping to go one better than 2016, he will now face battles from within, as the team is bolstered by ex-Lada Factory WTCC driver Hugo Valente and TCR regular Pepe Oriola. This is certainly a team to watch out for and expect to be at the front.
The biggest shift in Germany over the winter and a bonus to the TCR grid was the addition of Audi and the customer squads. Over the winter, Audi launched the RS 3 LMS and very quickly, orders were flying through the door. The bonus for Audi in entering the TCR International Series was for 2017 they would be carrying the No.1 plate, as double champion Stefano Comini made the move from Team WRT to join Belgian team Comtoyou Racing, bringing along his engineer from WRT to boast chances of title number three. The team announced before the season that their home round at Spa would see the addition of a second Audi RS 3 LMS driven by Belgian Sportscars driver Frederic Vervisch, who would be racing in the TCR International series alongside commitments in Blancpain GT and the ADAC GT Masters.
In terms of other German machinery to line up on the TCR International Grid, top Belgian Squad DG Sport Competition joined for 2017 moving from TCR Benelux and TCR Germany with their competitive Opel Astra TCR. Keeping Pierre-Yves Corthals as leading driver was a positive move by the team and he would be joined by Slovakian Mat’o Hamola, a proven driver with history in the European Touring Car cup.
Whilst most of the grid looks to be made up of German manufactures, there is a representative from Italy as GE-Force Racing enters the impressive Alfa Romeo, backed by Italian touring car powerhouse Romeo Ferraris. The team were providing a strong line-up for 2017 with Georgian Davit Kajaia partnered by the 2015 European Touring Car Cup champion Dusan Borkovic. Another Italian team would be on the grid for 2017 competing with the sixth and final manufacture for the opening two rounds as the M1RA team, backed by Norbert Michelisz enter with two Honda Civic TCRs. Experienced Italian Roberto Colciago led the line-up ahead of junior team mate Attila Tassi, who was entering his second season of TCR.
Additions to the grid at Spa-Francorchamps who hadn’t competed in the first two rounds and making a likely one-off appearance were brothers Guillaume and Edouard Mondron for Delahaye Racing in a SEAT and a Volkswagen Golf, coming from the TCR Benelux Championship, along with Belgian team Boutsen Ginion Racing who were entering two Honda Civics for regular Benelux driver Benjamin Lessennes, as well as WTCC Dutchman Tom Coronel.
Opening Two Rounds Produces Lots of Action
The round in Georgia opened the 2017 TCR International Series with a bang at the start of April, as there was drama, close racing and the odd unprofessional spat between former team mates. Putting that to one side, the opening weekend ended up being about the Italians in a way, as the GE-Force Alfa Romeo would go to Bahrain in top spot in the hands of Georgian driver Davit Kajaia. Opening his account to the season with victory in race one ahead of Ferenc Ficza’s SEAT and ending race two in eighth, Kajaia held an eight-point advantage going to Asia over Italian youngster Attila Tassi, as the 17-year old took the M1RA Honda to fifth and second at the Rustavi circuit. Third in the standings was championship contender Pepe Oriola in the Craft-Bamboo Racing SEAT, seven points off Kajaia after securing victory in race two. Bahrain was going to be an exciting one in the championship, as most championship contenders had a mixed weekend and drivers like Jean-Karl Vernay, Roberto Colciago, Stefano Comini, James Nash and Gianni Morbidelli would be hungry to open their 2017 accounts.
When the championship moved to Bahrain for round two, it was one of the more experienced drivers who fought back for victory, as Italian Roberto Colciago secured M1RA’s first TCR International victory, ahead of former WTCC driver Hugo Valente for Craft-Bamboo and Team WRT’s Jean-Karl Vernay. The win for Colciago promoted him into the series lead, equal on points with Vernay whilst championship leader from Georgia, Davit Kajaia fell to third in the standing and under pressure from Pepe Oriola. Newcomer Attila Tassi who was impressive in Georgia ended Bahrain’s race one with zero points and therefore lost out in the championship. For race number two, the Alfa Romeo yet again showed its pace, however rather than Kajaia taking the win it was Serbian Dusan Borkovic, picking up his first TCR win ahead of two Craft-Bamboo Racing SEATs of James Nash and Hugo Valente. By coming home in fourth, Jean-Karl Vernay secured the championship leading heading to Spa, one point ahead of race two winner Dusan Borkovic, 52 vs 51. Race one winner Roberto Colciago held third in the standings on 50 points, with Pepe Oriola climbing into fourth, 5 back from Colciago, making it four different manufactures in the top four (VW, Alfa Romeo, Honda and SEAT). The battle would certainly resume during round three at the famous Spa circuit and two races would further determine the path to the 2017 title.
Champion Takes First Pole of 2017
Qualifying for the opening TCR International race of the weekend at Spa-Francorchamps was expected to be extremely competitive and with the addition of TCR Benelux competitors and WTCC stars, it wasn’t clear who would take pole. The early pace setter which surprised the regular TCR International drivers was Benelux local Guillaume Mondron, in the Delahaye Racing SEAT, however in the opening 20-minute session, Guillaume would end up on the back of recovery truck after crashing out at Les Combes moments after going quickest. With this session key for drivers to make it Q2, it wasn’t a shock to see some casualties in such a large field. The biggest ones were two/thirds of the Craft Bamboo Racing squad, as 2016 runner James Nash was only sixteenth quickest and former WTCC driver Hugo Valente twenty-third, both struggling to match the pace of other manufactures around.
Into Q2 and it was the WTCC Champion who set the benchmark time, as Rob Huff lapped Spa-Francorchamps with a time of 2:32.259s in the WRT Leopard Racing Golf GTI. With the session ticking away, second laps of the circuit saw a steep drop in times, as both the Audi RS 3 LMS of Comtoyou Racing jumped to the top of times, going faster than Huff with TCR International champion Stefano Comini leading younger team mate Frederic Vervisch. As the bright orange, Hondas of Benjamin Lessennes and Tom Coronel upped the pace, Lessennes went third fastest at his home circuit, whilst Tom Coronel was penalised by the stewards for track limits and lost all his times, suffering the same fate as Davit Kajaia in the GE-Force Alfa Romeo. With only a few minutes on the clock and pressure on Comini to secure Audi’s first TCR International pole, his position was secured as Maxime Potty in the third WRT VW Golf crashed out at Eau-Rouge and with yellow flags, times couldn’t be improved. The opening race on Friday would see a front row locked out by the Audis, with Honda third, VWs in fourth and fifth as Jean-Karl Vernay came home ahead of Rob Huff and Honda completing the top six, with Attila Tassi going well in the M1RA Honda.
Audi’s First TCR International Win Secured
The opening race at Spa-Francorchamps rounded out the Friday in Belgium with overcast conditions, as Comtoyou Racing targeted their opening win in the series since joining with the double TCR champion and the Audi RS 3 LMS. With both lining up on the front row, the first corner would be important and with both struggling to get away well, Jean-Karl Vernay challenged in the Golf, before Attila Tassi surprised all with a move around the outside. Settling into the lead early on, Benjamin Lessennes moves from row two into second to create a Honda 1-2 as the two Audis behind wrestle positions off Vernay and drop him back into the path of Huff and Mondron to create a train of three VWs. Whilst the battle is on at the front of the field and Tassi and Comini go side by side into the Bus-Stop Chicane for the lead, behind the race’s first bit of contact occurs, as Mat’o Hamola and Maxime Potty collide and Hamola’s Opel is forced to pit with a broken wheel and he falls to the rear of the field.
With the opening lap ending in the hands of Tassi, the speed of the Audi is impressive and on the run out of Eau Rouge, Comini retakes the lead from Tassi and Lessennes challenges in the Boutsen Ginion Honda for second. The pressure from Lessennes is too much for Tassi a lap later as the Italian falls to third, however there is enough of a gap to maintain a podium position, as the second Audi of Vervisch is defending hard from a train of VWs, led by Vernay, whilst Tom Coronel closing in on the rear, held by Edouard Mondron. As Vervisch and Vernay swap positions multiple times on lap five at La Source and Eau Rouge, Vernay seals fourth position at Blanchimont to split the train of VWs, not long before Mondron hits Coronel during an attempt to pass, dropping the Dutchman down the order.
Once ahead of the Audi of Vervisch, Vernay looks the quickest on track and easily closing in on a podium position. With Comini in control out front and Lessennes comfortably in second, it’s Tassi who has to watch Vernay and try to defend off the VW Golf. Two laps passed with the two-running bumper to bumper before Tassi showed his talent to pull clear and secure a well-deserved podium by 0.421s at the flag. Outside the top four, Rob Huff secured a strong fifth place for Team WRT in his opening weekend in the 2017 TCR International Series, ahead of TCR Benelux regular Edouard Mondron in the Fun Cup sponsored VW Golf. Tom Coronel came home in eighth after recovering from the incident with Mondron, ahead of the SEAT of Pepe Oriola and Pierre-Yves Corthals’ Opel completing the top ten.
The second race would take place on the Saturday before the FIA WEC 6hours of Spa and going into this race, the win for Stefano Comini had moved him to second in the standings, whilst Jean-Karl Vernay stretched his championship lead to fifteen points over the field.
TCR International Series, Spa-Francorchamps, Race 1 Top Five:
- Stefano Comini (No.1 – Comtoyou Racing) = 9 Laps
- Benjamin Lessennes (No.63 – Boutsen Ginion Racing) = +3.547s
- Attila Tassi (No.9 – M1RA Honda) = +8.343s
- Jean-Karl Vernay (No.2 – Leopard Racing Team WRT) = +8.764s
- Frederic Vervisch (No.6 – Comtoyou Racing) = +9.063s.
Leopard Racing Complete a 1-2 in Style
The qualifying result from Friday saw the top ten reversed for race two, giving pole position to WRT’s Maxime Potty, however it was a lighting start from Tom Coronel that excited things into La Source. The Honda driver got away well from row two; however, a mistake saw the Dutchman collide with the Craft Racing Bamboo SEAT of Pepe Oriola which caused a domino effect and collected Maxime Potty. The incident ended Tom Coronel’s race and an incident further back ended the weekend for Hugo Valente and Jens Reno Moller before Stian Paulsen was taken out at the Bus-Stop Chicane and hit the barrier heavy. When the dust settled, the lead was in the hands of Edouard Mondron, with the Leopard Racing VW Golf of Rob Huff closing in and Benjamin Lessennes in third. The Belgian was flying in the Honda and on the second lap challenged both Huff and Mondron into Les Combes, however a mistake handed the positions back to the VWs and then Huff secured the lead moments later.
With most of the field running bumper to bumper, positions were changing regularly within the top ten, as Comini moved passed team mate Vervisch before Davit Kajaia in the Alfa dropped the Belgian further back. Back at the front on the same lap, Lessennes was challenging for the lead and attempted a move on the outside at Les Combes, however Huff defended and the two made contact. Huff recovered the hold the race lead, whilst Lessennes fell to fifth behind Jean-Karl Vernay and Stefano Comini. With Lessennes dropped back, Huff was under pressure from Mondron; however, Vernay closed in and made it three VWs for the lead. The experience of Vernay in the Golf showed as on lap five, the Frenchman found room to pass both, as Huff closed the door to create a Leopard Racing 1-2 and allow Vernay to break clear and increase his title chances.
Breaking away into the distance, the Leopard Racing Golfs looked untouchable and behind, Mondron came under pressure from Comini, handing the champion third spot on lap seven, as most of the field ran in packs, with Mondron chased down by Benjamin Lessennes on lap eight, but being able to hold onto fourth. The positions remained right up to the flag for the top five, however behind was a right old tussle, led by Frederic Vervisch’s Audi. The Belgian sat sixth, ahead of a chasing pack that included Attila Tassi, Davit Kajaia and James Nash, whilst Altoe in the WestCoast Racing VW battle with the second Alfa of Dusan Borkovic over tenth. As Vervisch came home in sixth, a mistake for Tassi on the final lap dropped him to ninth, whilst Kajaia kept Nash behind to take seventh. In the battle for tenth, Altoe took Borkovic at the Bus-Stop Chicane and meant there was four VW Golfs in the top ten.
The 1-2 for Leopard Racing Team WRT was a fantastic end to a pretty successful weekend for the team on what can be described as home soil, by Jean-Karl Vernay increasing his lead in the overall championship standings to 25 points and the signing of Rob Huff for the rest of the campaign shows they have one of the best driver line up in the series.
TCR International Series, Spa-Francorchamps, Race 2 Top Five:
- Jean-Karl Vernay (No.2 – Leopard Racing Team WRT) = 9 Laps
- Rob Huff (No.3 – Leopard Racing Team WRT) = +0.720s
- Stefano Comini (No.1 – Comtoyou Racing) = +2.325s
- Edouard Mondron (No.25 – Delahaye Racing) = +3.888s
- Benjamin Lessennes (No.63 – Boutsen Ginion Racing) = +4.907s
The next round of the TCR International series takes place in a few days’ time at the famous Italian circuit of Monza for what would be rounds 7 and 8 on the 13th and 14th May. To catch up on coverage of these races, you can find live feed on TCR’s website: http://tcr-series.com/ and the championship table looks as follows:
TCR International Series Championship Standings after 6 rounds:
- Jean-Karl Vernay (No.2 – Leopard Racing Team WRT) = 91 Pts.
- Stefano Comini (No.1 – Comtoyou Racing) = 66 Pts.
- Attila Tassi (No.9 – M1RA Honda) = 53 Pts.
- Dusan Borkovic (No.62 – GE-Force) = 51 Pts.
- Roberto Colciago (No.5 – M1RA Honda) = 50 Pts.
For more photos of the action from Spa-Francorchamps, please click here.
Written and Produced by Chris Collier and Cheryl Closs