Mercedes AMG driver Gary Paffett took his maiden DTM victory in the 2004 season opener at Hockenheim, in what was an entertaining race. Newly promoted to the HWA squad, Paffett fought at the front all the way with fellow HWA drivers Jean Alesi and...
Mercedes AMG driver Gary Paffett took his maiden DTM victory in the 2004 season opener at Hockenheim, in what was an entertaining race. Newly promoted to the HWA squad, Paffett fought at the front all the way with fellow HWA drivers Jean Alesi and Bernd Schneider until the latter pair both retired. The fourth member of the squad, Christijan Albers, came home second and Audi's Mattias Ekstr?m drove a good race to take third.
It was a clean start, pole sitter Alesi leading Audi's Martyn Tomczyk and Tom Kristensen, while Albers was demoted to tenth on the grid before the race due to a penalty in his qualifying run. There was some battling between Kristensen, Schneider, Opel's Timo Scheider and Ekstr?m, while Frank Biela and Christian Abt had early trouble, their Audis diving into the pits.
The first major problem was for Marcel F?ssler, who's Opel was damaged in an unseen incident. He dived into the pits to have his bonnet taped up but further difficulties saw him end his race in the barrier on lap 15.
Paffett moved up to second quite swiftly, and Bernd M?ylander's year-old CLK Mercedes was a surprising seventh in the early laps. Opel had looked on the pace in Friday practices but qualifying was a struggle and the race even more so. Scheider spun and dropped back to the rear of the field and Laurent Aiello, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Manuel Reuter were at the edge of the top ten heading into the first round of pit stops.
Peter Dumbreck, who had started last after an accident in qualifying, certainly wrung the neck of his recalcitrant Opel, working his way up through the field into the top ten. Schneider and Ekstr?m pushed and shoved their way out of the pits together then Frentzen overtook Aiello as the pair raced side by side up the pit lane! Great determination from Frentzen in his first DTM race, although Aiello was not impressed and retook the German shortly afterwards.
At the front it was Alesi, Paffett and Schneider but then Alesi started to have problems. The Mercedes went really wide under braking on more than one occasion, allowing Paffett, Schneider and Albers to get past, then Alesi started to slow. Ekstr?m passed the ailing Mercedes and eventually the Frenchman retired to the pits. Paffett and Schneider battled for the lead, the more experienced German getting the advantage over the young Briton.
Paffett settled behind Schneider for a few laps but then mounted an attack as the race went into the final stages. Right on Schneider's bumper, he was piling the pressure on with five laps to go -- whether he could have passed the reigning champion was a different matter but it turned out he didn't have to. Schneider suffered a problem with his right front wheel and slowed drastically, eventually retiring to the pits.
Paffett led Albers and Ekstr?m home, with a very good drive from Kristensen in his DTM debut for fourth. Last year it was Albers who was promoted to the HWA squad from a year old car and the Dutchman went on to fight Schneider for the title all the way to the final race. Paffett's maiden victory in his first race in a new car indicates another Mercedes star.
"It was incredible!" Paffett declared as he jumped off the champagne-drenched podium. "I had a great start and managed to get past the two Audis. I had to follow behind Jean as it was very hard to get past and after the first pit stop he was still ahead."
"On my second stop I stalled, which really annoyed me, but then Jean dropped back. Bernd got past me at the hairpin and I sat behind him as, again, it was so hard to get past. But then he went out as well -- I felt sorry for him but it was incredible to win my first race."
Albers had a fairly solitary race but drove confidently and consistently, while Ekstr?m had the edge on his fellow Audi drivers. Mattias showed a lot of fighting skill last season and was better than then-teammate and defending champion Laurent Aiello. He looks set to be one of Audi's best this year -- Tomczyk was stellar in qualifying to get second on the grid but was somewhat off the race pace.
"The first stint was very tough, as expected," said Ekstr?m. "Everyone was fighting for position. I'm very happy with the result; the only thing I would like is a little bit more speed so we can fight with Mercedes."
Dumbreck came home a well deserved sixth after his fight up through the pack and Emanuele Pirro, also new to Audi and the DTM, put in a good show for seventh. Scheider managed to take the final points position but really Opel was a let down. Jeroen Bleekemolen was the best of the year old cars in the field, 12th for Opel, and the three surviving Mercedes CLKs were line astern in 13th, 14th and 15th. Stefan M?cke, the fourth CLK, ended his race in the barriers.
A very entertaining season opener and some great drives all through the race. Mercedes had the edge but Alesi and Schneider's retirements will surely cause some concerned meetings. Audi looked consistent and just need a little more pace, while Opel needs a kick up the backside, but will surely improve. Final top eight classification: Paffett, Albers, Ekstr?m, Kristensen, Tomczyk, Dumbreck, Pirro, Scheider.