Home Featured Why DTM’s sportscar switch could go two ways for young drivers

Why DTM’s sportscar switch could go two ways for young drivers

by Elliot Wood

Photos: DTM

Gerhard Berger’s work as FIA Single-Seater Commission president and chairman of DTM promoter ITR laid way for many of today’s F1 drivers making it to the top. But his next move might have the opposite effect

Since the DTM’s revival in 2000, as a domestically focused high-spec touring car series, it has had a strong relationship with Formula 3. Had W Series not opted to cancel its 2020 season, F3 would have been on the support bill for all 21 seasons of ‘Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters’.

At first it was German F3, then in 2003 that merged with its French counterpart to become the F3 Euro Series. That was run by Formel 3 Vermarktungs GmbH (F3V GmbH), a subsidiary company of DTM promoter ITR, and evolved into the FIA F3 European Championship that ran from 2012 to 2018.

Throughout that time the DTM updated itself by following sporting and technical developments from Formula 1 and IndyCar, categories it compares itself to, and in recent years has been based on a ‘Class One’ formula also used by Japan’s Super GT – a closed-wheel counterpart to Super Formula. It has been one of the most popular professional series for drivers and automotive manufacturers in the world, and is often referred to as single-seater racing with a roof. It’s no surprise the Aston Martin Autosport BRDC Award tests young drivers in DTM cars.

But for 2021, after its manufacturer appeal started to wane, the series will run for GT3 sportcars. But more on that later.

The creation of FIA European F3 in 2012 was effectively a Euro Series rebrand by the FIA Single-Seater Commission, then fronted by Gerhard Berger.

The Austrian had a long relationship with F3 and the DTM, having finished third in the final season of FIA European F3’s first era in 1984, then finished eighth in his sole DTM start a year later as he started to make waves in F1.

Photo: Votava / Imagno / picturedesk.com

Berger called time on his race-winning F1 career in 1997, and had a short break before becoming BMW’s motorsport director. That job ended in 2003, after BMW had won the Le Mans 24 Hours and successfully returned to F1 as an engine supplier. After that, Berger part-owned Toro Rosso (now called AlphaTauri), and joined Sebastian Vettel (a Euro Series graduate) on the podium after his historic 2008 Italian Grand Prix win.

By the time Berger took over the Single-Seater Commission presidency from Barry Bland – the late and great creator and organiser of most of F3’s classic races – it was already the norm for F3’s top talents to be DTM-bound.

Under Berger’s direction that changed. He bowed out of the role after a 2014 season that produced four future F1 stars (including Max Verstappen), five Formula E drivers and eight who went on to race in IndyCar or Super Formula.

Berger vacated the position – after also influencing FIA Formula 4’s introduction – to focus on his family’s business, and was replaced by ex-Ferrari team principal and future F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali. But he was dragged back into F3 in 2017 when he succeeded HWA, AMG and effective DTM founder Hans Werner Aufrecht as ITR chairman.

A few months into that job he was pitted against Domenicali, who planned to end European F3 to create the current F1-supporting FIA F3 Championship. Berger responded by continuing the F3V GmbH series under a new name, and those efforts were recognised with the awarding of a substantial 25 FIA superlicence points to the champion.

The continuation ultimately failed, partly down to Euroformula swooping in to fill European F3’s market space, but Berger had already struck a deal to keep F3 with the DTM by having W Series, another startup, support for 2019.

Part of the motivation for that, beyond W Series boosting ticket sales, links to a comment Berger made in a 2015 interview with Autosprint: “F3 has always been the best school for a driver, and should remain so.”

However, when Formula Scout heard from Berger prior to last weekend’s era-ending DTM title decider, his thoughts were somewhat different when asked if ITR would retain room for F3 in the future – as it now has a GT4-based DTM Trophy support series – and how GT3-spec DTM plans to attract young drivers.

“For us, the DTM Trophy is a very important element,” Berger began.

“We’re always getting questions: ‘back in your day, in F1 you had six French drivers, six Italians, where are the Italians, where are the French now?’. I think the reason is these countries didn’t pay enough attention to supporting and nurturing young talents, and for us – and with the DTM Trophy – it’s very important to give young talents the possibility to get started in motorsport, to make their way in motorsport, to build a basis for a future career.

“Be it sportscar racing, touring car racing, that’s for us an important aim. To create a platform for up-and-coming drivers to enable them to make a career in motorsport as professionals and at the end of the day maybe even be in a position to earn some money as a race driver. We’ve seen the DTM Trophy season has been very well balanced, great racing, and it’s a clear element for the DTM platform.”

With schedule space freed by having no F3V GmbH, ITR introduced the DTM Trophy in 2020. One of the series’ goals was to be a feeder to its namesake, and being pitched at drivers with a International D license meant that as well as appealing to sportscar enthusiasts, its place on the DTM support bill – and junior title for drivers born after 1997 – made it attractive to young drivers without the money for F3: be they F4 graduates or car racing newcomers.

The first champion was Esports convert Tim Heinemann, a protege of DTM legend Bernd Schneider, who now looks destined to race in the DTM. Like F3 Euro Series drivers who raced with Mercedes-Benz or Volkswagen engines, there’s already a line into professional drives for the Trophy’s best.

It’s clear – despite Berger’s hope W Series returns in 2021 – that there’s a new proving ground on the block, and one that prepares drivers directly for DTM’s future. It ticks some of the boxes that made DTM and its support paddock a popular career choice for young drivers, but frankly sportscars can also be of little-to-no interest to many rising talents and their sponsors.

But what do DTM’s current drivers, many who made their names on the support bill, make of the GT3 switch?

Ferdinand Habsburg raced in FIA European F3 in 2017 and ’18, picking up one win but becoming known for the finish to the 2017 Macau GP, where he claimed the lead at the final corner before understeering into the barriers and finishing fourth. Since 2019, he has raced in the DTM and recently took his first podium and pole.

“First and foremost, when you racing as a support series to the DTM, you get to meet people,” Habsburg told Formula Scout.

“They get to see you, so you’re directly in front of their noses. And although DTM teams are always busy on race weekends, there is always somebody keeping an eye on the support categories to see how the young talent is coming along.

“Then moving into DTM; I mean you meet so many people, you’re introduced to this whole new world of professional motorsport and if you end up shining and being able to do well in that sort of field, then it’s something that nobody can take off your CV and it’s something that seems to be very attractive to the motorsport community around the world.

Habsburg“It gives you an interesting portfolio for more manufacturers and more job opportunities in the future, which is awesome.

“Of course, DTM is in a lot of ways and has been an end goal. It’s been the dream to race there, and to try to win the championship. So once I got there, my eyes were set, my mind was focused, and my progression I feel has been positive, going into the first podium and pole position. Your goals change along the way obviously, but you’re also opened up to a whole new world which changes your perspective often as well. And also of course, growing up. I’m in my young 20s, you’re changing all the time [at my age]. DTM also helps you with that.”

As a direct result of driving for Aston Martin and Audi-linked DTM teams, opportunities appeared for Habsburg to race those marques’ GT3 cars, and so he also has an eye on how a young driver will see DTM’s future.

“It will make the transition easier for people that don’t necessarily have the financial background – like I had the privilege of having – to do F3, which is an expensive series.

“And then it gives more opportunity for people that still want to go racing, but have to start off like Rene Rast did.

“What he did was something very special, and not everybody was able to do. Most of them came from single-seaters in DTM. So it means you can go and race touring cars and have a more honest chance at getting up to speed quicker in a DTM car. That’s great. It will still keep the same attractiveness; it’s DTM. It’s the same format, we’ll see that the drivers will still always be very competitive, that’s the thing that everybody looks for. And the fanbase is huge.

“You know what, it is difficult to say still. Because it hasn’t happened yet, and we’ll see how it goes along. But it’s always been a professional series, and I believe it will stay that way.”

Habsburg and Rast disputing the lead of a DTM race

It’s not just Habsburg who’s holding up Rene Rast as a career template for the DTM. The series itself is, too. The 34-year-old German’s latest swathe of career momentum (and domination) has come just at the right time, as his story makes its new platform and DTM Trophy a more convincing sell to drivers and punters.

Rast did actually race single-seaters, but his one-and-a-half seasons in Formula BMW ADAC had little in the way of results. He moved to touring cars, lighting up Germany’s single-make series as a teenager, then to Porsche Carrera Cup Germany. He became champion, and moved up to the F1-supporting Supercup where he won the title on his second attempt – then won again for the next two years. It earned him DTM tests, but no race seat.

In 2013 he diversified, becoming a winner with Audi’s factory teams in FIA GT and ADAC GT Masters (the German GT series DTM is now a direct rival to) as well as becoming champion in Germany’s low-cost Dacia Logan Cup of all things.

Rast won the 2014 GT Masters title while getting his first taste of prototypes, and was then picked to join Audi’s LMP1 line-up for its penultimate Le Mans attack. The long-awaited DTM debut came in 2016 as a substitute, but it didn’t get the same attention as his winning LMP2 exploits or single-seater return with Team Aguri in FE’s Berlin E-Prix.

His dreams were finally fulfilled, and then surpassed in 2017 as he became DTM’s first rookie champion since the 1990s. He came four points short of a sophomore title, despite winning the final six races, and is now a three-time champion.

On top of his latest title success, Audi brought Rast back to FE this year in Berlin and he picked up his first single-seater podium and bagged himself a full-time drive with the factory Abt team for next season.

Photo: FIA Formula E

Rast’s story, and success, undoubtedly makes him DTM’s poster boy. Mercedes has had a few F1 proteges in the series, like Red Bull has in SF, but it can be queried if they earned DTM seats solely because F1’s top team had them spare.

In the end, F1 spat di Resta, Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein back out and they found salvation by returning to the DTM or, in Ocon’s case, switching allegiances. Rast meanwhile forged his own path, spent less money than his contemporaries in getting to a professional level, and later proved the DTM’s calibre of competition by matching the best in F1’s new single-seater world championship rival.

Rast’s DTM journey inspires Habsburg as much as it would drivers far younger, and another great example of a driver to look up to in the series is F1 grand prix winner Robert Kubica.

Attracting ex-F1 drivers has actually been a DTM strength, and most have raced there to end or extend their career rather than as a holding cell until they find a way back into F1. Here’s what Berger had to say about the topic, and if Aston’s likely 2021 DTM return (having competed via R-Motorsport in 2019) could incorporate its F1 signing Vettel.

“I’m sure Sebastian would say yes immediately. I think his path is F1. I would rather have Sebastian committed 100% to F1. So from today’s perspective: no. But maybe in the future it’s a possibility. We’ve had drivers like Jean Alesi, David Coulthard, Mika Hakkinen, many ex-F1 drivers are on this platform and that has to be the goal for the future.

“Be again where we were in the past. We need to have a platform that’s fascinating for drivers, who will be thrilled by the cars and the machinery. That’s where we will like to end up.”

The fascination was an attraction for Kubica, who alongside F1 reserve driver duties this year contested his rookie DTM season with ART Grand Prix – the big rival team when he raced in F3 Euro Series.

Kubica revealed to Formula Scout that racing in the support paddock actually played a part in his 2020 return:

“Lets start from many, many years ago. Being on the same weekend, on the same track as [the DTM] in the championship I was racing in – F3 Euro Series – which was I think one of the most challenging and most ‘looked at’ championships in the [lower] formulas, it was really something special.

“I remember crowds of people around the DTM paddock, grandstands, it felt really amazing. Probably that’s why I always followed DTM very closely, and somehow I did try to come back after 17 years to this paddock because in the end what attracts our sport and what makes it so special are fans.”

The COVID-19 pandemic meant spectators were barred in 2020 and cut – as it did for most series – the appeal to sponsors.

“DTM has always been very close and very open to fans,” continued Kubica. “It’s one of the few series which give opportunity to fans to come so close, to [be] part of race weekends, enter the paddock, come close to the teams, cars, and stuff like this.”

While Kubica hopes to see a return of spectator interaction in 2021, he’s decided he won’t stick around to race the GT3s.

The ruleset change means the loss of turbochargers, the Drag Reduction System, and a host of other technical upgrades that has kept DTM relevant not only as a final step in a driver’s career, but as a preparatory tool for F1.

“Regarding preparation of young drivers? We have seen some young drivers come into F1 via DTM, and I think it’s a good opportunity [for them],” added Kubica. “For sure, once the DTM switches to GT3, I think it will be less attractive to young drivers, to be honest. Because the driving style and what you learn in a GT car, it not necessarily works on formula cars.

“But definitely nobody’s putting any doubt about the drivers’ level and the competitiveness which we are having in DTM, they have been always very, very high level. Whatever year you look, there have been always amazing drivers in a very, very competitive field. And the teams.

“Once you get car manufacturers involved directly in the series, it brings the series into the highest level of professionalism, of the technical aspects and stuff like this. This is also one thing which is quite difficult with a small team like we are, to race against the teams which are backed by factories, and they have huge experience.

“I don’t know how the situation will be on this topic next year, but from what I understood, the DTM is trying to attract privateer teams, which they can handle and offer opportunities to race to young drivers. But as I said, I think the biggest limitation for young drivers in the future will be that DTM will use GT cars. And this isn’t exactly the same as F1.”

Habsburg called the ‘Class One’ vehicles “a F3 car with more power, more downforce, and a little bit more weight” with a similar driving style requirement, and is more optimistic about DTM’s GT3 future than Kubica.

“From the driver point of view, I think it’s a big shame and probably all of us will miss this feeling of driving the car, which looks like a touring car or a GT car but is more like a formula car,” Kubica said.

“This is what I think all drivers enjoy, the feeling of downforce, the ability of actually extracting maximum from those cars. But from the other end, if the change of cars will grant a good future for DTM, I think it’s the correct move.”

Habsburg and Kubica efficiently summarise how DTM’s overhaul could impact young drivers.

DTM Trophy could prove to be more affordable entry to becoming a professional than through lower-level single-seaters. If a driver can carve a route through the DTM paddock’s new structure, learn enough as a driver in the GT cars and impress a manufacturer there, then not only could they get find an opportunity later in life in FE or beyond, but having built professional connections so early in their career via the Trophy they could probably stay in racing far longer than the average junior single-seater entrant. And at the core of this image switch is ensuring there is still a DTM for those drivers to go to.

But at the same, so much of what made the DTM famous is now going, and being replaced by a ruleset neither new, inspiring or visually identifiable as the DTM. It will cost more than its sportscar rivals too.

Grid sizes may grow in 2021, and there will absolutely be more marques than the current two, but are the professional drivers going to stay loyal when there’s greater driving challenges elsewhere? And can a GT3 series populated by customer cars fitted with assists such as anti-lock braking really prepare a young driver for the extreme management skills needed in FE or the high-speed processing and ultra-professional world of F1?

And for all of Berger’s previous success, how did the DTM come to this point?

Further reading
The timeline of European F3’s demise Teams’ memories of a F3 era
Creating the young driver competition 2020 never got to see
How W Series plans to rebound ‘bigger and better’ in 2021
How Robert Kubica set the perfect example for young drivers

Photo: GT World Challenge Europe