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DTM Hockenheimring

The Mercedes ace emerging from the shadow of an F1 legend

From the beginning of his DTM career, any reference to Lucas Auer was typically prefixed with a reference to his famous uncle, 10-time Grand Prix winner Gerhard Berger. But after finishing as a strong runner-up in 2022, the Austrian is increasingly making his own name

Podium: Race winner Lucas Auer, Mercedes-AMG Team WINWARD

George Russell isn’t the only Mercedes driver to have enhanced his reputation this year.

The latest member of its junior scheme, 16-year-old Andrea Kimi Antonelli, ran away with the Italian and ADAC Formula 4 series before contributing to Italy’s victory in last week’s FIA Motorsport  Games by steamrolling the F4 division at Paul Ricard. And while anybody who has been paying attention to GT3 racing in recent years has been left in no doubt about Raffaele Marciello’s abilities, he only further underlined his credentials as one of the best sportscar racers outside the prototype classes by following his sweep of the Spa 24 Hours, GT World Challenge Europe and overall titles with the ADAC GT Masters crown.

Merely finishing second in the DTM therefore may not make for such an obviously standout campaign. But without a puncture at Spa that robbed him of 18 points and a likely second place finish, Lucas Auer would have been crowned champion in a season where the DTM’s level of competition took a huge step forward from its 2021 GT3 reboot.

The series at times resembled a GT version of Formula E (prior to the introduction of its duels qualifying format) as unpredictability reigned supreme. Even a prime Paul the Octopus would be hard pressed to pick out a polesitter - it took until the 10th round of the season for an on-merit repeat - which made consistency preciously difficult to achieve.

But against this backdrop Auer shone, and despite the Mercedes contingent being the biggest of the field the Austrian was its best qualifier on seven occasions. The next most successful Mercedes drivers by that metric were Maro Engel (GruppeM) and his Winward team-mate Maxi Gotz on three apiece.

Victorious in the Portimao opener and Hockenheim’s disrupted Saturday race, Auer was one of just four drivers to win more than once and despite his Spa disappointment had closed a 20-point deficit to Sheldon van der Linde at the halfway point of the season to just two heading into the final race. Unfortunately for Auer, he was one of several drivers adversely affected by the decision not to restart qualifying following a late red flag and had to line up seven grid spots behind his rival in 11th. That was rendered somewhat moot in the race as, with his 25kg in success ballast, Auer lacked the pace of van der Linde’s Schubert BMW M4 in the race - but he still has every reason to be “pretty happy with how it went”.

Auer starred in the DTM this year and could count himself unlucky at not taking the title

Auer starred in the DTM this year and could count himself unlucky at not taking the title

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

“Especially in Hockenheim when really the pressure was on, I have to say the whole team delivered to an incredibly high level,” he tells Autosport. “Spa was painful but I think everybody, all of us had some painful experience. But overall it was a consistent season with some highlights.”

That Auer’s wins tally matched his 2021 total - he would have taken a third win in the now-infamous Norisring finale without the imposition of team orders to favour eventual champion Gotz - underplays the step forward the 28-year-old made in 2022. As Gotz left HRT and joined Auer at Winward, he was only on the podium once – with a second place at Spa he inherited after Auer’s left-front tyre gave up – and finished 11th in the standings.

Auer acknowledges that continuity has been an important factor in his strong campaign, having benefitted from working with the same team for the first time since 2018. That year was the last of Mercedes’ involvement in the DTM and prompted Auer to split from the brand he’d represented since his arrival to the series in 2015.

"If we stay together, we have a chance for the title. In a championship like this, it’s not tenths, it’s hundredths which make the difference so it is good to build up some experience that you know your engineer, you are working together a couple of seasons" Lucas Auer

“Basically it was the end of an era,” he says. “Everybody had to look for something else.”

He pursued a return to single-seaters for 2019 in Japan’s Super Formula series, funded by Red Bull, that peaked with a third place at Sugo. Then came a return to the DTM for 2020 with BMW.

At the Lausitzring, Auer claimed one of just two non-Audi wins that season (van der Linde incidentally took the other at Assen). But Audi’s withdrawal cast the future of the DTM into uncertainty and meant factory-run teams became a thing of the past. BMW couldn’t commit to a programme for Auer in 2021, the last year for the venerable M6 GT3, and so a parting of the ways was agreed that led him back into the Mercedes fold once more.

“Last year it took me some time to get familiar with the GT3, to find the last two tenths basically,” Auer says. “But once I found it, I was very confident, and staying with the same brand with the same team in the same championship really helped me. This I didn’t have for a long time, I was changing quite a lot the last years, so this gave me a massive boost in confidence.”

After a brief stint at BMW in 2020, Auer has found consistency and comfort to truly deliver in the DTM

After a brief stint at BMW in 2020, Auer has found consistency and comfort to truly deliver in the DTM

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

While Auer will admit that he couldn’t have planned his turbulent journey of recent years - BMW was never intended to be a one-year stop, “it was a longer plan, but this is how it worked out at the end” - he acknowledges that his experience has made him a more rounded driver.

“Although not in terms of speed – I don’t believe that,” he says. “Maybe the technical part I understand better, but the experience helps me so much. Also my experience with Japan.

“Actually, sometimes I look back to 2017 when I had a good shot at the [DTM] championship. With this experience now, it would have been so much better!”

Auer knows he’s in a good position now to make good on that “massive experience” in 2023. Should he remain with Winward - and there’s no reason to expect that won’t materialise, given Auer says “we have a very healthy relationship” and Auer's new deal with AMG was announced over the weekend - then he’ll automatically be regarded as one of the favourites next year.

“Definitely if we stay together, we have a chance for the title,” he says. “In a championship like this, it’s not tenths, it’s hundredths which make the difference so it is good to build up some experience that you know your engineer, you are working together a couple of seasons. It helps massively because the weekend is so short, you have to be spot on straight away and if not you have to really know what to do in order to get it right.”

As for his future, Auer admits that he’s interested by a return to prototype racing amid the current boom of manufacturer interest in Hypercar/GTP, having dipped a toe in the water racing for Colin Kolles in the World Endurance Championship almost a decade ago.

He made an LMP2 one-off in the 2013 Bahrain finale before three further outings in 2014 aboard Kolles’ non-hybrid LMP1. Poor reliability plagued the project, but Auer refutes the notion that it was a distraction during his race-winning 2014 FIA Formula 3 European championship campaign as he ended up fourth behind Esteban Ocon, Tom Blomqvist and one Max Verstappen.

Auer picked up vital experience during his F3 days competing against the likes of Verstappen and Ocon

Auer picked up vital experience during his F3 days competing against the likes of Verstappen and Ocon

Photo by: Sutton Images

On the contrary, he believes it was an advantage to have his eyes opened by working with more experienced drivers, and it certainly seemed to have a positive impact at Macau later that year. Auer was second to Felix Rosenqvist in a Mucke Motorsport 1-2, ahead of future F1 racers Roberto Merhi, Nicholas Latifi, Verstappen, Antonio Giovinazzi, Ocon and 2021 IndyCar champion Alex Palou.

“What is happening in Le Mans is definitely on my radar and I think for probably every driver,” he acknowledges. “Everybody who says not is lying! It will be really interesting, I think it’s really cool what is happening there.

“On the other hand, I have to say DTM is just mega.”

If Auer continues his upward trend in 2023, then that ongoing process to emerging from his uncle’s shadow will be another step closer to completion

Wherever Auer ends up in the future, he’s doing enough to be recognised as his own man. He’s no longer automatically referred to as the nephew of Gerhard Berger, who heads up the ITR organisation which promotes and organises the DTM, although Auer graciously recognises why that distinction was so commonly made.

“I remember when I went to DTM it was always ‘the nephew of’ and I was like ‘bloody hell!’” he chuckles. “But Gerhard is such a legend, he’s doing an incredible job and he’s such a huge name in motorsport, so I can understand this. But I feel every year – in terms of the press or how people see me – it’s more Lucas Auer and I think it’s a natural process.”

And if Auer continues his upward trend in 2023, then that ongoing process to emerge from his uncle’s shadow will be another step closer to completion. Should he realise his long-held goal of winning the DTM, then in the public consciousness his family connection may finally become an afterthought.

Auer is starting to step outside of his uncle Berger's shadow

Auer is starting to step outside of his uncle Berger's shadow

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

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