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After a two-month hiatus, the FIA WTCC is back, kicking off its tour of Asia and the Middle-East with a visit to Japan. The World Championship will make its first appearance at the Motegi circuit, 150km north of Tokyo. With 14 victories between them in the 16 races contested so far, the Citroën C-Elysée WTCC drivers hold the top four spots in the overall standings, with José María López leading from Yvan Muller, Sébastien Loeb and Ma Qing Hua. If they can carry on in a similar vein after the summer recess, Citroën will move a little closer to a second world title.

Having visited South America, Africa and Europe between March and July, the FIA WTCC is about to get back under way, embarking upon a tour of Asia and the Middle-East to round off the season. After being reconditioned just after the Vila Real meeting, the Citroën C-Elysée WTCCs were loaded into containers and set sail for Japan. Following the Motegi races, the cars will stop off in China (Shanghai), Thailand (Buriram) and Qatar (Losail) before returning to their French base.

The Citroën Racing team have not been resting on their laurels over the summer. The four official drivers all took part in a test session at the Motorland Aragón circuit. “Rather than testing new parts, we focused on optimising what we already have,” explained Xavier Mestelan, Technical Director of Citroën Racing. “During the races, we don’t always have the time to take a step back and analyse everything in detail, so we had a number of issues that we hadn’t been able to address. The session focused on three main aspects: the differential, the braking consistency and the rear-end assembly. We learned some things that will help us be even more effective in the meetings to come. That’s going to be particularly important given that we will be visiting three circuits we’ve never raced at before between now and the end of the season.”

The trip to Twin Ring Motegi is a first for the FIA WTCC, which has held meetings in Okayama and Suzuka on previous trips to Japan. Built in 1997 as an IndyCar venue, this complex consists of two courses: an oval track and a 4.801km road circuit, which is the one that will be used by the TC1s.

“It’s a circuit made up of medium and fast turns. The three straights should provide some overtaking opportunities,” suggested Ma Qing Hua. “I don’t think it’s an especially difficult course, particularly when you compare it to the Nordschleife or Vila Real. But we won’t really be able to make a judgement until we get out there. We’ll have to try and find the right trade-off between downforce on the bends and peak speed for overtaking.”

“It’s always interesting to go to new places. I don’t think any of the drivers will have raced at Motegi before,” added Yvan Muller after a session on the Citroën Racing simulator. “We shouldn’t expect huge peak speeds; I think our setups will prioritise downforce. We’ll also have to be careful with the tyres, because apparently the surface is very abrasive.”

THE QUEST FOR GLORY CONTINUES

Two-thirds of the way through the season, the Citroën Total team can be more than pleased with the way things have gone so far: its drivers occupy the top four places in the World Championship, having secured every single pole position, emerged victorious in 14 out of 16 races, and notched up 35 podium spots between them, which all adds up to 73% of the honours available.

With four pole positions and six race wins, José María López leads the way in the driver standings. Determined to retain his title, the Argentine driver made up for his slim pickings (by his standards) in Russia and Slovakia, where he went winless, with victories in France and Portugal. Currently 55 points ahead of his nearest rival, he goes into the final phase of the season knowing he can afford to drop a few points here and there. He also knows full well that until the title is mathematically assured, easing up even slightly could prove disastrous.

“I’m happy to be starting the season again after the long break, during which I was able to spend a few weeks in Argentina,” said the World Champion. “I’ve already been to Motegi, but it was back in the year 2000 for the World Karting Cup and I didn’t take the time to go and look at the motor racing circuit. It’s always a huge pleasure to come to Japan, particularly since I won the title in Suzuka.”

Second-placed Yvan Muller is not throwing in the towel just yet. When Pechito was struggling, Yvan hit a purple patch, clawing back 21 points in the standings in the space of two weekends. The next two meetings saw the gap widen again, with the frontrunner extending his lead by 25 points. Can the four-time World Champion produce some strong showings over these last four rounds to pip his rival at the post? “One for me, one for you: we have cancelled each other out over the last few meetings. I know it will be tough to come back, but as long as it’s still mathematically possible, I’ll keep fighting.”

92 points adrift of López, Sébastien Loeb is out of the title race realistically speaking. With three race wins to his name, the nine-time World Rally Champion has already improved on his 2014 performance., He earned his first ever pole position at Paul Ricard, probably the hardest exercise in a WTCC weekend. In recent weeks, Seb has reasserted his determination to improve and compete with the best drivers in the category by taking part in races at Spa-Francorchamps and Magny-Cours: “My goal is to be in with a shot and to fight for pole positions and race wins. My work isn’t done. I have to keep working hard to get up to the standard of my teammates. That means avoiding the little mistakes and producing flawless laps. Pechito and Yvan are really good at that, but I feel like I’m improving all the time.”

The team’s most recent race winner, Ma Qing Hua, is another man on an upward trajectory. Michelisz, Tarquini and Monteiro are hot on his heels in the overall standings, but the Chinese driver is setting his sights higher and seeking to follow the example of his illustrious teammates: “I’m always optimistic and I feel confident, despite some bad luck that has probably cost me a few podium spots. I’m happy with my level of performance. We just have to keep working to make everything perfect and go after some more wins.” Ma Qing Hua will use the Japanese weekend to get into the best possible shape for his home meeting in Shanghai on 26-27 September.

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