Gary Paffett and the rest of the Mercedes-Benz contingent did what it took, locking out the top five places in today's DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) race at Dijon and extended Paffett's title challenge to the final race of the season. Championship leader Time Scheider, starting near the back of the field, was unable to finish better than sixth, enabling Paffett to close the gap to seven points.
"It was a tough and long race, but the fight with Mattias Ekstrom was always fun," said Paffett. "It's great that I reduced the gap behind Timo Scheider from 14 to seven points. Hockenheim will be again an exciting race and even with the chances of an underdog I don't give up."
The qualifying, marked by recurring rain showers, had been dominated by the Mercedes drivers, but a number of the Audi teams felt that they had the better setups for dry conditions. However, a combination of poor starting positions and tire problems took all the leading Audis out of contention.
Paffett started the race well back on the grid himself, but rapidly moved up to fifth place on the first lap. That was behind his teammate and polesitter Bruno Spengler, who held position into the first corner, as well as Tom Kristensen, Paul Di Resta and Mattias Ekstrom. Scheider made up even more ground in the early going, moving from sixteenth to ninth.
Ekstrom and Paffett dove into the pits early, on lap 12, as they were being held up by Spengler, who was off the pace early on in the race. Once the leaders completed their first round of stops three laps later, it was Ekstrom's Audi at the head of the field, followed by Paffett.
"I had a perfect car and loads of confidence," Ekstrom recalled. "After my first pit stop I was leading the race. After 20 laps the team informed me that I should choose a safe driving style, And that's what I did up to the end of the race. But it wasn't enough to save the tires all the way. Unfortunately, the tire blew and I didn't score a single point."
But Ekstrom's puncture came much later. It was Scheider, instead, that suffered the first blowout seven laps later, and had to limp the rest oiof the lap into the pits for a new tire.
"I had a few nice duels on my way forward," Scheider recalled. "Of course was a little fortunate as well in that the puncture struck me so close to the pit lane entrance, which meant that I didn't lose too much time."
In the meantime Ekstrom was still holding off Paffett, even as the Briton pressed hard, the Mercedes' front bumper barely behind the rear bumper of Ekstrom's Audi throughout the second stint. As the two exited the pits after their second stops on lap 30, the Swede still held the edge.
Kristensen held third after the second round of stops, followed by di Resta, Spengler, Jamie Green and Ralf Schumacher, with Scheider having recovered to eighth.
But five laps later, on lap 44, Kristensen suffered a puncture to his left rear tire -- the same tire as Scheider's puncture. As the Dane limped to the pits, he cut short a chicane, earning a black flag.
"Five or six laps before the end I had a tire puncture," the Dane explained. "I wanted to take the car into the pits in a way that wouldn't damage it or that would jeopardize other drivers. That's why I took a shortcut after turn three. I got the black flag for that - but my race was over anyway."
Two laps later, it was the left rear on Ekstrom's Audi, and Paffett easily slipped into the lead. With the two leading Audis having succumbed to tire problems, di Resta and Spengler moved up to podium positions, leaving Scheider's A4, in sixth place, as the top-placed car with the four rings.
Paffett's victory moves the Mercedes driver up to 49 points, seven behind Scheider's total of 56. With a maximum of 10 points available at the season finale in Hockenheim, Paffett needs to tie Scheider's total to win the title, as the Briton has three wins so far to Scheider's two.
So Paffett will be driving for victory -- albeit with 5 kg more weight than the Mercedes were carrying today -- while Scheider needs but a fifth-place finish to clinch a second consecutive DTM championship.
"A seven-point lead over Gary (Paffett) and ten kilos less in our new cars (than in the Mercedes) is a decent starting base for the finale two weeks from now," Scheider predicted. "The fans at Hockenheim can now look forward to a real pinnacle of the season."
Stay tuned for some season-ending fireworks, as one has come to expect from DTM.