Huff reflects on Race of Russia

08/06/15 Race Archive 2015

Huff reflects on Race of Russia

This is my second year as a LADA SPORT works driver and heading to Moscow on the Wednesday before the race, I knew the expectations that were on the team and myself ahead of the weekend’s WTCC meeting in Russia. For me this is as ever a simple situation. Give me the car and I will get the job done. For the team, they have pride on the line to make a strong showing and for the team management the pressure of the factory and home sponsors to deal with, so I knew that, for us, all this would be probably the most important weekend for LADA SPORT since my arrival.  

To add to the pressure for the team, we would be without a Russian driver in the car for the first time in quite a while and questions in the media as to why and to the credibility of his replacement, Nicky Catsburg, were already on the wires. 

So, ahead of the weekend, I relaxed with some sightseeing in Moscow, took a long walk through the Gorky Park and around the Kremlin and Red Square, before meeting up with the PR team and Victor ahead of the much anticipated pre-event Press Conference.  

Victor being Victor, doesn't much care for what the media have to say and goes about his business running the team as he thinks best, and one thing I have learnt is that he loves the project, the cars and the WTCC with a great heart and his decisions, right or wrong, are always done with the best intentions for the good of the team. For a man supposedly under pressure, he looked very confident and I was taking that as a good sign.  

With press formalities out of the way with, I headed back out 80kms to the racetrack to meet my new teammates. 

Jaap van Lagen was back for his second race and Nicky and I had never met, but he is well known to Jaap, as they are both from the same Dutch town and previously raced in the same series. First impressions were that he was a really nice guy, competent and an experienced winning racer fully aware of the scale of the task ahead of him. Victor had chosen him ahead of other more profiled drivers that others were pushing for, so I would do that I could to help him with the car and driving techniques of the Vesta TC1 and see what he could do. 

It was a funny thing that probably didn’t do much help with his confidence at the WTCC Welcome Happy Hour, when he and Jaap were welcomed to the championship by François Ribeiro as the ‘Dutchies’ and were told they were in the hot seat…He didn’t really forget their names did he? Really!? Anyway, they both took it in good spirits and set about the mushrooms, as the ‘Dutchies’ like to do. 

Down to business. After the first run in the Vesta, I could see why Victor was feeling confident. The team had made some big moves forward at the front-end of the car and the engine, which had been a previous weak point, both of which made the car more drivable and stable. Nicky was adapting quickly and Jaap was on the pace too, so when I put it P1 in free practice, the pressure start to lift, only to be replaced with hope and expectation. I’m not sure which is worse really. 

Into qualifying, and things were really looking up. All three Ladas through into Q2 for the first time and then me through to the top 5 shoot out and qualifying points for the first time. I managed a decent enough lap for a Race 1 to put it on the second row in fourth position. Nicky heaped the pressure on himself by putting it ninth, ahead of Jaap, and onto the front row for Race 2. Good luck with that new boy!

Race day was a glorious one. With great weather, huge crowds and support for the LADA team. ROSNEFT had lots of important guests and the LADA President was on hand to meet the FIA President, Jean Todt, who was on the grid to wish me luck. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many people around my car on the grid, it was packed and I was going to do my part to deliver the result they wanted. 

I got a decent start in Race 1, getting alongside Gabrielli, but not quite enough to make a move stick. Muller and Lopez ahead of him weren’t getting away and so ensued a high speed chain of four World Touring Car Champions for the next 16 laps. I was definitely quicker than Gabbi, but he knows his stuff and despite my best effort and a near pass on lap six, I couldn’t get the better of him, but was more than pleased that we came home a clear fourth at the sharp end of the field totally on merit and pace. 

For Race 2 I would start from the fourth row in seventh. Looking ahead of me I could see my targets. Nicky on the right side, with Chilton and Valente behind him, and in front of me Ma Qing Hua, Tiago Monteiro and Norbert ‘Norby’ Michelisz. I expected some of these guys to not get the best of starts, and so it proved, as I picked my line and got Valente and Tom. Nicky did a surprisingly good job dropping only to third, but this would give the two Hondas the chance to make a break in first and second position while I set about the rest. 

I was on Ma within a lap and passed him without too much trouble (this is a LADA on a Citroén don’t forget, showing that we have come a long way) and set about chasing Catsburg. The two of us soon ran nose-to-tail looking great and pacy in front of the crowd, who were roaring us on every lap. I passed Nicky without a fight into Turn 1 and was around three seconds back from ‘Norby’ in second position. I got the hammer down and set the fastest lap, pushing the Vesta to the max. A nice tussle with my respected Hungarian friend saw me come out on top and we were in second position with just three lap remaining with Tiago a further three seconds down the road. We would bring the car home in the runner-up spot to the total delight of the crowd, sponsors and fans. 

I honestly think that there would not have been any difference in the celebrations had we won. For LADA SPORT at home this weekend, it was a huge victory having achieved its best ever race points haul and have three competitive cars. What’s more, it was on merit. No retirements ahead of crashes, just pace and reliability. Furthermore, it was expected and not a surprise, and that’s how far we have come. 

No wonder Victor was looking confident before the weekend started.

Now it’s off home for a week, before next time out at the Automotodróm Slovakia Ring in Bratislava, where I usually go quite well. So, fingers crossed for another strong weekend in the WTCC.