Preview: Aiello's back-to-back target

The 2003 DTM series kicks off at Hockenheim this weekend with Abt Sportsline Audi star Laurent Aiello aiming for back-to-back championships, but Mercedes-Benz ace Bernd Schneider, a multiple DTM champion, wants his crown back

Preview: Aiello's back-to-back target

Expect the tin-top titans to clash swords in style once again, with star names like Jean Alesi, Alain Menu and Karl Wendlinger keen to make their mark too. Opel is also seeking a return to the glory days, but the tipsters are backing Aiello and Schneider for another classic title duel.

"Not very much went wrong last year, but finishing second has motivated us to try even harder," promises Schneider, whose Mercedes has been flying in the pre-season build-up. "We've been satisfied with how testing has been going so far, but we don't know if it will be enough. Of course, we've improved a lot and although you are never totally happy with a car, I think we're in pretty good shape for this year."

After celebrating his maiden DTM title last year, to add to his British, French and German Super Touring crowns, Aiello has purposefully tried to put racing out of his head over the winter break. The diminutive Frenchman has been racking up the nautical miles on his jetski in blissful isolation to recharge the batteries for another energy-sapping title assault.

"I understand that staying in the same championship, with the same car, it is possible to lose your motivation," Aiello admits with refreshing honesty. "Every time in the past when I tried to defend my title, I didn't manage it. This year, in my head, it's different. I want to show I'm good enough to defend it, I want to keep it. This is my target for this year, no question."

Last year's title was effectively won and lost in the opening rounds, when Mercedes uncharacteristically dropped the ball on the chassis balance front. As the year progressed, and the determination to overturn the deficit to the Audi grew more intense, its CLK appeared to take a small step ahead in the final knockings of the season.

Schneider dismisses the theory, however: "We didn't overtake them, we only caught them up...It was close in the end. In qualifying they were still quicker than us, but in race trim it was pretty equal. We certainly learned a lot in the second half of the year, as Gerhard Ungar [Merc's DTM technical wizard] improved the car quite a lot. It wasn't a case that we didn't understand what went wrong in those early races, it was a case of not being able to change what we wanted to on the car in the time available."

In the Audi camp, the big change from last year is that the TT-R has had its wings clipped or, to be precise, has had its entire rear wing assembly lowered by 3.5cms. Its Mercedes and Opel rivals have had their wings moved rearwards by 1cm, which should give them more downforce than the reigning champions, whose base model car, remember, does not adhere to the silhouette rulebook anyway.

Aiello says he can feel the downforce reduction, but is confident that the team's technical staff, led by Albert Deuring, has made gains in other areas to redress the balance. Witness the periscopic exhausts over the rear wheels, thanks to a revised inner wheel arch design, and a number of extra aerodynamic flick-ups where the exhaust was previously positioned.

As well as the cars themselves, the playing field has also shifted slightly over the winter. The short, sharp qualification race, which resembled a procession more often that not after the opening lap, has been scrapped. A single, extended-duration main event is the new format, with not one but two mandatory pitstops to keep the crowd, and the drivers, on their toes.

"It's a new type of racing for me, because I have been used to these sprint races for a while now...but I really don't care," says Aiello with a shrug. "I hope it's better for the show, don't get me wrong, and I think the pitstops and strategy will have a bigger part to play."

Another new random variable for 2003 is refuelling, thanks to the extra 60-kilometre duration over last year. This is at the discretion of the teams, so one-stop and two-stop strategies are likely to come into play. All cars will feature lights, which will illuminate to show how many pitstops each has made.

Abt Sportsline boss Hans-Jurgen Abt explains: "The race will be 160km and the fuel tank is 70 litres, which is not enough, so we will have to stop to refuel. I think it adds to the competition, you can play more with the weight of the car and with tactics too. One point that must be a target for us is that the refuelling is faster than the tyre change, so the competition is still in the pitstop, not in the refuelling."

As for the calendar, Donington Park's round switches to July (bound to rain then!), while the twisty Adria circuit replaces Zolder, so a circuit with an awful layout but truly awesome facilities replaces one with vice versa. Also new for 2003 is single lap 'Super Pole' qualifying for the top 10 after an initial 20-minute session, while an F1-style manufacturers' championship has also been introduced, along with the top eight point scoring system.

Opel's Volker Strycek, says: "I feel very confident in these new rules, and the new qualifying procedure will be much more spectacular than before. It will be tricky for the teams with the single 20-minute session before the Super Pole, which is when the drivers will have to concentrate harder than ever."

The co-operation between the manufacturers, whose sporting chiefs all have a say in the way the organising body runs things, has been the key to its success, and a constant tweaking of the rulebook has kept everyone happy.

"There are a few points where Formula 1 could learn from the DTM," says Mercedes' sporting director Norbert Haug. "Especially the spirit that exists between the manufacturers. This championship has nothing to hide, and we are always trying to improve it rather than standing still."

Don't expect Aiello, Schneider et al to be stationary either when it all kicks off in Hockenheim this weekend. The big guns of the DTM will be blazing.

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