The Alfa Romeo name was represented on the grid for the first round of the new FIA World Touring Car Cup which kicked off in Morocco over the weekend with Romeo Ferraris stepping up from TCR International series with a brace of its self-built Alfa Romeo Giulietta TCR racecars for Italian legends Gianni Morbidelli and Fabrizio Giovanardi.
The WTCR (FIA World Touring Car Cup) is the new name for the FIA World Touring Car Championship from this year, which aims to reflect the change of technical regulations from TC1 to TCR and with drivers and their teams the focus rather than manufacturers while there’s been a change from 'world championship' to 'world cup'.
Apart from the name and regulations, WTCR remains the premier FIA world touring car series, the team behind the scenes is the same, WTCR is run to the FIA’s sporting and technical rules, most of the tracks are familiar and the majority of the drivers have WTCC experience.
The format has been revamped though as race weekends now feature two qualifying sessions rather than the previous one, while an extra race has been added to the schedule to make it three in total. With 10 weekends between April and November that means 30 races altogether.
At most events, one qualifying session and one race will take place on the opening day of a weekend, with the second day more in keeping with the old WTCC format: namely a three-phase qualifying session and two races with the first race from a reverse grid. That format applied for last weekend’s season opener, which took place on the streets of Marrakesh, with Race 1 starting at 1700 late on Saturday and Race 2 and 3 being held around Sunday teatime, starting at 1645 and 1810 respectively.
Romeo Ferraris has joined the many other teams and drivers graduating from TCR International Series to WTCR, but while its self-built Alfa Romeo Giulietta TCRs are a familiar sight the drivers are new with TCR regular Gianni Morbidelli joining the team alongside Fabrizio Giovanardi.
The team believes that the vast experience of these two drivers in touring car racing over recent decades will provide a solid platform which they can build on to become competitive in such a professional championship. “We have been taking risks for three years as a factory, as a team, building this Alfa Romeo as a private company and taking part in TCR for the last two years and now being a part of WTCR with such competitive drivers and teams and such a great organisation,” explained Michela Cerruti, the Romeo Ferraris Operations Manager.
“With Fabrizio and Gianni, for the first time we wanted to make a safe choice, we wanted experience and performance, we needed professionality and also a good image and reputations to make things big in style like Italians can do very well,” he continued. “That’s what we can do and with them, we can make a big step with the car, we can make a big step as a team and as a factory. I am sure they will help us a lot with that.”
Morbidelli, who recently tested the Romeo Ferraris-built Giulietta TCR at Monza, brings plenty of ‘TCR’ experience to the equation having raced in TCR International Series from 2015 to 2017, claiming six race wins and six pole positions along the way. The 50-year-old was classified fourth in the 2015 championship and sixth in 2016 and 2017.
To land Morbidelli, who notably competed in 70 grands prix between 1991 and 1997 for BMS Scuderia Italia, Minardi, Footwork and Sauber – as well of course in a famous one-off outing for Scuderia Ferrari at the 1991 Australian Grand Prix where he qualified eighth and finished sixth – is something of a coup for the small private team.
For Giovanardi, meanwhile, it’s a case of linking back with the Alfa Romeo name with which he is synonymous – particlaulry for his exploits behind the wheel of the legendary the Alfa 156 'Super Tourer'. The 52-year-old Italian won the Italian Superturismo twice with this car in 1998 and 1999, capping off a five-year factory programme in the series which had previously seen him drive the 155 TS to in third in 1995, fifth in 1996 and second in 1997.
He won three straight FIA European Touring Car Championship titles with the 156 between 2000-02 and finished third in the 2006 FIA World Touring Car Championship again in a factory-run 156, before he shipped off to Vauxhall where he won the British Touring Car Championship title twice in 2007 and 2008.
The last decade has seen slim pickings for the Giovanardi though, with the Italian making sporadic appearces in the Italian Superstars series and GT cars and even a few outings in V8 Supercars. For the veteran it’s something of a step back into the limelight.
Marrakesh didnt yield many quick rewards for the team, which entered under the Mulsanne Srl name, and after opening qualifying Giovanardi lined up P23 on the grid for Race 1 while Morbidelli lined up P25 and last. Both drivers hit problems during the opener and eventually Giovanardi finished P19, 1 lap down, and Morbidelli P20, 3 laps down.
However the former credited the team for helping him get to finish of Race 1 after the #88 Giulietta TCR was damaged in an accident on the opening lap and required rapid repair work in order to keep the Italian in the race. “The guys from Team Mulsanne did an incredible job, changing the radiator in no time and allowing me to get back on track to put more miles together at the wheel of the Giulietta,” said Giovanardi afterwards. “I hope and believe that we have taken an important step forward.”
Race 2 indeed brought a decent improvement as Giovanardi finished in P13, 20.051 seconds adrift the winner, while Morbidelli retired on lap 10. Race 3 saw both drivers hit more problems, however Giovanardi maintained his finishing record, this time classified in P19, albeit 6 laps down, while Morbidelli again failed to see the chequered flag, he was out of the race on lap 14.
It was something of a bumper weekend for former Alfa Romeo touring car stars as Alfisti idol Gabriele Tarquini took two wins from the three races to open up an 11-point cushion at the top of the Drivers' Championship points standings. The 56-year-old Italian is driving a Hyundai this year.
The WTCR now moves on to its second round which will take place in Hungary at the end of this month.
Photo: Alfa Romeo Giulietta TCR - 2018 FIA World Touring Car Cup