The momentum in the WTCR – FIA World Touring Car Cup is with Volkswagen Motorsport and Sébastien Loeb Racing. Roughly two weeks ago, they claimed their first two wins of the season at the Nürburgring. On the back of this excellent result, the team now travels to round six in Vila Real (P) full of optimism. The four Volkswagen drivers – Mehdi Bennani (MA), Rob Huff (GB), Johan Kristoffersson (S) and Benjamin Leuchter (D) – will be in Portugal from 05 to 07 July for races 16 to 18 of the season.
“After the two wins at the Nürburgring, we obviously have our sights set on challenging for top results again in Vila Real,” says Volkswagen Motorsport Director Sven Smeets. “We saw in last year’s qualifying, when Rob Huff and Mehdi Bennani secured first and second place on the grid, that the Golf GTI TCR is absolutely competitive on this tricky street circuit.” For Nürburgring winners Kristoffersson and Leuchter, on the other hand, the 4.758-kilometre circuit is new territory.
The streets of Vila Real first hosted a motorsport event back in 1931. The circuit was originally over seven kilometres long, but has been modified over the years to meet today’s safety standards, and is consequently somewhat shorter. In 2018, the WTCR made its first appearance on the narrow street circuit, which is almost entirely lined by barriers and rarely forgives any mistakes. “Overtaking is very difficult in Vila Real,” says Rob Huff. “As such, it is extremely important to do well in qualifying.”
Mental preparations begin well before the journey to the racetrack
The drivers in the Sébastien Loeb Racing team are all equipped with identical technology. All four of them drive the 250-kW (340-PS) Golf GTI TCR. However, while Rob Huff and Mehdi Bennani are already familiar with the WTCR circuits from previous seasons, Johan Kristoffersson and Benjamin Leuchter are entering uncharted territory at almost every round this year. In order to balance out the lack of experience of the tracks as much as possible, the two Volkswagen drivers prepare meticulously in the run-up to every WTCR race.
“I usually check out onboard videos first, to get an impression of the circuit from the cockpit,” says Leuchter, who switched to the WTCR – FIA World Touring Car Cup from TCR Germany. “Fortunately, there is plenty of detailed film material of all the WTCR races from last year. I study recordings from the cockpits of Rob Huff and Mehdi Bennani, my two team-mates in the Golf GTI TCR, particularly carefully. I also try to identify sections where it is possible to overtake.”
Rallycross and rallying bring advantages
Studying video footage reveals far more than just the track layout and overtaking opportunities. “I try to read how quickly the tyres will wear. Every track is different in that regard,” says Kristoffersson. “The videos also allow me to see how my colleagues are managing their tyres in practice. Do you need to set your fastest time on the first lap? Or is it better to let the tyres warm up for a lap first?”
The Swede also benefits from the fact that he occasionally goes rallying in the Polo GTI R5 between his outings in the Golf GTI TCR. “You usually only get two looks at the special stages in practice. I have learned to push myself to the limit straight away, in touring cars too.” In his battle with the experienced WTCR drivers, the two-time Rallycross world champion also benefits from the fact that he is able to adapt very well to changes in track conditions. “In Rallycross, the track constantly changes from asphalt to gravel and back. This experience helps me at racetracks, at which the grip level varies dramatically over the course of practice,” says Kristoffersson.
The Vila Real street circuit is one such track. For 51 weeks of the year, the streets are used by normal everyday traffic in the small Portuguese town. As such, they are relatively dusty. “As soon as we start practice, the track soon becomes increasingly clean. The debris from the tyre results in there being more grip,” Kristoffersson explains. “As such, it is vital to choose the right time to do a flying lap in qualifying.”