TCR Europe: sterling qualifying in rainy Monza highlights Michelle Halder's driving skills
In an overall difficult weekend in Monza, a brilliant qualifying performance highlighted Michelle Halder's driving skills in the rain, as the German looks ahead to the final TCR Europe round in Barcelona.
The return season of Michelle Halder to the continental TCR series has been a rollercoaster, with plenty of great battles and highs - like qualifying in Monza - but also lows, with several technical issues throughout the season hampering her campaign.
Having won in spectacular fashion the inaugural season of the Spanish TCR championship, Halder Motorsport had in fact announced a return to TCR Europe - this time with a three car operation. Alongside siblings Michelle and Mike - who both entered TCR Europe in 2020, before heading to Spain for a dominant season in 2021 - the family-run team now lined up British young talent Jack Young in TCR Europe.
A proven race winner in three different TCR series, Michelle Halder has scored points in five occasions, with her strongest run at the Norisring; the sixth round at Monza, though, was looking promising for the young German lady, eager to finally turn her season around with a result better representative of her skills and experience.
And, with a tenth place in free practice, Michelle's weekend at the famous Italian track was indeed off to a good start. As weather forecasts looked a bit menacing for the following days, Halder wasn't too worried for conditions that would eventually level the playing field, having often lacked straight line speed lately.
And, on Saturday morning, rain did indeed come to level the playing field.
In the two-session qualifying, Michelle was P10 in Q1, getting through to the next session while many front runners struggled and were out after the first 20-minute session.
Klim Gavrilov was fastest, ahead of Galas, Butti and Filippi - with 12 drivers advancing to Q2.
Michelle Halder then set the fourth fastest time in Q2 - her best starting position of the season - in an equally impressive session that saw John Filippi ending on top of the time sheets, ahead of Baldan, Galas and Halder.
In extremely tricky conditions, Michelle once again proved her driving skills and would start from the second row of the grid.
Wet weather persevered during the day and, at the start of the first race of the weekend, Filippi and Baldan fought side by side towards the famous first Monza chicane; the Italian initially took the lead, but Filippi fought back - before Baldan finally cleared the Sebastian Loeb Racing Cupra at La Roggia.
A troubled start for Michelle Halder, though, unfortunately saw the German dropping to tenth over the first lap; a mistake at Parabolica cost her two more positions to the Volcano Motorsport Cupras.
Michelle struggled for grip and was overtaken also by her teammate Jack Young - while her brother Mike started an unbelievable recovery that saw him gaining seven positions in one lap.
On lap 4, unfortunately, the troubled race of Michelle Halder came to a premature end when she went off at Parabolica and got stuck in the gravel trap, requiring the intervention of the Safety Car.
At the restart, Baldan was again under pressure from Filippi, in an action-packed lap that ended with Baldan going deep at Parabolica and having to give up the top spot.
Mike Halder was again on the move and continued his charge up the field from P14 to P4. The driver of the #7 Halder Motorsport Honda Civic overtook Baldan for the final step of the podium, then chased Galas for second place - but the Czech driver defended well.
John Filippi converted pole position into race victory and took the first win of the weekend, ahead of Jachym Galas and Mike Halder - the latter gaining 11 positions. Championship contender Josh Files was fifth.
The opportunity for redemption came on Saturday, with a start from seventh on the grid in a dry race. And, with a way better start, Michelle Halder was in the mix for the top positions on the run down towards Prima Variante; Girolami, Gavrilov and Baldan went 3-wide into the chicane, as the Volcano Motorsport driver moved into the lead.
Michelle Halder's Honda was pushed from behind and the German had to cut the first corner, then rejoining alongside Fernandez, the driver that she was battling with.
On the second lap, Girolami fought back and reclaimed the lead, as the top three pulled away. Callejas went off and the Safety Car was deployed.
At the restart, race 1 winner John Filippi had contact and his Cupra suffered bodywork damage that rubbed on the rear-right tyre; he slowly started to drop down the order. The Frenchman ultimately parked his car in the final stages, retiring from the race.
Michelle Halder put on some great fights and defensive driving, as she tried to hold on to her eighth position. Unfortunately, Michelle's #53 Honda Civic Type R FK7 TCR struggled on the long Monza straights; Jelmini eventually got past.
On lap 8, Michelle Halder was deep into Turn 1 and had to take the escape road, dropping from P10 to P19. And it went from bad to worse when she was hit with a 5 second penalty for cutting the first corner on the first lap. The same penalty was handed also to third-placed Nicola Baldan.
Gavrilov tried to hunt down Girolami but, as the Cupra was getting closer, a big accident for Paolo Rocca at the exit of Ascari brought out the red flag - and declared the end of Race 2 with one lap to go.
Franco Girolami took victory - and closed in on the 2022 TCR Europe title - preceding Klim Gavrilov and Sergio Lopez, who inherited third from Nicola Baldan.
Michelle Halder had managed to recover to P16 in the final laps, but the penalty demoted her to P18 - in what was an overall difficult weekend.
While no points were scored at Monza, Michelle Halder's qualifying effort remains as one of the positives to take into the final round of the season in Barcelona, scheduled for 14-16 October.