"Tough weekend with some positives" for Jessica Bäckman in WTCR Aragon
Under the Spanish heat, Jessica Bäckman was met with a challenging weekend at Aragon, as the young Swedish racer made "small steps in the right direction" in her quest to crack the secrets of the new Hyundai Elantra.
Swedish touring car's rising star entered her third round in the WTCR World Cup last weekend, at the Aragon racetrack, Spain, where she got back behind the wheel of the Target Competition Hyundai Elantra N TCR after the opening rounds at Nurburgring and Estoril. After turning heads in the Scandinavian-based TCR championship - where she would also score a podium - and in the German series, Bäckman went on to become the first woman to step on the podium in the continental series of TCR Europe. At the end of 2019, Jessica entered the first ever edition of the FIA Motorsport Games at Vallelunga in the TCR category, where she represented her home country Sweden. In 2020, Bäckman returned to TCR Europe - but a series of unfortunate events prevented the young driver to capitalize on her pace when she often navigated the top-10. By turning her dream into reality, both the Bäckman siblings - who have been teammates in the Italian team in the past few years and that are both part of the Swedish national team as well as the Hyundai young driver development program - made the step up to WTCR in 2021, reaching the world's highest level in touring cars. At her series debut in arguably the most challenging and legendary race track in the world, Jessica Bäckman masterfully scored points with a 14th place in the second race at the Nordschleife, ran in conjunction with the ADAC 24H race at the Nurburgring. A few weeks later, she would secure her first class podium in the WTCR Trophy category - a classify dedicated to independent entries. At Aragon, Bäckman was met with another new track and challenge: "New race weekend, new opportunities." - she commented before the event. "It will be fun to compete again, I feel prepared and ready. I really hope we can find some speed in the cars so we can race and fight higher up in the field, looking forward to the weekend." In qualifying, Audi's Frederic Vervisch took pole position by just 0.021 seconds to edge Lynk & Co's Thed Björk, in a closely fought session that also saw Gilles Magnus and Norbert Michelisz clinching the second row of the grid within two tenths from the poleman. The weekend turned out to be a challenging one for the Bäckmans already from free practice, where Jessica was 22nd and 21st. In qualifying Jessica was P19, just behind her brother Andreas. "It's a new car for us this year, so we're struggling a bit to set up the car correctly for our driving styles." - she said after qualifying. "We are improving all the time and that's the main thing - we try to get faster every time." "We got the car quite late this year for the season, so we really haven't had time to test things - that's why we're struggling a bit. But it's a nice car, it's a lot different compared to the [Hyundai] i30 and I think it would fit us well if we manage to set-up correctly for us. But we're working very hard and hopefully we'll get more pace out of it later on." Race 1 Reverse grid pole went to Gabriele Tarquini, who took the start of Race 1 alongside Spanish star Mikel Azcona. Under scorching temperatures, series veteran and former F1 driver Tarquini made the most of the pole position and took the lead at Turn 1, followed by Azcona and Ehrlacher. Tom Coronel (Comtoyou Racing) passed teammate Nathanael Berthon and advanced into fourth place, soon hunting down Ehrlacher for the final podium spot. Meanwhile, the two front runners had already opened a gap, but home hero Azcona wasn't ready to give up the fight and started to put pressure on the Goodyear-equipped BRC Hyundai Elantra of Tarquini. On the second lap, Coronel made a stunning move stick around the outside of the hairpin and grabbed third, with fellow Audi teammate Berthon also going past on the main straight one lap later. Ehrlacher was then demoted to fifth, and the Lynk & Co driver was under threat from the attacks of yet another Audi - the one of Gilles Magnus - but the Frenchman held on. Right behind them, it was Hyundai driver Norbert Michelisz, who had dropped at the start. The Hungarian had a contact with Vervisch, but both continued. Coronel and Berthon worked together and swapped places to try and catch Mikel Azcona in the group ahead - but when he couldn't further cut the gap to the front, he handed back the position to the Dutchman in the very final stages. Towards the end, Tarquini had managed to break away from Azcona just enough to take a controlled victory after 10 laps, preceding the popular Spanish touring car ace by 1.8 seconds. For Tarquini, it was his first victory in over two years, since Hungary 2019. Jessica Bäckman dropped a few places at the start after going wide into the run-off area, but her pace during the race proved to be much better and she significantly reduced the gaps to the front. She finished P19, confident for more opportunities to fight in the pack in the second race.
Having previously secured pole position, Frederic Vervisch converted a good start into the lead at Turn 1, ahead of the Lynk & Co of Thed Björk and the Audi of Gilles Magnus.
Azcona almost stalled on the grid and was avoided by the whole field - he would rejoin, at the very tail-end of the group and pulled off a great recovery to finish P12.
Norbert Michelisz was also trying to join the party for the podium and chased Magnus - but the Hungarian driver soon reported big vibrations on his tyres and struggled to keep up the pace; he would be overtaken by fellow Hyundai driver Jean-Karl Vernay for fourth - the latter having served a three place grid drop in race 1 for slowing down Coronel in qualifying.
Michelisz had his mirrors full of Berthon and Coronel,
The Dutchman, though, stopped on track in the closing stages, requiring the intervention of the Safety Car.
At the restart - just one lap later - Vervisch had the perfect getaway once again, leading Björk and Magnus. Race 1 winner Gabriele Tarquini charged back and passed Michelisz, but when the latter retired for a right-front tyre damage, he fought with Berthon for fifth to the flag.
This also promoted reigning champion Yann Ehrlacher, as the latter could move into seventh place
Another tyre issue hampered Andreas Bäckman's race, who also had to retire on the final lap after having climbed as high as 14th.
At the end of 13 laps, Frederic Vervisch brought home his first win of the season and the first for the second-generation Audi.
Jessica was P17 after a clean race, as the Swedish driver was left with a bit more encouraging pace to fight in the group.
"It was almost up to 40 degrees celsius hot during the weekend, which made both races very challenging, as it gets up to 60 degrees celsius inside the cars during a race", recalled Bäckman.
"Tough weekend but still a step in the right direction." - added the 23-year old driver. "We improved a lot from the practice to the qualifying, and we had a bit more speed in the races. But there is still something that is not quite right, the car is very difficult to drive, we simply do not get the car like we want, but we are working very hard to find solutions for the next race in Italy in about 3 weeks time" - she concluded.
The next round of the FIA WTCR will be held in Italy, at Adria International Raceway, on 31st July to 1st August.