Dubai, UAE, 16 February 2019: Class leaders struggled at the start of the fifth round of the NGK UAE Touring Car Championship (NGK UAE TCC) at Dubai Autodrome on Friday (15 February) but then stormed back to solidify their positions in the respective championship divisions.
Jonathan Mullan of ZRT Motorsport and Costas Papantonis of Gulf Petrochem/Mouhritsa Racing were the overall winners of the weekend, while Pierre-Brice Mena of GP Extreme and Willie Morrison of A-Tech DXB came out on top of a crowded Clio Cup grid.
The fifth round of the series featured alongside the headliner event of the weekend, the Lamborghini Super Trofeo Middle East Championship, along with other support series Al Masaood National Motorcycle Championship, Bahrain Superbike Championship and the FIA F4 UAE Championship.
NGK UAE TCC Round Five Highlights
The Gulf Petrochem/Mouhritsa Racing TCR race machine, driven by Costas Papantonis, was expected to dominate qualifying and, indeed, the Greek driver wasted no time powering his Cupra to the top of timing screens with best lap time of 2:11.913 on the 5.39-kilometre Grand Prix circuit at Dubai Autodrome to take pole position for Race One.
Teammate Alexandros Annivas secured P2 in his Seat Leon Super Copa, with the Honda Integra of ZRT Motorsport, driven by Jonathan Mullan, lining up in third.
Behind the top three positions, a full battalion of Renault Clio Cups crowded the midfield, with no less than eight of them ready to challenge championship leader Willie Morrison.
Minor engine problems plagued a couple of the class leaders in Race One, with Morrison relegated to starting from the pit lane and Papantonis missing the start altogether and then having to join back in mid-race.
Annivas controlled the race from the beginning, but by the ninth lap his Seat also experienced mechanical issues and he was forced back the garages for a lengthy pit stop. The race was now wide open for Class Two cars and Renault Clio Cups to fill the void.
Morrison had made good progress clawing his way back through the pack of Clios, but the Scottish driver would run out of laps before he could reel in the leaders, Jonathan Mullan of ZRT Motorsport and newcomer Pierre-Brice Mena of GP Extreme.
After 14 laps the #48 Honda Integra of Mullan coasted in for victory over fifteen seconds ahead of Mena’s Clio, with Jon Simmonds in another Clio next in line to claim third.
Pierre-Brice Mena had to settle for second-place overall, but the French driver scored a significant class victory in the Renault Clio Cup Class powered by Renault Middle East, with championship leader Morrison placing third in class behind Simmonds.
Following the first race, Papantonis, Annivas and Morrison retired to the pit garages and all came back with their cars in good working order ready for the next contest.
The Gulf Petrochem/Mouhritsa Racing duo of Papantonis and Annivas broke out of the gates in Race Two to promptly bypass a chaotic pack of Clios, with the ZRT Motorsport Honda, driven by Ricky Coomber, right in the middle of the action.
Again Morrison had to navigate his way through the horde, but this time the Scottish virtuoso took control of the Clios, with Pierre-Brice Mena of GP Extreme nipping at his heels.
Papantonis and Annivas probably never saw the turmoil in their wake; the two Greek drivers scampered off into the distance in a race of their own.
Costas Papantonis avenged the first race with a commanding Race Two victory, crossing the finish line a full 24.810 seconds ahead of the Seat Leon Super Copa of Annivas.
Next in was Morrison’s Clio, with Mena on his bumper by a margin of only two tenths of second at the line, following closely by the Honda Integra of Coomber.
After nabbing a class victory in the first race and then challenging the championship leader in the next, newcomer Pierre-Brice Mena impressed the paddock with his first Clio Cup drive of the season. The French driver was duly rewarded with the Airlink International Driver of the Day award, which included a AED 1,000 prize.
NGK UAE TCC Championship Highlights
Papantonis (150 points, TCR Class) and Annivas (200 points, Class 1) of Gulf Petrochem/Mouhritsa Racing already have their categories locked up.
Class 2 is still contention with the ZRT Motorsport duo, Ricky Coomber and Jonathan Mullan leading the way on 190 championship points. Jason Lyness and Phil Craven, driving the Red Squirrel Racing Toyota TRD86 are still in the hunt with 90 points, as well as Dragon Racing’s Ali Kamyab, also on 90 points.
Renault Clio Cup Class powered by Renault Middle East remains the largest category and, with two rounds remaining, there are now two drivers left who have a legitimate shot at the title. At the end of the season it should be either Willie Morrison (250 points) or Peter England (177 points) of A-Tech DXB standing on the top step of the champion’s podium.
When asked about his team’s championship chances, Morrison responded, “It’s not over until the last chequered flag goes up, but we’re quietly confident we’ll be in the mix.”
Rahil Taneja of AUH Motorsports has 144 points under his belt and he will be looking to upset the leaders in the final rounds and sneak past England to grab second-place.
Round Six of the NGK UAE Touring Car Championship will take place in two weeks (1-2 March 2019) at Dubai Autodrome, as part of the Al Masaood National Motorcycle Championship race weekend.
Report: Aaron Meriwether
Photos: Arthur Rosales and Aaron Meriwether