Home Featured Did year one of DTM’s GT3 era work for young drivers?

Did year one of DTM’s GT3 era work for young drivers?

by Ida Wood

Photos: DTM / Malte Christians

Before the DTM’s switch from Class One touring cars to GT3 sportscars, Formula Scout spoke to series chairman Gerhard Berger about the impact of the DTM’s plans on young drivers. Now it’s time to review them

With a grid of 30 drivers including five former Formula 1 racers and champions of Formula E, Super Formula, GT racing, GP2 and the DTM itself, you can’t bash the quality of the grid in the first season of the touring car-come-sportscar series.

But for a championship that has previously acted as a launchpad to F1 and top prototype sportscar seats, did the DTM’s new GT3 look work for young drivers in 2021?

In late 2020, Formula Scout asked exactly that and got a blueprint of what to expect from Gerhard Berger, chaiman of the series promoter ITR, ex-F1 driver and DTM rookie Robert Kubica and one of the series’ young stars Ferdinand Habsburg.

They expected three things. The first was that the new GT4-spec DTM Trophy series would be just as efficient a platform for connecting drivers to professional motorsport as the FIA European Formula 3 championship that sat on the support bill for many years before it, and that it would provide chances for drivers that wouldn’t have the budget for a European F3 successor.

The second was Berger and the drivers were convinced the DTM would maintain its level of professionalism despite the end of direct manufacturer involvement, and therefore continue to attract ex-F1 drivers off the back of that, and finally that the ultra competitiveness of the series would ensure it maintained a huge worldwide fanbase. Two of those expectations were pretty much bang on the money.

The DTM Trophy did not turn into a DTM feeder series overnight, in part due to Berger’s aggressive behind-the-scenes work in the winter of 2020 of attracting the biggest names he could to the mother series for the all-important 2021 season.

Not a single DTM Trophy driver found a DTM seat, and 2020 champion Tim Heinemann – a protege of ‘Mr DTM’ Bernd Schneider – ended up doing a half-season of the support series in 2021 as well as races in Germany’s other sportscar series.

One party Berger pursued with intent was Red Bull, a brand he has a long relationship with having once part-owned one of its F1 teams, and he convinced it to enter.

Red Bull motorsport consultant Dr Helmut Marko’s own RSM Marko team raced in the DTM in the 1980s before moving to International Formula 3000, and he kept his old friend Berger happy in 2021 by entering two Ferrari 488 GT3 Evos run by crack Italian team AF Corse and placing Red Bull Racing reserve driver Alex Albon and Formula 2 rookie Liam Lawson in the two seats. When Albon had to prioritise F1, SF champion Nick Cassidy took his place.

The cars were equipped with driver aids such as ABS, and standing starts were dropped for rolling ones. Two important details that made DTM in 2021 even further detached from that of single-seaters, other all-professional sportscar series and the series’ own past.

Michelin became the new tyre supplier, bringing the DTM in line with other GT3 series and further away from its unique place in racing, and ITR created its own Balance of Performance in addition to the existing success ballast.

These details appealed to privateer teams that were able to enter thanks to lower running costs and the dropping of the need to be a manufacturer-tied team, but didn’t make it any more enticing for professional drivers who could race elsewhere or young drivers wanting to prove themselves against some of the best. But the DTM maintained two key selling points: a name that attracts sponsors, and only having one driver per car (unlike other GT3 series) to attract fans and top drivers.

As Thomas Biermaier, chief executive officer of the Abt team, said: “The name is one of our biggest assets that we have, and this is the reason why we like to race in DTM”.

Haupt Racing Team’s CEO Ulrich Fritz expanded on the latter point: “We run businesses, in the end we need to find a way to finance everything, and there I think DTM has a quite good package, a good unique selling point as well, because there are not so many GT3 championships where you can just have one driver on a car. Which helps to sell it.”

The DTM’s F1 graduates (2000-present)
Driver Years in DTM Wins Titles Years in F1 Best result
Markus Winkelhock 2004, ’07-10, ’21 3x 4th 1x 10th 2007 1x DNF
Paul di Resta 2007-10, ’15-19 11 1 (2010) 2011-13, ’17 2x 4th
Christijan Albers 2001-04, ’08 5 1x 2nd 2005-07 1x 5th
Roberto Merhi 2012-13 1x 2nd 1x 15th 2015 1x 12th
Pascal Wehrlein 2013-15, ’18 3 1 (2015) 2016-17 1x 8th
Antonio Giovinazzi 2015 1x 19th 1x 25th 2017, ’19-21 1x 5th
Esteban Ocon 2016 1x 9th 1x 26th 2016-18, ’20- 1 win
Pietro Fittipaldi 2019 1x 5th 1x 15th 2020 1x 17th

The leaders of teams using five different manufacturers of car sat down prior to the 2021 season finale to talk to media about how the series was being run, and the general mood was there was a lot of collaboration between rivals in shaping the future.

The new-look DTM had also resonated well in Italy, with German brands now joined on track by Ferrari and Lamborghini, and the one-driver format appealing to those who previously ignored the series for being German.

Teams from the Italian brands were the most enthusiastic about another new-for-2021 feature: the Junior classification.

Drivers born in 1999 or later were eligible for Junior honours, and Lawson dominated against Sheldon van der Linde, Toyota Racing Series race-winner Esteban Muth and F3 convert Sophia Floersch. Lawson was top junior 11 times, won three races and came close to being DTM’s youngest champion before a controversial title decider that may have undone a lot of the work his results did to make the series’ sportscar era look attractive to drivers currently in junior single-seaters.

But did racing in the DTM, which began with victory on his debut at Monza, help Lawson in F2 and prepare him for F1?

“We had the first race, which we were fortunate enough to win, and I went into Sunday with the 25 kilograms [ballast] and we had a bit of BoP change as well,” Lawson recalled of his Monza weekend.

“I definitely wasn’t ready for the weight, and the pace difference. At the end I ended up having a spin that didn’t need to happen when I was fighting for a position that I should have just let go, and it’s something that over the season I definitely learned to accept the fact that when you have the weight, sometimes it’s going to be worse. Also in those races, it’s important to maximise. The first race in Hockenheim we really did that, with fourth place. It’s maximum points without getting weight for the Sunday race. In the end it was a good result, but [the weight] keeps it very, very close and it doesn’t let teams stretch away from everybody else.”

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Having the F1-experienced Albon as team-mate was “really, really cool” too and “even though we were racing different cars to what we’re both used to racing in, I’ve learned a lot off Alex”.

At the Norisring finale, he added more to Formula Scout on the topic of if GT3 cars and DTM’s unique sporting regulations had prepared him for the next step.

“The car itself, driving it is completely different to driving a single-seater, so it’s something that the driving side hasn’t prepared so much,” Lawson admitted.

“But working with manufacturers at such a high-level championship like this, for sure it’s prepared me on that side of things. It’s something that was not on the career ladder, but actually a lot of drivers of the past have done DTM before either going into LMP1 or to F1. For me, grateful for the opportunity to have raced in it this year.

He added: “With F2 the calendar has been so spread out with so few races that I would have just been sitting around most of the year doing nothing. So at the same time it’s kept me race fit as well. I’m really glad to have done it.”

Lawson’s AF Corse team boss Rens Reichert shared some glowing words on Lawson’s season too.

“It’s been incredible to see this amount of pure talent,” he said. “After the first day of testing pre-season, we were all really speechless. The guy jumps in, delivers, comes out and he’s not [relaxed] or anything, he gives us straight away the feedback and he wants to do it better. And the next time he just does exactly those points better. On that end, we’re all purely impressed, and I’m sure we will see him one day in F1.”

He also spoke about the Junior category, with additional input from Jens Feucht, team manager of the T3 Motorsport team that took Muth to 13th place overall in the championship in a Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo.

Junior single-seater stars in the DTM
Driver Year DTM wins Junior series Wins
Adam Carroll 2007 1x 9th GP2 2
Pascal Wehrlein 2013 3x 10th FIA European F3 1
Antonio Giovinazzi 2015 1x 19th FIA European F3 6
Felix Rosenqvist 2016 1x 8th Indy Lights 3
Liam Lawson 2021 3 F2 1

“On the Junior category, I think it’s something great, especially for Jens,” said Reichert. “It’s a really, really good platform to have drivers growing up. Liam put a very, very high benchmark in the Junior class just because of the talent. But in general, over time, I’m sure there will be more cars entered in the Junior trophy and it can be a really nice way of drivers growing up and using the DTM as a step so on for their future career.”

Feucht praised Lawson, calling him “an exceptional driver, [who] has been delivering a top performance” before adding his insight on the Junior category.

“Concerning the Junior category, it’s very important to have a separate classification where young and upcoming drivers can prove themselves and show off their skills. It’s been an aim of the team since the very beginning to support junior drivers in other categories. They have drivers 16, 17 years old already racing GT cars, and it’s one of the purposes of the team, so it’s great to have that platform.”

Here’s where not only the Junior classification may be key to be DTM’s continued relevance for young drivers, but also where the supporting Trophy series may prove its worth. Last year T3 only entered one DTM Trophy round, but did so with F2 driver Lirim Zendeli who is now targeting a DTM switch.

Rather than be a series for drivers to kickstart their careers, the Trophy may instead act as an in-between or trial arena for drivers from other areas of motorsport already courting DTM interest but without GT or circuit experience to point to.

A weekend in a rival GT3 series is all but guaranteed to mean sharing a car and therefore set-up with a driver who would usually be of a lower FIA grading, but as the DTM Trophy has one driver per car it gives drivers a greater opportunity to showcase their abilities (and confirm their own interests of racing in the paddock) even though it’s a less powerful GT4 car. The budgets are cheaper too, so an F2 or F3 driver would probably have the time and money to make it happen.

What’s more, where the DTM had previously been suffering from an exodus of teams it now has outfits that want to run cars in both series and therefore can provide a pipeline between the two. Mucke Motorsport has left junior single-seater racing and joined the DTM Trophy to support its one-car DTM entry.

The top two in last year’s Trophy have been recommending it to fellow racers, with champion Ben Green calling it “the best place for a young driver to compete right now”, while runner-up Will Tregurtha said “it’s great to be in a single-driver car, the racing is awesome, the crowds are big and it’s so cool to be involved with the DTM”. However the truth is both placed their ambition to race in the DTM firmly in the hands of Santa Claus to sort.

All of the above is overshadowed anyway by what took place at the Norisring last October. Team orders are not new in the DTM, particularly with battles between manufacturers, and neither is deliberate contact between cars when stakes are high.

Lawson went into the final round with a 14-point lead, and beat main title rival Kelvin van der Linde to race one pole to give himself 18kg ballast to start with.

Audi Abt driver van der Linde made a lunge on Lawson at the Turn 2 hairpin on lap one and went too deep, resulting in him dropping down the order while Lawson was passed by Philip Ellis who later handed the lead to title outsider and fellow Mercedes-Benz driver Maximilian Gotz.

A dominant win for Gotz and third for Lawson meant the points lead actually grew over van der Linde, who had a defensive Cassidy to get past for fourth.

Lawson pipped those two to pole for the title decider, and again van der Linde lunged for the lead at the first hairpin but cut the corner and knocked off both Ferraris. As Lawson said in the run-up to the race, “being Ferrari, and just having the two of us, at times we feel like we kind of have all the other manufacturers against us a little bit”.

He added to that: “Audi and Mercedes have a lot of cars on track together, and it’s something that they played well at Hockenheim using their team-mates to help try to keep us behind. At the same time as Mercedes helping a little bit to keep Kelvin behind. I’m just excited to be in this position, it’s a very important weekend but one I’m absolutely ready for.”

Lawson’s car was damaged from the lap one clash though and he ended up losing over 20 laps before retiring after several pitstops. Lucas Auer led Ellis and Gotz in a Mercedes 1-2-3, but the two Team Winward drivers up front slowed to let Haupt’s Gotz by with three laps to go. As a result, Gotz won the race and title. The Mercedes tactics had only been possible too after van der Linde had punctured his own tyre when trying to steal a position from Gotz.

Van der Linde defended his moves, the Mercedes teams defended their tactics, and Red Bull AF Corse called foul play. Most of all though, it left a very sour taste for fans and sponsors, and Berger outraged with the way the Mercedes teams (which do share data despite the lack of official manufacturer involvement) worked to make Gotz champion.

F1’s controversial 2021 title finale has helped cast DTM’s into distant memory, and its own driving standards questions also made it easy to forget how DTM’s superstars went beyond the rulebook too last year, but Norisring wasn’t isolated and more of a build-up of chaos from a series that looked increasingly out of control (while still entertaining) as the season went on. It was a learning year, but the experience of Berger and ITR means it shouldn’t have ended up in a position where it needs to crack down so much on several sporting elements to keep a sustainable and redeemed competition for 2022.

The way Lawson lost will be what sticks in people’s minds, and arguably be a deterrant for sponsors approached by young drivers wanting to enter. The DTM looked totally different in 2021, yet it made the same image of the good ol’, bad ol’ days.