Paul di Resta is in the midst of a massive comeback in the second half of the 2010 DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) season: the young Scot took his third consecutive victory today at the Hockenheimring to move into the championship lead with two races remaining, leapfrogging his Mercedes teammate Bruno Spengler.
Starting from fifth on the grid, di Resta used an extended first stint to gain clear track and move up the field. As his competitors slipped into the pit lane for the first mandatory tire stop from lap 12 on, di Resta stayed out, lapping quickly even on his now-worn original set of tires. By the time he made his stop on lap 26, he was able to return to the track in second place, behind just polesitter and race leader Timo Scheider.
"It was a surprising victory," di Resta admitted. "The start wasn't great, but the car was unbeatable and the speed was simply incredible. Fortunately, I was still able to catch Timo Scheider."
Catching is always one thing, passing quite another -- but di Resta's strategy worked in his favour again. Just two laps after the Mercedes driver returned to the track from his first stop, Scheider made his second mandatory stop, giving clear track to di Resta again.
Six laps later, di Resta popped into the pits, and exited easily in the lead. And from there it was a Sunday afternoon cruise to the finish: the gap between di Resta and Scheider was 10.532 seconds at the chequered flag.
Scheider is the 2008 and 2009 champion, but is now mathematically out of championship contention: Mercedes is guaranteed its first drivers' title since 2006, having won all races this year but one. The outgoing champion was philosophical about the result, though.
"Of course, I had hoped for more," he mused. "But you can't wish anything in motorsport, where performance is the only thing that counts. For next year, we have to keep the performance from the last couple of races."
Mike Rockenfeller and Gary Paffett, who started second and third, respectively, for Audi and Mercedes, fought hard for the final podium position, but Paffett was unable to sustain serious pressure on his rival beyond the early laps of the race, and in the end the gap between the two was nearly five seconds.
Rockenfeller was another four seconds behind the second-placed Scheider, but it was a highly credible performance in a 2008-spec car, and matched Rockenfeller's career-best DTM result, another third place at Oschersleben in 2007.
"I'm happy with my performance this weekend," Rockenfeller summed up his day. "Needless to say I'd have also liked to have won the start from position two on the grid. But I didn't manage to do this. From then on it was clear that I had to defend myself at the rear, against Gary. I managed to do that well. Then I was even able to build up a little bit of a distance. I didn't see Paul (Di Resta) at any time during the race. When he came out in front of Timo after his second stop I knew that third place would be the maximum."
Beyond the clean race of the top four finishers, there was much mayhem. Spengler, trying to move through the field, appeared to brake too late at the end of the back straight, and made contact with fourth-place starter Miguel Molina on the first lap, tapping Molina's Audi into a spin.
"My start was good, albeit conservative, but I still gained one position," Molina recalled. "I braked too late into turn three and was hit - I think it was (Bruno) Spengler. I braked late but apparently he didn?t brake at all. That meant the end of my race."
The hapless Moline then collected Ralf Schumacher, David Coulthard, Markus Winkelhock, Katherine Legge and Congfu Cheng, and brought out the safety car. Mattias Ekstrom, too, made contact and that would come back to haunt him later in the race.
Coulthard and Cheng made it into the pits and retired there, while others had to abandon the race on the spot. Spengler, who had precipitated the melee, was the only one to be able to continue, but it appears the contact caused some rear suspension damage, and the Canadian eventually had to call it a day at the halfway mark of the race as a tire change failed to cure the problem.
Meanwhile, Mattias Ekstrom -- Audi's top driver in the championship coming into this race -- and Alexandre Premat both suffered from wheel problems on their Audi A4s and had to retire, adding to Audi's litany of woes this year.
"After Eki had retired, it was clear to us that we wouldn't be able to go for the title anymore," said Wolfgang Ullrich, Audi's motorsport director. "We still had hopes of winning the race ..."
In the event, there were indeed four Audis in the top six, but with di Resta winning and Paffett in fourth, they surely weren't the right four positions from an Ingolstadt perspective. Adding to Scheider's and Rockenfeller's podium positions, Martin Tomczyk and Oliver Jarvis closely followed Paffett's Mercedes across the line, but were unable to make a move on the Briton.
Susie Stoddart took seventh for Mercedes, matching her career-best finish from Lausitz earlier this year, holding off teammate Jamie Green, who had lost time to a drive-through penalty for a near-collision in the pits.
The end result of all this was di Resta jumping to the top of the points standings, with 63 points to Spengler's 60; Paffett is still mathematically in the picture with 49 points.
It's the first time someone other than Spengler has headed the championship fight since the Canadian took over the lead at the season's second race in Valencia. Two races remain, and clearly di Resta is the hottest driver on the DTM circuit at the moment -- will Spengler be able to recover and fight back?
Answers will be forthcoming in a fortnight's time, as the DTM circus returns to the Adria International Raceway in Italy for the first time in two years.