In what was a hugely encouraging display, LADA SPORT ROSNEFT secured the pole position with Hugo Valente in the opening qualifying session of the 2016 FIA World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) at Circuit Paul Ricard (Saturday 2 April).
Nick Catsburg of the Netherlands has shown great speed and determination during the build-up to the WTCC Race of France and took his ROSNEFT-liveried LADA Vesta TC1 to fifth on the grid, while Valente and Gabriele Tarquini were 10th and 11th respectively in qualifying.
In FP1, Catsburg emerged from the adverse conditions as the top LADA driver in seventh position with a best time of 1m45.774s, but it was Tarquini who led the way on Saturday; Catsburg was first out of the blocks and provisionally held P1, but the times quickly tumbled as the track dried out, and Tarquini continually pumped in quick laps to top the leaderboard with five minutes remaining. Ultimately, the Italian’s fastest flyer 1m42.876s was good enough for fifth, Catsburg held eighth and Valente, whose focus was primarily on familiarising himself with his new surroundings, ended up 11th.
Happily, the WTCC field was treated to dry conditions for second practice, but there was little movement in the times for the most part and Catsburg and Tarquini could be found in second and third respectively until the final throes, when they were relegated one position apiece.
All three drivers were generally satisfied with the LADA Vesta TC1 positively judging the impact of the winter developments, which include changes to the car’s setup, power delivery and engine software.
Tarquini, Catsburg and Valente spent the intervening hours between sessions openly exchanging data, feedback and ideas in a bid to refine LADA SPORT’s package and find the smallest of gains ahead of the critical three-part qualifying session and Sunday’s two races.
There was a lot more to find when Q1 began under overcast skies on Saturday afternoon, but purple middle and final sectors from Catsburg resulted in a mighty lap of 1m29.457s his fastest of the weekend. The time propelled the Dutch racer to the top of the timing screens and was enough for him to conclude the first part of qualifying in P2, between Citroen’s reigning Champion Jose-Maria Lopez and Yvan Muller.
He carried his speed through to the final phase of the session to secure fifth on the grid, while Valente and Tarquini ended up 10th and 11th, the former grabbing the reversed grid pole position for tomorrow’s (Sunday 3 April) first race.
However, the work didn’t end there, as the LADA SPORT ROSNEFT trio became the first to attempt the new-for-2016 WTCC ‘Manufacturers Around the Clock’ (MAC3) time trial.
Tarquini led Valente and Catsburg away on their two flying laps to set a solid benchmark of 3m07.175s and that would be enough for second and eight valuable points for LADA SPORT’s Manufacturers’ Championship push, having been beaten by Citroen by a slender margin of just 0.030s.
Reflecting on free practice, qualifying and MAC3, Nick Catsburg said: Breaking into Q3 and ending up fifth is roughly where I expected to be at the end of qualifying, although fourth was achievable. The LADA Vesta feels good and I don’t think we’re far away. There are still things that need to be improved with the car’s setup, though the changeable conditions we’ve had in qualifying made it difficult to find a reference and I think our performance relative to the other teams is a little unknown. I am delighted with what we did in MAC3. A lot of it comes down to the start and I was a little conservative 0.030s too conservative, as it turned out because I was wary of making contact with my teammates, so I’m confident we had what it takes to beat the Citroens!
Hugo Valente added: »I’m absolutely delighted to have secured the reversed grid pole position and tomorrow’s races are going to be very interesting! This weekend has been harder than expected. I was somewhat off the pace in the wet and then slightly further in the dry and that’s also due to the unstable conditions we’ve had this weekend. If the weather was consistent, I would be able to use Nicky (Catsburg) and Gabriele (Tarquini) as a reference and learn from them, but there hasn’t been an opportunity for that. Everybody got excited about MAC3 and it was a fantastic performance by LADA SPORT ROSNEFT. My second lap was a 1m29.9, whereas my best lap before that was a 1m30.2, so it proves I have more speed and could have qualified seventh, which I was happy about. It makes me more confident going into the races, although I have no idea about our long-run pace. »
Gabriele Tarquini said: « I expected a little more from qualifying, especially as we easily passed through to Q2. I felt very optimistic about my pace, but I made a mistake at Turn 5 and aborted that run. On my second attempt, I went straight on at Turn 1, so it was a bit of a disaster and completely my fault. I feel the car is almost there and I just pushed too hard. Race pace is unknown, because we haven’t focused too much on this, but a lot is sure to happen in the races. Hopefully, we will keep the fast pace tomorrow. »