WTCR: Jessica Bäckman makes historic debut with point-scoring finish
Another race for the history books: Jessica Bäckman became the first woman to compete in WTCR and scored points in her second race at the Nurburgring.
Racing alongside the world-renowned Nurburgring 24 Hours at the Nordschleife, WTCR made its first appearance of 2021 – with a rather relevant novelty on its grid: the first woman in the series since its current rebranding would have made her debut at the German season opener. 23-year old Jessica Bäckman, one of the most promising touring car talents in the continental series, was in fact announced to step up her racing program in 2021, switching to the much-coveted World Touring Car Cup at the wheel of the Target Competition new Hyundai Elantra.
"It took some time before I got the first test in the car, but it feels good and I put some good laps together in Vallelunga - so it's a bit different compared to this track but I feel confident for the weekend" – said Jessica in the week before her debut.
Widely regarded as one of the toughest racetracks in the world, the 25 Km of the Nurburgring Nordschleife is surely no easy feat for a debut. The young Swede, though, was really looking forward to tackling this new challenge.
"After a long break, I look forward to my debut in WTCR. It will be a tough start, not least that we compete against the world's best drivers, but also that we compete with a completely new car model that we have not driven that much yet. It will be very exciting" – she added.
After the Friday's practice and qualifying sessions, multiple series champion Yvan Muller lined up on pole for Race 1, followed by Yann Ehrlacher in second place. Norbert Michelisz and Tiago Monteiro shared the second row.
Italian Gabriele Tarquini was the protagonist of a remarkable start and immediately moved from P5 to third, behind the two Lync & Co – with also Argentian Santiago Urrutia having a positive start and advancing to fourth ahead of Monteiro in the opening corners. In a chaotic series of battles in the midfield, Mikel Azcona picked up some damages to his #96 Cupra, as he continued a difficult weekend for the Spanish ace, who had already endured challenging sessions on Friday.
It wasn't an easy start for the Bäckmans siblings as well: Jessica – who started from 20th place – lost one position, while Andreas dropped all the way down to the tail end of the pack.
The 22 drivers entered the Green Hell with Muller ahead of Ehrlacher, but Tarquini remained very close to the Lynk & Co duo. Nine minutes into the race, Jessica and Andreas went side by side at the Döttinger Höhe straight and Andreas managed to pass his sister Jessica.
Gabriele Tarquini attempted a pass into the first corner on the second lap, but Ehrlacher successfully defended – also making a little contact with teammate Muller in a very close battle for the Top 3 positions, that ultimately saw no position changes at the top.
Once back in the Nordschleife, Ehrlacher went sideways but saved it with a miraculous move and kept it on track, though allowing Muller to extend his lead to over one second.
The race entered its 15 minutes of action and Tarquini found a way around Ehrlacher at the Carousel; the top 5 competitors remained in contention for victory, but had slightly pulled away from the rest of the field.
Tarquini went for the move and passed Muller after a stunning side-by-side duel, but the Italian went wide at Tiergarten and lost momentum, giving Muller the chance to strike back at the start of the third and final lap of the race.
Tiago Monteiro, who was running fifth, completed a great pass and moved into second, as the former F1 driver was committed to fight Muller for the victory. Urrutia followed in third. Rob Huff brought his Cupra back to the pits, while Jessica Bäckman continued her run in P21, just behind Andreas in the second Target Competition Elantra.
Four-time champion Muller was ultimately passed by Monteiro into the final corners, as the Portuguese clinched P1 and won the first race of the season after a very entertaining final lap. It was Monteiro's first victory since his home race in 2019 and his second after his serious accident in 2017.
Lynk & Co's Yvan Muller completed his run in second place, having led the majority of the race, while Santiago Urrutia crossed the line in third.
Two of the leading protagonists until the final lap, Tarquini and Ehrlacher were respectively sixth and eight. Jessica Bäckman finished her first ever race in WTCR in P21 – her first experience at the Nordschleife in the Hyundai Elantra.
With only 30 minutes before Race 2, the 22 drivers and the respective teams were called to some extra work with no chance of error in the first race.
In a dramatic turn of events, Argentian Esteban Guerrieri in the #86 Honda stopped on the grid and couldn't take the start from the second row.
Nestor Girolami was leading the field from pole position, alongside Jean-Karl Vernay and with Urrutia and Tarquini right behind them. But from the field, it was Luca Engstler who emerged with a superb start, as the German jumped ahead of the rivals. As he tried to defend his second place, Girolami dangerously pushed Engstler towards the wall; but it was more chaos ahead at the first corner: Mikel Azcona, Norbert Michelisz and Andreas Bäckman were involved in an incident that would force all of them to an early retirement.
On the other hand, it was a good start for Jessica Bäckman, who kept it clean and avoided the incidents; she moved from P20 to 18th, as Vernay led the pack into the Green Hell with Engstler and Girolami right behind. The Frenchman was unchallenged throughout the first lap, but the driver of the #8 Hyundai get a lot closer into the fastest final section. Vernay defended and started the second lap still on top of the leaderboard.
After an incredible first lap around the Nordschleife with heavy damages, Frederic Vervisch kept his #22 Audi away from the barriers and managed to pit on the second lap. Meanwhile, a convincing Jessica Backman moved into 15th place as she took advantage from further troubles by Jordi Gene, Gabriele Tarquini and Rob Huff.
On lap 2, Girolami was initially faster, but the two Hyundai drivers started to pull away and opened a relevant gap.
The third lap became a two-way battle for the lead between teammates Vernay and Engstler. The Frenchman defended hard from his teammate, who looked faster but couldn't find a way past to move into the lead.
Hungarian racer Attila Tassi overtook Urrutia for P4 with a solid move, while Girolami remained third with no close pursuers to put pressure on him.
Jessica Bäckman recovered more positions and entered the final lap in 13th position, ahead of both Esteban Guerrieri and Thed Bjork.
Luca Engstler tried all in his power to bring home victory at his home round, but the Engstler Hyundai N Liqui Moly Racing Team ultimately prevented him from attempting a winning move, advising him not to take unnecessary risks. Engstler was closer than ever on the final straight, but the radio communications called the race victory in favour of Vernay.
The Frenchman clinched victory in Race 2 after a perfect run from lights to flag, as a very disappointed Engstler was second across the line. Girolami rounded out the podium.
Jessica Bäckman took home a solid P14 and wrote another page in the WTCR's history, becoming the first ever woman to score points in the championship.
The Touring Car World Cup will now head to Portugal, with the second round scheduled to get underway in 20 days' time (26-27 June) at Autodromo do Estoril - which has replaced the street circuit of Vila Real on the calendar.