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A switch from the BMW to a Civic

Hungarian WTCC-racer, Norbert Michelisz in his new car – agog with troubles

03/05/2013 05:50 |  Comments: 

“It is a huge disadvantage that I was unable to test the Civic before the season opener. It would have been essential to gain some experience and to iron out the teething problems.”

Norbert Michelisz embarked on a promising but difficult path in late autumn last year, when he decided to jump out of the BMW 320 TC he had raced very successfully in the previous two seasons, and switch to a brand new manufacturer in the FIA World Touring Car Championships. It turned out to be a more complicated matter than it seemed at first glance. It was not an easy decision, pros and cons were numerous depending on whether short or long term points were taken into consideration.

The venerable BMW proved to be capable of respectable results in the last two seasons. After a problematic beginning, Michelisz and his team, Zengő Motorsport achieved a few beautiful results, like a surprise podium finish in the first ever Hungarian WTCC round. Norbert's fans will never forget that second race, when he crossed the line second behind Alain Menu.

2012 was even better. Pole position on the Slovakia Ring was followed by a sensational victory in his home race in front of fifty thousand fanatic Hungarian supporters. And do not forget the race in Sonoma, where he stood on the podium after both rounds, achieving his career first double in WTCC. Looking simply at the results a switch shouldn't have been absolutely necessary. Even less so if you know that Michelisz really fancied the BMW.

I took to the car from very beginning and not only because I could stand on the podium with it after five races. I believe at least seven out of ten drivers would agree that racing with a rear wheel drive car gives the ultimate feeling on the track. It was always a pleasure for me to drive the BMW and I made the decision to switch with a heavy heart,” said Michelisz to Totalcar Magazine.

On the long run, however, it was inevitable that this switch should come sooner or later. BMW left WTCC after 2010 and since then they poured nearly all of their resources into the German Touring Car Championship (DTM). If nothing changes, it is just a matter of time that the once feared 320s will only serve as props in this theater of race. So far this year's results clearly strengthen this fear, as Coronel's sixth place in Marrakech was the best position the complete BMW armada could achieve in the first two rounds. It seems that the Bavarian marque does not have a clear and long future in WTCC.

New regulations will be introduced in 2014, meaning every manufacturer is obliged to design and build a brand new car if they are to stay in the championship. As far as I know BMW has not pledged its future to the WTCC so far, and I fear the cars can vanish from the scene in a few years. When we had to make the final decision, the future of BMW in the championship was very doubtful,” added the Hungarian.

Honda, on the other hand, was known form the very first moment to have long-term plans in the world championship. The Japanese brand has agreed to design a car fit for the present regulations even though they knew that they would be able to race it for just a single season. And they have already started works on the new Civic before the season opener.

Honda has a bright future ahead; however, it still lacks one important ingredient: past. I mean experience; a factor that was underestimated by many before Monza. Honda and Gabriele Tarquini were widely regarded as an easy guess for the 2013 title after Chevrolet decided to leave the championship, while Hungarian fans firmly believed that Michelisz can easily fight for the top spot form the very first second in a Civic. Norbert, however, had spent enough time in the world of racing to know: with a new car come great risks.

I heard Yvan Muller (now racing in the ex-Chevrolet factory partner RML team with a Cruze) saying before the season opener that Honda and Tarquini were the number one favorites for this year's title, due to the factory backing. I agree with him that Honda's support is a very important element, and is an indispensable ingredient to fight for the championship. But if Honda beats Chevrolet immediately, it would mean the Japanese did a better job in a single year, than the Americans in eight seasons... I believe it is unrealistic,” said Michelisz before the first round.

There was another argument against the quick success of Honda: the S2000 Civic had been designed and built in an extremely short time.

We started working on the car in the beginning of February, 2012 at JAS Motorsport, and the Civic was on track for the first testing on 21st July, meaning we had six months for the whole design, development and construction process. I believe at least six months would have been needed for the design, and another six for the development and testing. We had to make certain compromises,” said Andrea Adamo, chief designer of the Honda Civic.

The situation was even worse for the own car of the Zengő team. By the time Tarquini and Monteiro had been testing the 2013 Civic in Cremona, Norbert's car was nothing more than an empty chassis. The mechanics of Zengő Motorsport were called to Italy only a few weeks before the season opener to start assembling the car. However, some of the essential parts arrived very late, meaning the orange-black Honda Civic was ready only a few days before the races in Monza. It was unveiled in the pit lane, and beside a very limited shakedown, Michelisz had no on-track experience with it when the light turned green in FP1.

The car has great potential I have already felt it with the 2012 prototype but even more with the new version. It is a big step forward compared to the BMW. However it is a huge disadvantage that I was unable to test the Civic before the season opener. It would have been essential to gain some experience and to iron out the teething problems. Now we have to do it in Monza, and I am afraid it can make the first half of the season quite difficult for us,” said Michelisz on the eve of the season opener.

How prophetic... However, I am sure he still expected a better start than he actually had. Looking back to the first two rounds it is difficult to find a session where Michelisz was not annoyed by technical gremlins. A variety of issues came up in Monza and Marrakech. They had recurring brake problems, but sometimes it simply happened that the car accelerated without Norbert pushing the throttle. Maybe Honda tested a blown diffuser? I do not think so. The de-fogging vent broke in Monza – during a wet race, naturally – and zero visibility forced Michelisz to the pit.

There were damper issues in Morocco, and the good old Lady Misfortune also visited them once or twice. Take the first Marrakech race for example, when a piece of brake disc from Monteiro's car broke into the engine compartment and burned the wiring loom of the orange-black Honda. “The case of the Pigeon” revisited... (Norbert was leading the second race in Monza in 2012, when he hit a pigeon and dropped back subsequently). Oh, and do not forget the last blow, when petrol was spraying from an air-hole in the second race, turning the car into a growling fountain.

The long and the short of it is that Michelisz and Zengő Motorsport experienced their worst back to back rounds ever in WTCC. Knowing the preliminaries, however, it shouldn't take us as a surprise. The team should have experienced these problems on a gloomy morning in late February during a lonely test day. However, that was something they were unable to do without a car.

In spite of all the misfortunes and technical problems Michelisz had encouraging moments too. When the car ran without technical problems it was super-fast, and Norbert enjoyed driving it. Look at race two in Monza, when he finished eight after starting 9th on the grid. Or take the first free practice in Marrakech where he finished fourth behind Tarquini and the two RML Chevrolets. The potential is clearly there, but it takes time to get over the teething problems and the consequences of hurried assembly.

After two unlucky weekends I am still 100% sure that we made the right decision to switch to Honda. I genuinely believe that the car has great potentials, which was proved by Tarquini's pole position in Marrakech. Perhaps I would have a few points more now, had I stayed with BMW, but there is no more left in the 320 TC, while I feel huge possibilities for improvement in the Civic. Despite all the torments I fell in love with the car immediately and I have already given him a name: he is called Kochi-san. I know good results will come soon,” said Michelisz.

Coming home from Marrakech Kochi-san stopped in Milan, where the JAS Motorsport mechanics inspected the problematic areas. Zengő Motorsport guys will also have some time to spend with the car before next race. Time is running out, the race on the Hungaroring is close, where fifty thousand fanatic Hungarians want to celebrate Michelisz on the podium.

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