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Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

Railway Sleeper
Just 12 months ago, at 3am I witnessed first hand the gales that battered the UK from a train station platform. A dinner with BMW in honour of Andy Priaulx’s second World title was followed by some drink, and then a full Burger King dinner at Kings Cross when I had meant to order coffee. I fell asleep on the last train home and woke up far past my stop and with no hope of getting back until first train at 5am. This year, with Andy having won his third title, it was back to London but this time, it was the journey there that was frought with potential disaster. A signal failure at Finsbury Park meant I arrived at the bash an hour late, but still two hours earlier than Steve Soper who gallantly completed the journey at 10pm, just as the early birds were about to head home.

Mandarin Duck
It was all a far cry from the drama of Macau in November, the final round of the World Touring Car Championship double-header. In the heat of the former Portuguese colony of China, the break between the two races was one of the highlights of my year, simply for the range of emotions in the pit lane. Seat’s Yvan Muller had seen the title disappear one lap from home when his Leon was starved of diesel. His team manager, Hugues de Chaunac, could do nothing but look on tight lipped as his mechanics sought the source of the problem. Augusto Farfus was a typical mix of extremes, furious on one hand having been fired off the track by Gabriele Tarquini, and devastated having seen his chance of a first title smash into the barrier. “Look at my car!” said the young Brazilian, no saint himself in years gone by it has to be said, pointing to a large hole in his BMW’s rear bumper. Tarquini made the Italian equivalent of “Que?” in hand form, and said nothing as he hid in his garage.

James Thompson was a swimming pool of sweat but thought it was exceptionally funny that it was he alone who could beat Priaulx to the title in race two after a long season in an old crate, a four-year-old Alfa Romeo 156. Privateer Duncan Huisman, Priaulx’s team-mate two years ago at Macau, beamed a Dutch grin and claimed that his steering was bent, which is how Priaulx managed to squeeze past on the final lap to take eighth place. That meant the reigning champ would start the second race from pole, leading the drivers’ championship by a single point from Muller who was out, and needing only to defend from Thompson. The Alfa driver did his best, but could not pass in the final race, leaving Priaulx to take another title in his much improved car after some slick work by his engineers between races.

Luck was with him throughout, and he lamented that this would be viewed as another dominant year when, like his previous titles, it was anything but. In Dubai four years ago, he was 12 points behind Dirk Müller going into the final meeting and started the final race in a banana-shaped car after an incident with Jörg Müller. The next two years he was behind going into the final race at Macau but survived the carnage as those around him crumbled. In 2007, he went to the final race level on points for the first time, but again the opposition self-destructed and he lucked in. Yet, as Alex Zanardi pointed out, when luck came looking, it found him prepared.

French Connection
His performances have earned him recognition beyond the realms of tin-tops, and he was approached by Peugeot to drive the 908 HDI FAP at Le Mans this year as Jacques Villeneuve and Sebastien Bourdais are both busy. Unfortunately, so is Priaulx. The Le Mans test weekend clashes with Pau, and the 24 hour race with Brno, which makes it impossible for him to take part, but he would love to do it one day. Having won the Nurburgring 24 hours in the BMW M3 GTR, he also wants to race at Sebring, Bathurst, Daytona and the Petit Le Mans before he hangs up his helmet. Let’s hope that the replacement of the mighty M3 GTR, rumoured to make its GT2 debut at the end of the year, comes to fruition in time for him to have a go.

Politics, Politcs……….
What will the new year bring in the World Touring Car Championship? Last year, the diesels ran with an un-checked turbo boost pressure, allowing them to run extremely quickly at high speed tracks such as Monza. At Macau, they could turn up the boost for qualifying, turn it down for the warm up, turn it back up for the first race, and take the second race as necessary. In 2008, the diesels will run with monitors, will start the season with a restriction that can be changed ahead of each meeting.

The BMW will start 15kg heavier than last year’s base weight, but the front- wheel drive cars will be heavier by 20kg. In addition to the diesel restrictions, Seat will also lose their flat floor, introduced to compensate for the two-box design and resulting lack of straight line speed. Chevrolet will lose its engine waivers but will run 20kg lighter.

None of this will be visible to the public and each car will have its own circuit on which it will be strong, which makes the work of the FIA Bureau open to argument and politicking. In 2007, the Bureau played around with the rules to such an extent that it became a joke and, with the diesels restricted race-on- race, 2008 will be no different.

The Bureau has a ballast system designed to hinder the best performing cars according to race results, but never gives it a chance to work and instead changes the base weight, boost pressure or rev limit from one race to the next. IMSA made the same mistake in trying to level the field between Aston Martin and Corvette in 2006, leading to a controversial and bitter ALMS season. But, with so many races in the WTCC, 24 in total, it is a question of scoring at each race. In 2005, one win and 101 points was enough for Priaulx. In 2006, 73 points and 5 wins won it by a single point, in 2007, 92 points, 3 wins, the last of which came in the final race of the year.

In 2008, expect Seat, Chevrolet and BMW all to be arguing, bickering, winning and losing. My money will be on a minimum of five drivers going to Macau for the title, at least one from each manufacturer. In discussion with Autosport correspondent Edd Straw on the way home from Macau, we drew up a list of the best drivers in 2007. Top of my list was Alain Menu, followed by Thompson and Priaulx, Farfus and Yvan Muller. I reckon 2008 will provide more of the same and at Macau it will once again be in the hands of the Gods

Andrew Cotton, January 2008