By Berthold Bouman, DTM Correspondent
- Bruno Spengler leads from start to finish
- Schumacher scores maiden podium win
- Incredible Paffett goes from 18th to 6th place
Canadian Bruno Spengler (Mercedes-Benz Bank AMG) won the season opener of the German Touringcar Masters (DTM) at the German Hockenheimring. The 27-year old driver finished ahead of Mattias Ekstrom (Audi Sport Team Sportsline) and Ralf Schumacher (Salzgitter AMG Mercedes). He started the race from pole position and led the race from start to finish, and scored his eighth career win.
A happy Spengler commented, “Today I’m super-mega happy, and I’m proud to race for Mercedes, and tonight I’m going to celebrate together with my team.” His victory almost went up in smoke as he had to pit while the safety car was out, but just before the exited the pit lane, the red lights turned to green and he could rejoin the race without losing too much time. Others were no so lucky, Mike Rockenfeller had to wait until the whole field had passed the pit lane exit, which meant his race was effectively over.
“I saw the lights were red, so I was becoming a bit nervous while I was in the pit lane, but they turned green again at the last moment. I did loose my 4 second lead but luckily I didn’t have to wait for the red light,” Spengler said right after the race. Ekstrom criticized Spengler as the latter make an unexpected braking maneuver before the safety car went into the pit lane, and Ekstrom had to break hard to avoid a collision. Spengler just shrugged his shoulders about the incident, “I was just warming up my brakes, I didn’t do this on purpose, we were still in the warm-up phase.”
Asked whether this season would be a good season for him, Spengler replied: “I don’t know, the start [his victory] was without a doubt great, but the season has just started. I have to stay with both feet on the ground, I have to stay focused and give it my best.”
I missed my breaking point and Scheider almost overtook me
A good day for Schumacher, who after 33 DTM races finally scored his maiden podium finish. “I always hoped to score a podium very early in my career, but it wasn’t to be,” the happy German said. “Today it was very close, and it was a difficult race as I almost lost my third place during the last lap. I want to thank Mercedes they had so much patience with me.”
The difference between Schumacher and Ekstrom on the finish line was less than two-tenths of a second. Asked about the last lap he answered: “I missed my breaking point and Scheider almost overtook me. I was also surprised to see Ekstrom slowing down in the final two corners, but I understand he had sustained some damage to his car.”
Ekstrom about his race, “I’m happy with my second place, after the problems with my hand I’m happy I could hang on to my position, it’s a pity my wife and 3-week old son Mats couldn’t be here,” the Swede said.
Of course Mercedes-Benz-Motorsportchef Norbert Haug was also very satisfied with the result, “A very cool race by Bruno [Spengler]. He put his mark on this weekend, despite the fact he couldn’t run the car during the first free practice. Normally that would be the end of a race weekend, but not for Spengler.” And added, “Schumacher was in a winning position, and he has showed he can take on the fastest drivers, on his last lap he almost took second place from Ekstrom as well.”
Audi-Motorsportchef Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, “I would have been happier with first place, but there is only one who can win the race, unfortunately it wasn’t us.” But he still remained optimistic, “Our drivers Ekstrom and Scheider have shown they can fight at the front of the field. Tomczyk, who drove last year’s model, put down an excellent performance. All together it was certainly not the result we were hoping for, but at least our drivers have shown they are able fight for the victory.”
The race started at exactly 14:00hrs local time, Ekstrom was quick off the line and looked to be in the lead, but Spengler launched a counter attack and on the exit of the first corner he was leading the field again. Gary Paffett, who had to start for last position on the grid because he had ended up in the gravel trap during qualifying, made up four places during the first lap.
There were not many surprises during the first stage of the race, most battles took place midfield. David Coulthard benefited when Jamie Green and Oliver Jarvis battled it out, Green ran wide and Coulthard took over his position, Green not only lost one place but also got a warning from race control for leaving the track.
Not a good day for Susie Stoddart, she jumped the start and she got a drive through penalty on lap four. During her first pit stop the fuel can got stuck on her car, she tried to shake it off, but when it fell off, it became wedged in the rear wing before it finally fell off the car. By then she had lost so many places that her chances on scoring points had vanished, but she nevertheless finished in 12th position, not bad considering the problems she encountered.
After the first round of pit stops the order remained the same, Spengler was still leading, and was followed by Ekstrom, Schumacher, Timo Scheider and Martin Tomczyk. The distances between the six front-runners was about 3 to 4 seconds, and again most of the action was seen at the back of the field.
But everything changed after Tomczyk ran wide on lap 24, and decided to go into the pits for his last stop. Like with Stoddart’s pit stop, the fuel can gets stuck on his car, Tomczyk leaves the pits and shakes off the fuel can, but it lands in the middle of the track and several driver are forced to take avoiding actions not to hit the fuel can, Gary Paffett almost ran over it. Race control decided to employ the safety car, but the driver of the safety car failed to pick up the leader of the race, and several drivers who were confused and uncertain about what to do, contacted their team and asked whether they were allowed to overtake the safety car.
The confusion grew as several drivers used the safety car period to pit for their second and last mandatory tyre change, but when they wanted to exit the pit lane, the lights were red and they had to wait until the entire field had passed, which for several drivers meant they lost valuable positions, and for a number of them the race was over.
During the restart on lap 29, Spengler hit the brakes hard to slow down the cars behind him, perhaps too hard, Ekstrom almost hit him and later labeled this maneuver from Spengler as ‘very dangerous.’ With the field now close together again there was more action on track, but not for the top six, they remain in the same order and Spengler, Ekstrom and Schumacher were again in the lead
Behind them both Paffett and Green overtook Edoardo Mortara, but when Paffett tried to overtake Miguel Molina, the pair collided. Despite the collision Paffett resumed his astonishing chase, and despite the fact he started from 18th and last place, he was in seventh place, and had now set his sight on Maro Engel. The German doesn’t make it too difficult for Paffett, after all they are both Mercedes drivers, and on lap 29 Paffett overtakes him and is then in sixth place, where he also would finish.
Molina meanwhile, was also battling for position, but he made a small mistake and spun, Dutchman and DTM rookie Renger van der Zande couldn’t avoid a collision and the right front of his AMG Mercedes was badly damaged. He toured the circuit for another lap, but when the engine cover fell off and landed dangerously close to a marshal’s post, he decided to call it quits and returned to the pit lane where he parked his car in the garage.
With the finish now in sight, most drivers seemed to be satisfied with their position and decided to stay out of trouble, but the last lap almost became a drama for Schumacher and Ekstrom. Schumacher almost lost his third place to Scheider after he had locked-up his brakes while entering the Mercedes Arena, and Ekstrom almost lost his second place to Schumacher after he had to slow down with a damaged rear suspension.
Spengler (Mercedes) took his first victory of the season, and was followed by Ekstrom (Audi), Schumacher (Mercedes), Scheider (Audi), Tomczyk (Audi) and Paffett (Mercedes) -- who drove the race of his life.
Green (Mercedes), Engel (Mercedes) and Jarvis (Audi) finished in seventh, eighth and ninth position respectively. Scot Coulthard (Mercedes), Rockenfeller (Audi) and Stoddart (Mercedes) finished in 10th, 11th and 12th position. Best DTM rookie at the Hockenheimring was Christian Vietoris (Mercedes) who finished in 13th position, while the other two rookies Mortara and Swiss female driver Rahel Frey (both Audi) took 14th and 15th position. Molina and Filipe Albuquerque finished in 16th and 17th position, some 30 seconds behind the winner.
Next DTM race is on May 15 at the circuit of Zandvoort in the Netherlands.