After the Boavista circuit was revived 2 years ago with a much praised historic race weekend, the organisers realised this street course, located by the sea, had the potential to host some full-blooded races. Fortunately, the FIA agreed, and after some changes to the circuit were planned and approved, the announcement was made: the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) would visit the old town of Porto in the North of Portugal. Our local reporters were trackside throughout the weekend and returned with a full report and a 60-shot slideshow
The WTCC is a colourful mix of road car based racing cars with Chevrolet, Seat and BMW as full fledged factory teams. The Works cars are complemented by many privateers, who receive varying degrees of factory support. Each race weekend consists of several free practices, a qualifying session and two feature races. It was not the first time of the 2007 season that the Championship visited a street course as a few weeks earlier the circus visited the Pau track in the South of France.
At the start of the weekend, the BMW drivers Augusto Farfus, defending champion Andy Priaulx and Jorg Muller comfortably led the championship after a very strong performance in the most recent races. As in many FIA series, the most successful cars are ballasted, to level things up in the following races and all three BMW came to Porto equipped with the maximum ballast. During the qualifying session, levelling didnít sound like the right word as the weight sent the three German cars down from 7th position on, leaving the Chevrolet Lacettis of Alain Menu, Rob Huff and Nicola Larini on the top 3 positions, followed by the three Leons driven by privateer Tom Coronel, Gabriele Tarquini and Yvan Muller.
With one car missing because of accident damage, the first race got under way on Sunday morning. On the tight track were few places suitable for overtaking and lots where the drivers could get it awfully wrong, so not surprisingly the top three remained unchanged until the end of the race, with Larini and his heavier Lacetti (50 kg of ballast) doing a good work on keeping the three furious Leons behind. Priaulx, Jorg Muller and Farfus could only be spectators during the first race, taking the following places in this order.
The second round had a less predictable and quite a different story, as the regulations impose a reverse grid order for the first 8 places of the first race. Starting ahead of the Seats and Chevrolets, Muller and Priaulx took advantage of the rear wheel drive cars to make a noticeable gap after only three corners. The two BMWs seemed to be comfortable on their positions until 5th lap, when Priaulx, with a perfect manoeuvre, took first place. However, second place was enough for the German driver to jump to the lead of the championship, dethroning the spectacular Farfus, who left Portugal with a 6th place as his best result.
Behind the BMWs the Seat boys did their best to keep the quicker Chevys behind them. Larini ahead of Menu pulled off some sharp moves and were up to fourth and fifth respectively with one lap to go. They were hot on the heels of Coronel, who held a strong third until a safety car was needed to clear up the umpteenth wrecked car of the weekend. Larini managed to get by and Coronel lost fourth immediately after thanks to his defensive line. He got the spot back in the next corner, which saw Larini crash out for no apparent reason. With a first and a third position, Alain Menu was the most successful racer of the weekend.
Most of the 100.000 spectators had their attention on the official Seat Leon driven by Tiago Monteiro. Though racing at his birthplace, the ex-F1 driver had a bad weekend, touching the menacing concrete walls twice during practice and not managing a single good qualifying lap. With a poor 21st place on the grid, he did manage to climb up to 15th and 13th places on races 1 and 2 respectively. Although being disappointed, Monteiro still had the time and humour to please the public by waving and flashing lights on every crowded corner, creating an atmosphere similar to the one you expect to find at a football game.
Porto circuit has what it takes to please the crowds. Itís a narrow, very technical track, where people sit close to the action in safe conditions. However, this means some trouble for drivers. With few escape routs and lots of edges and concrete walls, every small mistake meant a seriously damaged car, and usually a pace car intervention. These moments happened more often and for longer than the organization wanted or anticipated. The removal of wrecked cars was always too complicated and the chicane in the main straight, designed by the FIA to slow the cars down, caught out too many drivers, often causing pile-ups.
The International Formula Masters, the support event that always follows WTCC, saw too many of the same pile-ups. The second half of the first 14 lap race was done with the pace car leading, after a crash between two cars left too many bits on track to be picked up. It was then at a slow pace that Sanchez Lopez, Marcello Puglisi and Jerome díAmbrosio drove up to the podium steps. The second race saw the pace car leading from the very first lap, after a crash between the three leading drivers díAmbrosio, Cecotto Jr. and Sanchez Lopez. This left a clear way for a new podium fight that concluded with the win of the debutant Norbert Siedler, followed by Salvatore Gatto and Puglisi.
Other supporting races suffered from the constant interruptions and delays of the program. Saturday, the Portuguese classic car series stood on track until 10 p.m. While this caused a justifiable anger from drivers, the few spectators left where presented with the amazing show of watching classic cars racing at nightfall. More of that might happen again next weekend, when Circuito de Boavista receives another huge program, this time packed with the most amazing historical race cars. Obviously, we wonít miss it.