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Interview

The WTCR ace on the cusp of title glory

Mikel Azcona has taken the World Touring Car Cup by storm since his switch to Hyundai for 2022, and is likely to be crowned this year’s champion. Here’s what makes the Spaniard tick and how he moved to within touching distance of the title

Race winner Mikel Azcona, BRC Hyundai N Squadra Corse, Hyundai Elantra N TCR

Race winner Mikel Azcona, BRC Hyundai N Squadra Corse, Hyundai Elantra N TCR

WTCR

Mikel Azcona has come a long way from the contrite rookie who ruined Esteban Guerreri’s title shot in a frenetic World Touring Car Cup finale back in 2019. The Spaniard, then 23, could only offer a grovelling apology in the post-race press conference after nerfing the Honda ace off in a thrilling night-race climax at Sepang, clogging the Civic’s radiator full of grass. He was clearly mortified to have interfered in a title showdown that fell in favour of Hyundai’s Norbert Michelisz, thanks in part to Azcona’s blunder. “There is always revenge,” was Guerrieri’s sinister response.

Three years later, Azcona is on the cusp of becoming a world champion himself for Hyundai, and such is the health of his points lead with two weekends and four races to go that it’s hard to imagine karma pitching up to kick him where it hurts. From the moment he stepped into his Elantra N TCR this year, having swapped from Cupra to replace no less a figure than retiring tin-top legend Gabriele Tarquini, Azcona has been brilliant. Three race wins and six further podiums, ironing out the usual peaks and troughs of ballasted Balance of Performance, have left him 35 points clear of nearest challenger Nestor Girolami, Munnich Motorsport’s ‘other’ Argentinian and team-mate to a still crownless Guerrieri.

Azcona is taking nothing for granted, of course. He’s learned enough since 2019 not to make that kind of rookie error. Still, he readily admits that his first season as a factory Hyundai driver has been “better than expected”.

“Normally when you make this kind of change – the brand, car, team, everything – you need time to adapt,” says the racer from Arrigorriaga, in the Basque region of northern Spain. “But from the second day of the first three-day test at Aragon I felt very good with the car and team.” He reports too that Michelisz, now very much playing second fiddle to his unintentional 2019 ‘kingmaker’, has “helped from the very beginning”.

“It is very impressive what we are doing at the moment,” Azcona concedes. “In every race weekend we have scored podiums, and in Aragon and Vallelunga we took two podiums each weekend, which is amazing. I’m very impressed by that. But then I have a very good team and car, and a very good atmosphere – amazing tools to be in the top position.”

Azcona admits it was an “easy decision” to join Hyundai, even though he was “very comfortable” at Cupra. Twice a champion in TCR Europe, he’d grown up with the Spanish marque. “But at the end of last season when I received a call from [now departed Hyundai sports boss] Mr Adamo, and he said they were very interested in me… I was very happy.”

Azcona credits Tarquini as a key influence behind his WTCR title charge

Azcona credits Tarquini as a key influence behind his WTCR title charge

Photo by: WTCR

Success has justified the move, which also reflects well on Tarquini, who has stepped from the cockpit into the BRC team manager’s perch on the pitwall. “Mikel is having a fantastic season,” gushes the inaugural 2018 WTCR king and 2009 World Touring Car champion. “From the first round he has made no mistakes in the races. He is always very focused on scoring points, and he doesn’t need a lot of support with his driving. I have tried to help him around the performance, but on track he doesn’t need any help.”

But Azcona is quick to give credit to Tarquini’s direct influence. “I’ve known Gabriele for a long time, in a way. Even when I was racing go-karts I was watching the WTCC on Eurosport. Now it’s very curious to be replacing him. He is such a good driver, a world champion, a kind of idol to me, and now he is my team manager. As a driver he is teaching Norbi and me a lot, giving us advice on qualifying, the race, tyre preparation, overtaking – how to make the driver’s life easier. He is also a very good person, the best in my opinion. He’s helping me a lot every single day.”

But surely Tarquini would still prefer to be sitting where Azcona now finds himself… “I can imagine,” Mikel smiles. “When you are driving all your life, then stop, but you are there in the paddock out of the car… if I’m not driving I cannot go to the track. Too frustrating!”

"My opinion on BoP is I like the rule otherwise the championship would be killed very soon. If we are like Formula 1 without BoP and the best car is winning every weekend then the championship will die. It’s very necessary, this tool" Mikel Azcona

But still there are clouds, in what has been a tough time for the WTCR. The grid had already shrunk to just 17 cars over the winter before controversy exploded around Goodyear’s spec tyres that led to an embarrassing last-minute cancellation of the Nurburgring Nordschleife races. That was bad enough. But when Cyan Racing then withdrew its five Lynk & Cos on the way to the grid at Vallelunga in protest over further tyre failures, the WTCR seemingly hit a new low – only to plummet further when Cyan pulled out of the series entirely ahead of the August round at the little-known Circuit de l’Anneau du Rhin. It’s been a torrid season for a series Azcona insists is still “the highest-level touring car championship in the world”.

More: How the toxic tyre farrago engulfing WTCR exploded at Vallelunga

What a shame Azcona has been robbed of the chance to beat reigning double champion Yann Ehrlacher on track. What has he made of the tyre dramas? “When you put the car on the limit with the maximum camber, changing the set-up to win the last tenth, it’s obvious the tyre is suffering a lot,” he says. “When we are having these tyre problems you need to think and find a compromise. If you go super-aggressive you will have problems. The frustrating thing at the Nordschleife was I competed in the 24 Hours with the same car, same tyres, same compound. The Lynk & Cos were having problems on only one lap in WTCR qualifying, and on the same tyres in the 24 Hours I was doing nine laps.”

Azcona has little sympathy for Lynk & Cos after it withdrew from the 2022 WTCR campaign early

Azcona has little sympathy for Lynk & Cos after it withdrew from the 2022 WTCR campaign early

Photo by: WTCR

The Lynk & Cos haven’t been alone in suffering tyre failures, as seen also at Vallelunga. “OK, the high 55-degree track temperatures didn’t help anybody, and the track was very aggressive for the front-left tyre,” says Azcona. “But if you see the races I was avoiding all the kerbs, avoiding compressions on the front left. I was driving so carefully and this is part of the game. Why should we need to cancel the race weekend because they have exploding tyres? You need to adapt and make the car survive with the tyre, otherwise the championship is cancelled every weekend.”

But Hyundai has hardly been free of controversy itself. A new regulation means outright qualifying speed dictates the compensation weights each manufacturer will carry into the next round, which has led to some sharp practices. At Motorland Aragon Girolami accused the Hyundais of sandbagging on Saturdays, sacrificing a shot at pole for a better grid slot in the reversed-grid race two – and ensuring a lower level of compensation weight for next time out at Vila Real.

Tarquini denied the claim at the time, but Azcona is a little more… open. “My opinion on BoP is I like the rule otherwise the championship would be killed very soon,” he says. “If we are like Formula 1 without BoP and the best car is winning every weekend then the championship will die. It’s very necessary, this tool. The regulation says the BoP is working like this and as a team and manufacturer you need to use this tool in the best way possible. If you go making all the poles every weekend you will get maximum kilograms and for certain the next weekend you will not be so competitive.”

So were you backing off? “When you are fighting for the championship you always have to be very clever in these moments,” he answers. We’ll take that as a yes, then!

Back to more positive aspects. As he did last year with Cupra, Azcona is doubling up this season by also racing in the electric-powered Pure ETCR, now known as the eTouring Car World Cup, sometimes on the same bill. At Vallelunga he was crowned ‘King of the Weekend’ for the first time in a Hyundai, while also scoring podiums in WTCR.

“It’s very difficult when you have maximum power of 700bhp,” says Azcona of his potent rear-wheel-drive ETCR Veloster. “It is the most difficult thing I’ve done. The characteristics are very particular, the car is heavy, doesn’t have a proper differential and we are using semi-slick [Goodyear] tyres. To make a perfect lap without any kind of tyre lock is tough. But if you do a perfect lap you really enjoy it because the car is so fast. As soon as you put maximum power on the throttle pedal you really feel the acceleration. It’s a rocket.”

So what about the future? At 26, he has decades potentially stretching out ahead of him – especially if he mimics his team manager and races until he’s 59! At 15, Mikel and his father chose to curtail karting and focus on touring cars instead of single-seaters, thanks to a grounded sense of their financial reality. A wise choice. Endurance racing and specifically Le Mans appeals, but racing drivers tend to live in the present and Azcona is no different. Winning a world crown for Hyundai is all that matters now and, with four races to go, the countdown is on. Probably best to avoid Guerrieri just to be sure.

Azcona remains on course for the 2022 WTCR title

Azcona remains on course for the 2022 WTCR title

Photo by: WTCR

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