Young Italian TCR prospect Francesca Raffaele returned behind the wheel after a year-long recovery from a testing crash, tackling the TCR Italy season opener at Monza with Target Competition.
Touring car up-and-coming talent Francesca Raffaele made her TCR Italy debut in 2020 - and was immediately under the spotlight with remarkable performances - firstly in the Audi RS3 LMS TCR and then in the Hyundai i30 TCR operated by top team Target Competition, having switched mid-way through the season to the Hyundai equipment.
In what was a very competitive field that featured several drivers also taking part to the continental championship, Raffaele took a fifth place at debut at Mugello, scored points in seven more occasions and was fourth in Monza as a best season result - as the young driver from Lombardy attracted the attention of everyone in the paddock.
A testing accident ahead of the 2021 season, though, ruled her out for the entire season, having injured her pelvis.
Raffaele announced she would be back in TCR Italy for the season opener at Monza just a few days before the start of the championship, joining again Target Competition for a round aimed at testing her preparation and finding her pace again.
"For the moment we start with this one race and see how it goes", she told us last week - "I still don't know if I'll be doing the whole season".
Seeing the 19-year-old racer on track again, brightened the whole paddock - which again includes some big names from the European TCR series and has expanded to 32 cars for the first round of the 2022 season.
Denis Babuin claimed pole position at his debut on the Audi RS3 LMS TCR, ahead of Niels Langeveld, Carlo Tamburini and Kevin Ceccon - both at their first appearance in the Italian series. Ceccon will drive the Hyundai Elantra, which made its debut in the World Cup last year. At her racing return, Francesca Raffaele was P29 in qualifying. Light rain started to fall just before the start of the race, making everything more challenging for the drivers of TCR Italy. Poleman Babuin stalled on the grid, paving the way to Langeveld, Tavano and Ceccon. Raffaele had a difficult getaway in the first metres, but then recovered several positions and completed her first lap in 22nd position. Jack Young made up several places as well and passed Ceccon for third after setting the fastest lap. Soon after, Young would also move ahead of Tavano as the latter was sandwiched in an exciting three-car battle at Prima Variante. But the Safety Car soon neutralized the action when Fernandez lost control of his car and hit Poloni at the Biassono corner. Francesca Raffaele, meanwhile, had managed to recover up to P21 - in a really good first part of the race. The race went back to green with 22 minutes left and Langeveld came under pressure from Young: the two went side by side into Ascari, but the Dutchman held on. Young kept the pressure on the race leader and attacked again at Lesmo 2, when they made contact: Langeveld incredibly kept it on track, while Young had to give up second to Ceccon, who was ready to make the most out of the battle ahead. Despite an off at Turn 1, Langeveld kept the top spot, as Ceccon had to defend from the return of Young - who eventually was back into second place. Edo Capello's Hyundai stuck in the gravel trap at Lesmo 2 would bring an early end to the race, as the Full Course Yellow was deployed on the final lap - handing the victory to Niels Langeveld. Francesca Raffaele had a great restart after the Safety Car and continued to gain positions in the final stages: she completed her first race since her racing return in P20, gaining 9 places from her starting position.
Marco Iannotta and Sylvain Pussier shared the front row of the grid in race 2 on a dry track on Sunday morning. Jack Young and Salvatore Tavano lined up alongside on the second row while Francesca Raffaele was back to P29. Frenchman Pussier straight-lined the first chicane at the start and was forced to give the position back to Young, who had leap-frogged Iannotta - the latter having a slow start with too much wheelspin. Tavano would also quickly move into second - while Saturday winner Langeveld was forced to pit in the early stages due to technical issues. Young survived a mistake into La Roggia chicane and a bodywork issue that touched his front-left wheel to settle in the lead. Behind him, there were big battles for the positions from fourth to tenth - but the fight for the win lit up once again in the second half of the race: Tavano passed Young with three minutes left on the clock with a brilliant move at Biassono corner; meanwhile, Pussier and Ceccon fought for third a few seconds behind. The Italian made a move stick at the second chicane on the penultimate lap after a mistake by the Frenchman. Salvatore Tavano edged Jack Young for race 2 victory, sealing the first win of the season for Scuderia Il Girasole - the first in its Hankook-era. Kevin Ceccon rounded out the podium, but the Italian will not be able to return to TCR Italy at the next round due to conflicting dates with the electric ETCR. Francesca Raffaele had another solid race and always kept it clean to take the checquered flag in P24 - again gaining a few places during the race. "It was a very difficult weekend for me", Francesca told us after the race. "I only had two test days in the car and having not raced for a full year I really had no idea of what to expect". "I knew I wasn't at the top of my game, and I could see it from Friday practice. I really need to be in the car as much as I can to get back that feeling I once had." "I hope to do better in Imola, and I already can't wait!" The second round of the 2022 TCR Italy season will in fact see the drivers heading to Imola in two weeks' time. At her last participation at Circuito Enzo and Dino Ferrari, Raffaele was ninth and seventh at the 2020 TCR Italy season finale.