Reigning Champion Marc Rheinard will defend his 1:12 World Championship from the best position possible, the Yokomo driver claiming the honour of Top Qualifier in China this morning. Having kicked off the final day of the 18th running of the championships with a second TQ run in Q5, the German initially looked set to take pole position with the perfect score of 0 points as he set the pace in the sixth & final qualifier. On target for a 40-lap run with 4 of the 8-minutes complete, a mistake in the fast chicane on the right side of the track would put him out on the spot as he popped off a trailing link. With Akio Sobue, the only one who could deny Rheinard the overall TQ, the new pace setter Rheinard would have to watch nervously from the drivers stand as his touring car team-mate looked on target to beat his Q5 which would have given him the overall TQ on the tie break but the CRC driver would make a mistake promoting Naoto Matsukura to the top of the timing screens. Taking the round by 1.6-second from Sobue, Matsukura’s second TQ run would also see the Top Qualifier of the last four World Championship bump his fellow countryman back to third on the grid.
Posting his first fastest lap of a qualifier, Rheinard said of the final qualifier, ‘the car was good, I just made a stupid mistake’. Commenting on Sobue’s pace, he said, ‘I knew it might be close but I knew the pace would drop off over the last two minutes’. Asked about the finals, the 3-time Touring Car World Champion said, ‘We’ll see. I hope I can pull away but a crash behind would help’. He continued, ‘With Naoto starting behind me it is always not easy’. Commenting on ending Matsukura’s run of 4-consecutive pole positions at the Worlds, he said ‘from four TQ’s he won three of four so the odds of the TQ winning are pretty good’ adding with a smile, ‘The only time he didn’t win from TQ was when I beat him’.
Pleased to move a head of Sobue on the starting grid with his Q6 TQ, Matsukura said his Roche prototype is ‘good’ but deciding on what to do with tyres was going to be the big thing for the final. After running a bigger rear tyre in Q5 but traction rolling at the start, he said while the car was difficult for the first 4-minutes it was good for the last 4-minutes. Reverting to a standard size tyre for Q6, he said while it gave him a ‘super easy’ car for the first 3-minutes it ‘then became a little loose’. The 22-year-old said ‘I am still thinking what is the best option but maybe I can try something in between’. A driver famed for his maximum attack racing style, the reigning Touring Car World Champion said, ‘For the first 2-minutes I safety drive. I think me, Marc & Akio have higher pace than rest so we should pull away’. He continued, ‘I will wait for a mistake, not force a pass’, all drivers agreeing the track has few places in which to attempt a pass.
Summing up his last qualifier Sobue said, ‘the first 2-minutes the car pushed and last 3-minutes it was loose’ adding it also lacked ‘initial traction’. With a practice final the 1:12 World Championship debutant plans to use the track time to test a new set-up in the hope of finding better traction and stabilising the performance of the car over the 8-minutes. Asked about his approach for the final starting behind Rheinard and Matsukura, he said his plan was going to be to ‘attack from the start’.
Having been on the podium with both Rheinard and Matsukura in Florida last time round, Hideo Kitazawa is aiming to ‘at least be on the podium’ again. Starting one position higher than in 2014, when he got 3rd from 5th on the grid, the Morotech driver plans to play for the first 6-minutes and then ‘in the last 2-minutes is my best to make places’. While he would go crashing out of the final qualifier, the Futaba employee said his car was ‘perfect’ and he will ‘leave it the same’ for the opening final.
Completing the top half of the grid, Keven Hebert feels he ‘can fight for 3rd’. The Team Associated driver tried more camber in the final qualifier which gave him more steering but caused the rear to start ‘steeping out a little’. Getting a P4 for the round, which would count as one of three scores, the Canadian said overall his RC12 is a ‘good safe car for the main’. Finishing 5th from 9th on the grid 2-years ago, he said, ‘in qualifying we saw everything can happen. There are fast cars but they keep crashing’. Hebert’s team-mate Juho Levanen, who was borderline for making the main show going into the final qualifier, posted a P6 in the final qualifier to put himself 9th on the grid ahead of JJ Wang in a final that has no less than 6 Japanese starters.