What happens when you put one of the most interesting, loudest race cars on one of the most boring (but not character-less) racetracks in the world? Hope for good support races.
"Hi! So what about DTM? Are you going?" "I don't know." "I don't know either, that's why I called to ask you whether you were going." I mean - do you want to go?" "Well, let's see it. I wouldn't go by myself." "I wouldn't either." "So, how about going, then?" "Okay with me." "Okay, bye." "Bye."
This awkward phone call to one of my friends sums up pretty much all the cognitive dissonance I'm fighting with when it comes to DTM. DTM cars are exciting, powerful, loud, fast. They are very much like a mixture of NASCAR stock cars and LMP2 sportscars. Thinking of it, they are best described as "front-engined Daytona Prototypes" (looking at you, Don Panoz). On the other hand, I can't remember sitting through a complete race and not doing something else in the meantime, eventhough all the elements are there: huge manufacturers going head-to-head, V8s, Formula One drivers, misc. touring car drivers, sportscar drivers, some great tracks and huge following in its native country. And for the first time in 26 years, they return to the Hungaroring, after the early-spring test with the current cars.
As much as I can see it though, there's not much racing happening in terms of 'touring car racing'. Touring cars are defined by bumper-to-bumper and door-on-door traffic, and you just can't get it with DTM.
But let's not get ahead.
The Sunday schedule at the Hungaroring consisted of the feature DTM race, two rounds of F3 European Championship, two rounds of Maserati Trofeo and a Porsche cup challenge.
I chose the final turn as our seating, as you could actually see close to half of the track from there while still being relatively close to the cars. My friend - Mikey - was eager to get a seat as close to the track as possible, as he was concerned about the sound of the cars. I told him there's probably nothing to worry about, we'll be able to hear pretty much everything. As soon as we got to the track and hit the grandstand, the first event, the Maserati Trofeo cars just took the corner right in front of us for the flying start. Two minutes later, as the cars came around once more, Mikey noted that we should have brought earplugs.
While the drivers were mostly amateur racers, the Maserati Gran Turismo Trofeo cars are pure excitement to watch. Great sounding V8, huge, front splitters, gorgeous styling and hell, Maseratis. Historically speaking, it was great to see Maseratis at the Hungaroring, as two of Hungary's most successful drivers in Grand Prix racing were racing Maseratis against the mighty Silver Arrow, Scuderia Ferrari and Alfa Corse teams in the 1930s.
The first, 30-minute sprint wasn't packed with excitement, but then Porsches came to the rescue. 38 of them, with a starting grid long enough to occupy the middle of the final corner, too. If NASCAR was invented by Europeans, it would look something like this: a huge pack of identical, real sports cars in a bowl with some tight corners.
Speaking of which. The Hungaroring is generally boring for open-wheel single-seaters, as F1 has proved it 27 times already (well, 25 in all fairness - there were two rainy races). Lesser the case for 'tin-tops', as the slow, but flowing corners enable some friendly contact if you are faster than the one in front and want to get ahead. Nevertheless, the surroundings are the likes of what I call 'classic race tracks', meaning it sort of follows the natural terrain, it's in the countryside, surrounded by hills with some farming going on, but it's already built to some modern standards, i.e. no outrageously fast straights, it's windy, so no chances of big shunts, it's close to the capital - meaning infrastructure and transportation at hand.
All to say, I was really looking forward to the Porsche race. They certainly upped the game by a few steps. More professional drivers, faster cars racing around in a train. There were great, four or five car-length trains killing each other corner after corner, lap after lap. A few spins, contacts and bumps occurred right in front of our eyes - certainly, one of the most thrilling races of the whole day.
Formula 3 was a very different animal. First of all, they look much better in real life than they do in pictures and they certainly sound better than on TV. Also, single-seaters. The mind just boggles at the acceleration and deceleration these cars are capable of, and it's just F3! This is the sort of velocity you'd expect from a DTM car, only it's on a budget. Three sprint races were scheduled for the weekend, two run on Sunday. There were some illustrious last names on the grid (such as Blomqvist and Verstappen) and some cars resembling F1 counterparts.
Apart from overall winner, Esteban Ocon's Lotus-inspired car there was a late, Brawn GP look-a-like, and one that looked exactly like a Footwork F1 car from the mid-90s (courtesy of Taki Inoue).
Watching such fast cars running around in a pack is exciting enough, but as soon as the field started breaking up, the anticipation wore off as the cars were spread around the track evenly, not much happening in terms of eye-candies for spectators.
The track was now open for DTM. To fill in the two-hour gap between the races, all DTM manufacturers tried to do some promotion to affect our brains. Mike Rockenfeller and Jamie Green took their respective Audi and Mercedes DTM cars, lapping the circuit, while Timo Glock raced around in an E30 M3 touring car. The l4 engine was screaming down the start/finish-line, outshining the current DTM cars by a mile. That and an M3 GT2 were both cast to oblivion when a 633CSi hit the track in all its 70s glory. The sound, the roll of the bodywork, the racy livery made it the most "want" car of the weekend for me, and I am not a BMW fan (before you ask: no pics, because I was too occupied watching).
Finally, the subjects of the main attraction came around for the first time to line up in the last corner, so the drivers could do a parade lap in some very decent current and vintage cars from their respective employers.
It is quite hard to tell what a DTM car is other than the vague description I gave above, nevertheless they are race car-looking... race cars with some overdone wheelarches. But they do sound great and one of the reasons I actually wanted to see these cars in action is because the V8s will be gone for good, starting in 2017, replaced by turbo-l4 engines, the same Super Formula and Super GT's using currently, as Super GT and DTM is going through a transition of unification at the moment.
Being highly unlikely for me to see these cars in their current format once again, I was eager for the starting procedure to commence. Surely, they had some beastly - but smooth - sound as they came around at the end of the first lap. It was interesting to witness how the first three drivers took a very different angle in the final turn. They virtually broke up the turn to three angles and went with it, unlike the others who took a clean, sweeping single line around the corner. Same pace as F3, same excitement for the first few laps, same drop-off for the rest of the race. Mikey even said I nodded off during lap 14, although I cannot confirm this bit As I clearly don't remember it. On the contrary, the grandstand next to us was all wind up, as they were all workers from the Hungarian Mercedes-Benz factory, wearing DTM T-shirts waving Mercedes flags. I'm not saying, though, that there wasn't a cue when to wave the flags.
It's a bit hard for me to comprehend. Everything is there to make it a spectacular series. It's not unlike NASCAR or V8 Supercars much. I cannot explain the weird experience I get when watching DTM, but it feels like seeing a Michael Bay film on German cable TV. All violent scenes are cut out and the whole thing is overdubbed in German - whatever this means. Perhaps DTM tries so hard to be something else that it loses the target on the way. It's not NASCAR, not touring car racing, not sportscar racing, but something in-between.
For something comprehensive, the Maserati Trofeo cars hit the track once again. This time, for a one-hour, timed 'endurance' race, as opposed to the previous, 30-minute sprint race. With a mandatory pit stop and driver change halfway through the race (except they weren't mandatory at all, but the cars still had to spend a designated amount of time in the pits, stationary, as if they were carrying out said actions if they didn't). It was like a one-make GTC race with Pro and Am drivers thrown into the mix, hit very much home for my sportscar-loving heart and I have to say, they looked and sounded better than the DTM cars. My small camera didn't do it justice, but you might get the idea:
I also recorded a lap with my not-for-the-purpose phone, but despite the low quality rate you can still get a faint glimpse of the sexy roar of these engines:
To close the day, the final round of F3 was chosen, which (and the previous one) was marred with loads of drive-through penalties for drivers 'leaving the track', completely dissecting all hopes for close racing.
Eventually, the much-waited rain arrived for the closing laps of the race (there was a small digest of it during the DTM race as well) and was red-flagged eventually, wrapping up the weekend.
What do we learn from all this?
Watching a race live on TV and at the track is a vastly different experience of course. What you get from being there is all the sights and sounds, smells and small details that get lost on a TV broadcast. But that's only true for a section of the track. What you don't get, is the story of the race. Eventhough tracks have large screens showing the event live, it can be distracting as you're there to watch a race, not TV, and without sufficient commentary you have no idea what's going on the track, only if you're watching or listening to a broadcast constantly.
Speaking of commentaries, sound. There's definitely a 'show' element you need to take into consideration when you invite people to a race track. Fast and loud race cars are exciting, yes, but only until a few laps have gone by. If there's no action to shake you up eventually, you totally lose touch and all you see is cars going in circles. Sound is definitely a part of it. So as social interaction. You just can't talk over to the person on the next seat without putting your vocal cords at a considerable stress and taking your eyes off the action.
In this respect, quieter cars are a step ahead for the live audience, who want to do their commentary or share their reaction with their friends next to them. But if you're a dedicated fan, you want to have the earplugs taken out for the ear-shattering moments and just enjoy the cars running around, looking at your stopwatch and time sheet in the meanwhile.
If these cars were put in a four-hour race against each other in different classes, you would have plenty of overtaking, variety in speed, looks and sound, would have made a hell of a live experience.
Nevertheless, whatever your intention is, you get a sunstroke and sunburn as I did if you step outside and visit a venue. And it was overcast for the most.
But getting this kind of sunstroke is a fabulous thing if you can afford it.
AMG Mercedes image is from Wikipedia an is of Creative Commons licence