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Your 2017 testing programme with the Castrol Honda World Touring Car Team began in Aragon last month – how did it go?
“Very good, I enjoyed getting back in the car because too much time has passed since [last season’s final round in] Qatar and I really missed driving the Honda Civic. It was fun, but on top of that I was really happy because we did three days [of testing] and the car was working very good. We had some updates and all of them were working fine. You always need reliability with the car, but we managed to get that so everyone is really happy inside the team.”

But what about performance, were you happy with that?
“The target was not to exploit maximum performance now; it was just about seeing how all the new parts are working and if they are a good combination. Then we have many more test sessions coming where we can focus on performance rather than reliability.”

Has a successful test raised your hopes for the year ahead?
“I was quite confident already in November and December with the updates that were coming. The potential of the car is there; we just have to exploit it and I’m sure we will do that.”

Your new team-mate Ryo Michigami was testing. Was it good working with him and how much did you help him?
“We had two cars at the test. My main focus was on driving the updated car, but whenever I had some time I was keen to help Ryo. I like him a lot, he’s very focused. I’ve known him since Motegi last year. I really like his attitude – calm, quiet and focused 100 per cent on what he is doing. He did a lot of running and that was useful for him because he has the least experience. He improved quite a lot from the first lap to the end of the third day. He will be a strong contender.”

How much will you miss your former team-mate Rob Huff?
“Having a world champion in a team is a big asset. I loved having Rob in the team, but seeing Ryo’s improvement in performance I am sure he will be there as well. Of course, it’s bad to lose an asset like Rob, but with Ryo we have another very strong asset inside the team.”

Do you see Rob, now at Münnich Motorsport, as being a title threat?
“Of course. I know especially after last year that he’s a world-class driver and with the Citroën it will be a very strong combination. He’s a really strong contender, but not only Rob. I hear Volvo is testing a lot and rumours about a very strong line-up, so it will be an exciting season. I enjoy competition. I know we’ll be much stronger than in 2016 because we will have a better car, but I also expect some real competition from the others and this is why I am looking so much forward to this season.”

It’s your second year as a factory driver. How much easier will that make things for you?
“Now it’s a bit easier than at the beginning. I knew some people from testing previously with Honda in 2015, but on a race weekend you have to work with a new engineer and new mechanics, and there are not the familiar faces. To work together with them in testing is different to a race weekend where you have the pressure, where you have to perform. It’s a different environment and I have to say I really enjoyed working with JAS and Honda. They were always kind enough to understand it was a new situation for me and I got the support I needed. With the information from last year and knowing the team like I do now, we can form a stronger package for next season. I expect from the first moment to put in 100 per cent. Last year, especially at the beginning of the season, I was a bit affected by the new environment because it was a huge responsibility for me to work with Honda as a factory driver. Nice and difficult times have to be experienced to form a strong package. I really enjoy working with the people, not only because they are kind but because we understand each other 100 per cent.”

Do you have anything more to prove to Honda, or is your driving at its best?
“There’s always some pressure when you are racing for a factory team. But the biggest pressure is what I put on myself. I have high expectations, it’s not just the expectations from Honda. There is some pressure, but most of the pressure is coming from myself.”

Are you confident of winning the world title this year?
“I am always afraid of being too confident before the start of the season. Now it’s really important to keep the head down, to work in the same rhythm, with the same kind of approach we did last year. If we do that we will be a very strong contender for the title. There is still a long way to go with the development parts we have before the first race in Marrakech. I have to give 100 per cent to be ready for then, to be able to fight for the world championship. With the current information I have, if everything goes like we planned we could have the chance to fight for the title.”

If you don’t win the world title, who would you put your money on?
“For me, it’s [team-mate] Tiago [Monteiro]. He showed last season that he’s a fantastic driver. He’s improved a lot in terms of driving from 2015-16. Then most probably it will be Rob and all the Volvo drivers. It’s difficult to tell you only one name because I strongly believe there can be six to eight drivers fighting for the championship to the end.”

Macau and Monza are back on the calendar this year. What do you think of those venues?
“Yeah, I love them. In Monza, I won my first international race in 2008. And in Macau I won my first WTCC race in 2010. So I have really special and nice memories. Both of the tracks are among my favourites.”

And you’re going back to the Nürburgring Nordschleife – are you a fan or not?
“I absolutely love it. You cannot compare the Nürburgring to anything else. Previously I thought Macau was the most difficult circuit in the world, but when we visited the Nürburgring in 2015 I soon realised it’s on another level. During the race weekend, if it’s free practice or a qualifying session, you always have these cautious feelings because on this circuit you do one mistake and you can have a huge accident – because of the high speed, because of there not being any run-off area. The Nürburgring is really special because it’s really, really difficult. Because of this the whole approach on a race weekend is different to all the other places we have.”

‘Joker laps’ are new for this year. What’s your view on them?
“I think it’s a really good idea. It’s hard to drive on a street track, but I totally understand for Vila Real [the fans] don’t see that it’s not much fun for us. They would like to see some overtaking and some kind of action. ‘Joker laps’ can be a nice strategy for us and because of this possibility we should be able to do some overtaking, which is always nice, and it should also be nice for the audience.”

And how good does it feel knowing all the Hungarian fans are behind you?
“It’s amazing. It’s always huge pressure in the week before the races. But as soon as I jump out of the car in the second race I cannot wait to be back in the car racing in front of my fans. It’s the most special feeling I have racing at home. I have so many nice memories since my first podium there, since my first race in 2012. I remember the great feeling, just moments and memories for the lifetime. I hugely appreciate all the support I have from my Hungarian fans because it’s really special to have these people standing behind me. No matter what happens they are 100 per cent there and supporting me. It gives me an extra boost many times and extra energy, especially when things are not really going my way.”

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There will be a duel in the desert when the 2016 FIA World Touring Car Championship reaches its climax at WTCC DHL Race of Qatar on Friday 25 November, as second and third in the final standings are decided at the Losail International Circuit.

But while the thrilling on-track battle for positions will take centre stage during the pair of night races, two motorsport greats will sign off from WTCC duty. Although José María López hopes to return to World Touring Car action in the future having made it three consecutive WTCC titles this season, Yvan Muller will retire from the championship following unprecedented success.

No driver has won more titles (four) and races (48), claimed more pole positions (29), set more fastest laps (38) or led more races (571) than the 48-year-old French legend. And Muller intends to go out with a bang rather than a whimper by beating Tiago Monteiro to the coveted runner-up spot in the final standings behind his Citroën team-mate López. With a 31-point advantage over the Portuguese Honda driver, Muller has high hopes: “I realise it’s a special race and there might be some emotions. It’s also more than a race because I want to be second for my team. It’s always good to race at night so I hope it will be another special moment.”

For López, the WTCC’s desert duel also marks the end of an era. After claiming a hat-trick of drivers’ titles and breaking the record of most wins in one season (10), the Argentine ace has chosen the FIA Formula E Championship for his next motorsport challenge although he admits a WTCC comeback is part of a long-term plan. “It’s not a goodbye but a ‘see you later’,” he said. “I am still young and I can be back if I have still the doors open, which I think I will have. I think one day if I have the opportunity I will be back.”

While second in the final table remains Monteiro’s target, he will also be keeping an eye on fellow factory Honda drivers Norbert Michelisz and Rob Huff, who are 14 and 24 points behind respectively. “I lost quite a lot of points in China, but I’m not going to give up,” said Monteiro.

Bennani revved up for second WTCC ‘homecoming’

Mehdi Bennani heads to Qatar sixth in the WTCC Drivers’ standings with 176 points but could end up a career-high third if results go his way in Qatar. The Moroccan, who became the first Arabic driver to win an FIA world championship motor race when he won at WTCC Race of China in 2014, will head to the Middle East as the WTCC Trophy winner for 2016 following another impressive season driving a Sébastien Loeb Racing Citroën C-Elysée WTCC. He describes WTCC DHL Race of Qatar as a second ‘home’ event. “Morocco and Qatar are very close, the people are very close because there are a lot of partnerships between both countries. And when I race in Qatar it’s really like Marrakech so I hope to have a fantastic race. It could be a bit more special now I am already world champion. And I think I will be even stronger because I will have nothing to lose and nothing to win and in the end it could good so I will do my best to do two strong races and get some good points overall.”

Weight falls for WTCC Hondas

The five Honda Civic WTCCs will run with 30 kilograms of compensation weight at WTCC DHL Race of Qatar, half the amount carried by the Japanese machines during the last event in China and 50 kilograms less than the extra load that will be fitted to Citroën’s pacesetting C-Elysée WTCCs in the Middle East. While the Citroëns have run with the maximum permitted 80 kilograms all season, the amount of success ballast in the Hondas has fluctuated throughout the campaign. Apart from the opening two events of the season in France and Slovakia, when they ran with zero additional weight, not since Russia in early June have the the Hondas run at 30 kilograms. Although the Civics have been competitive running with 80 kilograms, the drop in weight will doubtless benefit its quintet of drivers racing in Qatar. As at WTCC Race of China, the trio of factory LADA Vestas and pair of Volvo S60 Polestar TC1s will run without compensation weight at the Losail International Circuit. Drivers of the Chevrolet RML Cruze TC1 will also benefit from running at the 1100-kilogram minimum base weight in Qatar. The compensation weight system is designed to equalise performance in the WTCC through a lap time difference in seconds calculation based on average lap times from the previous three race weekends.

Qatar set for WTCC MAC3 magic

There will be more on-track drama in store from 16h00 local time on Friday 25 November when the Manufacturers Against the Clock team trial takes place. New for 2016 and timed by TAG Heuer, the WTCC’s Official Timing Partner, the Tour de France-inspired competition puts squads from Citroën, Honda and LADA against the clock over two timed laps of the Losail International Circuit. The three makes (Polestar will participate when it enters a third Volvo from 2017) nominate three drivers to take part in WTCC MAC3, which follows Qualifying Q3 once all cars have been refuelled and fitted with new Yokohama tyres. Running in reverse Manufacturers’ championship order, as soon as a team’s three cars leave the grid side by side, the clock starts and stops once the last car completes two flying laps. Failure to get all three cars over the line – or if the second or third car doesn’t finish within a maximum of 15 seconds after the first car – means no points. And in what is a team-based competition, a mistake by one member can have serious consequences for the rest of the squad, which proved to be the case for LADA in Russia earlier in the season when a jumped-start by Gabriele Tarquini cancelled out victory. And the competition in WTCC MAC3 has been close – even too close to call. After Citroën won the inaugural event in France by 0.030s, the spectacle was raised even further when it tied on time with Honda in Slovakia, meaning both makes picked up 10 points towards their Manufacturers’ championship totals. And Citroën will be out for revenge in Qatar after Honda took the WTCC MAC3 honours in China, its fifth outright triumph and sixth in total.