The FIA WTCR by Oscaro is set to kick off this weekend in Marrakesh - and could be one of the best seasons yet.
The WTCC is dead, long live WTCR! When the former World Touring Car Championship limped across the finish line one final time in 2017, many thought that this once great category had breathed its last and a long and often glorious reign at the head of the touring car pile was finally over...
Citing a move to adopt the rival TCR regulations for 2018 as something of a desperate last roll of the dice by the organisers, the newly formed WTCR category would astound the naysayers as it produced one of the finest examples of touring car racing for many a season - prompting many to liken the track action of the new category to the glory days of the former Super Touring regulations that dominated the touring car landscape in the 1990's.
Move forward to 2019, many of the star names have returned for the new season, and one or two very exciting new (and returning) faces are set to pop up on the grid this coming weekend in Marrakesh.
Formally of Volvo fame and the team and personnel behind Yvan Muller Racing last season, 2019 marks a move away from the successful Hyundai brand of 2018 and on to a new venture - teaming up with the brand new Chinese based Lynk & Co manufacturer with an all-star driving line-up.
Muller and team mate Ted Bjork have moved over from YMR along with the Cyan Racing staff, as Lynk & Co are set to field four semi-works cars this season. Having enjoyed a strong winter test programme the squad aim to hit the ground running come the opening weekend, with both Muller and Bjork expected to be right in the thick of the title challenge come season end in Malaysia.
Alongside these two highly decorated touring car drivers is returning former WTCC star and triple champion Andy Priaulx, the Guernseyman returning to the world series following a nine year break in such series as WEC, BTCC and DTM. Although Priaulx hasn't sampled FWD machinery since his 2001 BTCC days, the immense experience and savvy racecraft of the former ETCC and WTCC champion remain as sharp as ever - discount him from the title fight at your peril!
Joining the team this season will be 2018 stand out young star Yann Ehrlacher. The nephew of Yvan Muller, Ehrlacher was something of a revelation last year at Honda, and with Muller, Priaulx and Bjork to learn from, expect big things from the talented Frenchman as the season progresses.
Reigning champions and once again utilising the class of the field Hyundai i30, it would be hard to look past this four car outfit when predicting those who are set to be in the thick of the victory hunt come round one.
Retaining reigning World Champion Gabriele Tarquini and the every popular Norbert Michelisz for a second season, plus adding former WTCC star and long time BMW man Argusto Farfus Jr alongside former Lada and Volvo WTCC factory driver Nicky Catsburg, BRC racing have a very talented mix of youth and experience on hand in an expanded four car line-up for the new season.
A difficult winter of testing would be compounded by startlingly slow laptimes in the joint Barcelona test earlier this month - however it remains far too soon to count out a team of such experience and talent before even a wheel has been turned in anger during the season.
WRT - Comtoyou Racing
Splitting the VW Audi group across two separate teams, 2019 is a big year for the exceptionally fast R3 LMS. Having started 2018 on something of the back foot, in the hands of Comtoyou's Frédéric Vervisch 2019 ended in spectacular style - the youngster putting on a tremendous run of form to end the season as the highest points scorer in the closing portion of the campaign.
With the benefit of a further 12 month experience on the world stage, and with the obviously talented Gordon Shedden now enjoying an upturn in confidence following a strong close to 2018, the Audi could well be one of the surprise packages over the course of the new season.
With WRT, formally of GT fame, fielding both former TCR champion Jean-Karl Vernay and multiple BTCC title winner Gordon Shedden once again, the new championship should prove ample opportunity for both the squad and drivers to showcase their racing pedigree on the world stage.
Joining WRT for 2019 will be Belgian outfit Comtoyou Racing, the squad set to field Frédéric Vervisch and Niels Langeveld, the stand out driver from last seasons Audi offering in the increasingly competitive TCR Germany series. Although Langeveld is possibly a name not too familiar with most racing fans, the31-year-old Dutchman has a strong pedigree in racing - winning four championship in his last six seasons of competition.
Sebastien Loeb Racing
Again fielding the increasingly aged VW Golf GTI, SLR will have a point to prove to many people in the coming year, especially as they retain the driving services of former WTCC champion and king of Macau Rob Huff. The Englishman remains one of the strongest drivers in the series, and will no doubt prove a valuable benchmark for his 2019 team mates.
With SLR ramping up to a four car operation this season, Huff will be joined at the team by World Rallycross star and sometime STCC driver Johan Kristoffersson. The Swede remains lightning fast in both WRX and touring car machinery, and should provide a spectacular competitor once he finds his feet on the world stage.
Returning to the VW fold for another season is the often quick and occasionally perplexing Mehdi Bennani. Having enjoyed sporadic success in his touring car career to date, Bennani will have to up his consistency this year if he has aspirations of remaining in a good seat after 2019. Joining Bennani for the new season is VW Golf GTI TCR development driver Benjamin Leuchter - the 31-year-old German looking to make a big step up to the world stage for 2019.
Münnich Motorsport - KCMG
Despite having spent quite some time dominating various national categories over the last few years, Honda have so far failed to quite put it all together in the WTCC / WTCR series. With a four car / two team assault on the category planned for the new year, and a strong driver line up that contains something of a Latin flare, 2019 should be a solid year for the Japanese brand.
Returning for the new season is the Munnich Motorsport outfit, this time with a two car effort for 2018 driver Esteban Guerrieri, and the returning Néstor Girolami - making a welcome return to world competition following his departure from Volvo at the end of 2017.
Alongside Munnich will be former TCR Europe outfit KCMG. Having achieved success in the TCR category previously, KCMG are aiming high for the new year by signing up the super talented Attila Tassi and comeback king Tiago Monteiro.
Tassi, at just 19 years of age, will be the youngest driver on the WTCR grid this weekend, however despite his tender years the Hungarian has already made a firm mark on touring car racing. Often outstanding in the TCR Europe series last season, expect Tassi to be right on the pace once he becomes accustomed to the new series after the first few rounds.
Perhaps the feel good story of the new year is the long awaited return of former Formula One driver Tiago Monteiro. Having looked odds on to wrap up the 2017 WTCC title driving for Honda, the popular Portuguese suffered a high speed testing accident that for a while put his racing career in the balance. Undeterred by the injuries sustained to his vision, Monteiro has had a long 18 month road to recovery in order to be fit for the new season, and it will be fascinating to see how the driver adapts to life in the WTCR following such a long absence from competition.
Judging by the significant BOP restrictions applied to the brand new Alfa Romeo Giulietta Veloce, big things are expected of the small team in 2019. Having overachieved somewhat last year with the dated Alfa, 2019 marks a brand new car for the little privately run Italian squad, and rumour has it that the new Giulietta Veloce is a potent weapon in the right hands.
Fielding just two cars to reflect the size and budget of this little team, drivers Kevin Ceccon and former occasional Citroen driver Ma Qing Hua have been tasked with the challenge of extracting the maximum from one of arguably the most attractive cars on the grid this year.
Ceccon has already made a name for himself in WTCR circles following his spectacular mid season debut for the team in 2018, and the former GP2 and A1GP star will be keen to continue building his professional touring car career.
The signing of Hua is more surprising for Mulsanne, as despite his popularity back home, the Chinese 31-year-old has done little to suggest he is a top flight tin top driver, despite stints in competitive machinery during in on and off and on again career in world touring competition.
PWR - Comtoyou Racing
Multiple championship winning STCC team PWR are one of the new faces on the WTCR grid this season, the Swedish outfit having stepped into the fold to run the now aging Cupra model in the category with a two car outfit. Continuing a strong tin top heritage, PWR are up against it if they are to challenge for decent results in 2019. With a late start to preparations and a increasingly slower car at their disposal, Team Principle and driver Daniel Haglöf will be joined at the squad by occasionally wild by excitingly fast 2018 TCR Europe Champion Mikel Azcona - the Spaniard achieving a long held desire to step up to World Championship level racing in the new year.
Alongside PWR in the Cupra fold will be another entry from Comtoyou Racing. The Belgian outfit will field a two car squad with the Spanish marque, opening up a drive for touring car legend and fan favourite Tom Coronel - the Dutchman moving over from a largely disastrous season with Honda last year to pair up with young Frenchman Aurélien Panis, son of 1996 Monaco Grand Prix winner and latter day Andros Trophy star Olivier Panis.
Although lacking in modern machinery, retaining the ever cheerful Coronel will no doubt put the yellow Comtoyou Racing Cupra right up their as most fans second favourite team this season. Why? Because the WTCR just wouldn't be the same without Coronel up to his usual tricks somewhere in the field....
For more news from the new WTCR season, be sure to head over to the RaceDepartment Motorsport Sub Forum and get in touch with the community!
Like what we do at RaceDepartment? Follow us on Social Media!