Is this Porsche’s best non-factory driver?

Against a pair of factory aces in the DTM last year, Dennis Olsen gave an excellent account of himself. The Norwegian is one of several drivers in the same boat seeking to make the final step towards factory status at Weissach, but has an excellent chance of doing just that

Is this Porsche’s best non-factory driver?

It was the kind of press conference question that often results in disinterested, throwaway response from Formula 1 drivers keen to get media duties over with. Who were the drivers you raced coming through the ranks in karting that didn’t make it to grand prix racing, but should have done?

Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz gave roundabout answers without naming any names, but Valtteri Bottas nominated the boss of leading Finnish karting squad Jussi Kohtala. And Charles Leclerc wasn’t holding back, naming three drivers at the pinnacle of sportscar racing.

“There are three of them, where I remember thinking that they will get to Formula 1, and at the end for luck, and also for different reasons, they didn't make it: Dennis Olsen, Ben Barnicoat and Nicklas Nielsen,” the Ferrari ace said last year.

“But they're all still in racing, I think, and they are doing very, very well. But it also shows that even when you have, I think, most of the things to get to Formula 1, sometimes there's also the luck that plays into it, to be at the right place at the right time.”

Of that trio, Barnicoat (Lexus) and Nielsen (Ferrari) have factory deals with their respective brands in the IMSA Sportscar Championship and World Endurance Championship, with the Dane likely to be part of Ferrari’s Hypercar lineup in some capacity after claiming last year’s LMP2 Pro/Am crown.

Olsen meanwhile was a race winner for Porsche in the DTM in 2022 and is a factory driver in all but name.

“Basically it’s a bit like that,” Olsen tells Autosport. His official designated status is contracted Porsche driver: “I’m contracted with Porsche, but it’s not a factory contract.”

Olsen impressed in his rookie DTM season last year and hopes to earn a move up to full Porsche factory driver status

Olsen impressed in his rookie DTM season last year and hopes to earn a move up to full Porsche factory driver status

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Still, it’s a distinction that matters to the Norwegian 26-year-old, who says he “kind of got a bit of goosebumps” hearing Leclerc’s comments.

“For sure I would like to have the status as a factory driver because especially now it seems like the guys who are driving the LMDh factory cars, it’s only factory drivers that has been placed in those,” says the 2014 Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup runner-up (splitting Nyck de Vries and Alex Albon), who left single-seaters behind in 2015 and has specialised in Porsches ever since. Until 2020, the 2017 German Carrera Cup champion held the status of Porsche young professional after previously being a Porsche junior.

“So definitely that’s a goal and a dream as well to be there [in a 963]. But looking back at it, I can’t really complain about the programmes or the seats I’ve been in,” the 2019 Bathurst 12 Hour winner adds.

“I’ve been with the top guys from Porsche which has really helped me and I’ve learned so much. There is nothing to complain about in terms of lineups or races, because I feel like I’ve done a lot of big ones in good lineups and good teams.”

"The car felt good [in Portugal] and then we came to qualifying and it was eight tenths off suddenly, whereas in the test we were P1. We got surprised and a bit of a shock because it was more than we could imagine" Dennis Olsen

Olsen has “quite an open communication together with Thomas Laudenbach”, Porsche’s motorsport boss, and knows what he has to do to continue working towards his goal.

“I asked for a bit of a feedback what is needed to take the next step and we are communicating about it, so I’m aware,” he says. “Definitely I think the main thing will be just to keep on proving that it’s a position that I will deserve at one point.”

And as Olsen acknowledges, his 2022 campaign was a good step in the right direction that he believes “showed even for the first time in a proper manner that it’s kind of where I belong”.

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In his and Porsche’s first season in DTM, he won a race, cracked the top 10 in the standings and had the edge on team-mate Laurens Vanthoor, who will be racing a factory Penske-Porsche 963 in the WEC this year. That’s certainly nothing to be sniffed at, especially given the struggles his SSR Performance team had early in the year as it felt the car’s Balance of Performance left much to be desired. Olsen topped the final pre-season test in Portimao, but it proved a false dawn.

Olsen scored his and the SSR team's first DTM win at Spa

Olsen scored his and the SSR team's first DTM win at Spa

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

“DTM is quite extreme in terms of qualifying performance because if you’re [not] in the top 12 to 15, it’s basically impossible to win the race or to get a top three or top five unless you’re extremely lucky with the safety car,” he says. “It was very difficult for us starting the season and qualifying P17 or whatever, it was far, far back and it was really not what we expected.

“The car felt good [in Portugal] and then we came to qualifying and it was eight tenths off suddenly, whereas in the test we were P1. We got surprised and a bit of a shock because it was more than we could imagine.”

With points a long shot “in the beginning of the season when we were not competitive at all”, his main barometer early on was Vanthoor, the best established of Porsche’s three drivers in the DTM. But it was Olsen who four times in the first six races prior to the Norisring was the quickest of the Weissach contingent in qualifying.

“Coming into the season when I got to know that it was Laurens that was my team-mate, I thought to myself ‘it’s going to be extremely hard, I have to really deliver here’ because I know how good Laurens is on so many topics,” he says. “Definitely this was something that I had to keep in mind and prepare myself for. Coming into the DTM season, I was somehow a bit of an underdog.”

Olsen had started off his year racing alongside Vanthoor at the Daytona 24 Hours, where their KCMG entry took an unrepresentative third in GTD Pro as Vanthoor’s final lap attempt to repass Mathieu Jaminet’s identical Pfaff machine for the win ended with a spin that cost second to the Risi Ferrari. They paired up again with Nick Tandy at the Spa 24 Hours, the KCMG trio finishing seventh and best Porsche crew despite starting 64th and last thanks to brake problems in qualifying.

However at SSR Vanthoor struggled to get the car working in the manner he was used to. Olsen says he’s not truly sure why “at one point it kind of clicked for me” but not for his team-mate “because if we knew, he would know as well and he could have found the solution for it”. But it’s clear that the lack of testing didn’t help.

SSR was one of many teams impacted by the shortfall in Michelin tyre stocks and its only in-season tests, after four days across Paul Ricard and Lausitzring ahead of the official Portimao test, were two hours of running split between the two drivers at Imola and a one-day group test at the Nurburgring.

As the team worked to understand the nuances of Michelin’s tyres (now ditched in favour of Pirelli for 2023) following its switch from ADAC GT Masters, Olsen says testing more “would make our lives a bit easier”.

All of the Porsches struggled for pace in the early rounds, where Olsen shone brightest of the trio

All of the Porsches struggled for pace in the early rounds, where Olsen shone brightest of the trio

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

“One of the biggest challenges with DTM is you don’t have much running time before qualifying, and qualifying is where it really counts,” he says. “For sure it impacted the team quite a lot and the preparations are more limited then.

“But I have to say the engineers did a great job as well trying to prepare as good as they could, coming up with different options for different scenarios. In the middle of the season, we managed it really good and that’s where the results came.“

At the Norisring, “where we all kind of looked much stronger immediately, we saw quite clearly once the Porsche was within range we could fight”, he took his first podium by finishing second to factory driver Thomas Preining’s Team Bernhard machine. A second podium for Olsen came with an assertive drive to second at the Nurburgring. And at Spa, amid changeable conditions in qualifying, he romped to pole and controlled race one from the front after seeing off late pressure from Maxi Gotz’s Mercedes.

"I want to win the championship, that’s what I said before the [2022] season started as well even though it was quite optimistic because we didn’t know the championship. But I’m not jumping into the car and hoping for a 10th place. We’re there to try and win" Dennis Olsen

Given the Porsche’s lack of top-end speed relative to the BMW M4 driven to the title by Sheldon van der Linde, he admits it was something of a shock that his breakthrough win come at Spa - the very antithesis of the circuit type suited to the outgoing GT3 model where “smaller tracks with tight turns and not really any long straights would be very good”. But he also regards the result as an important statement to Laudenbach and co.

“I think last season has proved that no matter which circuit it is and if we get the good package together I will be there to deliver,” Olsen says. “This really helps to show what you can do. It’s a big thanks to Porsche as well to believe in me and trust in me to jump into that championship because there is a lot of guys to pick from, and especially for last year where the LMDh programme wasn’t there yet.”

Although SSR’s arrangement with Bernhard in 2022 didn’t stretch to exchanging set-up information, the two camps shared data and video which gave Olsen an insight into what Preining - his other immediate benchmark - was doing. The Austrian ended up as the best-placed Porsche in the standings and added a second win at the Red Bull Ring, but Olsen proved that there was no gulf in class between Porsche works and contracted drivers.

“Throughout the last years when you’re teaming up with guys, it proves that the whole crew has done a good job, and the whole team and whole package [when success comes],” he says. “Whereas DTM it’s kind of only all up to you and your team and the crew around you.

“The two last rounds was not that successful unfortunately,” he summarises, “but we really proved a point in the middle of the season there.”

Runner-up finishes came for Olsen at Norisring and the Nurburgring before he scored his first win at Spa

Runner-up finishes came for Olsen at Norisring and the Nurburgring before he scored his first win at Spa

Photo by: DTM

Indeed, he was fourth in the standings following his victory, but the remainder of his season yielded no more points. That statistic might have been different without a huge crash at Hockenheim, triggered by contact from behind from Ricardo Feller as he slowed to avoid the crash involving Preining and David Schumacher ahead, which ripped the engine out of his chassis and curtailed his weekend. The “quite shocking” crash was the first big hit of his career, although Olsen maintains that Feller could have done nothing to avoid the collision.

“At the end it’s racing and it happens unfortunately sometimes,” he says, “but it wasn’t the way we wanted to finish the season for sure.”

Olsen is in good company within Porsche’s pool of contracted drivers this year who all share the aspiration of factory status. Matteo Cairoli, Alessio Picariello and Klaus Bachler, who won the final round of the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup for Dinamic Motorsport at Barcelona last year, Bachler’s full-season IMSA GTD Pro partner at Pfaff this year Patrick Pilet, plus Julien Andlauer, Ayhancan Guven, Sven Muller and newly-appointed 2022 German Carrera Cup champion Laurin Heinrich, among others, are all in the same boat.

But in the single-driver DTM arena, Olsen has the perfect opportunity to make his case. Porsche has already communicated that both Olsen and Preining will return to the series this year and pilot the new 911 GT3 R, although with which teams are as yet unclear as the dust continues to settle following the dissolution of former DTM organiser ITR and its series transferring to the ADAC.

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Olsen is however clear in his mind about what he wants to achieve to take him up to the next tier of full factory status. Having shown well in 2022 against Vanthoor and Preining, he has momentum on his side to make his case successfully.

“I want to win the championship, that’s what I said before the [2022] season started as well even though it was quite optimistic because we didn’t know the championship,” he says. “But I’m not jumping into the car and hoping for a 10th place. We’re there to try and win and that’s always going to be our target.”

In that clear declaration of intent he sounds similar to Ferrari F1 talisman Leclerc, with whom he “had a lot of nice and hard fights at the karting track and in single-seaters”.

Olsen is determined to make his second season in the DTM a success, although it has yet to be decided who he will race for

Olsen is determined to make his second season in the DTM a success, although it has yet to be decided who he will race for

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Olsen still keeps in touch from time to time with his old sparring partners - “When George [Russell] had his win [in Brazil] I dropped him a message and got a reply, so knowing most of the guys there is nice” - but his sights are firmly fixed on the future, rather than the past.

“I definitely really appreciated that,” he says of the boost he relieved from Leclerc’s shoutout. “It was a very nice thing I have to say and nice to hear that.

"F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport but living from racing is still my dream and I’m doing it, racing for such a brand as Porsche. You can’t be disappointed about this" Dennis Olsen

“Of course, I also had a dream to go to Formula 1 but unfortunately we didn’t manage to get enough funding to go through the junior categories to get to that point where you even have a chance.

“People have asked me if I’m a bit moody about not going to Formula 1 but I’m so happy with the position I’m in now, racing cars all year long and fighting in one of the biggest championships in the world and running the biggest races.

“F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport but living from racing is still my dream and I’m doing it, racing for such a brand as Porsche. You can’t be disappointed about this.”

Despite missing out on joining old sparring partners Leclerc, Albon and De Vries in F1, Olsen is happy with his lot

Despite missing out on joining old sparring partners Leclerc, Albon and De Vries in F1, Olsen is happy with his lot

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

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