How Audi DTM heavyweights Rast and Muller compare

The GT3-based DTM is a different proposition to the Class 1 era that ended in 2020, but Audi’s top protagonists remain the same. Rivals Rene Rast and Nico Muller have now swapped teams, making their Team Rosberg and Abt engineers uniquely qualified to reveal what makes the pair tick

How Audi DTM heavyweights Rast and Muller compare

“It’s a different championship compared to what I was used to before,” says three-time DTM champion Rene Rast of the series’ GT3 era. “These cars have ABS, they have traction control, they have less aero, more weight, completely different driving style.”

A whole new world to the prototype-esque Class 1 machines they may be, but in GT3 cars the DTM’s cream of the crop is still apparent. That was attested at Imola where Audi’s two top names from the Class 1 period, Rast and Nico Muller, lined up together on the front row and finished in that order as Rast took his first win since returning from a year in Formula E.

But there’s another key difference to 2020, and that’s the teams the pair are driving for. They have swapped camps, with Muller – Rast’s closest title rival in 2019 and 2020 – now firmly ensconced as part of the Team Rosberg crew with which Rast won each of his titles in 2017, 2019 and 2020. Rast meanwhile has joined Abt and is now working closely with Muller’s former engineer Felix Fechner, the pair having been thrust together last year in the unfamiliar surroundings of FE in what turned out to be Audi’s final year prior to pulling out.

That means that Fechner, Rosberg technical director Florian Rinkes (formerly Rast’s race engineer, who performed that duty for Muller in 2021) and Muller’s race engineer Davide Maino (previously Rast’s data engineer) are uniquely placed to judge the merits, similarities and differences between Audi’s two top performers in the 2022 DTM so far.

Rast lies third at the halfway point of the season, 10 points shy of championship leader Mirko Bortolotti (Grasser Lamborghini), with Muller a further 17 behind in fourth after a pointless weekend at the Norisring – where Rast survived the chaos to claim two third places. Muller also has a win to his name this year, the Swiss breaking through in Portimao as Rast drew a blank on his return.

For Rinkes, that triumph was particularly satisfying after a barren 2021 season as Rosberg struggled to get to grips with the switch to GT3 machinery. Muller’s best finish was second at Monza, his only podium all year, as he finished 10th in the standings. But Rinkes says he never resorted to finger-pointing as the team worked through its “steep learning curve”.

“A lot of things which worked with the Class 1 cars is absolutely different,” he says. “Nico was in this respect quite honest that some approaches from us may not work, some approaches from him didn’t work and then we tried to support each other to get back on top. There was always a kind of positive working attitude.”

Muller and Rast have picked up where they left off in 2020 after a disappointing 2021 for Muller and Team Rosberg while Rast was racing in Formula E

Muller and Rast have picked up where they left off in 2020 after a disappointing 2021 for Muller and Team Rosberg while Rast was racing in Formula E

Photo by: Audi Communications Motorsport

That comes as no surprise to Fechner, who began working with Muller in 2018. The former Dragon Formula E racer was the first driver he was responsible for race engineering and says “the time with Nico was influencing a lot my way of engineering the car”. Together they built up a tight-knit partnership, Fechner recalling “we were just talking on the same level”.

“He was pushing to check data himself and to be able to speak the same language [as the engineers],” Fechner says of Muller. “Then he is very linked to his mechanics, so he builds up a relationship which makes the team motivated the extra 10%. After a session, if you ask for a smaller change which takes a lot of time, they will do it without any questions or any bad feelings.”

In that respect, Fechner identifies a clear similarity between the pair, explaining that Muller and Rast have the same priorities.

"[Rast's] work method today in 2022 is quite normal, but at the time it wasn’t. He was a guy who brought something new in the environment, at least for what I saw the previous season. He was the first guy who really put huge effort into looking at other people’s data" Davide Maino

“They are pretty similar, because they make the life of the engineer easier sometimes,” he says.
Having viewed Rast as his biggest rival during his time with Muller, Fechner was intrigued to work together in Formula E and says he “saw it always as a great opportunity to learn what we were missing in these three years”.

“In the end, if you see Rene working, you don’t need to hide to have lost against him,” reckons Fechner, who believes that Abt splitting its points between Muller and team-mate Robin Frijns in 2020 – the Dutchman finishing third and taking points off Muller at key intervals in a season where Audi and BMW agreed not to use team orders – proved crucial as Rast overhauled Muller’s early points lead.

“Each driver had an advantage compared to the other one, then it’s always these small, small details which are then mattering,” acknowledges Rinkes, agreeing when Autosport suggests both would have been equally deserving champions in 2020.

Maino says working with Rast during his run of titles – having only been beaten over a full year by Gary Paffett in Mercedes’ 2018 swansong, the Briton eking out four more points as Rast finished runner-up after a flurry of late wins aided by Audi team orders – “was a pleasure” and reckons his work rate set him apart from the rest at the time.

Maino (left) and Rinkes (right) reckon Rast set new standards for workrate in his time at Rosberg

Maino (left) and Rinkes (right) reckon Rast set new standards for workrate in his time at Rosberg

Photo by: Audi Communications Motorsport

“His work method today in 2022 is quite normal, but at the time it wasn’t,” he says. “He was a guy who brought something new in the environment, at least for what I saw the previous season. He was the first guy who really put huge effort into looking at other people’s data.

“In my experience before him, drivers were staying one, maybe two hours and at 8pm going back to the hotel. Rene was the first driver I met that was pushing the limits, looking at the data of all the Audis and all the onboards available.

“He wanted us to record every possible onboard of any car, also BMW, also Mercedes, so he was checking every single onboard available until midnight. And this was the baseline. The session was over at 6pm maybe, until midnight he was there looking for anything, was going back to the hotel, still working and texting you at 1am.”

Rast’s attention to detail, Rinkes explains, meant “you have to have a quite honest relationship with him”.

“Because he’s so much in the detail, you cannot really hide anything,” says Rinkes. “You need to have an open relationship where you say, ‘OK, I can help you and do certain things with the car but this and this you have it yourself by driving’.

“They have slightly different needs and slightly different natural driving styles, so they ask for a bit of different stuff, but they are both clear which direction they would like to take. They have a clear goal and they can give really detailed and good feedback if you are getting there, if you are getting closer [to the desired set-up].”

Rivals began to cotton on after he won the championship and studied what Rast was doing. It became “an Audi standard”, says Maino, who regards working with Muller now as “familiar from day one because I was just doing what I was used to”.

The pair converse in English in team meetings, but away from the track catch up in Maino’s native Italian about “normal stuff”, which he says gives them “a deeper human connection outside the race weekend”.

Maino says Muller has similar working patterns to Rast, and the Swiss speaks to him in his native Italian away from the circuit to help them bond

Maino says Muller has similar working patterns to Rast, and the Swiss speaks to him in his native Italian away from the circuit to help them bond

Photo by: Audi Communications Motorsport

“But in the race weekend, there’s really no difference between Rene and Nico,” says Maino.

Audi had a “completely open” collaborative approach during the Class 1 era, Fechner explains, with data shared between the different teams, which meant engineers and drivers knew the working methods, strengths and weaknesses of their rivals already.

“We were still having meetings together, so I knew already what Rene was asking for,” says Fechner, who explains that as a result “there was not one single element that surprised me” when he started working with Rast. And the same applied for Rinkes with Muller.

"[Muller] is very linked to his mechanics, so he builds up a relationship which makes the team motivated the extra 10%. After a session, if you ask for a smaller change which takes a lot of time, they will do it without any questions or any bad feelings" Felix Fechner

“We knew him as a driver quite well from all the data studies we do, he was over the years the closest rival to Rene so we have a lot of data overlays between both of them,” he says.

In the end, says Fechner, both are class acts working towards the same goal.

“The only difference you could say is that Rene already won the DTM championship and Nico not yet,” he says. “In the Formula 1 Netflix series [Drive to Survive], there is one line from Toto Wolff where he described the difference between Hamilton and Bottas, where he said ‘there is a difference between thinking you can win, and knowing you can win’. But I would not see many differences between them as a driver.

“The environment, the surroundings, the cars, and the competition is completely different and you cannot compare it at all to the old DTM. But no matter in which team they are, they know how to form the team around them that performs. This I definitely see as a privilege!”

Reflecting on the “very healthy” rivalry between the Abt and Rosberg squads, Maino adds: “It’s nice that we are still there after a big change in rules. In the end they are still head-to-head, in Imola it was their side, in Portimao it was our side. We’re looking forward to the future.”

As are all of us watching on…

Fechner says Rast has the confidence that comes from winning titles in the past, although reckons there is no difference between him and Muller in their performance levels

Fechner says Rast has the confidence that comes from winning titles in the past, although reckons there is no difference between him and Muller in their performance levels

Photo by: James Newbold

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