TCR 2015: SEAT Rules The Roost In Russia

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Three weeks after the last event at the Salzburgring, the TCR International Series will resume this upcoming weekend at the Sochi Autodrom in Russia. The circuit was designed by German architect Hermann Tilke around the Sochi Olympic Park, the venue of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games that lies on the shores of the Black Sea.

It was inaugurated on September 27, 2013 during the 12 International Investment Forum with a Formula Sochi exhibition race. The first ever Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix took place there on October 12, 2014. Since then, the Sochi Autodrom has hosted rounds of the national series, including the Russian Circuit Racing Series and the Russian Classic Rally Cup. The TCR International Series will be the first international championship other than F1 to visit Sochi, sharing the event with the Russian Circuit Racing Series and the Russian Formula 4 championship. 

Gleason and Morbidelli to drive the heaviest cars

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WestCoast Racing team-mates Kevin Gleason and Gianni Morbidelli will drive the heaviest cars of the field in the next event of the TCR International Series at Sochi Autodrom.  

Gleason, who set pole position, won Race 1 and scored 38 points at the Salzburgring, will receive the maximum Success Ballast of 30 kilos. The sister Honda Civic car of current championship leader Morbidelli – 29 points for him in Austria – will be laden by 20 extra kilos, while the 10 kilos of extra weight for the third best scorer will be allocated to Pepe Oriola’s SEAT León as the Spaniard scored 28 points at the Salzburgring.

Russian drivers ready to star in their home race meeting

Sergey Afanasyev and Mikhail Grachev are the only Russian drivers committed to a full season campaign in the TCR International Series. 

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Afanasyev, 27-year-old from Moscow has built for himself a reputation in single-seaters (Formula Renault, F3, Formula Master, F2, AutoGP) with excellent results between 2004 and 2001, before switching to GT racing and taking the FIA GT Pro-Am title in 2013. 

Still, touring cars are completely new to him:“This is my first experience in touring car racing and with front-wheel drive cars. It’s not easy at all, but it’s an exciting challenge,” he admitted. “I need to say that it would be much more difficult without a team such as Craft-Bamboo Lukoil. It’s really great to work with professionals of their level, who are doing their utmost to support my development process and to get me to the level of my team mates, Pepe Oriola and Jordi Gené, two top references in the category.”

Afanasyev, who is currently undertaking a Masters in Economics, seems to be enjoying every moment of his new racing life and looks forward to this weekend: “I don’t know the Sochi track, but I’m very excited: it’s home race and it is going to be a big thing…”

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Grachev is not only the sole TCR driver who has already raced at Sochi, he has also written history there, as he won the very first race that inaugurated the track last year, a Russian Circuit Racing Series round held shortly before the Russian F1 Grand Prix. The 27-year-old from Omsk, who is racing for Liqui Moly Team Engstler, is of course proud of that achievement and excited ahead of his home race: “It’s a nice and fast track, more technical than it looks, where slipstreaming will play a key role. To race in the middle of the Olympic Park is quite special.”
  
Grachev’s career has developed mostly in Russia; he shone in autocross, taking two national titles, and touring cars, with two RCRS titles in 2013 and 2014. Last year he entered the European scene, in the FIA ETCC and the German ADAC Procar, winning races in both series. He has words of praise for the support received at Team Engstler, although the season has been quite challenging so far, because the team has been using two different cars: the Audi TT and SEAT León.

“It has been a roller-coaster until now, he reckons. “My pace has been good, but there have been mistakes and incidents preventing strong finishes. I take it as a learning season, trying to advance step by step.”

Dudukalo joins TCR for the Russian event at Sochi

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Aleksey Dudukalo is arguably one of the most popular drivers in the panorama of Russian auto racing, collecting a great deal of race victories and national titles in the latest fifteen years on both, tarmac and… ice.
 
Supported by Lukoil, ‘Dudu’ was also given the opportunity to race for a couple of seasons in the FIA World Touring Car Championship (claiming one podium result in 2013) before returning to the Russian Circuit Racing Series in which he is currently leading the Touring category at the wheel of a TCR-spec SEAT León. 

This weekend at Sochi, Dudukalo will reappear on the international stage competing in the TCR International Series in a SEAT León run by the Team Craft-Bamboo Lukoil.
 
“I’m glad to participate in the Sochi event; it’s like a homecoming for me, as I know a lot of guys from my WTCC years. TCR is on the rise now, races are filled with a spirit of wheel-to-wheel fighting and that’s what the drivers and fans like most!” said Dudukalo.

Event at Red Bull Ring replaces Argentina

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WSC Ltd has announced that the Argentine round of the TCR International Series will be replaced by an event at the Red Bull Ring on July 12 within the Austrian round of the European Le Mans Series.

CEO Marcello Lotti explained: “It was not an easy decision to take, but we had to be realistic and consider that the technical development of the new TCR cars is taking more time that expected and going overseas would have forced some brands to skip the event. On the contrary, re-scheduling the event in Europe will give them the opportunity to complete the development steps without further delaying their participation in the races. This is one of the issues you must be prepared to face during the maiden season of a brand new category. We are especially grateful to Gérard Neveu and the whole ELMS staff for giving us the opportunity to join in their event at the Red Bull Ring.”

Neveu, the CEO of ELMS echoed: “We are pleased to welcome the TCR International Series for the Austrian round of the European Le Mans Series. The TCR Series features many brands and manufacturers and the top class organisation and promotion makes this a welcome addition to the event. The inclusion of this world-class touring car series, alongside the Formula Renault 3.5 series, to the schedule means we will have three leading championships from three motorsport disciplines: endurance, touring cars and single seaters. The event at the Red Bull Ring will be a great celebration of motorsport.”

TCR’s visit to Argentina is only postponed. “South America remains one of our main areas of interest. We are planning to organise a press conference in Buenos Aires in the near future to announce our final plans of racing there next year,” Lotti said. 

Gené snatches pole with second fastest lap 

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At Sochi Autodrom Jordi Gené claimed his first pole position in the TCR International Series. However, the Spaniard needed to post a second fastest lap of 2:20.976, because his previous lap time of 2:20.890 had been disallowed by the Stewards for trespassing the track limits.

From the beginning of the session Gené showed he had a leading pace and posted a provisional fastest lap of 2:22.142; Pepe Oriola looked on the way to improve that mark being fastest in the first two sectors, however he eventually spoiled his lap outbraking himself. Mikhail Grachev had a brief spell on top of the time sheet with a lap of 2:21.928 that Gené immediately beat, improving to 2:21.649. And yet Grachev was able to respond and stopped the clock to 2:21.403.

Halfway through the session Tomas Engström climbed on top with a lap of 2:21.272. A few seconds later, Andrea Belicchi saw his chances spoiled by a slower car. In the latest moments of the session Gené stroke back and posted the two fastest laps, the best of which was disallowed.

Belicchi (2:21.025) and Oriola (2:21.256) managed to climb to second and third respectively, demoting Engström and Grachev to fourth and fifth. Current championship leader Gianni Morbidelli qualified in eighth, but only six tenths off the pole; his team-mate Kevin Gleason posted the tenth fastest lap that gave him pole position on the reversed grid for Race 2.

Russian guest stars Aleksey Dudukalo and Ildar Rakhmatullin ranked 11th and 12th after they both had won their own races in the Russian Circuit Racing Series. 

What the drivers had to say  

Jordi Gené, pole position: “The car performed perfectly from the very first moment on this track and it’s nice to conquer my first pole. Races will be another story, as this is a fast track where it is easy to overtake. My best lap was cancelled, but my second best was enough to grant pole. Really, it is very difficult to know when you are off the track limits, you really have to target sharply the correct line to stay legal.”  

Andrea Belicchi, second fastest: “Since the engine change prior to the Salzburgring round, my car is working perfectly and I can be again at the top. I could have done pole today but got two laps ruined, one by a small mistake the other by a slower car. We still have some work to do to correct some over-steering that is quite disturbing. Just like Jordi, I found it difficult to cope with track limits, it’s sometimes a matter of a few centimetres…”  

Pepe Oriola, third fastest: “I’m even quite surprised to be third-fastest, as I thought I was further down. I must have had an issue with brakes, maybe they were too worn out or there was a faulty pad, because I couldn’t avoid locking the wheels at every strong braking. Never had such a lock-up before, with the car filled with smoke. To be able to respect track limits seems the biggest issue on this circuit, it’s easy to be off as visibility in some corners is limited and there are few reference points in sector 2.”  

Qualifying session in Sochi shortened to 20 minutes

Following a request from all the competitors, the Panel of the Stewards agreed to shorten today’s Qualifying session at Sochi Autodrom to twenty minutes. 
For this event only, the usual format of twenty-minute Q1 plus ten-minute Q2 was dropped and drivers competed all together in a one-part 20-minute session instead.
 
The Grid for Race 1 is based on the Qualifying results, while the ten fastest qualifiers will be reversed on the Grid for Race 2.   

The title fight heats up after Russian races

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The first visit of the TCR International Series to Russia provided a completely shake up at the top of the standings and the battle for the first Drivers’ title in the series is closest than ever.
 
With the top four drivers – Stefano Comini, Pepe Oriola, Gianni Morbidelli and Jordi Gené – covered by only twenty points and the fifth (Andrea Belicchi) and sixth (Kevin Gleason) still within striking distance, anything can happen in the four remaining events. 
The SEAT cars, as it was anticipated, shone on the Sochi Autodrom, but even beyond expectations, as the Honda cars never could find the right pace. Gené and Comini shared the race wins, with the Swiss driver taking the best advantage in terms of points harvest, as he is now back in the leadership, two points ahead of Oriola. The Spaniard, with a couple of second places, is one of the other happy men at the end of this weekend

There is little doubt that Morbidelli deserved the title of ‘Mr Unlucky’ as the former point-leader pocketed only a 7th in Race 1 and was forced to withdraw from Race 2 because of a turbo failure. Belicchi and Mikhail Grachev took the other podium spots, finishing third in Race 1 and 2, respectively.

On home soil, the Russian impressed from the beginning and was rewarded with his first TCR podium in Race 2, where he led the three initial laps. With a fourth and a fifth, Sergey Afanasyev also gave local fans great satisfaction while the TCR International Series community will certainly bring back home a pleasant memory of the Olympic atmosphere surrounding the event and the warm welcome on the shores of the Black Sea.  

Race 1 – Team Craft-Bamboo Lukoil score a one-two finish

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Jordi Gené and Pepe Oriola pleased Craft-Bamboo’s Russian sponsor, Lukoil, and its many guests by taking an undisputed 1-2 in Race 1 at Sochi Autodrom.

The two red-and-white SEAT cars dominated from start to finish, with the two Spanish teammates running closely but not engaging in serious battle. 
The SEAT domination was completed by Andrea Belicchi who took third after a relatively solitary race. In the opening laps, the Italian had to keep at bay the attacks of Mikhail Grachev, who later lost ground progressively and had to concede fourth to Stefano Comini and fifth to Sergey Afanasyev, eventually the first among the Russian drivers.

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The Honda Civic cars were not in a position to show great pace, with Gianni Morbidelli and Kevin Gleason unable to do better than 7th and 8th respectively.  

RACE ONE KEY MOMENTS

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Grid: Few drops of rain fall on the grid, but the race kicks off on a nearly dry track.
 
Start: Good start for Gené who precedes Oriola, Belicchi, Grachev, Comini and Engström.
 
Lap 1: Afanasyev passes Morbidelli for 7th after running wide in a corner.
 
Lap 3: Grachev tries an attack on Belicchi at the braking. Afanasyev and Engström fight for 6th with some rubbing. As a result the Swede gets passed by Nykjaer and Morbidelli.

Lap 4: Belicchi (3rd) takes some breathing space ahead of Grachev who is chased by Comini.

Lap 6: Gené, Oriola and Grachev receive a warning for trespassing the track limits; Morbidelli tries to attack Nykjaer.
 
Lap 7: Grachev is losing ground and gets passed by Comini and Afanasyev, dropping to 6th.

Lap 9: Engström passes Nykjaer after going too wide and gives back the 8th position shortly after.

Lap 10: Rakhmatullin stops in the pits with an oil pressure warning, while Afanasyev and Grachev make contact.
 
Lap 11: In the last lap Gené makes a small mistake but keeps the advantage while Engström gets sideways on a slippery kerb hitting Nykjaer and damaging the radiator.

Race 2 – Third success of the season for Comini

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Stefano Comini took his third win of the season in a lively Race 2 at Sochi and jumped back on the top of the overall standings.

The Swiss driver of Target Competition built his success from the beginning, with a great start that put him in P2 behind Mikhail Grachev, the surprising initial leader after a superb start. Comini took the lead in lap 4, being only mildly threatened by Pepe Oriola in the last laps. The Spaniard, with another valuable second, now lies second in the standings only two points behind Comini.

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Mikhail Grachev took a well-deserved first podium of the season on home soil, after a weekend where he performed brilliantly, being also the best of local heroes. Sergey Afanasyev and Jordi Gené finished fourth and fifth, ahead of the first Honda driven by Kevin Gleason.

It was a black day for Gianni Morbidelli who could not even take part in Race 2, as the turbo of his Civic broke in the last lap of Race 1 and couldn’t be replaced in time despite the efforts of West Coast Racing’s crews.

RACE TWO KEY MOMENTS 

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Grid: Engström and Morbidelli are demoted to the bottom of the grid due to technical interventions.

Start: Comini gets abreast with Gleason and Nykjaer but Grachev pips everybody from the outside at turn 2 and takes the lead. Morbidelli is still in the pit lane, his crew working on the car.

Lap 1: Grachev leads ahead of Comini, Afanasyev, Gleason, Belicchi, Oriola and Gené.

Lap 2: Afanasyev drives sideways and is passed by Gleason, Belicchi and Oriola. Nykjaer drops after a contact with Engström.

Lap 3: Morbidelli gets out of the car and gives up; Belicchi and Oriola pass Gleason for 3rd and 4th.

Lap 4: Comini is chasing Grachev whilst Gleason is attacked by Gené who has passed Afanasyev.
 
Lap 6: Comini passes Grachev at turn 2 and takes the lead. Belicchi also tries to attack the Russian and the two collide in the last corner, with Belicchi spinning and hitting the wall.

Lap 7: Oriola is second behind Comini and followed by Grachev and Afanasyev who has passed Gené.

Lap 8: Oriola starts chasing Comini, with Grachev a stable third and the rest of the group further aback.

Lap 10: Oriola gets closer to Comini, but doesn’t seem in a position to attack him.

Lap 11: Comini takes his third success of the year ahead of Oriola, Grachev, Afanasyev, Gené and Gleason

What the race winners had to say

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Jordi Gené, winner of Race 1: “The race was just fantastic, everything went as planned and the SEAT cars seemed to like this track a lot. Having Pepe Oriola behind me gave me some confidence that he wouldn’t do anything silly that could jeopardize a good team result, something very important here, in the home track of our sponsor. Still, he was better in some parts of the circuit, and I was in others, so nothing was easy. I think my brakes balance wasn’t ideal and that showed mostly in turn 14, where Pepe could brake much later, gaining almost 40 meters. I feared he could take a tow there and pass me but luckily, that didn’t happen.”

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Stefano Comini, winner of Race 2: “A great weekend for me, as I was able to retake the leadership in the championship; I am really happy. My objective arriving here was to take heavy points, so I can be happy. Race 2 was really funny, I hope also for those who were watching. I took a perfect start, but Mikhail Grachev did even better, I was really surprised to see him passing everybody at the first corner. I could pass and take the lead a couple of laps later and that was the right moment, as I then started to struggle a bit with my tires. I found the circuit different when you are racing, as opposed to practice or qualifying. It’s challenging on tires and it’s not so easy to overtake.”

The TCR International Series will resume on July 12th at the Red Bull Ring, Austria, for Round 15 and 16.

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