What to watch for as the DTM's brave new era begins

The DTM has undergone its biggest overhaul since its 2000 revival as it has ditched Class One for GT3. While it means the new season has little in common with recent campaigns, there are still plenty of storylines to follow.

What to watch for as the DTM's brave new era begins
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It was a little over 14 months ago that Audi unceremoniously announced its impending exit from the DTM, leaving the future of the entire series in doubt. Sceptics were convinced that it sounded the death knell of the long-running German category, and even series boss Gerhard Berger admitted that there was a risk that the 2020 season could be its very last.

And yet, the DTM has not only managed to survive the collapse of the short-lived Class One era, it has also put together a compelling line-up of drivers, teams and manufacturers to tackle the start of the championship's new GT3 chapter. And that means there will be plenty of intrigue surrounding the paddock at this weekend's curtain-raiser at Monza.

Make no mistake, the fire-breathing Class One cars were built specifically for an all-pro, manufacturer-based series like the DTM in mind, and their GT3 successors cannot be considered like-for-like replacements. And while several manufacturers have pledged support for the series, the level of investment they are making is nowhere near previous levels.

But that doesn’t mean the DTM can’t put on an exciting show this year, which is why motorsport fans should give the revamped series a chance. With that in mind, here are some of the key subplots to keep an eye on as the brave new GT3 era gets underway this weekend:

The DTM's quest for the fastest GT3 cars in the world

Maximilian Götz, Haupt Racing Team, Mercedes AMG GT3

Maximilian Götz, Haupt Racing Team, Mercedes AMG GT3

Photo by: DTM

Ever since the DTM decided to switch to GT3 cars in 2021, it has been keen on boosting their performance to set itself apart from the many other championships using the same ruleset. 

If the DTM had had its way, a new formula by the name of 'GT Plus' would have been born this year, using existing GT3 cars as the base. But manufacturers were unwilling to spend resources to create cars useable only in the DTM, especially when spec GT3 cars can be raced in so many series around the world, and the idea of using upgraded GT3 cars had to be abandoned.

But that didn’t deter the DTM. Together with partner AVL Racing, it has devised its own Balance of Performance, separate to that created by the Stephane Ratel Organisation that is used in most other GT3-based categories, to beef up the performance of the cars in use. 

The goal is to make the DTM the fastest GT3 category in the world, and based on the laptimes seen at the Hockenheim test, that target might well be achievable. While we will have to wait for the Monza races to be certain of that, the pace of top cars in testing was indeed several seconds faster than the laptimes seen in ADAC GT Masters qualifying at the same venue. 

The championship’s decision to cut short the Monza races to 50 minutes each to ensure the drivers can push for the entire distance without having to resort to fuel-saving provides another indicator of how much importance the DTM places on the pace of the cars.

Of course, even a maxed-out GT3 car will be still be around five or eight seconds a lap slower than Class One cars, but the DTM deserves credit for taking a proactive approach to ensuring that the machines making up its grid are not mere clones of the ones seen elsewhere.

Mercedes’ big return to the DTM

Start practice Gary Paffett, Mücke Motorsport Mercedes AMG GT3 leads

Start practice Gary Paffett, Mücke Motorsport Mercedes AMG GT3 leads

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Mercedes was the first manufacturer to turn its back on the 'old' DTM, announcing its decision to quit the series back in 2017 with a year’s notice. So its return just three years later with an impressive seven-car fleet has come as a pleasant surprise to all involved.

And not only Mercedes has the biggest contingent of any marque in the DTM this year, it has also been generous with both the technical and financial support it is offering its customers, which should give them an advantage over some less well-supported rivals.

All five Mercedes teams are joining (or rejoining) the DTM after making a name for themselves in other categories. GruppeM has scored victories in both the Suzuka 10 Hours and the GT World Cup at Macau, and also claimed the overall title in the inaugural season of Blancpain GT Asia in 2017.

Mucke Motorsport was one of Mercedes’ factory teams in the DTM between 2005-16, and was also for many years a respectable outfit in junior formulae, nurturing the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Robert Kubica and Lando Norris, among others.

GetSpeed brings its experience of the Nurburgring Nordschleife to the DTM, while Winward enters the series fresh off its GT Daytona class victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And finally, while Haupt Racing Team might be a relative newcomer, having only been founded 12 months ago, it's the spiritual successor to the Black Falcon Racing squad that could boast two outright Nurburgring 24 Hours wins as well as title glory in what was then known as the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup (now GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup).

Italian manufacturers for the first time in 25 years

#71 T3 Motorsport Lamborghini Huracán GT3 Evo: Maximilian Paul, Hugo Sasse

#71 T3 Motorsport Lamborghini Huracán GT3 Evo: Maximilian Paul, Hugo Sasse

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

The DTM has been dominated by German manufacturers since it was revived in 2000, with Mercedes, Audi, BMW and Opel the only brands to compete in the series with factory teams since then. Aston Martin was briefly represented in the DTM in 2019, but that effort was handled entirely by the Swiss R-Motorsport team.

That makes Ferrari and Lamborghini the first Italian marques to have a bona fide presence in the category since the DTM’s ill-fated 1996 season as the International Touring Car Championship, when Alfa Romeo took on the might of Mercedes and Opel.

While it's fair to assume that there would be no Ferrari 488 GT3 on the 2021 grid had Red Bull not opened its chequebook, the Prancing Horse has agreed to lend technical support to the two cars run by its long-time partner squad AF Corse, thus officially committing to the series.

Similarly, Lamborghini is supporting T3 Motorsport’s two-car entry for Esteban Muth and Esmee Hawkey, as the team prepares for its first season with the Huracan after running Bentley GT3 cars in other championships in recent years.

All in all, there will be six manufacturers represented in the DTM this year, twice the number the series has enjoyed at any period in its modern era. This list includes McLaren, with JP Motorsport running a 720S GT3 for ex-F1 driver Christian Klien at three rounds ahead of an expected full season programme next year.

Muller’s big title chance

Nico Müller, Team Rosberg

Nico Müller, Team Rosberg

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

While there is no denying that Rene Rast is one of the greatest drivers to have graced the DTM grid in the series' illustrious history, Nico Muller perhaps doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves for upping his game to take on the German three-time champion.

After several years in the midfield, Muller emerged as Rast’s closest title rival at the advent of the Class One era in 2019 before launching a full-on championship bid last year. At one point, Muller had a buffer of nearly two race wins' worth of points over Rast, such was his performance in the first two-thirds of the season.

Unfortunately for the Swiss driver, that margin was wiped out over the course of two difficult weekends in Zolder, and Rast went on to comfortably claim his third title in four years.

But with Rast not returning to the DTM this year to focus on his first full season in Formula E with Audi, Muller must now automatically be considered one of the title favourites.

Now driving for Rast’s former squad Team Rosberg, with which he made his own debut in 2014, the 29-year-old will be keen to finally secure the crown after two years of near misses.

It’s true that his experience with the DTM cars of yesteryear won’t count for much, and he doesn’t have as much experience behind the wheel of a GT3 car as stablemate Kelvin van der Linde, but he is still better-placed than some of the other drivers who have remained loyal to the DTM following its switch from Class One machinery.

Over the years, Muller has accumulated plenty of race mileage in the Audi R8 LMS, which means he won’t enter the season as a ‘rookie’. Most recently, he completed the Nurburgring 24 Hours in fifth place, the highest among the Audi contingent in the German endurance classic. If the BoP is well suited to the R8 LMS, he will most certainly be in the title hunt.

The influx of GT3 specialists

Kelvin van der Linde, Abt Sportsline Audi R8 LMS GT3

Kelvin van der Linde, Abt Sportsline Audi R8 LMS GT3

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

The DTM’s big overhaul in 2021 has opened the door for drivers from other categories to join the series, and several of these bring with them a wealth of GT3 experience. This has been highlighted by some of the DTM regulars, who warned that ‘GT3 specialists’ could enjoy an early advantage in the season.

Perhaps the most qualified of that contingent is Audi star Kelvin van der Linde, who has been racing GT3 cars almost exclusively since 2014. With two titles in the ADAC GT Masters and an outright victory in the Nurburgring 24 Hours, all with the Audi R8 LMS GT3, the South African racer will most certainly be one to watch out for in the first few races of the campaign.

Then there’s Mercedes man Maximilian Gotz, who has made a name for himself in the GT3 arena after two largely forgettable DTM seasons with the Stuttgart-based marque in 2015-16. His 2020 campaign included a full season in the ADAC GT Masters, three rounds of the NLS Series, including the Nurburgring 24 Hours, a Bathurst 12 Hour foray in which he finished on the podium, and another endurance appearance in the Dubai 24 Hours.

Two-time Le Mans 24 Hours starter Vincent Abril is another driver who falls into this category, having driven GT3 cars from Mercedes, Bentley and Ferrari in a variety of series over the last few years, and Blancpain GT series champion Maximilian Buhk will likely take points off Mercedes’ rivals when he deputises for an absent Gary Paffett in the opening two rounds. 

The return of the old guard

Gary Paffett, Mücke Motorsport

Gary Paffett, Mücke Motorsport

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Gary Paffett hasn’t actively raced in any category since his underwhelming sole Formula E season with HWA in 2018/19, but the news of his DTM comeback will surely have reminded fans of the epic three-way manufacturer battles between Mercedes, Audi and BMW that characterised the DTM for much of the last decade.

Formula E duties means he will miss the first two rounds and hence will not feature in the title fight. And having turned 40 this April, he will be the eldest driver on the grid, and around double the age of some of his rivals. But if his most recent DTM campaign in 2018 is anything to go by, when he outgunned Rene Rast and the combined firepower of Audi to claim a long-awaited second title, he has certainly got the speed to match the best in class.

Another 'old gun' on the grid is Timo Glock, who was BMW’s top finisher in 2020 after consistently performing all year-long against opposition from a faster Audi contingent. Entering his 10th season in the DTM this year, much will be expected from the German ex-Formula 1 star, even if a lack of GT3 experience means he starts the campaign on the back foot.

Elsewhere, factory BMW driver Marco Wittmann will have to prove himself all over again against the youngsters after an inconsistent 2020 season. Unlike Glock, the two-time champion has picked up some valuable experience in the M6 GT3 in recent years, and has even contested some races with the Walkenhorst team he’s driving for this year.

Much like Wittmann, 2013 champion Mike Rockenfeller had a below-par season last year, and he will be hoping that a switch to GT3 cars offers him a chance to reset and come back stronger in 2021.

Red Bull’s much-hyped comeback with Ferrari

Liam Lawson, AF Corse, Ferrari 488 GT3 Evo

Liam Lawson, AF Corse, Ferrari 488 GT3 Evo

Photo by: DTM

Red Bull is providing arguably the biggest marketing boost to the DTM by entering a team under its own name, more than three years after Mattias Ekstrom’s retirement prompted its exit from the series.

The biggest draw in Red Bull’s DTM line-up is Formula 1 podium finisher Alex Albon, who is trying to stay race fit after being dropped by the energy drinks firm's grand prix team in favour of Sergio Perez. The Anglo-Thai driver will take part in selected races this year - details of which are yet to be confirmed, other than he will be present at Monza this weekend - sharing the AlphaTauri-liveried Ferrari with Envision Virgin Formula E racer Nick Cassidy. 

While Albon insists his DTM results won’t decide whether he lands a seat on the 2021 F1 grid or not, it will be interesting to see how he copes with the unique demands of GT3 racing after a career spent exclusively driving single-seaters.

Cassidy, too, will be keen to show what he’s capable of to a European audience following a stint in Japan that yielded the 'triple crown' of Super Formula, SUPER GT and F3 title glory - especially after a one-off cameo in the DTM at Hockenheim in 2019 didn't go according to plan.

Not to be forgotten either is Liam Lawson, who has already made waves in his maiden season in Formula 2 this year, and would be placed much higher in the standings than eighth, where he sits now, had he not been stripped of his Monaco victory due to a technicality.

Joining forces with Ferrari in the DTM seems a peculiar choice for Red Bull, given its rivalry with the Italian marque in F1. But with the might of the ultra-successful AF Corse outfit behind it, Red Bull certainly seems to have all the right ingredients in place to succeed in the series.

Female drivers return to the grid

Sophia Flörsch, Abt Sportsline, Audi R8 LMS GT3

Sophia Flörsch, Abt Sportsline, Audi R8 LMS GT3

Photo by: DTM

Esmee Hawkey, T3 Motorsport

Esmee Hawkey, T3 Motorsport

Photo by: T3 Motorsport

There will be not one but two female drivers on this year’s DTM grid, with T3 Motorsport Lamborghini recruit Esmee Hawkey securing a late berth to join the previously-announced Sophia Floersch.

Hawkey, who raced in the DTM-supporting W Series in 2019, was originally meant to race in the European Le Mans Series this year, but was dropped by the Iron Lynx team before the season even began after it emerged that she had offered her services as a bronze-rated driver when she is actually classified as a silver.

Missing both pre-season tests will certainly hurt the 23-year-old's hopes, but she did gain some experience in the Lamborghini Huracan GT3 in a private running at Monza two weeks ago.

Floersch is a newcomer to GT3 racing, but has some sportscar racing experience thanks to her ELMS and WEC exploits with the Richard Mille Racing team. A top team in Abt Sportline, combined with two strong teammates in Kelvin van der Linde and Mike Rockenfeller, should also work in her favour.

Both Floersch and Hawkey will be hoping to become the first female driver to score a point in the DTM since Rahel Frey’s seventh place finish in the penultimate round of the 2012 season in Valencia. That was also the last year there were two female drivers in the DTM, with Susie Wolff racing for Mercedes squad Persson Motorsport in what turned out to be her final season in the series.

2021 drivers lineup

2021 drivers lineup

Photo by: DTM


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