Huff reflects on FIA WTCC Rounds 3 and 4 in Morocco

21/04/15 Race Archive 2015

Huff reflects on FIA WTCC Rounds 3 and 4 in Morocco

Ahead of the FIA World Touring Car Championship’s (WTCC) visit to North Africa, some safety concerns were raised and the supporting Auto GP category elected to withdraw from the event. As it happened, we needn’t have worried about security in the region, it was my teammate who got me in the end!

However, there was still a lot of action for the Moroccan fans to feast on. This was to be the WTCC’s sixth outing in the walled city of Marrakesh and, while I’ve had my share of success and a fair few shunts on the dusty Moulay El Hassan street track, I expected the bright yellow LADA SPORT ROSNEFT Vesta TC1’s to have an uneventful African debut. That was not to be the case.

Racing in North Africa is a unique proposition. With no real motorsport culture to speak of, Morocco has truly embraced the WTCC unlike anywhere else in the world.

There is more of a curiosity from the locals, rather than a real interest in the on-track action and entry to the circuit beyond the means of most of those who would love to get a glimpse on the other side of the screens and fences that separate the diverse street life from the racetrack.

And then you add the Mehdi Bennani factor to the mix; an unlikely hero for a league of Moroccans, this time in the front-running Citroen C-Elysse decked in the colours of the Moroccan flag, the likeable Medhi graces the paddock in his mirrored sunglasses and with a permanent gaggle of adoring flag waving, mint tea-drinking fans who probably have absolutely no clue what they’re watching. It’s all good fun, nonetheless.

The Moroccan enthusiasm will never flag
On track, things were also a bit colourful from the outset of Friday’s 30-minute practice session. The trio of LADA SPORT cars went directly from a truncated test in Portugal, where engine issues prevented us from running through our full development programme.

We were keen to see if the motor troubles that affected both mine and James’s (Thompson) cars were cured and for Mikey (Kozlovskiy) to get his first run in the Vesta.

Good news… the engine had been fixed; bad news… we were without power steering on a circuit where chicanes and hairpins are linked by long straights.

We finished the 30-minute run on the edge of the top ten, but there was much head-scratching going on while trying to pinpoint the cause of the problem and, in the two free practice sessions that precede qualifying (Saturday 18 April), it was evident that a resolution hadn’t been found.

Trying to push on and show the Vesta TC1’s promise with a steering handicap was proving difficult and mistakes were inevitable as we tried for competitive times.

For the first time in quite a while I found a tyre wall, locking my brakes (probably on a patch of oil) at the hairpin and causing light cosmetic front-end damage. Fortunately, I was able to continue on my way, although my bonnet spectacularly detached as I made my way to the pits.

Victor Shapovalov (left-centre): "I found this..."
Rob (right-centre): "It looks like mine..."
My car was back in one piece for qualifying, but that would prove to be a disappointing affair with all three LADA SPORT Vestas failing to make the cut and exiting in Q1 in 13th, 14th and 15th places, steering issues still unresolved. The disappointment was only tempered by the fact that our post-Argentina engine changes would have seen us start from the back in any event.

The most impressive time of the day was set by “Huff Daddy”, who managed a sub-five-minute flyer from the LADA SPORT garage to a poolside gin and tonic at the hotel. You’ve got to love the Kenzi Hotel on the doorstep of the racetrack.

Raceday: great weather and a late start meant the Huff clan, who came in from around the world to support me, could enjoy a bit more pool time while I got to the track early to check on the team’s progress with the steering issues and to tackle the great crowds for the autograph session.
We all hoped that the work the guys had put in would pay dividends and allow us to push for points in the races, especially as the Russian press, ROSNEFT representatives and Russians from the Moroccan consulate were there in support.

From 13th on the race one grid, I encountered a stalled Hugo Valente, steered around the static Chevrolet and lost two places to my teammates.

Unfortunately that was the last bit of comfortable steering I had, but I got the better of Mikhail after dicing with him for a lap or two, before closing in and passing Jimmy T and another Chevy for 11th in a single move as they battled one another.

Post-race penalties for Tom Chilton for shunting his teammate, Tom Coronel, promoted me to tenth in the final classification to notch up the first point for the LADA Vesta in 2015.

And then there was race two – a dark hour for two thirds of the LADA SPORT ROSNEFT team. While rapid repairs had been carried out in the short window between races, all three cars were battle scarred following the first race.

I started well from 13th, Mikhail rocketed forwards to shadow Stefano D’Aste’s Chevy behind me and James kept a watching brief towards the rear. I settled into a rhythm on the tail of Norbert ‘Norby’ Michelisz in his Honda Civic, when, as I turned in for the left-hand hairpin, I got the most almighty hit from behind.

My worst fears were realised when I saw Mikhail had been unable to stop his LADA Vesta from careering into me, causing heavy damage to both cars.

It’s never a good thing when you retire from a race due to contact. It’s even worse when it's your teammate who hits you and poor Mikey was understandably devastated and hugely apologetic when he arrived back in the pits to face the music.

So that was not the way we wanted to end our weekend. But then, just as we thought we had nothing to celebrate, my sister Fran and boyfriend Matt who had come over from Dubai to cheer me on, announced over a friends and family dinner that they were getting married! I’m absolutely chuffed for them and it really lifted the mood. Congratulations guys!

Now it’s off to the Hungaroring near the Hungarian capital, Budapest, for the third instalment in the 2015 FIA World Touring Car Championship, but not before stopping over in Germany for a couple of test days on the notorious Nürburgring Nordschleife. Hopefully, Mikhail will keep out of my way this time, as I don’t have any more sisters to marry off!