TCR Europe: Michelle Halder just outside the top-10, as Jessica Bäckman retires from P7
At the 2020 season opener of the European TCR championship, Michelle Halder completed a stunning recovery to finish just outside the top-10 on her series debut, while Jessica Bäckman was taken out while battling for P7.
The TCR Europe headed to Circuit Paul Ricard, south of France, as the continental touring cars championship kicks off its 2020 season, delayed by the pandemic.
Swedish TCR specialist Jessica Bäckman will be again on the grid of a massively-competitive field, after her 2019 debut year where she claimed a podium position at Hockenheim.
Jessica, racing for Italian powerhouse Target Competition and with the support of Hyundai customer racing, is joined on the field by German Michelle Halder - who makes this weekend her TCR Europe debut after abandoning the ADAC TCR Germany last week after a controversial disqualification.
Both Jessica and Michelle are teammates with their respective brothers - Andreas and Mike.
Bäckman entered last weekend the German series at Nürburgring, in preparation for the Le Castellet races in the European championship.
Friday practice proved challenging for Bäckman, who had to fix some issues with her Hyundai i30 N TCR in FP2. Michelle, on the other hand, had a good opening day and showed promising speed: the driver of the #53 Profi Car Honda Civic Type R FK7 TCR was eighth fastest after the afternoon session, which gave her high hopes going into qualifying on Saturday.
At the end of the first qualifying session, Jessica Bäckman was topping the timesheets - proving that the issues on her car were quickly spotted and fixed.
"In Q1 I did a great lap straight away - which I'm quite proud of, because normally I'm struggling with qualifying - but it was good enough for Q2. Then I did another lap and I gained like 8 tenths on myself and it was a 2:11 laptime!" - she said at the end of Saturday's qualifying.
"In Q2 I made some small mistakes, I lost a few tenths here and there, but still it's good to be P7 if you look where I was yesterday, so I'm very very happy".
Michelle Halder had a more troubled session as she was held up in traffic: the young German completed her first qualifying in TCR Europe in P20.
"Quali wasn't so good for me. The session was like two seconds faster than yesterday so I was behind Mike." - she explained. "I had a lot of problems in one corner as I was directly behind him in my fastest lap. Not the best qualifying for me but I'll fight hard in the race, I hope for a good start and to make up some positions, so I'm really looking forward to the race"
Post-session penalties, though, promoted both the ladies further up the order: Jessica lined up in sixth place for Race 1, while Michelle was P16 on the grid.
Target Competition's John Filippi clinched pole position for Hyundai and was joined on the front row by Medhi Bennani in the Comtoyou Racing Audi RS 3 LMS.
Danny Lloyd shared the second row with Nestor Girolami.
When the lights went out under scorching air temperatures and over 52 track temperature, poleman Filippi went wide at Turn 2 and allowed past both Bennani and Lloyd. It was the latter to take the lead though, with Filippi rejoining in third.
Bäckman had a good start but was then squeezed into the first corners and dropped to P9.
Michelle Halder also had a great getaway and quickly advanced into 12th, but had similar problems in the midfield battles and had to give up some places.
The top-three fought hard and managed to break away from the rest of the pack, but Lloyd's first place was never under real threat from Bennani and Filippi - the two pursuers battling for second place.
Martyn Ryba was out with front suspension damage on the second lap and retired.
Bäckman made up one more place and moved up to eighth, before encountering the hard defense of Pepe Oriola. The Spanish driver held off, but the battle allowed Briché and Jessica's brother Andreas to join the action. Jessica made several attempts at the chicane but could not make a move stick - also having to cut through the chicane in one occasion.
In a stunning battle for seventh, Andreas Bäckman completed a couple of opportunistic moves and moved past both Jessica and Oriola, leaving the Spaniard once again into the clutches of her sister.
Meanwhile positions remained unchanged up front, but there was a driver on the move: Michelle Halder started to charge up the order and, on lap 7, she advanced to P12.
On the same lap, Jessica Bäckman's race came to a premature end following a contact with Oriola: the driver of the #20 Brutal Fish Racing Honda Civic went wide at the last corner and then turned straight into the #26 Hyundai as he returned to the racing line. Jessica, with left-rear damages, could not continue and parked her car soon after the main straight.
Oriola, under investigation for the accident, retired a few laps later.
After 10 closely-fought laps, Daniel Lloyd took the first victory of the TCR Europe season ahead of Mehdi Bennani and John Filippi, who lost his leadership at the start and could not recover.
Michelle Halder was 12th at the finish line - a notable result for the Profi Car team Halder at her series debut: "The start was fantastic, I gained a lot of positions so I was pretty happy" - she said. "But then in the first three or four laps it was a little bit difficult because cars were all over the place and they overtook me, I don't know why, but they were fast on the straights. But I fought hard and I had great battles - hard but fair. I'm really happy with the result."
Unlike Halder, the other female racer on the grid was obviously disappointed. After such a promising qualifying, a retirement wasn't certainly the result Jessica Bäckman was looking for, but her pace is a promising sign coming into tomorrow's race and, indeed, into the next rounds.
"I don't even know what to say." - commented Bäckman. "He crashed and then turned into me - he was straight into my side".
"My pace was good. I was stuck behind a driver who was defending everywhere, but my pace and everything felt good in the race. I had quite a good start off the line but then into Turn 3 I had cars going everywhere and I lost a lots of positions - but there was nothing wrong with the pace, everything felt good. I'm a bit angry right now".