High Speed Russian Roulette - Lada and the WTCC


At the end of 2016 Lada raced for the final time in their 5 season campaign of the World Touring Car Championship, Stelvio Automotive takes a look back at the Granta and Vesta that put Russia on the motorsport map.

By Sean Smith

When it comes to the name Lada, you’ll likely have one of three views of them. Number 1, you won’t know who they are. Number 2, you will know who they are and you’ll relate them to the cold war, the colour grey and everything bad about the 80s. Or Number 3, like me, you’ll think Ladas are really cool, not necessarily for a specific reason but you’ll just be like “YEAH, Lada!!”

Now as you might have guessed from the pictures, Lada, part of the largest Russian car company Avtovaz, were part of the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) since 2012, returning from a customer lead effort in the late 2000s (top). They fielded a single car for 2 rounds before becoming a full multi-car operation in 2013. This article will be looking at how they did over the years as they closed their doors at the end of 2016 stating the programme had “completed its goals”.

Let’s start at the beginning, Lada made their WTCC return debut at the Hungarian race in 2012 with James Thompson and the bright red Lada Granta, the car retired from both races but that’s often to be expected by single car part time season efforts.

Two rounds later in Portugal Thompson and the Lada were back again, they were classified 17th having an accident with Charles Ng in race one, doing over 90% of the race but not finishing, and lastly in race two Lada finished a respectable 11th just outside the points. Definitely not a grandstand debut season but certainly showing progress in those brief appearances.

Lada fully took over the single car operation on a works scale with full manufacturer backing and testing began over the winter leading tp the new ‘Lada Sport’ team which emerged with 2 cars ready for a full 2013 season.

That said, the team did not start the round 1 races in Italy, the two cars crashed into each other in qualifying and had to be withdrawn from the weekend despite James Thompson qualifying well and showing top 10 pace through the Free Practise sessions.

Luckily this was the low point of the season. The team scored their first ever point in a race scenario with 10th in Marrakech, the team scored at another 6 races through the season and the final standings had Thompson in 14th with 41 points, a distance off the Champion Yvan Muller with 431 points but nevertheless if was a solid first full year for the team. They scored a 5th place at their home race in Moscow, a double 6th place in Portugal race 1 and 2 and another 6th in Japan.

2014 brought a new era to the WTCC as Citroën began their first year of dominance in the category with the new C-Elysée WTCC, taking 17 wins out of 23 races. Lada, back with the Granta, expanded their assault to a 3 car effort hiring Rob Huff whilst keeping Thompson and Russian driver Mikhail Kozlovskiy.

The new season started okay for the Russian team with a 10th place finish in Marrakech race 1 and then a 5th place in race 2, at round 2 they repeated this with a 5th place in race 1 in France. The team had obviously improved over their last 2 seasons but unfortunately so had Honda; however nobody had expected the new Citroën and their Argentinian superstar José María López to appear on the scene the way they did which really took the credit away from Lada for the improvement the achieved.

Lada had a bit of a dry spell through the middle of the season and lost their title sponsor Lukoil with immediate effect when the team announced a tie up with rival Russian oil company Rosneft for the next season. At this time though Lada suddenly improved in form with a 2nd place in Argentina race 2, followed by their first race win in Beijing race 2, having earned the reverse grid pole position from a 7th and 8th finish in race 1. They then capped off the season with a final win in race 2 at Macau, this second win meant they equalled Honda’s win count for the season with Rob Huff 10th in the final standings on 93 points, López won the title on 462 points. Thompson was 15th and Kozlovskiy was 16th.

Lada went away after the semi-successful campaign and developed their brand new car, the Vesta TC1. This 2015 season would be full of transition for the team and they would not repeat their 2 wins of the previous year. While Citroën managed to dominate even more than they did in 2014, Lada started the season with Huff and Thompson and would have Kozlovskiy at rounds 2-3. At round 4 though things changed quickly, Kozloviskiy was replaced by upcoming Dutch star Nicky Catsburg who would see out the rest of the Lada programme. James Thompson then left the team with immediate effect being replaced by firstly Dutchman Jaap van Lagen who was part of the late 2000s Lada team then later WEC driver Nicolas Lapierre.

The team struggled with reliability and accidents through 2015 to add to their problems. They did score 2 podiums but these were the only real highlights of the season. Rob Huff ended in 10th again scoring 103 points; Catsburg was next highest in 12th on 41 points followed by the others. Huff decided to leave the team at the end of the season to join Honda.

Lada focussed over the winter of 2015 on getting their 2016 car and team ready for a better campaign than they had just endured. They kept Nicky Catsburg and hired Italian racing legend and 2009 WTCC Champion Gabrielle Tarquini along with Frenchman Hugo Valente. They also updated the Vesta to make sure its reliability problems were removed.

The changes worked. Lada had an amazing final season compared to the previous years. They were often fighting for podiums with Catsburg and Tarquini and would end the season on 536 points, only 139 behind Honda and smashing new entrant Volvo on 321. Lada scored top 10s in all rounds aside from Argentina and took 3 wins over the season, only 1 less than Honda.

The Lada Vesta was a genuine threat in a straight line, the Citroën throughout its time was considered the fastest but in 2016 when we often got to see Lada fighting with the two larger manufacturers the Vesta was always a match. The car as a whole was a triumph in 2016 and as a result the final standings had Catsburg in 7th on 175 points, Tarquini in 9th on 147 points and Valente in 12th on 78 points. This was however sadly followed with the news just before my birthday that Lada would leave the series.

Lada stated that the reasoning was because the project had met its goals. I can almost believe that, it’s well known that motorsport is an expensive venture for manufacturers to continue at length. Lada should be commended for taking the fight to Citroën and Honda, two of the largest car companies in the world and winning 5 races in the process. Will they be back, possibly. It’s clear that Lada benefited from their involvement in the WTCC and their image was vastly improved on the world stage. Maybe they’ll look at other series such as the World Rally Championship or focus on their domestic product. Either way as a fan I hope they’re successful because the WTCC grid will look a lot more boring now that the yellow cars will not be on it.