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The Honda change that could revive its WTCR title hopes

Honda may have exited F1, but it’s still plugging away in its attempt to win the World Touring Car Cup, beginning with this weekend’s opening round on the streets of Pau. And an organisational change to two teams of two cars could have a positive impact

Esteban Guerrieri, ALL-INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport Honda Civic Type R TCR

Esteban Guerrieri, ALL-INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport Honda Civic Type R TCR

WTCR

Few manufacturers can lay claim to a history as rich as Honda’s in 21st-century top-line touring car racing.
A Tom Kristensen-driven Accord won the British Touring Car Championship’s final-ever Super Touring bout at Silverstone in 2000, and Gabriele Tarquini steered the same model to the most victories in the following year’s European Super Touring Championship.

Privately entered Accords built to Super 2000 rules claimed a hat-trick of wins in the European Touring Car Cup (mostly single-event) with James Thompson and Fabrizio Giovanardi between 2009 and 2011, before the factory JAS Motorsport team proved a winner following Honda’s fully fledged return to the global stage with the Civic in the 2012 World Touring Car Championship, in both its S2000 and TC1 rulesets. And since the WTCC became the World Touring Car Cup with the adoption of TCR rules in 2018, nobody has won more races than Honda’s Esteban Guerrieri (10).

But one crucial element has been missing: a drivers’ title over the course of a full championship season. Honda’s biggest honour over the past decade is its 2013 WTCC manufacturers’ crown, although its only works competition that season was Lada, and it was beaten to the drivers’ title by the RML-run Chevrolets that no longer had factory support.

Tarquini was a distant second in that first full season with the S2000 Civic in 2013, and JAS could never beat Citroen or Volvo to manufacturers’ honours during the TC1 era. Third with Tiago Monteiro in 2016 (in Citroen’s last year) and second with Norbert Michelisz in 2017 were its best results. Hondas won more races than Volvo in the latter year, but the marque missed both titles when injury for Monteiro and disqualification from both Ningbo races for a non-compliant fuel injector proved decisive.

That same year, Attila Tassi finished second in the final TCR International Series with a M1RA Honda, and the Hungarian squad won the teams’ title. Following TCR International’s merger with the Eurosport Events-run WTCC for 2018, representing a shift away from the WTCC’s model of full factory teams towards customer racing, Guerrieri finished third with Munnich Motorsport but wasn’t really in the fight with Hyundai proponents Tarquini and Yvan Muller.

The Argentinian then took BRC Hyundai ace Michelisz all the way in 2019, and could have snatched the crown at the Sepang finale without contact that pushed him onto the grass and resulted in the Civic Type R progressively overheating.

Guerrieri narrowly lost out to Michelisz in 2019 after taking the title down to the wire in Sepang

Guerrieri narrowly lost out to Michelisz in 2019 after taking the title down to the wire in Sepang

Photo by: WTCR

Guerrieri was again the leader of Honda’s pack in a much-delayed 2020 season that spanned only three months, winning four times on his way to fourth in the standings. But in 2021 he didn’t win a race, although he still finished as the top Honda driver in sixth – that was despite being the only Civic driver not to take a victory, with compatriot Nestor Girolami, Monteiro and Tassi on one apiece.

Guerrieri concedes that the year “didn’t go to plan”, but reckons the final standings paint an unfair reflection of a season in which he entered the final round at Sochi one point behind second-placed Frederic Vervisch. He failed to score a single point in Sochi thanks to skating off the soaking wet road in the opening race trying to pass the Audi man, hitting the wall with enough force to put him out for the day.

“I risked it, but I had nothing to lose – I was going to go for at least P2 in the championship,” recalls Guerrieri. “For the last race of the championship, it’s all-in.”

Guerrieri is clear where the big points losses came: “It was the first two events. We went with a strategy to go for the points in qualifying at the Nordschleife and Estoril, so it didn’t really matter about the compensation weight. I was P3 starting in Nordschleife and P1 in Estoril, so they loaded us with the compensation weight because of our good qualifyings, but I couldn’t put that into performance on points in the races.”

"I’m not down on confidence because I didn’t win a race or things like that. I’m just saying that the circumstances that happened in the first two events really compromised our season" Esteban Guerrieri

At the Nurburgring, an electrical problem meant the car didn’t start on the grid and he got away last, ending up 12th. Then at Estoril, Guerrieri “had an issue with the starting procedure, plus I couldn’t see the lights, so again I was last” before recovering to eighth. Guerrieri knows that had he finished in the positions in which he qualified, the championship could have been a very different story.

“I’m not down on confidence because I didn’t win a race or things like that,” he says. “I’m just saying that the circumstances that happened in the first two events really compromised our season. After that, I realised it was going to be a very much uphill climb for the rest of the year.

“My goal with a heavy car was to try to chip away results, top-five, top-eight, finish the races and try to arrive to the last event with chances of battling for the championship. And that goal was achieved. But these little problems that we had as a team cost us the big chance of better possibilities at the end of the year. I tried to race a smart championship and I’m not regretting many things during the year. For sure, my rivals did a better job because they beat us. I just try and prepare better for the next fight.”

Early setbacks cost Guerrieri last year, but he's ready to fight again in 2022

Early setbacks cost Guerrieri last year, but he's ready to fight again in 2022

Photo by: WTCR

One element that could help Honda’s cause in 2022 is a return to the two-team structure that brought Guerrieri to the cusp of the 2019 title, when Munnich Motorsport and KCMG ran the cars. For the past two seasons, all four cars have been run by Rene Munnich’s crew, echoing the approaches taken by the all-conquering Lynk & Co (run by Cyan Racing), Audi (with Comtoyou Racing) and Cupra (Zengo Motorsport). But this year Honda will revert to two teams of two cars, with Munnich downsizing and Engstler Motorsport joining the fold from Hyundai to run Monteiro and Tassi.

“It’s not a Honda decision to go to two teams of two cars – it was just a coincidence, a customer choice,” explains long-time racing programmes coordinator for Honda Racing Corporation William de Braekeleer, who is the link between JAS and the Honda executives in Japan as well as with Eurosport Events, sponsors and drivers.

Engstler made its approach in September, and Honda entered into discussions without knowing how many cars Munnich would run.

“It might have been that there would be six cars this year, or five, because once you have a team of two cars, the other team can enter three cars,” de Braekeleer continues. “But Rene’s final decision was to make two, so that’s how it came that we have two teams of two cars.”

It could mean that more emphasis is given to Guerrieri, who enjoyed “my most consistent season” to date when Honda’s efforts were split in 2019 and will once again line up this term alongside Girolami for Munnich.

“That year we were two cars in one team with ‘Bebu’ as a team-mate,” he says. “From the other side, working under one umbrella with four cars is beneficial for strategies – there is one common team with the same goals. But I would say the last two years it was quite stressful in a way of logistics, organisation and engineering side, everything is a double job. We had a good run in the team, but obviously the ultimate goal is to achieve the championship and it didn’t happen.

“Probably coming back to two cars, it can be focused more… We can be more efficient, but from the other side we might lose a bit the control on the strategy and so on. We’ll see how it goes. At least I can speak from what I know that can be better. Smaller teams, probably quicker decisions and logistically smaller, that could be beneficial.”

Guerrieri and de Braekeleer are both hopeful that bringing Engstler into the fold will reap rewards

Guerrieri and de Braekeleer are both hopeful that bringing Engstler into the fold will reap rewards

Photo by: Honda Europe / David Noels

De Braekeleer also recognises that having greater attention concentrated upon two cars could have “additional benefits, as long as we can have a very good cooperation between the two teams”.

“I cannot force them to work together,” says the Belgian. “It has to come naturally, they both have to understand that it’s in their common interest to share some information.”

This is a factor in Honda’s approach to the series. De Braekeleer is a staunch proponent of WTCR’s customer racing focus – “because we respect the philosophy of the championship, TCR is customer racing” – while Guerrieri points out that some other teams “don’t look like customer racing, it’s not needed to clarify which ones. The customer itself is the one that runs the team, that’s the Honda way.”

Honda provides input in terms of drivers and technical support from car-builder JAS, plus some financial assistance – although de Braekeleer says “the majority of the budget is covered by the customer”. On tactical matters, teams are left to their own devices.

"It’s good because you have a kind of internal competition. So overall I think it’s a benefit because you want to be better than the other team" William de Braekeleer

“There will be probably less team orders, which may not always play in favour of supporting one particular driver,” he adds. “For us there is no leading driver, that’s very clear from our side to both teams that we don’t have number one and number two drivers. Of course after mid-season, each team may have to decide which driver has the more chance to win the championship and then take the necessary decision. And how we manage to work with that between the two teams is another story.

“At the same time, it’s good as well because you have a kind of internal competition. So overall I think it’s a benefit because you want to be better than the other team. Otherwise, if you are with four cars or if you are the only team of a brand, you might say, ‘the BoP is bad, there’s nothing I can do, that’s it’.

“But if the other team is beating you then it proves there is something still to improve. Also, there is a very good atmosphere between the drivers. They will be driving in two different teams, but they are Honda drivers and they work very well together.”

Engstler team will run Monteiro and Tassi this year, with Guerrieri and Girolami remaining under the Munnich banner

Engstler team will run Monteiro and Tassi this year, with Guerrieri and Girolami remaining under the Munnich banner

Photo by: Honda Europe / David Noels

The 2022 season gets under way this weekend at Pau after the intended season-opener at Most was called off in March amid the Czech Republic’s state of emergency. Honda’s teams will be determined to realise its long-held ambition, although de Braekeleer acknowledges that years such as Guerrieri’s 2021 are par for the course sometimes.

“Unfortunately this is the lot of motorsport,” he says. “Sometimes your performance is not reflected because of things outside of your control. It’s easy to say at the last race, ‘If I didn’t do this, I would have been here’, but probably many other drivers can say the same.”

All concerned will hope that this isn’t the case in 2022.

Will Guerrieri finally end Honda's long wait for a drivers' title?

Will Guerrieri finally end Honda's long wait for a drivers' title?

Photo by: WTCR

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