Gary Paffett got a solid start for his 2010 championship ambitions at the DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) season openet at the Hockenheimring. The 2009 championship runner-up led a Mercedes-Benz 1-2-3-4 finish, giving the Stuttgart marque its first win in the season opener since 2006. For Paffett, it was his third at the famed circuit, also the location of his first career DTM victory.
"It's amazing," Paffett said. "Yesterday I was on pole and today I won the race: a perfect weekend for Mercedes-Benz and for me. Our team did a great job and found the optimum set-up for the race; thank you to everybody. The race was not as easy as it might have looked like, as I had to look after my tyres throughout."
The British veteran driver was followed across the finish line by a trio of his Mercedes teammates: Bruno Spengler, Jamie Green and Paul di Resta trailed Paffett in close formation, only 2.251 seconds separating the fourth-placed di Resta from the winner.
His teammates were never a real threat for Paffett, but early in the race had to fight hard with Martin Tomczyk, driving for the rival Audi team. Tomczyk, starting next to Paffett on the front row, challenged the Briton into the first corner but could not get past.
However, only three turns later, he outbraked Paffett and took the lead for Audi. Unfortunately for him, though, only 11 laps later he suffered a puncture as he was slowly edging away from Paffett, causing him to spin off the track into the first turn.
"Generally, I'd say the weekend was outstanding up to the twelfth race lap," Tomczyk mused. "But when it really mattered, I suffered a huge misfortune. We still don't know what caused my puncture. Unfortunately, the tire blew in the (first) turn, so I still had to do a whole lap. That meant the end of my race. I've been racing in the DTM for ten years, and for ten years I've been driving exactly the same line at Hockenheim. I've never had any tire problems here before."
Paffet promptly claimed the lead from the stricken Tomczyk and never looked back. That, however, is not to say that he had an easy afternoon of it: Mattias Ekstrom, the 2007/2008 winner at this track, made sure to keep him honest for much of the remaining race.
Ekstrom was the first driver to make his mandatory pit stop -- too early, as it turned out -- and his move got him out of the traffic. Once Paffett made his stop, he found Ekstrom in his mirrors. The Swede pushed his Audi hard, although he could not get close enough to Paffett to attempt a pass.
That attack, though, was negated on lap 28 when the stewards announced that Ekstrom's -- as well as Markus Winkelhock's -- had been too early, forcing him to make another stop. The extra stop dropped him to seventh place, and set up the Mercedes-Benz train at the front of the pack.
"I had a perfect race," Ekstrom mused. "But only until my engineer Alex (Stehlig) told me that I had to come in for another pit stop. The stops themselves were good, the car was fantastic. The tires were at the limit, but still okay. Last year, one my tires blew on the penultimate lap; today I didn't have a puncture but three pit stops."
Paffett played his cards carefully in the closing laps, allowing his teammates to get close, though not too close, and ensuring the maximum 10 points for the day.
Behing the four Mercedes drivers, Ekstrom was determiend to salvage an extra point, and on the 30th lap outbraked the defending champion, Timo Scheider, into the hairpin, taking sixth place. Driving hard, he caught up with, but was not able to pass teammate Mike Rockenfeller, who was driving a 2008-spec car.
Scheider followed in 7th, and Audi had to console themselves with a 5-6-7-8 as series rookie, Spanish youngster Miguel Molina took eighth in another 2008-spec Audi.
Another rookie, Formula One veteran David Coulthard had a somewhat more challenging start to his career, finishing in 12th place, and some 35 seconds off the pace.
"I have to optimise my starts," he admitted. "The start with the C-Class is different from one with a Formula One car~ But the race was a good experience and the wheel-to-wheel fights were great fun."
The DTM circus now takes a four-week break, before returning to action at the popular Circuit Valencia Ricardo Tormo in late May.