Last weekend the streets of Marrakech were the stage for the start of the 2014 FIA World Touring Car Championship. It was an opening round full of high drama, which saw Tiago Monteiro claim fifth place in Race 1 and Gabriele Tarquini suffer a heavy crash during free practice.
There will have no time to relax before the next race though. Round 2, which takes place on the French track of Paul Ricard, is only a few days away. The clock is therefore well and truly ticking for the three Honda squads to ensure they are all ready to race this coming weekend and no more so than the mechanics at J.A.S. Motorsport. They have already begun their own “race to the race", with the challenge of having to assemble a whole new car for Gabriele in record time.
“The weekend in Marrakech should be considered as a life size test session", says Alessandro Mariani, Team Principal of the Castrol Honda World Touring Car Team. “We were able to solve a number of set-up issues, which improved the handling of the car. But obviously it was a major setback when Gabriele could not exploit it on track. However, more than ever we are convinced that the new Civic has major potential this season.
“With the first four rounds of the championship held in quick succession we are experiencing an ongoing race against the clock. The fact that we now have lost the chassis that was destined for our testing team will not make our lives easier, for sure. But after the battle in the streets of Marrakech, we now visit a real track in Le Castellet, which is far more familiar territory for us. We've already completed a number of test sessions on the Circuit Paul Ricard and that is why I think next weekend we will get a better picture of where we stand in comparison with our competitors."
In moments of pressure and tension it is important to remain united as a team and the entire Honda crew have displayed some excellent teamwork over the last few days, and not just the mechanics and engineers.
Alessandro Mariani: “After his weekend-ending crash, Gabriele continued to provide information to Tiago on how he should tackle qualifying, even through onboard radio messages. I don't think that there are a lot of team-mates on the international racing scene that have such a tight relationship than Tiago and Gabriele. Gabriele's input was a big help for the team. The fact that all of us, together with our customer teams Zengő Motorsport and Proteam Racing, continued to work as a united family in an effort to overcome these moments of adversity, is really confidence inspiring..."
Norbert Michelisz and Mehdi Bennani will be counting on their Italian ‘teacher' in France to show them the ropes too, since neither have never set foot on the short 3.8 km Paul Ricard circuit before.
“When I first drove the Civic during the shakedown in Italy, Gabriele gave me a lot of advice on how I should drive the car; a car which at the time was completely new to me. That certainly helped me during my home race," explains Bennani.
There is no home race for the Honda drivers this weekend though. Or is there? In 1995 the Paul Ricard Circuit was the setting for the third and final edition of the FIA Touring Car World Cup, the predecessor of the current FIA WTCC. At that time, Honda entered the Accord Supertouring, driven in France by the trio Klaus Niedzwiedz, Armin Hahne and the late David Leslie. Shortly after, a certain young Portuguese driver, with plenty of French roots, had his baptism of fire on the Circuit Paul Ricard…
“When back in 1996 a friend told me that I might have the talent to become a racing driver, my first test was with a Porsche Cup, at… Paul Ricard," says Tiago Monteiro. “That is where my career started. After the Porsche Cup I switched to the French F3 championship. I was part of the French Signature team and since they are based at Ricard, I spent a lot of time there and drove plenty of laps on the track!"
“When I prepared for Le Mans with Oreca, and even during my time in Formula 1, I also had plenty of opportunities to get to know the new track during several test sessions. But this FIA WTCC round will be the first time that I actually start a race on the new Circuit Paul Ricard."