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DTM Norisring

How Bernhard's Porsche “underdogs” made DTM history

Porsche didn’t take long to make its mark on the DTM, with its first victory arriving at the Norisring earlier this month. But few expected that to come courtesy underrated Austrian Thomas Preining and his single-car Bernhard team. Here’s how they did it.

Podium: Thomas Laudenbach, head of  Porsche Motorsport, Thomas Preining, KuS Team Bernhard, Timo Bernhard, Team principal KuS Team Bernhard

Conventional wisdom suggests that it’s much harder to be successful when going it alone than hunting in a pack. That applies for beasts in the wild, but also to the two Porsche squads that have entered the DTM jungle this year.

One of only two single-car teams in the paddock (the other being the Attempto Racing Audi squad running 19-year-old Marius Zug), Team Bernhard’s two-time Le Mans 24 Hours-winning boss Timo Bernhard has good reason to describe his outfit as “underdogs”. He is forthright in admitting that he has plans to expand for next year, telling Motorsport.com  that “a racing team works best if you have two cars on the grid”.

If a Porsche was going to win in the Weissach marque’s first season in the championship, sheer weight of probability suggested it would be one of the two SSR Performance machines steered by decorated GT racer Laurens Vanthoor and hard-charging Norwegian Dennis Olsen, rather than Thomas Preining’s solo Bernhard entry. As one respected paddock figure extolling the virtues of his brand’s data-sharing approach between multiple cars put it on Friday at the Norisring: “Bernhard for example is one car, I think they have more trouble to find a good balance.”

Not for nothing was this point made – without a second car in the fold, there can be no settling on the best outcome from a back-to-back comparison in practice. The team has to roll off strong, or face a weekend scrambling for a place in the lower-midfield in a deep field that has averaged 28.25 drivers per round this year.

Both Porsche outfits arrived from Germany’s other GT3 series, the well-respected ADAC GT Masters, in which two drivers share a car in hour-long sprint races. Bernhard had finished runner-up in its 2016 rookie campaign and SSR had won on debut in 2020, before following up with a runner-up finish in 2021. By all accounts, there was little to choose between them other than that one camp had two cars, with Bernhard’s stated desire to “do the job properly with the budget and with the possibilities we have” governing his decision to put all his eggs in one basket for year one.

But come Saturday afternoon at the Norisring, Bernhard’s decision had paid off spectacularly for it was Preining who was stood on the roof of his 911 GT3 R after scooping victory, leading home SSR’s Olsen with Vanthoor fourth. The Austrian also claimed the fastest lap for good measure.

“SSR is a very strong contender and they have two cars, they are a strong team, very successful in GT Masters,” Bernhard says in conversation with Motorsport.com during the DTM’s summer break. “So, to get the first victory of a Porsche in DTM as competition to them was quite big for us.”

Preining took Porsche's first DTM win at the Norisring

Preining took Porsche's first DTM win at the Norisring

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

If ever a circuit would suit the Porsche, it would be the Norisring due to the emphasis its short layout with hairpins at either end puts on good traction. And it’s not like Bernhard is totally isolated in its set-up approach, with Vanthoor telling Motorsport.com at the Norisring that “there is open communication and shared data” between the two outfits, even if “not everything is shared”.

However, it would be hugely over-simplifying matters to pin Bernhard and Preining’s success merely on the nature of the short 1.429-mile track. That’s because the team made a breakthrough in the previous round at Imola, where Preining only lost a race one podium on the penultimate lap to a charging Mirko Bortolotti, after Bernhard had tested the car at Hockenheim. Preining had comfortably outpaced the SSR cars in qualifying at Imola to take third – Olsen was 11th and Vanthoor 15th – and told Motorsport.com his race result was “definitely the best we could have done”.

“It’s not possible to really fully max out your potential every weekend, we just managed to do that today,” a content Preining added.

"We had quite a change in terms of performance when we went to Imola. If you break it down on time, it’s probably two tenths which we found there, but this boosts you up from P15 to P3 on quali and this is really the fine detail of what we have to do in DTM" Timo Bernhard

Not presenting himself to be weighed after qualifying for race two the following day meant he was demoted to the back of the grid, and he was wiped out early on by a brake-less Rolf Ineichen’s Lamborghini. It was a sour end to a weekend in which Bernhard says “we didn’t do very much in terms of set-up, just small things,” but the clear signs of progress in Italy were a telling boost for the whole squad.

“I believed once we have it on paper, that we have this result, it can boost us even more,” he says. “We were these underdogs and once you have it on paper, the result, it gives another boost to the whole operation.”

Bernhard stresses that 23-year-old Preining “felt the right things” in the car and there was “nothing fundamentally wrong” despite the 2018 German Carrera Cup champion’s lack of points prior to Imola – a puncture in the opening Lausitzring race thwarting its best run in the opening four races.

But utilising his immense experience of detail work and set-up work on numerous Porsche development programmes, including the 919 Hybrid LMP1 car he drove to the 2015 World Endurance Championship title, was a no-brainer. And the five-time Nurburgring 24 Hours winner has recent GT3 experience too, having contested the 2018 and 2019 GT Masters seasons and won once alongside Klaus Bachler, fittingly at the ’Ring.

Team boss Bernhard got behind the wheel at Hockenheim, which helped the team's upturn in form at Imola

Team boss Bernhard got behind the wheel at Hockenheim, which helped the team's upturn in form at Imola

Photo by: DTM

“I felt already from the start of the year that we have a very good combination in terms of car, team and also Thomas,” explains Bernhard, who ran Preining in GT Masters last year. “For me, it was not a lack of trust [in Preining that he decided to test the car himself].

“On the contrary, it was just to help give input because I was not only doing set-up, I was helping to develop complete cars. There was a source of influence and input which was helpful for us just to sort out some small things on set-up and directions which was in line with Thomas.

“I think that helped as well that we had quite a change in terms of performance when we went to Imola. If you break it down on time, it’s probably two tenths which we found there, but this boosts you up from P15 to P3 on quali and this is really the fine detail of what we have to do in DTM.

“Ever since then we just found a little bit of pace, of trust for Thomas and then he could execute and drive the car how he wanted to have it. This is exactly what you’re looking for in DTM.”

While he acknowledges that Preining has areas he can improve, Bernhard has a high opinion of his charge, immediately citing “raw talent” as his strongest attribute. Bernhard reckons he has “already showed that the format of single driver in a car and working with the team and stuff, it fits to him”.

In the DTM, optimising the full potential of the car is more important than other endurance-based series using the same GT3 cars, where there is more time to make up for a sub-par qualifying performance. Bernhard’s view is echoed by comments from Porsche’s GT3 project manager Sebastian Golz, who recently told Motorsport.com's sister website Motorsport-Total that Preining is “a qualifier, that has to be said”.

“You don’t have to make any compromise, you have to find these last hundredths,” continues Bernhard. “This is a different approach which is equally as difficult, but it’s just a little bit of a different priority and I think this kind of environment suits him well.

Bernhard says Preining's speed and style are second to none

Bernhard says Preining's speed and style are second to none

Photo by: Porsche Motorsport

“I watch on-board cameras from all my drivers because it interests me as a former driver, or still as a driver, but also to figure out the style they have, what they need, what we can help with and where they can also learn. When I watch his on-board, he’s one of the very few drivers I had to say ‘Okay, he knows what he’s doing in terms of style’ and it just fits together.”

Preining has already hit Bernhard’s stated aim of winning a race and is justifying his pre-season confidence of mixing it with the series’ grandee teams from the Class One era. And Bernhard believes more success is on the cards in the second half of the season at the Nurburgring, Red Bull Ring, Spa and Hockenheim.

"I think for the remainder of the season we can be a strong contender, still from the top five positions, and we want to be on the podium. That’s definitely where I think that we can be" Timo Bernhard

“Thomas is very talented, but he didn’t have the name probably outside of Germany or Austria,” says Bernhard. “Many people probably didn’t know him in that context, so I said before the first race already that he can surprise people. I know how good he is.

“I think for the remainder of the season we can be a strong contender, still from the top five positions, and we want to be on the podium. That’s definitely where I think that we can be.”

Notice is certainly being taken of the team now. Bernhard says he has “drivers basically from other continents being interested to run in DTM” and remarks that the feedback he received after the Norisring “was tremendous, all around, even from F1 team bosses that I know”.

“It’s why I felt it’s a major achievement to be the very first team that wins a DTM race for Porsche,” he says, satisfied. “In the end it’s like this effort paid off, it was nice to see that a lot of people were congratulating and appreciating the effort we do.”

Not bad for a so-called underdog…

Bernhard believes that Norisring won't be a flash in the pan and Preining can achieve more success this year

Bernhard believes that Norisring won't be a flash in the pan and Preining can achieve more success this year

Photo by: Porsche Motorsport

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