Nightmare season finale for the ladies of TCR Europe
A promising Friday didn't translate into race results for Jessica Bäckman, who had an incredibly unlucky end to a challenging year, as also Michelle Halder struggled in Jarama and closed an otherwise very positive debut season.
The final event of the compressed 2020 TCR Europe calendar had started with the best promises for Jessica Bäckman, the 23-year old Swedish driver that made TCR Europe history last year when she claimed the first ever podium position for woman in the championship.
Jessica, competing again in her sophomore season with the Hyundai i30 N TCR car from Target Competition, had more difficult campaign, marked by a lot of bad luck and some accidents that ultimately prevented her to fully showcase her potential.
Among the tough weekends, Bäckman managed to show her pace in some of the practice sessions and qualifying, ultimately proving that she didn't get the results she would have deserved in this crazy 2020.
A last minute addition to the TCR Europe season opener at Le Castellet, 21-year old Michelle Halder had a stunning first part of the season in her ProfiCar Team Halder Honda Civic Type R TCR. Racing alongside her brother Mike, the family-run Team Halder switched in fact from the ADAC TCR Germany championship to the continental series few days ahead of the first round in the South of France, where Michelle immediately got close to the top-10 and proved that the move had paid off. One event later, the young German claimed an historic win at Zolder, becoming the first woman to take the highest step of the podium at this level of TCR and topping her 2019 victory in the German series.
The Halder brothers continued an impressive campaign and, while Mike went on to take the championship lead, Michelle hit some hurdles in the second half of the season, still coming into the final event with four top-10 to her name in such a competitive series.
The TCR Europe season finale, held at the Spanish venue of Jarama, just outside Madrid, was a new track for both drivers. Entirely contested over Friday and Saturday, the sixth round saw Jessica Bäckman finishing P7 and P6 in the two practice session, which put the Swede in a good position coming to the afternoon qualifying sessions.
Michelle Halder was halted by technical troubles which prevented the driver of the #53 Honda to set any significant laptimes:
"Difficult day today for us", she commented on Friday afternoon. "In the first free practice I had to fight with technical problems whereby I could drive my first full rounds on the secound practice, which is also new for us."
"The Quali did not go so perfectly. Starting in position 19 for both races."
While both the Halder brothers struggled to come to grip with the Jarama track, Jessica Bäckman made more improvements and was fifth fastest in Q1, advancing to the second part of qualifying. Setting the ninth time in Q2, Jessica was set to start the first race from the fifth row of the grid and, crucially, in second place for Race 2 - which sees the inverstion of the top-10.
A few hours later, though, Jimmy Clairet saw all his laptimes being deleted when his car was found to be underweight and Jessica was promoted to eighth place on the grid.
Home driver Mikel Azcona, who had joined TCR Europe at the previous round in Spa, kept momentum and took pole position, a few days after winning the WTCR race at Motorland Aragon. He was joined by Teddy Clairet on the front row, while Homola and Bennani shared the second row. The championship leader Mike Halder was bad in P14 and had to cut his way through the order in the first race to maintain the title hopes alive.
The drivers of TCR Europe found a wet track on Saturday morning: the rain had indeed stopped, but the track surface was hardly drying up after the Spanish F4 race, contested in similar conditions. Most of the field, though, opted for slick tyres.
When the lights went out, Mikel Azcona had a good start and held position after the tight right-hander of Turn 1. In the midfield, several cars made contact and Michelle Halder had to take evasive action to avoid a spinning car and went into the gravel, dropping to last.
The whole first lap saw more hectic action: Ryba was out with significant damage while, up ahead, Jessica Bäckman went off in the grass and hit Pepe Oriola. Both were unluckily out of the race and the Safety Car was deployed to remove the two badly scarred racecars.
There was more chaos as the SC was shown and cars continued to pass each other at full speed and, ultimately, Jose Manuel Sapag and Evgeni Leonov were handed a drive through for not returning their positions.
The lengthy neutralization brought the race direction to extend the race distance by two additional laps.
The action resumed on lap 7 and Azcona, depiste a big slide in the final corner due to the extremely tricky conditions of the track, managed to stay ahead, preceding Clairet, Homola, Bennani and Julien Briché. Meanwhile, Mike Halder had already moved up to ninth, in hiw quest to keep the championship lead.
The race leader slowly pulled away, as a tight battle for sixth place saw Andreas Bäckman coming under pressure from Nicolas Baert. Just behind them, Franco Girolami, making his first start in the series, closed in on the pair, also followed by the recovering Mike Halder.
The latter locked up under braking at Turn 1 and, in a huge development for the championship, crashed and took out Girolami, bringing out the second Safety Car.
The unfortunate retirement of Mike Halder moved Comtoyou's Mehdi Bennani on top of the standings. At the second restart on lap 13, Azcona had a better reaction and left no chances to its pursuers. The battle between Andreas Bäckman and Nicolas Baert resumed, with also Daniel Nagy joining in: the Hungarian dived in at Turn 4 and made the move stick on Baert, despite making slight contact, but both continued.
Lloyd, Filippi and Taoufik also banged wheels in the fight for ninth place: Filippi lost two places and dropped out of the top-10.
Except for Mikel Azcona, who could open a safe gap of over 5 seconds, the rest of the field remained quite compact.
After 17 action-packed laps, the Spaniard took the chequered flag to win his third race in just as many participations in TCR Europe, ahead of Teddy Clairet and Mat'o Homola.
Bennani was fourth in a very important position for the chamnpionship and led Julien Briché across the line.
Michelle Halder was classified 17th after the penalties to Sapag and Leonov were applied.
With just one more race to go, the title battle went down to the wire on Saturday afternoon.
Initially set to start from fourth - and thus in contention for a significant result - the first race accident meant that Jessica Bäckman found herself at the tail-end of the field. With an impressive team affort, the Target Competition mechanics managed to fix the damaged #26 Hyundai i30 TCR car, but the young Swede had to take the start from the pitlane, two laps down.
Her teammate John Filippi lined-up on reverse-grid pole, alongside the BRC Racing Team's Hyundai of Daniel Nagy. Fresh championship leader Mehdi Bennani was third on the grid and knew that he had to "simply" finish ahead of Mike Halder to take home the drivers' title after the Comtoyou outfit had just celebrated the victory in the team's standings.
When the lights went out for the last time in 2020, Michelle Halder visibly jumped the start from P16 and soon received a drive through penalty.
The track, sprayed with more water after another shower just before the second F4 race, was once again extremely challenging and plenty of cars slided through the grass in the opening stages. After the first lap, though, it was Filippi, from Nagy, Bennani and Andreas Bäckman in the top-4 positions.
Race 1 winner Mikel Azcona was quickly up to fifth thanks to a great move on Julien Briché, while Mike Halder made it back into the top ten. With Bennani battling Nagy for second, John Filippi tried to pull away - but he was soon interrupted by the intervention of the Safety Car when Mike Halder's #7 Honda found the barriers, crushing the ProfiCar Team Halder's championship hopes.
The green flag waved back on lap 8 and again two laps were added to the race distance.
Filippi managed well the restart from Nagy and Bennani, now in complete control of the situation. When Briché re-claimed fifth position from Azcona, the two swicthed back several times before the Frenchman could ultimately secure the position and started chasing Andreas Bäckman. The Peugeot driver moved ahead of the Swede as well, who came under increasing pressure from Azcona and Baert.
Briché was on a mission and also passed Mehdi Bennani - the latter taking no unnecessary risks - and advanced to second. Hernando and Leonov found the gravel trap at Turn 1, but no Safety Car was deployed despite the intervention of the marshals and a recovery vehicle.
As Nagy fought back on Briché and the two went wide and onto the grass at Turn 5, Bennani made an opportunistic move to grab second place. All this played in the hands of John Filippi, who extended his lead by over 3.5 seconds.
Nagy also went into the wall at Turn 3 on lap 15, but again the race remained green.
After a two-races long battle, Nicolas Baert moved ahead of Andreas Bäckman and advanced to fifth place, just as the leader started the final lap of the 2020 season.
Target Competition's John Filippi took his first victory in the series, but missed out on the title, which went into the hands of Moroccan most famous driver Mehdi Bennani.
Julien Briché was third and preceded Azcona, Baert and Andreas Bäckman.
Michelle Halder was 15th and scored one point despite a difficult final weekend at Jarama.
"Unfortunately not our weekend, but also that belongs to it. You win and lose." - she commented via her social media.
"We are glad to have made the way and are grateful! Thanks to all who made this possible."
More 30 seconds post-race penalties were applied to Evgenii Leonov, Fernando Navarrete, Martin Ryba and Franco Girolami, dropping them towards the end of the classify.
Jessica Bäckman competed a lonely race in 19th place after her delayed start.
"The season is now officially over" - wrote Jessica. "It’s fair to say that it wasn’t my season, not much has gone my way this year."
"But to look on the bright side, the speed has improved a lot from last season which I’m happy about! Big thanks to the team Target Competition and Hyundai Motorsport for all the help and support all year. And to all my amazing supporters around the world!"
Following 6 incredibly exciting rounds, TCR Europe crowned its new champion: Mehdi Bennani preceded John Filippi by 28 points. Baert was third (244) and Mike Halder, with a double DNF at Jarama, ended up fourth in his first European season (242 points).
It was nonetheless a very solid rookie season also for Michelle Halder, who finished 15th in the standings at 115 points.
With valuable experience gained, we'll hopefully get to see both the ladies of TCR Europe back on track next year, as they carve their way up the ranks of the international touring cars scene.