José María López secured his seventh race win of the season at Motegi, extending his lead at the top of the FIA World Touring Car Championship. The Japanese meeting narrowed the field of possible title contenders, with the Citroën Total drivers José María López, Yvan Muller and Sébastien Loeb now the only drivers still in the running. The Citroën team’s points haul from this weekend means it can wrap up the manufacturers’ title at the next round in Shanghai on 25-27 September.
Despite the menacing skies and forecasts of rain, race one got under way on a dry track. Norbert Michelisz was unable to take advantage of his pole position, with José María López getting a better start and passing him at the first turn. Sébastien Loeb nestled in behind Michelisz from third on the grid, but found himself boxed in on the outside and was overtaken by Gabriele Tarquini and Yvan Muller, who made a flying start from the fourth row.
Seb then locked horns with Ma Qing Hua, with the two Citroën C-Elysée WTCCs going at it door-to-door for a few bends before the Chinese driver had the last word. The race order at the end of lap one was López, Michelisz, Tarquini, Muller, Qing Hua, Loeb and Bennani.
The reigning WTCC champion had to wait until midway through the race to open up a significant gap on the chasing pack. With four laps to go, Ma Qing Hua pulled off a terrific manoeuvre to snatch fourth place from Yvan Muller. Loeb then gained ground on the four-time WTCC champion, but there were to be no further changes in the standings before the chequered flag, giving José María López his seventh victory of the season.
With the top ten from the race one starting grid lining up in reverse order for race two, the second race promised to be a trickier proposition for the Citroën team. The few drops of rain that fell during the repair time were not enough to soak the track, and all the drivers opted to stick with slick tyres.
The first turn was an eventful affair in the pack. José María López was rear-ended, sending him crashing into Sébastien Loeb. The race one winner was forced to pull out of the running with a punctured front left tyre. Yvan Muller managed to hang onto third place after being pushed into Hugo Valente by Gabriele Tarquini, while Ma Qing Hua and Sébastien Loeb finished lap one in fifth and seventh respectively.
Lying in fourth place after moving past Tarquini, Ma Qing Hua was sent crashing off by the Italian, relegating him to eighth. Tarquini was awarded a 30-second penalty for his manoeuvre after the race.
Yvan Muller, who had been pushing hard to try and snatch second place from Hugo Valente, was ultimately left with no choice but to throw in the towel. Having been damaged in the collision on the first bend, his bonnet fastener gave out and he was called into the pits for safety reasons.
The race remained lively until the finish, thanks to an epic tussle between Rob Huff, Sébastien Loeb and Gabriele Tarquini. Despite launching countless attacks, Loeb just couldn’t find his way past Huff. Tarquini took advantage to slip past the nine-time World Rally Champion, before Seb reclaimed his place just before the chequered flag.
The Citroën team scored enough points to keep them in the lead in the Manufacturers’ World Championship. Provided it doesn’t drop more than 37 points in Shanghai in two weeks’ time, Citroën will secure its second successive world title.
WHAT THEY HAD TO SAY
Xavier Mestelan, Deputy Team Principal, Citroën Racing: “Despite carrying 60kg of ballast, which is a major handicap on a circuit like this, we managed to perform well. First of all, I must pay tribute to Pechito López for his win. He got a terrific start and followed that up with a perfect race. Things didn’t go quite so well for him in race two, but that is sometimes how it goes when you’re in the pack. Sébastien Loeb, Ma Qing Hua and Yvan Muller put on a good show too, and I think the crowd here in Motegi has seen two entertaining WTCC races. Citroën is now in an ideal position to secure another World Championship title. That will be our ambition at the next meeting in China.”
José María López: “Japan has been pretty good to me. I got off to a great start in race one and managed to overtake Michelisz before the first bend. I thought it would be harder to keep him at bay, as our 60kg of ballast was a real handicap on this circuit. But as it turned out, I was able to pull away and get the win. In race two, another driver ran into me and I couldn’t avoid hitting Seb. I’m really sorry about that, but fortunately it didn’t totally ruin his race. Since Yvan didn’t fare any better than I did, the gap between us has widened. That means I can go into the next few races feeling quietly confident, but I certainly won’t be relaxing.”
Sébastien Loeb: “I took the wrong option at the start of race one. It could have paid off, but I found myself boxed in and I dropped a few places. I came back at Yvan in the last few laps. He made a little mistake but I wasn’t able to capitalise. Race two was decided at the start to a large extent, when Pechito ran into me, allowing Huff and Lapierre to overtake. The battle with Gabriele was really exciting. Fortunately I was able to take fourth place back from him on the very last bend.”
Ma Qing Hua: “Like yesterday, I felt good out there, and I was able to get the better of Seb and then Yvan in race one. In race two, Tarquini literally pushed me off, and that ruined my race. Without that incident, I think I could have challenged for a podium place. I’m really looking forward to the FIA WTCC coming to my Shanghai, my home town.”
Yvan Muller: “It wasn’t a great weekend for me. I wasn’t totally happy with the car, but I tried to give myself the best chance I could. I got two good starts, particularly in race two. But the collision damaged my exhaust and I lost power as a result. Then the bonnet came loose and that put paid to my hopes. Otherwise, a podium place could have been on the cards.”