José María “Pechito” López secured his seventh race win of the season at Motegi, extending his lead at the top of the FIA World Touring Car Championship. The Japanese meeting narrowed the field of possible title contenders, with Citroën Total drivers López, Yvan Muller and Sébastien Loeb now the only men still in the running.
The Citroën team’s points haul from this weekend means it can wrap up the Manufacturers title in the next round in Shanghai on 25–27 September.
Despite the menacing skies and forecasts of rain, Race 1 got under way on a dry track. Norbert Michelisz was unable to take advantage of his pole position, with López getting a better start and passing him at the first turn! Loeb, who was third on the grid, nestled in behind Michelisz, but found himself boxed in on the outside and was overtaken by Gabriele Tarquini and Muller, who shot out of the blocks like a cannonball from the fourth row.
“Japan has been pretty good to me!,” enthused López. “I got off to a great start in Race 1 and managed to overtake Michelisz before the first bend. I thought it would be harder to keep him at bay, as our 60 kg of ballast were a real handicap on this circuit. But as it turned out, I was able to pull away and get the win.”
But the reigning WTCC champion had to wait until midway through the race to open up a significant gap on the chasing pack. With four laps to go, Ma Qing Hua pulled off a terrific manoeuvre to snatch fourth place from Yvan Muller. Loeb, too, then gained ground on the four-time WTCC champion, but there were to be no further changes in the standings before the chequered flag, giving José María López his seventh victory of the season!
With the first ten from the Race 1 starting grid lining up in reverse order for Race 2, the second race promised to be a trickier proposition for the Citroën team. The few drops of rain that fell during the repair time were not enough to soak the track, and all the drivers opted to stick with their slicks. The first turn was an eventful affair in the pack: López was rear-ended, sending him crashing into Loeb. The Race 1 winner was forced to pull out of the running with a punctured front left tyre. Pushed into Hugo Valente by Tarquini, Muller managed to hang onto third place, while Hua and Loeb finished lap 1 in fifth and seventh respectively.
The race remained lively until the last, thanks to an epic tussle between Rob Huff, Sébastien Loeb and Gabriele Tarquini. Despite launching countless attacks, Loeb just couldn’t find his way past Huff. Tarquini took advantage to slip past the nine-time World Rally Champion, before Seb reclaimed his spot just before the chequered flag!
“In Race 2, another driver ran into me and I couldn’t avoid hitting Seb,” López recounted. “I’m really sorry about that, but fortunately it didn’t totally ruin his race. Since Yvan didn’t fare any better than I did, the gap between us has widened. That means I can go into the next few races feeling quietly confident, but I certainly won’t be relaxing.”
The Citroën team scored enough points to keep them in an ideal position in the Manufacturers’ World Championship. Provided it doesn’t drop more than 37 points in Shanghai in two weeks’ time, Citroën will secure its second successive world title.
“First of all, I must pay tribute to Pechito López for his win,” said Xavier Mestelan, Deputy Team Principal, Citroën Racing. “He got a terrific start and followed that up with a perfect race. Things didn’t go quite so well for him in Race 2, but that is sometimes how it goes when you’re in the pack. Citroën is now in an ideal position to secure another World Championship title. That will be our ambition at the next meeting in China.”