WTCC - 2017 Race of China - Pre-event press conference

13.10.17

FIA WTCC Race of China, 13-15 October 2017

FIA World Touring Car Championship 2017: Rounds 13 and 14 of 20

Intercontinental Hotel, Ningbo, 11h30, 13 October

Present:
Thed Björk, Polestar Cyan Racing
Felipe de Souza, RC Motorsport
Norbert Michelisz, Castrol Honda World Touring Car Team
François Ribeiro, Head of Eurosport Events, WTCC promoter

Q: 
What makes this event so important for you and your team?

TB:
China is obviously really important for us because it’s like a home race for Volvo, Polestar and our team. Also I took my first win here in Shanghai last year, it was a very special moment, beating Norbert on the last lap. That was very emotional so it’s very nice to come back and it’s very important for the team.

Q:
Can you share with us some of your memories from China from last year and that first win in the WTCC and how it has helped you to where you are right now?

TB:
It was a magical moment in the racing history for the team. Obviously the first win is very emotional for me as a driver and so on but it’s these kinds of things that makes the interest coming into the championship as a manufacturer. Sorry, Norbi, but it was very important and it’s things like this you really want to do when you do this sport. You want to win these special victories, you want to fight against the other manufacturers and the competition and finish a last lap like that. It was obviously very important and so nice to do it in China.

Q:
It’s a very close battle for the title. How confident are you of winning and a word about Tiago Monteiro’s absence from China?

TB:
I agree with François. It’s very, very sad Tiago is not here. I respect him a lot both as a driver and as a person. Things like this happen in motorsport that you are not so very used to because it’s so safe and everybody is working on the safety. It’s very sad but for me I will just continue working with my team to do the best we can. Obviously we really, really want to win. That’s our goal an we keep pushing and keep trying to take this title. We know it’s going to be really tough. Tiago is not here but Norbi has shown really good speed so it will be fighting until the end and until the last corner in any case.

Q:
Turning to Norbert Michelisz, while Ningbo is a new track for all drivers you got the chance to sample the layout on Honda Racing’s simulator. What are your impressions and the potential for some great racing?

NM:
First of all, hello everyone, nice to be back racing and nice to be back in China. We did the track walk this morning. I’m quite excited to be honest. We had the chance to drive this circuit only on the simulator. It’s a help but doing the track walk we realise there’s a lot more elevation change than we expected. Also, there are two or three places where we will see a lot of overtaking during the races. For me with a new circuit you have to be very clever, a lot of things can happen because as a driver you don’t have the routine of driving a lap like you do in Shanghai and this makes mistakes even more possible. It’s all about doing clever races and scoring the maximum points. I’m sure for the spectator everyone will see exciting races.

Q:
You’ve done some testing during the summer. What improvements have been made to the Honda Civic WTCC?

NM:
We improved basically everywhere. We realised our weak points during the season and I’d like to say Volvo, they’ve done an amazing job so far. We’ve been improving the package from race weekend to race weekend and we could see in Argentina there were places where we were a bit behind so we just want to be flat out, improving our package as well to be competitive. For the rest of the season we will have different circuits. We will have Macau, Ningbo, Qatar and Motegi so need to have a complete package to stay in front. This is why we did a lot of testing and this is why we needed to focus on every small detail in order to improve.

Q:
The Honda will carry the maximum 80 kilograms of compensation weight here in China. What does that do to the handling and performance?

NM:
It will be disadvantage but the biggest disadvantage will be driving here without Tiago being with us. Also for me it was like a shock. I was in contact with him every after his incident. You know Tiago, he’s an optimist and because of this I was quite optimistic as well so the news on Tuesday was something really sad for me. When we learned on Tuesday this was not going to be the case it was really sad for me as well. I hope he is with us with his support from home. Even with Gabriele [Tarquini] back in the team, he’s a top guy, but no Tiago is a bigger disadvantage. The extra weight will be a big disadvantage but we improved the package throughout the summer and we will cope with this.

Q:
Welcome back to the WTCC Felipe after a few years away. What’s it like to be back and what’s changed?

FDS:
I feel very happy and excited. I want to thank François [Ribeiro] for this opportunity to bring me back. Everything is new for me, the team, the crew and the track for everyone. I’m quite excited but nervous.

Q:
What’s your programme and how much experience do you have of your RC Motorsport car?

FDS:
To be honest I didn’t drive the car, I didn’t have the chance. I will have first practice tomorrow. I will talk to the engineer and find out as soon as possible how the car is working. I will try my best.

Q:
What are the chances of more WTCC appearances next season?

FDS:
I hope next year I will come back again for some races. I want to do that.

Q:
WTCC Race of China has moved from Shanghai to Ningbo. What was the thinking behind this decision?

FR:
It was a discussion we had last year with our partner, Mr Xia Qing, he explained to me China was building a new infrastructure for motorsport outside Shanghai. Shanghai has been built nearly 15 years ago mainly for Formula One. But to grow the sport needs infrastructure and I was very, very happy to see that China was building new infrastructure. New circuit in Ningbo means new opportunity to promote WTCC to a new audience and Grade II circuit is probably the best for touring car. It was a good opportunity and I thought it was also good to see local government was involved and behind it because Monday morning 50 million motorsport fans around the world will know where Ningbo is.

Q:
What are your impressions of the track?

FR:
It will fit touring car racing quite well, probably better than Shanghai. It’s a bit slower but I’m expecting very interesting races. What I like is we come to this circuit with everybody on an equal footing. Nobody has tested or raced here so it will be very interesting for the drivers and journalists over the weekend.

Q:
How important is China to the WTCC?

FR:
China is very important to the WTCC. It’s the seventh time we come to China and the seventh time we come with our partner, the CTCC. It sends out a very important message to have CTCC and WTCC together on the same weekend. We share the circuit, we share the organisation and we promote touring car together in the biggest car market in the world.

Q:
What are your thoughts on the wide-open nature of the championship battle this season?

FR:
This season, 2017, is for me the best season we’ve had since 2005 for drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships. We’ve had and will have great battles right until Qatar and I’m sure both titles will be decided at the corner. But today I’m a bit sad because something very important for the WTCC happened two days ago. Our championship leading driver Tiago Monteiro, Norbi’s team-mate, was not allowed by come here. He had a very heavy crash – 225kph to zero in one second and he was not declared fit by doctors to come here to China. It was a big shock to the championship and it was a big shock for me. We talked to him nearly every day since then but I can’t imagine how sad he his to see the rest of the drivers and the rest of the grid competing for the title and losing the points here in Ningbo. On one hand I’m very happy about how the championship is going. ON the other hand, I’m very sad for Tiago he’s a driver everybody likes and everybody respects and is very talented. That means now the championship leader [Thed Björk] here drives a Swedish car owned by a Chinese company.

Q:
Finally, he won’t be racing here but in Macau next month, but Ma Qing Hua is returning to the WTCC. How good is that going to be for champ and china

FR:
He was a very good driver in WTCC. He made part of history and helped the promotion of WTCC in China. We had the opportunity with our partner the OCP group in Morocco to help him do Macau. We really want Macau to be the biggest grid of the year. There was the opportunity for us to put him back in a car he knows very well and with a team he knows very well, Sébastien Loeb Racing. I look forward to seeing how he can do. It’s probably the point where the championship is at its climax in terms of intensity in the drivers’ and manufacturers’ championship. I look forward to it, it’s good he’s coming back in the WTCC.

Questions from the floor:
Question to François Ribeiro: what are you doing to deal with the threat from other championships and other promotional channels that can take away the audience from the WTCC?

FR:
I am very happy to see TCR and national championships growing everywhere, the sport needs this. The WTCC is something different, it’s a world championship with different regulations, different cars, different teams, different drivers, a different level. This year we never had better TV audiences than we have now, never more activation on social media and then there’s the high quality of the racing. As the WTCC promoter we are very satisfied at the level of the WTCC and the level of promotion the WTCC is delivering this year. If national championships are growing it gives more inspiration to local drivers to one day join local championships and that’s how we will make the sport stronger.