#DTM500 2000-2012: A fresh start for the new millennium
At the Lausitzring, later this month, the DTM will be celebrating its 500th race since the series was founded in 1984. A perfect occasion, therefore, to look back upon the series’ history, the men and machines that stood out (or sometimes didn’t) and recall some remarkable races.
In part four, we look at the years from 2000 until 2011. During its three-year absence (1997-1999), many people in Germany realised how much they missed the DTM. Unlike other European countries – like Great Britain, France, Italy and Spain – the two-litre Super Touring formula never really caught on in Germany as German race fans were used to much bigger and more powerful tin-tops.
And they were eager to see them return in some way.
Soon, plans were made for a comeback of the DTM, but with much stricter regulations to prevent costs spiralling out of control and creating the same circumstances that led to the series’ demise at the end of 1996.
It didn’t take long for Mercedes-Benz and Opel to commit to the new series and, on a privateer basis, the Abt team joined as well with a touring car version of the Audi TT, largely developed in-house.
In 2000, the DTM made a spectacular comeback and soon found back to its old strength. Live TV coverage, a field of strong international drivers and fearsome competition were the keys to success. Audi officially became involved as a factory in 2004. At the end of 2005, Opel pulled out and plans for MG to join the series never materialised following the company’s bankruptcy. However, Audi and Mercedes were able to stage spectacular racing between them, with the prospect of BMW joining in 2012 on the horizon.
The DTM also grew successfully, incorporating a handful of events outside of Germany.
The greatest comeback since Elvis
While the ADAC-backed STW Super Touring series held the official German championship status in 1998 and 1999, plans were made for a comeback of the DTM. The prime movers behind the initiative were former driver Christian Danner, TV commentator Rainer Braun, technical expert Michael Bernard and TV director Bernd Krämer. They soon secured support from Opel, via its head of motorsport Volker Strycek, and Mercedes-Benz and its head of motorsport Norbert Haug.
Opel had already displayed a concept-study of a touring car based on its Astra Coupé during its annual end-of-season party in the Tarm Center in Bochum, in 1998. Mercedes followed suit with a CLK concept unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1999.
The two brands became the driving force behind the DTM’s comeback. Organising body ITR was also revived and took care of the organisation and promotion. The series presentation was held at the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin, with the first races held at Hockenheim at the end of May.
Abt’s apt Audi adaption
Having won the German Super Touring title with Christian Abt in 1999, the Abt Sportsline team showed a keen interest in plans for the new DTM. It developed a racing version of the Audi TT coupé, preparing it in time for the 2000 season.
In its first year, the privateer team still lacked the development muscle of its rivals, but the TT – in a slightly extended version – scored its maiden race win the following year, and went on to win the title with Laurent Aiello in 2002.
Those achievements were also instrumental in convincing Audi to become involved as a factory outfit from 2004 onwards.
The gullwing turns heads
The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL is arguably the most iconic gullwing-door car in the world, but the feature appeared in DTM, too. At the Norisring in 2000, Joachim Winkelhock put his Opel Astra V8 Coupé on pole-position and raised eyebrows by showcasing the car’s new gullwing door construction during Sunday morning’s warm-up.
Rain stops play
Opened earlier the same year, the Lausitzring featured on the calendar of the first season of the so-called ‘new DTM’. However, the race never happened. Torrential rain led to standing water on the track, then the laps behind the Safety Car quickly made it clear that the risk of aquaplaning was too great for the races to be started.
Most spectacular finish
There has never been a lack of thrilling battles in the DTM, but one of the most spectacular finishes in the sport’s history was the duel between Mercedes driver Uwe Alzen and Christian Abt in his Abt-Audi TT as the pair scrapped for for victory in Zandvoort’s feature race back in 2001.
Having won the qualifying race, Abt also looked set to win the feature; but, after an intense battle with plenty of contact, Alzen swooped for the lead on the very last lap to claim a dramatic win. After crossing the finish line, Abt bumped into Alzen’s car once more – a move he later explained was meant as congratulations to Alzen for his victory!
While the DTM only raced in Germany in its comeback year, it quickly became apparent that international interest was growing. As a result, races in Austria and The Netherlands were added to the calendar for 2001; and further rounds in Belgium and the UK joined the series in 2002. Portugal, Italy, the Czech Republic, Turkey, France and Spain also hosted rounds of the DTM.
China in your hand
One of the world’s leading car markets, China also had a soft-spot for the DTM. In 2004, a non-championship event was held on a street circuit in Shanghai’s Pudong district – with the Oriental Pearl TV tower a landmark in the background. The first race was stopped and not restarted after a manhole cover caused significant damage to Bernd Mayländer’s Mercedes at the start. Gary Paffett won the second race.
In 2010, Shanghai served as the venue for the season finale where second place – again with Paffett the race winner – was enough for Paul Di Resta to claim the title.
From F1 to DTM
Having participated in no fewer than 201 Formula 1 Grands Prix, Frenchman Jean Alesi joined the ranks of the DTM field, for Mercedes-Benz, in 2002. He started his DTM career with a podium finish, coming home third in the season opener at Hockenheim.
After the race, he threw his helmet into the crowd in the grandstands out of sheer joy and abandonment. Two races later, he scored his first DTM victory at Donington.
The Frenchman repeated his success in Leicestershire the following year, and also won the 2003 finale and the ’05 season opener, both at Hockenheim. In 2004, two-time F1 world champion Mika Häkkinen made his debut in the DTM, also for Mercedes-Benz. The Finn opened his winning account at Spa in 2005 and also came out on top at Lausitzring and Mugello in 2007. Several other ex-F1 drivers raced in the DTM during this era, including Pedro Lamy, Karl Wendlinger, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Ralf Schumacher and Allan McNish, although they never managed to win races.
From DTM to F1
If DTM had proven to be a rich playground for ex-grand prix drivers, it also started to work the opposite way round.
Young Dutchman Christijan Albers looked well set to win the 2003 DTM title with Mercedes-Benz, but a puncture in the season finale at Hockenheim blew his chances. As a result, stalwart Bernd Schneider was crowned the champion that year, even though he had just two wins compared to Albers’ four.
After another season in DTM, Albers moved up into Formula 1, but failed to shine in the category. Another driver to step up from DTM to F1 was Paul Di Resta, who raced successfully for Force India after winning the DTM title in 2010.
The lawnmower man
Heinz-Harald Frentzen may have never won a DTM race, but he did score a victory during a DTM race event: on the eve of the 2005 season finale at Hockenheim, he took the laurels in a much-publicised lawn mower race in the stadium section of the circuit against German radio presenter Volker Janitz.
Frentzen’s lawnmower, sporting the same design as the Opel Vectra he was racing at the time, had been prepared by the Holzer DTM team, while the Abt Audi squad had taken care of Janitz’s machine.
Audi pulls out
A previously unheard of situation occurred at the penultimate round of the 2007 season, held at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona.
After multiple incidents with Mercedes cars in the first half of the race, Audi decided to withdraw all of its cars from the race as a protest against what it viewed as unsporting behaviour. With the instruction given, all Audi drivers parked their cars in the pits with nine laps remaining.
The biggest crash in the first 10 years of the ‘new’ DTM was – without question – Alexandre Prémat’s accident at the penultimate round of the 2010 season, at Italy’s Adria Raceway. At the end of the opening lap, his car came off the track and barrel-rolled several times, shedding bodywork as it shook itself to pieces.
The car was a complete write-off, but Prémat escaped unscathed. The same was true for Opel’s Peter Dumbreck, who had a massive crash coming out of the final corner at Zandvoort in 2004.
From two-door to four-door
In the first three years of the DTM, two-door coupé cars filled the field with the Mercedes-Benz CLK, the Opel Astra Coupé and the Audi TT. In 2004, these machines were replaced by four-door saloons: the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the Opel Vectra and the Audi A4.
Three drivers stand out
The three stand-out drivers during this era were Bernd Schneider (19 victories), Gary Paffett (18) and Mattias Ekström (17).
Unsurprisingly, Mercedes-Benz took the greatest number of race wins during this time, its total of 80 was almost twice as many as nearest rivals Audi (Abt-Audi and works-Audi combined), which took 42 wins.