Bruno Spengler took the pole position for Mercedes-Benz at Dijon this afternoon in the penultimate round of the 2009 DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) season by a stunning 0.532-second margin over his teammate, Paul di Resta.
"I am really happy with the way qualifying went," said Spengler. "Driving with slicks on this track in the given weather conditions was difficult. There are only fast corners here and there is not a lot of space when you make a mistake."
With Timo Scheider, who leads the DTM title chase is mired in sixteenth place near the back of the grid, it looks like the championship won't be decided until the final round in two weeks' time.
Audi had looked unbeatable in the closing stages of the morning practice session, as the track dried after heavy overnight rain. However, the rain returned for qualifying, with each of the four segments seeing at least some precipitation, and the Mercedes C-Class setup was clearly better suited to the wet conditions, the Stuttgart marque taking six of the top eight grid positions.
The fourth and final qualifying segment started with the rain showers set to full, and wet-weather tires were the obvious choice. Two Audi drivers, Mattias Ekstrom and Tom Kristensen, made it through to the final segment, along with Mercedes's Spengler and di Resta. However, with the Audis not comfortable with the wet setups, the four rings were clearly outclassed by the three-pointed stars in the fight for the pole position.
di Resta may have been well back of Spengler, but he was still 0.462 seconds ahead of Kristensen, with Ekstrom another 0.241 seconds adrift. The Swede's total gap to the pole position, then, was 1.235 seconds, an eternity by the usual standards of the close-fought DTM series.
"Due to the changeable weather conditions we had to modify our tyre selection three times and our team performed great doing so," di Resta explained his success.
Kristensen, in the top Audi, was deferential in spite of his extensive wet-weather racing resume, including some torrential conditions during his record-setting eight Le Mans victories.
"I think that Dijon really is a challenging race track and ending up in the top three is just great," the Danish veteran said. "I am very happy with my team that put me on the right tyres at the right moment."
Ekstrom is in the best-positioned of the four drivers that still have at least a mathematical chance at the title. Second in the title fight, 12 points behind Scheider, he will be starting fourth with the nearest challenger, Gary Paffett, four places behind him on the grid. Martin Tomczyk, the only other driver with a chance, will start ninth, one position behind Paffett.
"I am disappointed," Paffett grimaced. "My C-Class was the fastest car today, but unfortunately we made a mistake with the tyre selection (in the third segment)."
Ekstrom and Kristensen might not have made it through to the final segment had they not switched to slick tires at the end of the third segment, as the track was drying up. That left four Mercedes on the outside looking in. Maro Engel, in a 2008-spec C-Class, took fifth, followed by Ralf Schumacher, Jamie Green and Paffett.
For the championship leader, the rain demolished any hope of a good starting position, as he got caught out with the wrong choices: a reduced-camber setup, combined with a set of used slicks turned out to be the absolute wrong choice, as the rain returned to the track in the dying minutes of the first segment.
"We had decided within seconds which tires we should choose," explained Scheider. "We decided not to change and thus had the wrong tires on the car at the wrong time. Of course position 16 on the grid is a bitter pill and disappointing -- particularly now. But the race tomorrow is long. I'll try and make the best of the situation. We know that we've got a fast car and what the problem was today."
Tomorrow's weather forecast calls for fog in the morning, clearing around midday, so the Audis may yet have an opportunity to make up lost ground. However, Scheider needs to finish within two points of Ekstrom -- and four of Paffett -- in order to clinch the title, so it will yet be an uphill battle for the German DTM veteran.