The Leopard Racing duo of Jean-Karl Vernay and Stefano Comini dominated the field in a Qualifying session that was spoiled by rain in its second and decisive part.
The young Frenchman set an impressive fastest lap in Q2 of 3:00.602 at the wheel of his Volkswagen Golf, beating his own teammate Comini by 0.491 seconds. The 2015 TCR International Series champion could have been even faster, but he was slowed down by Pepe Oriola on his last attempt. The Spaniard was also on a fast lap but could not give way to Comini until they reached the final sector where overtaking was possible.
Both Oriola and his Craft-Bamboo Lukoil teammate James Nash seemed less at ease in the wet than their rivals in the championship fight and eventually qualified seventh (Nash) and tenth (Oriola).
Guest star Tiago Monteiro drove his WestCoast Racing Honda Civic to third position, while Antti Buri surprisingly qualified fourth and best of the SEAT drivers, just ahead of Dušan Borković.
In terms of championship points, the Qualifying results mean that Comini has closed the gap to Nash from 17 to 13 points, while Vernay is still fourth, 34 points behind the leader but now only one behind Oriola.
The two final races of the TCR International Series will take place tomorrow at 10:05 and 11:20 over a distance of ten laps.
Q1: Oriola sets the fastest lap
Pepe Oriola was the only driver to break the 2:34 wall, as he posted a fastest lap of 2:33.480 that no one else was able to match.
The top drivers tried to post fast laps in the early stages in order to avoid problems with the traffic and the slower cars. Oriola (2:36.713), Mat’o Homola (2:36.646) and Tiago Monteiro (2:35.362) all clocked provisional fastest laps until Oriola eventually completed a lap of 2:33.480 that topped the time sheet for good.
Jean-Karl Vernay (2:34.121), Monteiro (2:34.217), Dušan Borković (2:34.415), James Nash (2:34.456), Josh Files (2:34.700), Stefano Comini (2:34.738), Homola (2:34.814), Sergey Afanasyev (2:34.821) and Attila Tassi (2:34.892) all improved and filled the positions between second and tenth.
The rain came with five minutes left, preventing any further improvements. Antti Buri and Gianni Morbidelli managed to claim the last two spots that granted access to Q2.
Among those who failed to make the cut were Andy Yan (13th – only one tenth slower than Morbidelli), Davit Kajaia (14th), Tin Sritrai (20th – he spoiled his chances crashing at the Police bend) and the two Alfa Romeo cars of Petr Fulín (21st) and Andrea Belicchi (25th) that suffered from turbo and gearbox problems respectively.
Mikhail Grachev missed the whole session, as he crashed at the Mandarin bend on his first lap out.
Q2: Vernay sets pole in the wet
As the rain eased, lap times dropped dramatically. Eventually the fight for the pole was restricted to the Leopard Racing teammates in their Volkswagen Golf cars.
On his last lap, Vernay claimed his second pole of the season with a lap of 3:00.602 that demoted Comini (3:01.093) to second.
Monteiro posted the third fastest lap (3:02.604), with Buri (3:04.393), Borković (3:04.442) and Morbidelli (3:04.723) in fourth, fifth and sixth respectively.
The Craft-Bamboo Lukoil title contenders Nash (3:05.033) and Oriola (3:05.936) qualified in seventh and tenth positions respectively.