Macau to Qatar. A touring car journey

02/12/15 Race Archive 2015

Macau to Qatar. A touring car journey

If ever there were two contrasting races, it would be Macau and Qatar. I raced touring cars in two different championships, the TCR International Series and FIA World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) in the space of a week, but the ultra-fast and tight Circuito da Guia was a completely different challenge to night racing on a wide, purpose-built facility in the desert like the Losail International Circuit.

Of course, I’m no stranger to Macau, having been victorious there on seven previous occasions with Chevrolet, SEAT and LADA machinery, so I naturally hoped to add to my wins tally.

The chance to achieve an eighth win in Macau was a bit unexpected, to be honest. For once the cards fell in my favour, as a shift in the WTCC calendar freed me up for the Suncity Group 62nd Macau Grand Prix and I wasn’t short of offers when the news got out.

In the end I went with what I thought would give me the best shot at victory number eight, a Honda Civic TCR run by WestCoast Racing and JAS Motorsport, but the opportunity also allowed me to reunite with long-term partner and Macau entertainment specialist, AG Group.

AG had come up with quite a “special” car livery and made me a racesuit to match, which certainly attracted a little attention, but it was all good fun and typically Macau and, to be honest, my colour scheme is the last thing on my mind while I’m seated in the car and charging towards Mandarin for the first time.

This was the TCR International Series’ first visit to Macau and my first run in a TCR-spec car, so, while I had far more experience of the track compared to many of my opponents, they had knowledge of the cars and I guessed things would be fairly even.

But, to my delight, I immediately settled in to my new surroundings and was around two seconds clear of the rest of the field throughout free practice, which was very satisfying. I carried this speed into qualifying, taking pole position from my WestCoast Racing teammate, Kevin Gleason, by 1.6s, who, to his credit, was another second ahead of the rest of the field.

I had a relatively sluggish start in race one and was the meat in a SEAT sandwich between Pepe Oriola and Jordi Gene going into Turn 1, but, knowing I had nothing to lose and they were both in the thick of the championship battle, I stuck it out through Mandarin and pulled clear into Lisboa.

From there I was away and I ran comfortably to my eighth Macau Grand Prix win, so it was mission accomplished with the second race still to run.

Race two would be somewhat different. Once again, Gene got away well and was on my inside going into the first kink. We both kept our foot in and Gene ran out of road, but decided to use mine as well, and we both careered into the Armco at unabated speeds, causing a colossal pileup that wiped out 11 cars in one fell swoop.

I took three hard hits and was lucky to walk away to the applause of the Macau faithful in the stands, but Gene was less fortunate, sustaining broken ribs and being slapped with a fine for causing the incident.

So there was no ninth win, but I’m still out front as the “King of Macau.” A bit sore and with the journey to Qatar the next day, I opted out of any major nocturnal activities for the first time in a long time on the Sunday night in Macau, as I was keen to be fit and ready for the final round of the WTCC in Qatar – the championship’s first ever visit to the Middle East.

The Losail track is purpose-built for night racing and has hosted the Moto GP for a couple of years now, but this would be the first time that the WTCC would compete under lights.

I expected a slippery circuit, sandy and exposed, but I was not expecting what greeted us on the first day – floods! The first storm front in years had been through Qatar the day before and, as the country doesn’t ‘do rain’, drainage wasn’t a priority when the circuit was designed, so a lot of pumping was required to clear the water from the access roads and tunnels.

By the time we took to the track there was no trace of water and conditions were as slippery and low-grip as predicted. My LADA Vesta was going to struggle.

My car hasn’t been right since the testing shunt in Hungary earlier in the year and it’s frankly a real handful over a single lap in qualifying, so I again languished towards the bottom end of the timesheets, unable to make my car react to changes that could see me improve.

Qualifying was a far cry from Macau where I was head and shoulders above everybody else, as I was 17th in an 18-car field and unable to mount any kind of challenge. Frankly, this is very frustrating and not reflective of my ability in a touring car, but you’re only as good as your equipment at the end of the day.

The races were no better. I made up a few places at the start as usual and ran P13 behind Tom Coronel for the most part, but I had little opportunity to make a pass and went through the motions to the end.

Race two was more of the same, but this time while making my way up the order in 11th I lost all brakes and opted to return the car in one piece to the pits. I had had my fill of big shunts and didn’t want another one!

I’m taking a week out in Dubai with my family and I’ll have some time to reflect on the past year, think about the future and plan my assault on the 2016 WTCC – my 12th consecutive season at the pinnacle of international touring car competition.

LADA will return with a new chassis and some engineering improvements that I’m sure will make a significant difference and I will be 100 per cent committed as always.

In what has been a difficult year, it was nice to finish with a win in Macau; having failed to achieve a victory in the WTCC for the first time in many years, it was the boost I needed to refocus my mind for 2016 and remind myself why I love racing and what I want from my career in the future.