The first King of WTCR, courtesy of his 2018 title triumph, also took part in the first FIA World Touring Car Championship race in 1987 and was on the grid for the first round of 2005 when the series was revived, claiming the title four years later.
“It was important to do another season, especially with a new car. I think this will be my last contract with a manufacturer but I want to win”
He might be nearing 60 but Italian legend Gabriele Tarquini is preparing for the 2021 WTCR − FIA World Touring Car Cup with renewed gusto after being included in the Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing attack − alongside Luca Engstler, Norbert Michelisz and new recruit Jean-Karl Vernay − to drive the all-new, Goodyear-equipped Hyundai Elantra N TCR.

Another year, another FIA World Touring Car season. What does this mean to you?
“It’s great, every year is a surprise for me to think I can continue doing what I did since I was almost a baby. It’s a pleasure, but it’s almost unbelievable when you think I am close to 60. I never dream to race until this age, professionally speaking, so it’s really, really surprising.”

You say it’s a surprise but we still saw plenty of traditional Tarquini drives from you in 2020…
The speed is always there but I’m probably not as fast as I was 20 years ago in qualifying. To be honest I lost something. But my race pace, my experience and my fight is still there. For sure last season wasn’t very good for us. We couldn’t really be competitive for the full season, only in some spots. I remember in Slovakia Ring the car was not so bad and in the first Aragón race. But the rest was a season to forget. We know the i30 was a great car but you can’t be on the top every season. We won the title in 2018, we won in 2019 and it’s normal that 2020 was not our season.”

So how excited are you at the prospect of switching to the all-new Elantra N TCR for 2021?
“I started developing this new car just after the first lockdown ended in June. The Elantra uses the base from the i30 even if the car is completely different. It’s bigger, longer, wider, the aerodynamics, the form and the shape is totally different. But we have a reference. When we start with the i30, for Hyundai it was the first car built for the circuit so we don’t have any experience. Now we start from the i30 so for sure it’s a big advantage.”

After you claimed the first victory in the i30 N TCR at WTCR Race of Morocco in 2018 you said you “know my child”. Do you have the same relationship with the Elantra N TCR?
“It’s not exactly the same because I was alone to develop the i30. For the Elantra N TCR I was alone for the first part because we wanted to focus on the customers, to build an easy car to drive with different tyres. Later on, the focus was more on using the Goodyear tyres and we share the developing with the other drivers. I was with Norbi, with Luca and later on also JK drove the car. We shared the feeling, we had longer meetings because everybody must be agreed on the development plan and the feeling for driving the car.”

In your view why were you chosen to race the Elantra N TCR in WTCR and did you have to ask?
“Probably I am the best driver to start developing the car because of my long experience and I know everything around the car. With Andrea [Adamo, Hyundai Motorsport Team Principal] we just sit at the table but the deal was just to develop the Elantra N TCR. But, later on, we finished the season and the season wasn’t really good and it was a difficult year for everybody, for Hyundai, for the motorsport in general. It wasn’t really clear what is the plan but when Andrea and Hyundai decided the plan we started speaking about this season and in 20 minutes we agreed to continue for 2021!”

Is it fair to say you would not have accepted 2020 being your final season with the team?
“Yeah, it was not my best season and, for me, it was important to do another season, especially with a new car. This car I know very well now and we can use it in a different part of the race, in different tracks. The shape is totally different from the i30 and I am more than happy to continue with Hyundai, especially because I can help with the developing programme during the season, it’s still a young car. We focus on the WTCR season just in the last test because before the last test all the tests were targeted on customers. Since the last test we are more focused on our season, on using the Goodyear tyres, and knowing what’s the best plan, the best set-up to develop this car. I am sure we will start the season with a very good pace but I am sure through the year we can improve our pace because it’s still a young car.”

The 2021 season starts in Germany in June but a first WTCR Race of Italy is planned for the summer. How good does that sound?
“Finally, we will be back in Italy! The plan was to race there last year but, unfortunately, the track wasn’t ready. But Adria is a good opportunity and I hope it can be full of people supporting me. We miss the people and we miss the crowd around the track. The crowd and the people are part of the WTCR race weekends, it’s not like Formula One where the drivers are far away from the crowd. We miss a lot this important part of motorsport.”

What can you achieve in WTCR this season?
“The target, as usual, is to win. My experience helped me during the last few seasons and I can be also a team player, so if I am out of the title fight I can be part of the fight with helping a team-mate. In 2019 I was very happy about the season and about Norbi winning. I am here, I am a team player and I have a team spirit. I will be more happy if the fight is with me included but, if not, I will be more than happy to be part of the team play.”

Is it possible you’ve signed your last racing contract with a manufacturer?
“Yeah, I think Hyundai will be my last manufacturer. But I am very good with them, I start the last period of my career with them, starting with a white paper [with the i30 N TCR] then to win the world title two years in a row, also with Norbi. I am very proud to be part of this team as a professional driver and I think that this manufacturer will be my last one. My first race was in 1983. I am not happy to put the number on the table but it’s a really long career. If you consider in karting I started my karting career in 1974 and, if I am not wrong, it’s my 48thseason since my first race. My first motorsport licence was in 1974. To be a professional driver close to 60 is an unbelievable achievement and I am very proud of this number.”

“When I was a baby my father was running a fuel station and beside it there was a small go-kart track. When I was five or six, I start playing with these small karts. The fire start, it was a passion. I loved these small machines and the love never ended, it’s still there. But [before the final WTCC race in 2009] I spoke to my family just before leaving for Macau that probably, if I win the title, I will stop racing because it’s the best moment and I have no [drive] for next season. It’s the world title I tried to catch for a long time and I cannot ask any more from my racing career. After the tough race with the big accidents, being in hospital with the car completely broken, I won the title. Okay, I didn’t have a seat for the next year because it was the last race of the SEAT manufacturer team, but I was still competitive, still enjoying racing, I made a fantastic season and I didn’t want to stop. It was my life and, in the press [conference], I didn’t mention about this idea to stop.

Part one:
Part two:
The WTCR Trio with Tiago Monteiro
The post WTCR season build-up Q&A: Gabriele Tarquini appeared first on FIA WTCR | World Touring Car Cup.
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