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Uncertain Futures: What’s happened to the WTCC?

As the 2014 motorsport year draws to a close, it may be fair to say that it has been a year of the three R’s: revolution, resurgence and resurrection. Formula One introduced its brand new regulations, the BTCC has returned to a state of high popularity unseen in recent years, and the Blancpain series has thrown GT racing back into the hearts of the fans. In no way is this list exhaustive but most importantly it has been a year of extensive media coverage. As a motorsport journalist, I am able to talk to a wide range of industry experts about all things racing and throughout my interactions, there has been one common denominator, one elephant on the race track; what on earth has happened to the World Touring Car Championship?

“…the what? Oh the WTCC! I had almost forgotten about that”

There was a time when the WTCC was deserving of its title; not only did it encompass the globe with the different rounds, but with names like Priaulx, the Mullers, Farfus Jnr, Tarquini, Giovanardi and Menu it produced some truly world class racing. However, over the last few years it has suffered a decline in popularity and arguably, quality. Just to add the icing of lost hope to the cake of disappointment, 2014 has all but destroyed the reputation of this once great championship. And it all comes down to one name, Citroen.

WTCC in the early 2000s was dominated by names such as Alfa, BMW, SEAT and Chevrolet

WTCC in the early 2000s was dominated by names such as Alfa, BMW, SEAT and Chevrolet

As with many sports, the very start of the close season has so far been awash with announcements regarding the 2015 season. The one which I am most looking forward to is the return of Volvo as a factory team to WTCC; personally I would prefer them to come back to the BTCC (where they enjoyed huge popularity and success in the 90s) but still. Volvo plan on entering the latter half of the 2015 season to then attack the full 2016 championship after an initial scout. Other news includes an announcement by Honda that they will endure an intense winter of testing so as to catch the Citroen team, while Citroen themselves are joining up with Sebastian Loeb Racing so as to field a 5-car team, giving Chinese driver Ma Qing Hua (the first official Chinese winner in an FIA event) a full season drive. Finally, LADA have announced a new partnership with ORECA, fielding the new Vesta model. Rob Huff is positive about the 2015 season saying about the old Grantas model,

“If we can win in this, we can win in anything”

And let’s be honest, to get the LADA to a race win at Macau, while also beating champion Lopez to fastest lap is no small feat; with a vastly improved car who knows what he may achieve next year. LADA world championship anyone?

To everyone's surprise, Rob Huff managed to pilot his LADA to multiple victories in 2014. Image Credit: AutoNewsInfo.com

To everyone’s surprise, Rob Huff managed to pilot his LADA to multiple victories in 2014. Image Credit: AutoNewsInfo.com

The one common factor that links these announcements for 2015 is of course the Citroen team; more specifically the utter dominance of the Citroen team in 2014. I can remember back to the first race of the year in Marrakech where I sat down, excited to watch a new WTCC season unfold. By the end of that first race weekend I had near as well makes no difference lost all interest in the sport. I have never had any issue when it comes to one team out performing others in a race series; in many ways it shows the quality and hard work of the team. However, when this performance becomes total dominance, leaving the other teams with absolutely no hope of catching them, I begin to think it has gone too far. Wherever Citroen would start, they would be at the front before you could say ‘maybe there is hope’. I would often see a Honda leading the field around, but as soon as the charging Citroens caught up, it was only a predictable matter of corners before all was lost. The performance gap would be something similar to that of a Caterham attempting to stay in front of a Mercedes in Formula One. It doesn’t make for the biggest spectacle when it is so horribly predictable.

It was quite common knowledge that the reason for Citroen to have complete control (and then a little more on top) was their high development and consequently high costs that set them apart from the rest of the field. Similarities can be drawn between WTCC and F1; there has been a significant drop in ratings and high criticism of the sport when there has been one dominant team that has romped away to victory leaving the others almost dead in the water. The sad thing is, if you took Citroen out the equation there would be an immense level of competition in the WTCC; any one of numerous drivers could have walked away with the championship. However, when it comes to mass media coverage and general views regarding a series, the opinionated eye has always been fixed on the front of the grid. If the cameras had focused on the mid pack battles in WTCC or even F1 for that matter, the general view on the championships would have been significantly more positive. But with all the focus on Citroen, it has given the impression that the series has become stale and predictable. And the sad thing is, these days media coverage is everything. If you receive bad press, the prevailing opinion will then start to follow its press masters view. I would never try and claim that I am above such delusions; I too have fallen foul to media coverage and as such have convinced myself that the championship has gone downhill.

This is the general view of 2014: World Touring Citroen Championship. Image Credit: AutosportVision.com

This is the general view of 2014: World Touring Citroen Championship. Image Credit: AutosportVision.com

Taking the media effect out the equation for a minute, there are other aspects of the sport that I have been disappointed with in 2014. I will make it clear now that I have always been a massive supporter of affordability in motorsport; cost capping gives new teams a chance to not only compete in championships but have a shot at high place finishes at the same time. And yet Citroen have surged into the championship with high costs to match their high development. Now they have won the championship rather convincingly, Honda are following suit with their winter of high intensity testing and development programs. Logical thought would also suggest that if Volvo wish to be competitive in the championship, they too will have to up the cost to keep up with the big names.

There was a time where increasing financial costs was common in motorsport; an economy existed that could support such a regime. It may come as somewhat as a shock to hear though that the world has been suffering what many would call a bit of an economic issue over the last few years. Money is not as easily available as it once was. The example I always like to draw from my arsenal at this point is that of the BTCC. The Super Touring era in the 1990s saw team costs spiraling horrendously out of control, as the manufacturers tried to out-do each other and get to the top of the standings, most often with paid-drivers from the F1 spectrum. The new NGTC regulations have stripped down the costs of the championship while also tightening up the regulations with the intention of achieving a balance of performance. As a result, the 2014 season has been one of the best in many years; almost any of the drivers could win a race, all fighting for that number one spot. There was a beautiful time not that many years ago where there were shared regulations between the BTCC and WTCC; how wonderful would it be to see this come back once more and have even larger grids on both fronts?

My final issue with WTCC manifests itself as both a technical and aesthetic point. One of the reasons I have always been drawn to touring car racing over any other series has been the similarity between the race cars and the cars we see on the road. After all, it is hard to imagine that your Mercedes A-Class is anything like that of Lewis Hamilton’s, but you can see an obvious comparison to the Mercedes of Adam Morgan in the BTCC. You may not have the added power or aerodynamic ability, but as a motorsport fan it does give a primal rush of excitement to imagine yourself driving a race winning touring car, while on your way to the shops. But when it comes to the WTCC, well I am not quite sure what has happened this year. Not only do the cars look rather flimsy, but based on some of the impacts this year, do very much physically follow suit. There was once a time where the cars would get battered and bruised in the intense race action, but plough on right until the very end.

These days, one impact and the car is near on ruined. Most importantly mind you, these new cars resemble more alien space craft than their road going counterparts; with all the extra wings and this new ‘beefy’ look, it is hard to see the original car there at all. I am aware that this does provide extra performance and no where in the rules does it state the cars must look a certain way, but it does remove that level of relate-ability that I have always cherished about touring cars. May I remind the FIA that this is motorsport not body building; we do not need steroid induced muscle cars.

Muller suffers with these new shatter-able body kits in WTCC. Image Credit: TouringCars.net

His car is somewhat Muller-ed. Image Credit: TouringCars.net

The comments I make may not be to everyone’s tastes, but I do believe there must be some unspoken explanation behind the WTCC losing a lot of supporters in 2014. Why else would so many people have forgotten about the WTCC? I have spoken a lot in this article about money; I do believe that the increased cost of motorsport is driving away a lot of potential competitors, especially as we are living in a time where money is not so readily available. The result of not imposing a cost cap, like that of the BTCC is the ridiculous performance gap that has now been created between Citroen and the rest of the field; a gap that only began to reduce at the end of the season. In no universe could I criticise anyone for believing that I am placing blame on Citroen; at the end of the day however Citroen are operating within the stated regulations and have done nothing underhand or wrong. My scathing eye therefore must turn towards a higher power, the governing body that is the FIA. Ever since the demise of the FIA GT series, I have been rather skeptical of the FIA’s ability to govern a motorsport series. The debate surrounding FIA and Formula One especially hardly paints a beautiful landscape of their abilities.

If I were therefore to offer a change, I would suggest a cost cap on spending which would bring in more independent teams to create a larger field, as well as remove any gaps in performance between the cars. By removing a championship that has one team that out-performs the other, it may create a highly competitive, highly exciting race series that has any number of drivers eligible for the title. With the other teams driving up the development machine, it will of course increase the cost, which I will be happy with if it makes the championship more competitive. But is it sustainable? How long will a high cost championship last in the current climate?

With new announcements coming thick and fast in the off season, I look forward to the 2015 season with a renewed hope that the championship can return to a state of high quality, high drama racing. For a championship that has ‘World’ status, it deserves a level of competitiveness that can live up to its name. The chance to race a touring car on circuits across the world is one not offered by just anyone.

2015 is a time for change. It is a time for something new. Let’s make it happen!

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Keep Driving People!

Peace and Love!

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