“Character building.” Those are the words Tiago Monteiro first finds to describe the climax to a WTCR - FIA World Touring Car Cup weekend at Estoril from which the Portuguese stood to gain much before it unravelled at the last.
All race weekends are important to a title challenge, but a home round takes on particular significance for any driver - even in these peculiar times.
A driver in form, and in high demand, Tiago has an early start to his race ‘weekend’ with a TV appearance alongside his son, Noah, who is climbing the karting ranks, on TVI's popular evening talk show Cristina ComVida on Wednesday. That’s followed the next morning by a solo interview on the breakfast magazine show Esta Manhã.
With those appearances in the book, attention turns to the race weekend proper. Portuguese rounds of the WTCR (and its World Touring Car Championship predecessor) are typically lively, and even with a move from the streets of Vila Real for 2021 - a consequence of an extended ban on mass gatherings - it was hoped some fans would be able to cheer on their home hero.
That isn’t to be, with Tiago acknowledging the “really important boost” a passionate support base provides but vowing to “give them results to celebrate in any case”.
Tiago starts the weekend in a share of second place in the Championship with fellow Honda Racing driv
Nestor Girolami following a victory in the season-opening race three weeks earlier, and is optimistic about his prospects - though that’s tempered with caution as the WTCR heads into something of an unknown, having never previously visited Estoril.
“It's a very good position to be in to start the season,” he says, speaking in Friday’s pre-event press conference. “Estoril is a place I know but I haven’t raced here that many times. I like the track, it is quite a technical one, very diverse, and it will be interesting to see where we’re at.”
A pre-weekend Münnich Motorsport briefing, team and Honda photoshoots, plus additional promotional commitments all follow that conference and mean there’s barely a moment’s rest on the first full day at Estoril - so the few minutes of downtime are an important breather, particularly to spend with family who have also made the trip to the Portuguese Riviera.
Qualifying day means it’s time to get down to business, with track activity taking precedence over promo duties - though there’s still a meet and greet appearance for one of the series’ most popular drivers, as guests slowly begin to return to races as Covid-19 restrictions ease.
There was little indication of what to expect of the Münnich Motorsport Honda Civic Type R TCR package pre-weekend but, as it turns out, the 4.182-kilometre circuit is a rather good match for the car. Tiago is fastest of all in Q2, and ends up qualifying second for the main race as part of a 1-2-3-5 for the Honda Racing quartet.
But it’s race day where it really counts. A fourth-place finish in race one is a strong reward for a measured drive from ninth on the grid, and brings with it the lead of the Championship.
Race Two starts even better, for Tiago at least. A combination of issues on the grid mean polesitter Esteban Guerrieri struggles to get away, allowing a clear run into the lead at Turn 1. That early advantage, over ALL-INKL.DE Munnich Motorsport team-mate Attila Tassi, only grows after an early Safety Car.
Then the despair. While in a lead of more than three seconds, Tiago’s bonnet becomes loose on the right-hand side. A black-and-orange flag is shown and he pits soon after, having already relinquished the lead, with an 18th-place finish a cruel reward for a flawless drive.
It’s a hard result to swallow, but one Tiago - ever the professional - quickly dusts himself down from to attend the post-race press conference. Emotion understandably comes through, but so too does his magnanimous streak - particularly as Attila was in place to uphold Honda honour and claim his first victory.
“First of all, I’m really, really happy for Attila. We’ve spoken about this moment for a long time and every time we are about to be on the podium together something happens,” says Tiago, referencing Attila dropping out of the lead in Vila Real in 2019 - which paved the way for his own victory, his first since returning from injury.
“Everything was going well - too well. So it was not meant to be, but the championship is long and the good thing is we have a strong package, we have a good car.
“For tonight it will be a hard one to accept. Tomorrow will be another day.”
Then, finally, there’s time to digest that undesired end to a whirlwind weekend. Tomorrow is indeed another day, with back-to-back testing at the track, by which time much of the hurt has dissipated.
What should be left is the memory of a great drive, and the knowledge that the Civic Type R TCR is working well on conventional tracks - as good a motivating factor as any for round three of the season at Aragon, which is just around the corner on July 10/11.