The DTM has plenty going for it, but will a development freeze protect it against the economic draught?
By Ed Foster
The Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft was not a series known for standing still. Since its inaugural season in 1984, the series progressed from production-based Group 1 touring cars to high-tech flame-spitting V8 silhouette racers in the mid-1990s. During that time there was involvement from Alfa Romeo, Audi, BMW, Ford, Mercedes, Opel, Rover and Volvo.
Today, the racing is as close as it gets in the re-named Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters – half a second covered the first 11 cars in qualifying at Brands Hatch last September. But nowadays only two marques – Audi and Mercedes – grace the starting grids. And while the action is exciting, it’s overly influenced by team orders because the manufacturers place team results over individual achievement. Fans still flock to watch the racing, but action is needed to protect ‘the show’. Organising body the ITR is planning a new rulebook for 2011 to entice new makes and, crucially with this series’ history, control costs. There has also been an immediate freeze on development. The mistakes of 1996, when the old series died thanks to vast and escalating budgets, will not be repeated.
The development freeze is a last resort according to Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, the head of Audi Motorsport. “We were keen to not lose anything in terms of enjoyment for the fans, but it was something we had to do to bring costs down,” he says. “The development freeze was the last step, but it will be important for next season. All you need to do now is buy new parts when they are running out of accepted mileage. Everything is fixed so you can only use the existing parts. Of course you can combine several aero parts with each other, for example, but it will certainly help keep expenditure to a minimum.”
Ullrich believes that only having two manufacturers in the championship is not a problem. “It’s been like that since 2006 and it has worked out fine,” he says. “Other manufacturers are welcome, but we all have to understand that in the current economic situation it is not easy for a manufacturer to make a move like this. On the other hand the new rulebook, where everyone starts from zero, may make it more interesting.”
As it stands, it has never made sense for a manufacturer to plough into the DTM from scratch. With Audi and Mercedes so far along in the development of their cars, any new manufacturer would have faced a long game of playing catch-up, even with frozen rules for 2010. But now with a new rulebook in mind, talks have taken place with BMW to join in, although progress has stalled because the marque is keen on racing a car that would also be eligible for other championships. The current cars are very much silhouette racers, and only eligible for this series. They have little in common with the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C Class on which they are based, meaning that a fan can’t go out and actually buy what they’ve just seen on track. Ullrich is unfazed: “With the sport prototype we are always improving new technology that we then bring into our road cars. It still promotes the A4 and if you do this in motor sport, fighting against one of the top manufacturers, it just works well. It’s the external shape of the car, in that it’s an A4 made for racing. Mostly people don’t care what’s under the body, but it is important for us that there is ‘Audi’ under the skin.”
The DTM is a success, with an extremely large and loyal fan base. The competition is intense, and the Audis and Mercs are raced by some of the best drivers in the world. The cars are more akin to single-seaters than touring cars which helps the series attract a lot of young talent, even though the DTM can reasonably be considered a racing cul-de-sac on the road to Formula 1.
There have been plenty of F1 drivers to grace the DTM grid including in recent years Mika Häkkinen, Allan McNish, Jean Alesi and Ralf Schumacher. But they all joined the German-based series after their Grand Prix careers ended. The last person to swim against the tide was Christijan Albers, who finished second and third in the 2003/04 championships and then progressed to F1 in ’05, only to return to the DTM three years later. Gary Paffett used his 2005 title win to secure a test seat at McLaren, hoping that it would transform into a race seat for ’07. But a certain Lewis Hamilton put paid to that idea and Paffett also returned to DTM that year.
So why have British stars Jamie Green, Paul di Resta and Oliver Jarvis turned to the DTM when they know it could be a dead end to their F1 aspirations? Jarvis finished second in the 2006 British Formula 3 Championship with Carlin Motorsport and was also the highest-placed rookie, but the effort had taken a financial toll. “At that point I realised there was no way we were ever going to afford the step up to [the Renault] World Series or GP2,” he says. “I was lucky the following year  in that I was an F3 works driver for TOM’S Toyota in Japan and won Macau with them. But Audi had contacted me the year before, just after I’d signed my TOM’S contract, which put the idea in my head.
“When I signed for the DTM I didn’t think ‘right, Formula 1 has gone’. My eyes were actually opened; there’s not just F1, there’s Le Mans, other endurance racing and so on. What is there in single-seaters apart from F1? Those who don’t make it in GP2 have nowhere to go – they do two or three years, spend four million and at the end of it they can’t get a drive in anything. You’ve got the IRL in America but I don’t see any reason why I couldn’t do it, if that’s the route I wanted to take.”
Has Jarvis lost interest in F1? “If I got the opportunity to drive an F1 car, I would,” he admits. “But am I knocking down the doors of Formula 1 teams at the moment? No, because I’m happy where I am. I don’t see the DTM as a cul-de-sac because I am with Audi, and Audi is involved in so many other [racing] programmes. If I look back in 10 years’ time and I’ve had 10 years in the DTM, some R8 [GT3] racing and maybe some Le Mans races, I’ll be very happy with the way my career has gone.”
Di Resta joined the DTM after Mercedes took him on as a junior driver in its F3 Euroseries campaign in 2005, a championship he won the following year with five victories. “It was always a progression to go to the DTM, but honestly there wasn’t any other route that I could take at that stage,” he says.
But unlike Jarvis, di Resta still has his sights set very firmly on Formula 1. “I’d still like to try and get there,” he says. “It’ll be difficult, but you’ve got to explore all the options and try your best. As long as you know in your mind that you’ve tried everything, you’ve got to be satisfied with that. I think people who look at the DTM from the outside don’t actually look hard enough and see how much more it is like single-seater racing than any other tin-top series.”
It is Green, though, who sums up why the DTM is able to attract so many drivers who otherwise might have made it to GP2, or even F1. “The DTM is not really on the ladder to F1,” he says. “After I won the F3 Euroseries [in 2004] Mercedes offered me a DTM contract. If I’d carried on with single-seaters I would have had to spend money to keep racing, whereas the alternative was to earn money through racing in the DTM. I’m sort of branded as a touring car driver now, which in some ways is a shame, but at the same time I’m fortunate to be a professional racing driver.”
Without suitable backing, the F1 dream can indeed end abruptly. On the other hand being a professional, paid racing driver in another series is not something to turn your nose up at – especially as there are only 50-odd such drivers in the whole of the UK.
The DTM remains one of the most hotly contested championships in the world, and one where young drivers get a chance to battle against the experience of Mattias Ekström and Tom Kristensen among others. The freeze on car development and the new rules will hopefully attract more manufacturers in the years to come. “The great thing is that Mercedes and Audi put their full support behind the DTM,” says Jarvis. “In the World Touring Car Championship there are more manufacturers, but I don’t believe they put in quite the same effort. It would be great if we could get another one or two manufacturers. The DTM is amazing already, but another manufacturer would help take the spectacle to a whole new level.”
Timo Scheider has just secured the 2009 championship, which makes Audi the first brand to have won the title for the third consecutive year. But don’t be fooled into thinking that it has been a one-horse race. Even though the DTM could do with another manufacturer, it remains one of the most competitive and exciting tin-top series in the world.