After claiming his first DTM pole position in the third round at Spa-Francorchamps, Mika HÃ¤kkinen followed it up with his maiden victory in the series. The Mercedes driver beat Audi's reigning champion Mattias EkstrÃ¶m in the first round of pit...
After claiming his first DTM pole position in the third round at Spa-Francorchamps, Mika H?kkinen followed it up with his maiden victory in the series. The Mercedes driver beat Audi's reigning champion Mattias Ekstr?m in the first round of pit stops to regain the lead that Ekstr?m had stolen at the start. Ekstr?m had to settle for second and the Audi of Tom Kristensen was third.
At the start Ekstr?m beat H?kkinen to the first corner and Opel's Marcel F?ssler also gained a place to move up to third. Kristensen followed into fourth and other gainers were the Mercedes of Jean Alesi up to sixth and teammate Bernd Schnieder to seventh. Christian Abt's year-old Audi lost out a couple of places to fifth, as did Opel's Laurent Aiello to 10th.
F?ssler was harassing H?kkinen and Audi's Pierre Kaffer was the first to go off track, pushed into a spin by the Mercedes of Gary Paffet as Paffett tried to get past. That let Allan McNish move his Audi up to tenth and Paffett got a drive-through penalty for his efforts. Jamie Green, who had qualified his Mercedes fifth, had mysteriously dropped all the way to 16th.
Alesi was putting pressure on Abt and nipped past him through the Bus Stop to take fifth. Further down the field Opel's Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Audi's Martin Tomczyk were scrapping and Frentzen went off into the gravel. It wasn't clear if there was contact or if Frentzen spun all on his own, but no penalties were given.
Frentzen managed to rejoin the race and the first round of compulsory pit stops started on lap six. F?ssler, Aiello and Schneider were promptly in and out. Meanwhile, at the front Ekstr?m and H?kkinen were some six seconds ahead of Kristensen until Tom took his first stop on the next lap. Abt and Frentzen went in next and Abt was given a drive-through penalty for crossing the white line when he exited.
Ekstr?m was the first of the two leaders to pit and H?kkinen came in a lap later, making it work and rejoining in the lead just ahead of Ekstr?m. Mattias had a quick attack at the Mercedes but then dropped back a little as he tried to get his tyres warmed up. In another unexplained incident, Bruno Spengler lost the bonnet of his Mercedes and dived into the pits.
H?kkinen started to draw away from Ekstr?m at the front, followed by Kristensen, F?ssler and Alesi, until F?ssler was again the first one in for his second stop. Ekstr?m's second stop saw him rejoin in fourth and H?kkinen retained the lead when he left his second visit to the pits. There hadn't been a vast amount of action in the first two stints but it got a little heated towards the end.
The top five after the second round of stops -- H?kkinen, Ekstr?m, Kristensen, Alesi, F?ssler -- remained static but there were one or two battles. Tomczyk had previously been harassing Schneider but got ahead in his last stop for sixth, as did Aiello for seventh. Schneider and Aiello set to for a few laps, Schneider tailgating Aiello as they fought for position.
The Mercedes of Alexandros Margaritis and Abt were also fighting and Green was the next retiree, out with a front left puncture. He was followed by McNish, also with a puncture, his on the rear left. Tomczyk closed up on F?ssler and the pair went side by side down the straight but F?ssler held the Audi off and went ahead again through Eau Rouge.
Schneider didn't fare so well. Still battling with Aiello, there was some contact and the Mercedes spun off through Eau Rouge and impacted heavily with the barrier. The right hand side of the Mercedes was destroyed but Schneider was out of the car without assistance, looking rather more angry than anything else.
Manuel Reuter was a late retiree, his Opel pulling off track with an unknown problem. H?kkinen took the chequered flag four seconds clear of Ekstr?m and Kristensen another second behind. Alesi was a further few seconds down the track and although Tomczyk hassled F?ssler to the line, Marcel held him off for fifth.
A strong performance from H?kkinen, who looked rather emotional when he emerged, champagne-soaked, from the podium. "I can't find any words," he said. "It was a tremendous weekend. The victory belongs to the team, they gave me a fantastic car. Mercedes have done really good work and we had a great race. I just don't know what else to say."
Ekstr?m knew that once H?kkinen had regained the lead that it was not going to be easy. "I realised in my quite long first pit stop that once I came out behind Mika he could pull away," he commented. "After that it was very difficult."
Kristensen looked cheerfully pleased. "I feel great," he beamed. "I was focusing on the race, Audi had a great car and it was nice to join (Ekstr?m) and Mika on the podium."
The performance of Mercedes was very strong, as the extra weight they were carrying was expected to make a difference this weekend. If not for Schneider's accident he would have been in the points and Paffett picked up the final point in eighth despite his penalty. Margaritis was the best of the year-old cars in ninth.
Audi was good but needs to be better to stop the prowess of Mercedes. Ekstr?m and Kristensen had solid drives, while Tomczyk picked up well to finish sixth after starting 14th. The rest were disappointing after the good showing at Lausitz -- Abt was best finisher in a year-old chassis in tenth.
Opel finally picked up its first points of the season, which will be a relief. F?ssler drove commendably and pulled off a couple of smart overtaking moves, while Aiello showed some of the fighting spirit which he seems to have been lacking so far this season. Of course, the manufacturer benefited from the ballast situation, but that's the whole point of it.
Spa was an interesting race rather than a particularly exciting one, but that did not detract from the enjoyment of it. It's a little surprising to see Mercedes still strong despite the weight handicap but we'll just have to wait and see if the manufacturer can continue its winning ways. There's a three week break now until Brno, in the Czech Republic, on June 5th.