Analysis: Why the WTCC's 2016 format shake-up has worked

Race format tweaks and bold success ballast moves have breathed new life into the World Touring Car Championship, but haven't pleased everyone, as JACK COZENS explains

Analysis: Why the WTCC's 2016 format shake-up has worked

The phrase 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' has been bandied about plenty in the motorsport world over the past couple of months.

But for the World Touring Car Championship there were genuinely areas that needed addressing ahead of the 2016 season. Races were entertaining at times last year, but there remained a predictability about results, with Jose Maria Lopez and Citroen dominating for a second straight year.

Two tweaks to race weekends were introduced. Race one and two became the 'opening' and 'main' races, the latter a lap longer than the former.

The partial reversed-grid - which WTCC boss Francois Ribeiro describes as "very important" for privateer teams and drivers' exposure - remained but was switched to the opener.

The theory was to ensure the driver winning the weekend's final race was there on pure merit, and to force frontrunners to preserve their cars to reap maximum reward from the main race.

Reforms were also made to success ballast, with the upper limit increased to 80 kilograms - a weight all five Citroen C-Elysees were laden with as a result of its title-winning form in 2015.

Changing the name and order of the races may seem a pernickety point, but the crucial test of whether or not the alterations would work came with their running - and how they have paid off so far.

Rob Huff might barely have been seen as he scampered off into the distance in the season-opener at Paul Ricard, but behind the Briton there was plenty to behold.

Lopez, whose race followed the predicted pattern of preservation, came home sixth after he was forced to be opportunistic (though nonetheless masterful) in his overtaking, while Tom Coronel and Nicky Catsburg traded paint for much of the encounter to the detriment of their finishing positions, but not to that of the spectacle.

The opening affair in Slovakia was short on the same level of dicing, but a tactical victory for Tiago Monteiro, who stalked Mehdi Bennani before pouncing near the finish, kept interest high.

But it's been in the main races where the biggest changes have been seen.

Often tame and cagey before, each of the Sundays' second races have been riveting to the line, even if a familiar result - that of Lopez winning - has been recorded both times.

In France, Lopez was forced to cling on from a charging Monteiro, while a fortnight later his mettle was tested even further, having to carry his wounded C-Elysee back past Catsburg's Lada on the final lap.

Beyond an enhanced spectacle, though, the shake-up also means the (admittedly early) championship standings make for interesting reading.

Huff's victory made him the first driver to lead Lopez in the championship since the Argentinian's full-time switch in 2014, but even with the anomaly of the reverse-grid affairs neutered, Lopez is still headed in the standings after four races, with Monteiro leading by a point.

That's not to say the changes have been well received in all quarters. The WTCC has created a system that has penalised Citroen - the extent to which is up for debate - in a bid to tighten up the field, which understandably has agitated the squad.

Team principal Yves Matton lambasted the opening race format as "artificial" after the Paul Ricard weekend, while Yvan Muller raised safety concerns over carrying 80kg of ballast.

But there has been some appreciation, with Lopez, despite agreeing with his team-mate, having to concede the racing had been "fantastic".

Ultimately, Citroen still has the strongest package, and it's unlikely that the marque will be challenged quite so closely going forward. Weight changes have been made ahead of this weekend's round at the Hungaroring and Honda now has just 10kg less ballast than the champion team.

But now it has a realistic shot at success, Honda has the chance to tinker with its strategy in the coming races and that alone should maintain a level of intrigue.

Citroen's rivals are certainly closer this year, and even if it does go on to win both the drivers' and manufacturers' championships, that might not be the end of the world - especially if racing is regularly as entertaining as it has been in the opening two rounds of the season.

If that trend remains, it's the actions taken to improve the show that should continue to be applauded.

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