A bitter sweet Japanese weekend for the Audi Sport Leopard Lukoil Team after the 2 recent victories in Wuhan, China. The Team knew the task was going to be difficult at the ninth race weekend of the WTCR – FIA World Touring Car Cup in Japan: The Audi RS 3 LMS had to compete loaded with the maximum compensation weight of 60 kilograms. Nevertheless, the French driver Jean-Karl Vernay will travel to the last event of the season as the only Audi driver still in contention for the drivers’ championship.
Jean-Karl Vernay started the WTCR JVCKENWOOD Race of Japan full of energy after he won the TCR Benelux title at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya the week before. The Frenchman also arrived in Suzuka still firmly in contention to win the 2018 WTCR – FIA World Touring Car Cup. It was then all about keeping chances alive up to the last round of the series to be held in Macau few weeks later.
The event started with an unusual demanding Friday: both free practice sessions but also qualifying’s for race one, two and three were going to happen on the opening day. Homola set the pace in the 1st free practice session at the majestic Suzuka circuit, while Audi Sport Leopard Lukoil Team drivers, JK Vernay & Gordon Shedden, were P15 and P20 respectively, keeping new tires for later sessions. Free practice 2 took place at 11:25 (local time) with French drivers claiming five of the top six places, as Jay Kay in P4 in his Audi RS 3 LMS. The top 12 was separated by a second as once again a mix of customer racing brands filled the first half of the timing screen.
One hour later, the WTCR field was yet back on track for the Race 1 Qualifying: as the best Audi driver of the field Jean-Karl Vernay positioned his Audi RS3 LMS in 9th position, just 0,7 seconds shy of 70 kg lighter pole sitter Aurélien Comte while Wuhan Race 3 winner, Gordon Shedden, had to content with a 22nd place. Drama came during the Race 2 and 3 qualifying sessions: with only 2 qualifying lap shots, Jean-Karl Vernay set the pace early in the 1st part of the qualifying. But by missing to improve on his 2nd effort, the French driver could only achieved the 17th time, 3 places in front of the 2nd Leopard Lukoil Audi.
On Saturday, Kevin Ceccon scored a first sensational victory after surviving 2 safety car restarts to win Race 1 at Suzuka, as the 14th different driver to win in this action-packed season. Jean-Karl Vernay confirmed his race pace since the beginning of the season by crossing the finish line on 6th position bringing home some important points and climbing to 4th in the drivers’ championship ranking. Trapped in the traffic, Gordon Shedden could only cross the finish line in 18th position.
Race 2 and 3 concluded a spectacular WTCR JVCKENWOOD Race of Japan: Rob Huff converted a great start into a lights-to-flag victory in Race 2 while Kevin Ceccon crossed the Race 3 finish line in first position but was dropped to third hit by a five-second time penalty; this handed victory to Italian veteran Gabriele Tarquini. On the Leopard Lukoil Team side, a remarkable race 3 rewarded Jean-Karl Vernay by a Top 10 finish gaining 7 positions on a 11 laps race distance. The FIA WTCR / OSCARO will move to the city of Glitz Macau, for the last event of the season to be held on November 15/18.
Photo credit: DPPI