DTM’s recent struggles in keeping its manufacturers in line have caused sparking frictions among participants and launched the series into - potentially another golden era. What does DTM have up in its sleeves?
Quite recently, two incidents keep DTM in the headlines of sports news. Not just motorsports, but all sports. The first happened at a wet Red Bull Ring in Spielberg in Austria where a last-lap pass of championship leader Pascal Wehrlein of Mercedes on Audi’s Timo Scheider (and Mercedes’s Robert Wickens) triggered an angry pit call of “Push him out!” addressed to Scheider. The Audi driver then executed the order, sending the two cars ahead of him by a well-orchestrated, gentle nudge on the one in the back, both of them slowly spinning out in the upcoming slow corner’s gravel trap. Repentance wasn’t far to follow and it was also revealed that the team order was coming from none other than Audi team boss, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, probably better known of Audi’s highly successful sportscar program, for which he received a season-long pitlane ban and the driver a race-ban.
The second blow to the sporting code came even more recently at the Nürburgring while the pitstop melee caused Pascal Wehrlein to lose a few places while under pressure from Audi’s Mike Rockenfeller. Wehrlein called the pits for help for additional speed who made the two Mercedes cars two positions up to slow down so that Wehrlein is able to get in their DRS “shadow” to pull away from Rockenfeller and act as a buffer between the two drivers upon overtaking. Audi DTM boss, Dieter Gass ridiculed the practice, citing an informal agreement between manufacturers the day before that they would refrain from such team orders.
Now, it all seems like a tornado in the microverse of a local racing venture somewhere in Central Europe, however, one needs to understand the structure of DTM to get a fuller picture and the reason of how it is important to real life. On the surface, DTM might look like any other racing series with different cars, different liveries battling it all out on the race tracks of Germany. A bit closer it might look like NASCAR for that matter. In NASCAR, you virtually have teams - consisting of the car, the driver, the pitcrew and the team boss and all the logistics et al -, team owners - who, not surprisingly, own the teams - and manufacturers - namely Chevrolet, Toyota and Ford - in that particular order of importance. In DTM, however, the order is reversed with the institution of team owners being virtually synonymous with manufacturers. In other words, DTM basically has three teams on track: BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz and in this context, the Red Bull Ring and the Nürburgring events and their aftermath are one manufacturer battling with another manufacturer on and off the track.
Imagine if Formula One had three teams only: Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault and you get the scale of politics involved in this “local” series. BMW - upon its triumphant return to the series after two decades of absence - shut down its WORLD Touring Car Championship program in favour of battling its two, closest enemies on home ground. There is a reason youngsters choose DTM as a springboard to F1 and why F1 drivers tend to retire to DTM as well: everyone drives for a manufacturer.
That said, each DTM race is a three-fold game of battle chess: the strategy is planned out by the respective management and executed by the drivers. Each collision, pass or position gained between two different cars is a punch from one manufacturer to the other. In this respect, strategy and (decent) team orders are very much part of the game that - in my opinion - shouldn’t be restricted, because that is what makes DTM unique in the business.
Take that and the recent unification of technical regulations between DTM and the GT500 class of Japan’s SuperGT. It has been agreed that the respective cars of each category - DTM’s Audi, Mercedes and BMW and GT500’s Nissan, Honda and Lexus - are to be built to a common set of rules. Part of it has already been enforced, except the engines that will be unified from 2017, adopting the same two-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged powerplants in both series as used in Japan’s prime single-seater series, Super Formula. In theory, then, there will be an opportunity to create a global racing series as a playground to Volkswagen, Toyota, Daimler AG, Renault, Honda and BMW.
To put it into perspective: due to the Volkswagen diesel-controversy, all of Audi’s F1 ambitions fell apart in a nanosecond and one can wonder what will happen to its diesel LMP1 program in the World Endurance championship, escpecially when their sister company, Porsche tends to beat them lately. Also, VW is sporting a highly successful WRC program at the moment, so losing a “losing” battle in another championship - while potentially gaining another one - is not a loss they couldn’t live without. Reanult is likely to be involved in Formula 1 from next year, but their subsidiary’s - i.e. Nissan - LMP1 experiment blew up spectacularly at the 2015 Le Mans 24 hours. Toyota is on a restricted budget in LMP1 and could also end up like their former, money-pit F1 project, while there is also a WRC venture in the pipeline already. Honda just fell flat on their faces in both Formula 1 and IndyCar while supporting a WTCC campaign that is no match for the Citroens. Mercedes keeps throwing endless money at F1 - and being very much successful at it - while BMW doesn’t really have anything else but DTM.
To put it bluntly: DTM (and SuperGT) is just a place too comfortable and promising to be in at this very moment for manufacturers and drivers alike - and if it turns out to be a global specacle at some point, it van potentially be a threat to the success of all of the FIA’s track-based racing series: WTCC, WEC and F1, a relatively cheap alternative to any of the world championships with ultimate control over them, while also keeping regional series.
If there is a time to be a DTM fan, there’s hasn’t been a better one for quite a while.
[All images are of Creative Commons licence]