Suzuka WTCC qualifying an uphill battle for LADA Sport
The penultimate qualifying session of the 2014 FIA World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) in Japan was an uphill battle for LADA Sport, as the team’s trio of drivers were unable to threaten the top ten on the full-length Suzuka International Circuit (25 October).
While Suzuka’s long straights and protracted curves are known for emphasising a car’s aerodynamic efficiency and top speed capabilities, a detailed analysis of the historic Japanese track gave the LADA Sport contingent – Rob Huff, James Thompson and Mikhail Kozlovskiy – cause for optimism.
Following a track walk, it was felt the improved LADA Granta Sport WTCC could be competitive through the twists and turns of sectors one and two and perhaps struggle as the circuit opens up in the third and final part of the 5.8km lap, and the events of Friday practice supported this theory, with Huff and Thompson rounding out the top ten.
Conditions were excellent, with air temperatures at 26 degrees Celsius and no threat of rain, as the cars streamed out of the Suzuka pit lane for qualifying on Saturday afternoon.
Thompson and Kozlovskiy circulated together and both set banker laps early on to provisionally go seventh and tenth fastest at the start of Q1, although Huff was yet to feature on the timing screens as the 20-minute session neared half-distance.
The former World Champion’s first attempt at a flying lap looked promising as he was over seven tenths of a second clear of the time required to break through to Q2 at the end of the middle sector.
Sadly, his run was thwarted as he had to abandon the lap due to a red-flag stoppage, when a spin left Filipe Clemente de Souza’s BMW TC2 beached precariously in the gravel.
A ten-minute scramble followed the restart and left little opportunity for improvements on Suzuka’s long 5.8km lap. Huff’s 2m08.241s was initially good enough for tenth, but the Briton was quickly relegated to 13th, Thompson 14th and Kozlovskiy 15th as others found more speed.
After a somewhat anticlimactic session, Huff said: “I lost out massively due to the red flag stoppage. We thought we would wait in the pits and let everybody else clear up the track surface after the earlier GT races and, while I completed an installation lap, I got the red flag on my first timed run and then got a big slide on during my second flyer following the restart. I’m confident there was another four tenths of a second in the car so it’s a shame, but we came into this weekend at Suzuka knowing it was going to be difficult for us. Rain is in tomorrow’s forecast and we might have more of a shot if that materialises.”
Thompson said: “I think we did the best we could with the car but we just didn’t have the speed to bridge that big six or seven-tenth gap between us and breaking into Q2. The LADA Granta behaved reasonably well throughout free practice, but it’s always difficult to read anything from testing. Our competitors clearly took a more conservative approach and had more to come from their cars than we did and, having completed more mileage, their true form was revealed. Suzuka boasts some similarities to Spa-Francorchamps, as it’s a lengthy lap consisting of long turns and high average speeds, which hurts us. The situation might be a bit better in the races tomorrow and I think we’d be jumping with excitement if tyre selection if a factor in mixed conditions. That could play into our hands.”
Kozlovskiy added: "The qualifying session was not easy for everyone; this track is very demanding. When I was on my first flying lap, I was caught up in traffic, though the pace was good enough to get a decent result. I wish I could have used yesterday's test sessions to get to know the track better but, unfortunately, I couldn't make the most of free practice due to technical issues. However, we have already made a decision about the setup for the race and I hope for some better results."
For more information on LADA Sport WTCC, please visit the official wtcc.lada.ru website, 'like' the team's Facebook page or follow @ladasportwtcc on Twitter.