Despite the uncertainty surrounding its future, the 2020 DTM season still has all the makings of a cracker, as Audi and BMW prepare for one final battle with their Class One contenders. RACHIT THUKRAL looks over the expected storylines
There's no denying that Audi - initially represented by a private entry from Abt before entering a full works team for 2004 - has been an integral part of the DTM since the series was revived in 2000.
And while it's impending withdrawal has far-reaching consequences for the future direction of the series, 2020 gives the Ingolstadt-based manufacturer one final shot to add to the rich history of the fabled German-based touring car championship.
It's been incredibly successful in the DTM, scoring four of its seven constructors' titles in the last decade alone. Another triumph would mark a fitting end to Audi's DTM tenure, but BMW won't be wanting its rival to have a fairytale send-off and will be eager to score its first title since Marco Wittmann in 2016.
Ahead of its resumption at Spa-Francorchamps this weekend - the track making a welcome return to the calendar for the first time since 2005 as part of the sweeping changes made in response to the coronavirus crisis - Autosport picks out the key threads to follow.
Can Wittmann and BMW prevent another Audi walkover?
BMW suffered a crushing defeat in the hands of Audi in the first year of the new 2.0-litre turbo era, losing out all three titles to its long-time rival. In fact, such was the extent of Audi's advantage that it wrapped up the manufacturers' crown three rounds early, and eventually ended up scoring twice the points of BMW.
It's not that BMW didn't start the season a strong note; Wittmann won the first race at Hockenheim, and BMW drivers - including Bruno Spengler, who ended a two-year drought at the Norisring - claimed victories in each of the next five rounds.
But, as BMW Motorsport boss Jens Marquadt admitted to Autosport, the Munich-based manufacturer "ran out of steam" as the season progressed and failed to win another race in the last three rounds.
Reliability issues were the prime cause of BMW's struggles, which forced it to sacrifice performance to ensure its six factory-entered M4 cars could reach the chequered flag. A prime example of this compromise was the decision to add eight kilos of extra weight to the car to combat vibration issues with the engine.
"We felt at the Nurburgring that BMW did a step up, because last year Audi was definitely ahead by far in terms of performance" Loic Duval
With the regulations remaining largely stable over last year, BMW has its work cut out to close the gap to Audi, but series returnee Lucas Auer - a race-winner with Mercedes prior to its withdrawal at the end of 2018, who has now signed with BMW Team RMR after a year in Japanese Super Formula - insists the Bavarian brand has solved the reliability issues that plagued its 2019 campaign.
"I really believe [BMW] are on top of all the problems they had last year," Auer (below) told Autosport.
"In the [Nurburgring pre-season] test, we had no dramas, no nothing, and the car felt good. But in terms of pure speed, we have to wait for Q1."
Audi driver Loic Duval also expects a close fight between Audi and BMW this year, based on how the two marques compared at the Nurburgring last month.
"We felt at the Nurburgring that BMW did a step up, because last year Audi was definitely ahead by far in terms of performance," Duval told Autosport.
"We think they have done a step, but we'll see, as there is a trend from many years that Audi is very good in the race with a bit less degradation, we will have new tyres also.
"This might change the game a little bit. But I believe the performance of both manufacturers will be closer than it was last year, so for the show it will be a bit nicer, it will be more difficult to predict who will win."
If BMW manages to build a potent car that can challenge Audi, expect two-time champion Wittmann (Team RMG) to again lead the challenge. Having broken his duck last year at Zolder, Philipp Eng and fellow Austrian Auer could also potentially mix it up at the top.
How will team orders ban change Audi's approach?
Audi has again shown faith in its driver line-up by retaining the same quartet for a third consecutive season. And if the Ingolstadt-based marque maintains its advantage over BMW, it's reasonable to expect all six factory drivers to fight for victory and podiums.
However, evidence from last year suggests that reigning champion Rene Rast (Team Rosberg) and his closest challenger Nico Muller (Abt Sportsline) will again be the two drivers most likely to mount a consistent title challenge.
Rast also has the added motivation of eclipsing Mattias Ekstrom as Audi's most successful driver in terms of race wins, with the two-time champion currently on 17 to Ekstrom's 25.
Both Rast and Muller are also competing in Formula E in August - Muller with Dragon and Rast having been signed to replace the ousted Daniel Abt at Audi - which could provide a distraction that allows one of their stablemates to seize the initiative.
"Audi pulling out of the DTM could also have a big impact on the races themselves. We will not have the situations we had in the past with strategy [team orders]" Loic Duval
Jamie Green, the only driver in the field who was on the grid for the DTM's last visit to Spa in 2005, is keen on winning a much-awaited maiden title in the DTM, while Mike Rockenfeller will also be looking forward to adding to his 2014 crown.
An interesting dynamic that could impact the intra-Audi battle is the ban on team orders. Audi has tended to give preferential treatment to its primary championship runners in the past, with both Rast and Muller gaining from it in the second half of last year.
The new regulation could mean more drivers - especially from Audi's pack - winning races this year, which in turn could translate into a closer title fight.
"I think Audi pulling out of the DTM could also have a big impact on the races themselves," Duval explained.
"We will not have the situations we had in the past with strategy [team orders]. I think everything will be open from the first race until the last race and everyone will have the chance to use the same tools.
"Last year was definitely my best year, I could have won two races I think, Norisring and Brands Hatch, but as everybody knows we are working for a brand and we had a strategy to follow.
"But this year will be a bit different which is nice for all the drivers, even though target number one is still for an Audi to win. That will be the main difference for this year."
Will Kubica sink or swim in his privateer BMW?
Robert Kubica will make a much-anticipated DTM debut at the wheel of an ART Grand Prix-run BMW M4, having lost his Williams Formula 1 seat to Nicholas Latifi.
Kubica made steady progress during the four-day test at the Nurburgring in June, gaining over a second to finish 12th fastest overall, 0.582s off the pace of WRT Audi's Ferdinand Habsburg. He completed a total 541 laps - or 1963km of running across the four days - gaining valuable mileage in only his second outing in a Class One car following the rookie test in December last year.
The Polish driver knows that transitioning from single-seaters to touring cars - and on several tracks that he hasn't driven since his time supporting the DTM in the 2004 Formula 3 Euroseries - will be anything but easy, and suggested that he will have to "forget what I know" to get a better understanding of Class One machines.
"Most of the time what is happening is that when you are a rookie and you are new in the championship, by the time you understand it's too late - the qualifying is over, the race weekend is over" Robert Kubica
"In order to be competitive and to be be in the mix of drivers you have to be able to be on top of everything," Kubica said. "The field is very compact and together, every small little thing counts.
"Definitely the general characteristic of weekends, it is quite unique. You go into Saturday without knowing the track, the conditions, how the track evolution is and you go directly into qualifying.
"Most of the time what is happening is that when you are a rookie and you are new in the championship, by the time you understand it's too late - the qualifying is over, the race weekend is over. This is unfortunately the price to be pay when you are a rookie."
How Kubica will fare in his rookie season in the DTM will also depend on ART, which has become the second customer team in the DTM this year after WRT. Known best for its prowess in formula racing, ART is no stranger to the DTM, having operated two factory Mercedes cars between 2015-16. But having no experience of running Class One cars, and with just four days of testing under its belt, ART could be a long way off the two factory BMW teams.
Can WRT spring a surprise?
WRT's pedigree in sportscar racing is well known, and the Belgian outfit did a more than respectable job in its first year in the DTM as a customer Audi outfit, particularly with Jonathan Aberdein - now at BMW - behind the wheel. Aberdein broke inside the top five at three occasions to finish 10th in the championship, the best-placed rookie and ahead of several leading factory drivers from BMW's stable.
For 2020, WRT has expanded to run three customer RS5s and will field an all-new line-up comprising former R-Motorsport driver Habsburg and rookies Fabio Scherer and Harrison Newey, the latter replacing the originally-contracted Ed Jones.
Habsburg was quick throughout testing and clocked the quickest overall time with a 1m18.911s on day three. He was also one of the two drivers to break the 1m19s barrier, the other being factory Audi man Muller.
Super Formula convert Newey was parachuted into the final WRT seat on the final day of testing after a chance conversation between ITR chairman Gerhard Berger and his design legend father Adrian, but did enough to secure the place that was originally earmarked for Jones. The 22-year-old Briton is confident that his lack of mileage will not prevent him from showing his speed, despite having only one day of testing under his belt.
"DTM one of the best championships around, one of the best platforms to show yourself as a racing driver against people like Jamie, [Green], one of the top drivers in the world with a huge amount of experience," he said.
"If we can come along and mix it with them, [as] we saw Sheldon van der Linde and Jonathan Aberdein do last year, then I think I come out of my season looking like a real prospect and a strong racing driver."
Additional interviews by Jamie Klein