Special feature

Is this the most road-relevant touring car series around?

Touring car devotees have long trumpeted the discipline for its road-relevance. Now that manufacturers are increasingly going electric, how is ETCR getting on in its first season as an FIA World Cup?

The future of CUPRA in racing is electric

“I’ve just had my hair done, so now I look perfect for the weekend!”

Busy man that he is, touring car superstar Mattias Ekstrom has managed to find time for himself in the few days between the Hungaroring and Jarama rounds of what is now known as the FIA ETCR – eTouring Car World Cup. So far this year he’s competed on the Dakar Rally in Audi’s new electric contender, he’s opened his ETCR title defence in successful fashion, he’s popped in to contest a rallycross event in his native Sweden, and his EKS operation is preparing to run Audis in the World Rallycross Championship – and it’s now operating the works Cupra ETCR squad.

So he’s a freshly coiffured giant of versatility in motorsport driving, as well as a team boss, plus something of a spokesman for the intriguing new world of ETCR, which got off the ground in 2021 as Pure ETCR, and for 2022 earned FIA World Cup status alongside its sister series, the established FIA World Touring Car Cup. That inaugural five-round campaign ended with Ekstrom defeating Hyundai’s Jean-Karl Vernay in a dramatic finale at Pau-Arnos.

“When you do a championship for the first year, everything new, you have to try and read the situations pretty fast, which I think we did,” he reflects. “So it was a good time. One thing… I wouldn’t say it’s disturbing, but you wish there would be more cars on the grid of course, but I think every championship these days will have to fight quite hard for that. When the cars are electrical-driven it’s fair to say that there will be some resistance from fans to accept it for a while. But bottom line it was good racing, and you always enjoy it more when you win than when you are last!”

Getting cars onto the grid – or, in the case of ETCR and its quirky sporting format, it’s probably fairer to say into the paddock – will not be the work of a moment. It may be electric, it may have shiny new toys such as the Energy Station and Hot Zone, but at its heart it’s good old-fashioned touring car racing. Formula E, and its Extreme E offshoot in which Ekstrom competed in 2021, relies on spec chassis. ETCR, like its conventional TCR cousin that has changed the face of global customer touring car racing since its kick-off in 2015, is based upon production shells converted into racing machinery.

It’s the brainchild of tin-top visionary Marcello Lotti, whose WSC Group created the production-based TCR category that since 2018 has been the foundation of Eurosport Events’ flagship FIA World Touring Car Cup. Then came Lotti’s ETCR concept, for which Eurosport Events gladly took on the promotion of a series alongside its WTCR competition.

When we investigated ETCR this time last year, just before its inaugural event, Eurosport Events’ Xavier Gavory, who acts as series director for WTCR and ETCR, described Lotti as “the pope of touring cars”. Pontiff he may be, but you need faith. “Did everything go as we wanted it to?” asks Gavory rhetorically of 2021.

Mattias Ekström defends his ETCR title in 2022, here ahead of Hyundai's Kevin Ceccon

Mattias Ekström defends his ETCR title in 2022, here ahead of Hyundai's Kevin Ceccon

Photo by: ETCR

“Definitely not, because the disruption we had to face with COVID was pretty big. Lack of raw materials, delay on the kits, time needed for the manufacturers and WSC to put the cars together. Things were not easy because we are still in a disrupted world with logistics, with the crisis of the automotive industry, the lack of raw materials and supply disruption. We are living in a very complicated world, and when you launch a new series, which has a different technology to the other motorsport series, that depends on supply and battery kit delivery… and you know the crisis of superconductors and so on.”

So ETCR kicked off with two examples each of the Hyundai Veloster ETCR and Cupra e-Racer, each entered by factory squads, as well as the privateer Romeo Ferraris operation running Giulia ETCR machinery but without Alfa Romeo nomenclature. That’s six cars, but the series’ sporting format prescribes each to have two drivers, allowing a total of 12 contestants split into two separate pools of half a dozen throughout a race weekend. Clearly, as Ekstrom points out, we could do with more. And, with manufacturers such as Honda, Audi and Lynk & Co active in WTCR, there are more potential contenders already within the WSC/Eurosport family.

“I’m confident and we are working with WSC on that topic,” says Gavory. “Now all the manufacturers have turned electric since 2020, they have some electric products that match the touring car category, which was not the case in the past. We run production cars – they are the same you can see down the street. We hope and trust the current crisis for the automotive industry will leave some space for some initiative to be taken for manufacturers to give some visibility to their cars. I think manufacturers as well needed to see this FIA format and Cup before they committed.

“The technology in there, and what they’ve done to produce those cars is very impressive. They produce good racing. First impressions are always the best, and they were better than what I expected” Alan Gow

“We have those raw materials and supply, which is very complicated to manage. That doesn’t help because when you register you have months of delays before you put your cars together because you have to get your kit, batteries and so on. The context is extremely complicated but the interest is definitely there. On our side as a promoter we are confident because we have a very good product, we just need to be patient because the world is very complicated at the moment, and things will come because electric is the future, it’s even the present because now the cars match our category. Now there is a real interest around the series.”

When we sought an audience with ‘the pope’, Lotti was happy to expand: “What I can tell you is I have some agreements signed. We are working with other manufacturers that are looking at ETCR. I am optimistic to see at least one more next season. I have agreements signed on NDAs, some are already starting to work with our technical department before any final decision.”

The supply crisis in the automotive industry has also delayed any chance of ETCR being adopted for national and regional series.

Romeo Ferraris has brought the Alfa Romeo Giulia to the series on a privateer basis

Romeo Ferraris has brought the Alfa Romeo Giulia to the series on a privateer basis

Photo by: ETCR

“We lost around a year and a half from COVID and everything,” expands Lotti. “We don’t think that today we are in a position to start production for more cars, because of the delays in the delivery of any parts you need. Parts for the kit and for the chassis. We don’t believe to accelerate and start anything in 2023. Clearly we have a white sheet of paper in motorsport and we all have to write on this because it’s completely new technology to develop. Day by day there will be a lot of new projects using EVs for motorsport. We created TCR probably close to the end period of the aspirated engine, and it became a leader in motorsport – and there was a lot of competition around. And you will write a lot about new electric series in the next couple of years, because everybody is looking for that.”

If Lotti is the pope of tin-tops, then British Touring Car Championship chief Alan Gow, in his role as president of the FIA Touring Car Commission, could perhaps be described as this form of the sport’s ultimate deity.

“The Commission was involved in the ETCR right from the word go, from the very concept through to its execution,” he explains. “We had to approve the regulations and all the other guidelines for it. It absolutely ticked all the boxes and that’s why it became a World Cup-status event.

“Everything done in the last couple of years has been in difficult circumstances. Their expectation level was set very realistically for the first year and they delivered it against that. They had a limited number of cars and drivers and that’s perfectly right for the first year in any brand-new concept, and it’ll only grow from there.”

Gow’s first live experience of ETCR came at this season’s opening round on the streets of Pau – the venue in France is exactly the sort of place a series such as this should visit.

“They look great, they’re obviously very quick, they actually sound quite good even though you don’t normally associate electric cars with sound,” says Gow. “The technology in there, and what they’ve done to produce those cars is very impressive. They produce good racing. First impressions are always the best, and they were better than what I expected.”

Perhaps one contributing factor is the intake of star drivers for 2022. With Ekstrom’s EKS operation taking over the Cupra squad from Zengo Motorsport, the Swede drafted in Adrien Tambay and Tom Blomqvist, both of whom he knew from the DTM, in which he’s a two-time champion. Romeo Ferraris appointed Ekstrom’s fellow DTM title winner Bruno Spengler and Maxime Martin. Hyundai put its WTCR star Norbert Michelisz on double duty.

2019 WTCR champion Norbert Michelisz races for Hyundai both there and in ETCR

2019 WTCR champion Norbert Michelisz races for Hyundai both there and in ETCR

Photo by: ETCR

“Last year the field was OK,” says Ekstrom. “But this year it’s gone up another two levels I would say – the new guys are all really fast. The grid is getting closer and closer all the time, and you can see that the rivalry is beginning to build up. You could dominate last year, but now it doesn’t feel like this at all. In a quali lap you might have a little edge [from experience in 2021], but I know the others will also improve and in the races it’s very equal. I’m more humble than ever that this will be a very competitive season.”

Over the opening two rounds in 2022, Ekstrom took overall victory in Pau, before Tambay triumphed in Hungary. Of the Frenchman and Blomqvist, the Swede says: “In testing they have been faster than me several times. That’s the good thing when you’re a team owner – you look on things differently. If you run the team, you want the team to do well, so you hire the best drivers you can, you give them all the support they need, and you really hope that you as a team will be successful. The bottom line is it would be great for me if I win another title, no doubt about that, but I wouldn’t be happier to hire some guys you don’t believe in so you are the number one. That is too boring and it’s not me.”

While Ekstrom was winning in Pau, hopefully a large cross-section of the crowd was getting enthused about electrified cars.

"Touring cars are multi-brand production cars. I am expecting to see from ETCR more and more models homologated in the future coming directly from EVs" Marcello Lotti

“We had a lot of people around the Energy Station [which charges the cars from 10-90% in 75 minutes] to show you can recharge your cars in a very easy way,” says Gavory. “It’s very complex on a technological standpoint, but it looks very easy and that’s the goal we want to showcase: to recharge your electric car you don’t need ages. We could have recharged the cars in the pits, hidden from the public, but one of our missions is to show that electromobility is successful, easy, fun, and the Energy Station is part of the story.

“Pau is an iconic place and they did things in a pretty clever way, because after a few years’ inactivity they wanted to celebrate the new technology and more sustainable motorsport, so it was very green-oriented. Most of the support series were running HVO or biofuel, we had a hydrogen car on track, for the first time the ERA championship for entry-level single-seaters, we had ETCR. Over the weekend we had 100,000 people on site with beautiful weather. To launch the series, that was as good as we could have expected.”

Naturally, a category such as ETCR can get tripped up on logistics, and the round at Turkey’s Istanbul Park venue, scheduled immediately after Pau, was postponed until November.

“The goal with Turkey is to go to the streets of Istanbul [in 2023], because we want to have a mix of permanent and street circuits,” states Gavory. “With some unexpected things and events happening in Turkey, the conditions were not united to get there on time, and it was a very last-minute postponement. That was very hard for us.”

ETCR kicked off 2022 on the famed streets of Pau

ETCR kicked off 2022 on the famed streets of Pau

Photo by: ETCR

A round on the streets of Istanbul is exactly what Ekstrom believes the series should be doing. He’s not 100% convinced about the calendar, which after Jarama heads to Zolder in Belgium, Vallelunga just north of Rome, and Inje in South Korea.

“The championship is still young,” he says. “You have to have a good mixture where you go so you can present yourself to a new audience, and where there already is audience, because to go and try and create a new platform is difficult. I would love to go with these cars to Norisring, because that is one of the places that was always fully packed, and people that come there have a totally different view of motorsport from if you go to a classical track in the middle of nowhere. Formula E going to cities is great, but it’s also easy to see that they are struggling to get spectators. You have to be very selective and smart to position yourself at the right event. You have to do a bit of cherry-picking to make something popular.”

And potentially, on the success of series such as this lie the prospects for motorsport in general. Touring car racing, after all, has always been about the public identifying with the cars as something they can buy for the road.

“This for me is an advantage for touring cars, not only because it’s electric,” asserts Lotti. “Touring cars is multi-brand production cars. I am expecting to see from ETCR more and more models will be homologated in the future coming directly from EVs.”

“It’s the relevance to the road that’s the most important aspect,” adds Gow. “As we inexorably head towards a greater electrified future with road cars, then obviously racing has to reflect that. And ETCR has done exactly that. It’s entirely relevant to what’s happening in full-electric road cars.”

Jordi Gené, Cupra EKS, Cupra e-Racer

Jordi Gené, Cupra EKS, Cupra e-Racer

Photo by: ETCR

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