- Sébastien Loeb Racing and Volkswagen take part with four Golf GTI TCR cars
- Season opener on the demanding semi-permanent city circuit in Marrakesh
- Popular local hero in the spotlight: Mehdi Bennani is ready for the challenge
Opener in Morocco: from 05 to 07 April, the Sébastien Loeb Racing team and Volkswagen Motorsport will begin its campaign in the WTCR – the FIA World Touring Car Cup – for the 2019 season. Mehdi Bennani (MA), Rob Huff (GB), Johan Kristoffersson (S) and Benjamin Leuchter (D) will face a unique starting grid on the Circuit Moulay el Hassan in Marrakesh with their four Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR cars – a line-up considered by many experts as the strongest of all time. Seven of the 26 permanent drivers have already won FIA titles, including Huff (2012 World Touring Car Champion) and Kristoffersson (2017 and 2018 World Rallycross Champion).
“This year, the WTCR is without a doubt the strongest touring car racing series in the world,” says Volkswagen Motorsport Director Sven Smeets. “A highly intensive season preparation phase now lies behind us, but the true balance of power will not become apparent until Morocco. We are aiming for victories and podiums – and obviously we want to be fighting for the driver and team titles at the very end. That said, between now and then are ten race weekends with a total 30 tough races to tackle.”
For Bennani it is “the biggest event of the year”
Morocco set up its first great motorsport event with the 2009 round of the FIA World Touring Car Championship (WTCC). Since then, interest in the event has grown constantly. “In Morocco, the WTCR is the most important motorsport series, more so even than Formula 1,” says Mehdi Bennani. “It is the biggest event of the year in Morocco. What I find particularly great to see is the number of kids who come to the track. You see all their happy faces and how much fun they are having. When I pass them, some fans even have tears of happiness in their eyes.”
Bennani himself inherited a passion for motorsport; his father Abdelilah initially drove in Motocross and was a four-time Moroccan champion, before later switching to car racing. “He was away every weekend, either to drive in races or for testing,” remembers Bennani. “My mum didn’t like it at all, so she put the ultimatum to him: family or motorsport.” His father took the creative route and simply took his wife Samira along with him, even offering her to give the driving a go herself. She was immediately fascinated and drove her first race on the same weekend. Shortly after, she started her own motorsport career – the first ever woman to do so in Morocco. She competed, among other things, in the Mégane Supercopa and the Moroccan Circuit Championship.
To this day, Bennani is proud that both his parents were so involved in motorsport, since at that time in Morocco it was completely exceptional for a woman. “I have learned many life lessons from this,” explains the only African driver in the WTCR. “You always have to have your goals and fight for them regardless of how hopeless they appear.” His parents, in some respects, were also role models for his driving style. While his mother used to drive cleverly and consistently, his father was always taking risks, though consequently retiring from races more frequently. As for Mehdi, he is the perfect mix of both parents.
His career began in karting, winning among other things the 2001 Moroccan Championship. In the following seasons he switched to single-seater racing. Since 2009 he has driven touring cars. The change was not entirely voluntary, however. “My greatest dream was always for a career in Formula 1,” says Bennani, casting an eye to the past. “When the premiere of the World Touring Car Championship took place in Marrakesh in 2009, there were inquiries as to whether I wanted to compete as a guest driver. I initially said no because I was single-seater driver.” However, the organisers did not give up until Bennani finally agreed. After just one test in a SEAT León, he took a surprising victory in the privateer rankings on his debut. “I really learned to love touring car racing on that weekend. It is spectacular, it hosts many great brands and provides good, close racing,” remembers Bennani.
Anniversary for Bennani in touring car racing
Benanni came to stay. This year, he celebrates his ten-year anniversary. In 2014, he won the world championship round in Shanghai as the first driver from an Arab nation to win a race under the umbrella of the FIA. Six more wins would follow thereafter – much to the delight of his fans and supporters, including the King of Morocco. The head of state recognised his talent early on and, after his first successes in single-seater racing, made possible a promotion in the French Federation of Motorsport. “I am incredibly grateful to him and all my other partners. It’s a great honour to represent my country.”
Now, it’s back to where it all began in Marrakesh. “Huge pressure is on my shoulders. For the Moroccans, a result is all that counts. A win or at least a podium is what the fans are hoping for. This gives me added motivation and I absolutely want to give them an unforgettable weekend.” Since 2015, the action has unfolded on the 2.971-kilometre-long semi-permanent circuit in Marrakesh. “As a driver, I prefer the longer layout of the city circuit – there are more full-throttle sections and longer breaking zones. For the event, however, the shorter track is better, since the spectators can see the race action the whole time. Everything is tighter and more compact.”
Whatever happens this weekend, Bennani knows one thing for sure: “Qualifying is really important and it is essential to get through the first corner unscathed. When everyone dives into this corner from the start, everyone wants to defend their position, mainly because it is very difficult to overtake on this track, with the best opportunities coming at turns one and four.” That said, Bennani has proven in the past that overtaking is possible. Last year, he celebrated a second-place finish – his best result so far in Marrakesh. If you were to ask his fellow-countrymen, Bennani is capable of improving on that by one position in 2019. And Benanni himself wouldn’t disagree.
Facts and figures on Mehdi Bennani
Date of birth 25 August 1983
Place of birth Fès (MA)
Residence Rabat (MA)
Marital status Married (spouse: Souka)
Height/weight 1.81 m/80 kg
Motorsport since 1991
Favourite track Marrakesh
Hobbies Fitness, jet skiing, squash, tennis
Racing series WTCR – FIA World Touring Car Cup
Team Sébastien Loeb Racing
Car Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR #25