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Opinion

Why 2023’s most unpredictable series is a refreshing tonic

OPINION: Amid the onslaught of Formula 1 by Red Bull, the DTM has been at the polar opposite end of the spectrum with a different winner in every race at the season’s halfway point. The series prides itself on close competition, and isn't duly concerned about being seen as too unpredictable

Tim Heinemann, Toksport WRT Porsche 911 GT3-R

Formula 1 races this year have become an exercise in inevitability. Even if Max Verstappen is beaten to pole, or is bumped down the grid by a penalty as in Spa, it seems only a matter of time until he gets to the front. Red Bull’s reign of dominance has been halted only by F1’s summer break, but there’s no reason to expect its merciless pursuit of a first clean sweep in world championship history to abate when the paddock reconvenes at Zandvoort, not least with rival squads observing its Hungary update has opened up another advantage.

In stark contrast, the DTM is an oasis of unpredictability. At the halfway stage in the season, only one driver has more than one pole. And every race has been won by a different driver.

Clearly, this wouldn’t be possible without Balance of Performance that underpins the GT3 formula used by DTM since 2021 and other series worldwide. Whatever your views on the rights or wrongs of BoP – routinely the subject of scorn from purists – it means the whitewash seen in F1 where there exists a superior package that can win at a canter every week isn’t going to happen. That’s what ultimately makes the manufacturers commit to producing cars, contributing to the variety that is key to sportscar racing’s appeal while also ensuring the health of the discipline.

Even if Lamborghini has more wins than any other manufacturer in the DTM this year (three versus the two of Porsche and one apiece for Mercedes, Audi and BMW), few could have foreseen Grasser stand-in Maximilian Paul winning from 13th at a drenched Nurburgring in round eight last time out. 

That marked the first occasion of a repeat polesitter this year in the form of Ricardo Feller’s Abt Audi. But the Zandvoort race two winner’s grip on the race didn’t last long and, as the heavens opened to set up a showdown with Lucas Auer’s Winward Mercedes, series returnee Paul came through in torrential Eifel rain to become the eighth winner in as many rounds.

This follows a trend from the first half of last season, when seven different drivers won in the first half of the season – and which continued after the summer break with an eventual total of 11 different winners from 16 races.

Paul splashed to victory at the Nurburgring to become the eighth winner in as many rounds last time out

Paul splashed to victory at the Nurburgring to become the eighth winner in as many rounds last time out

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

With each weekend as the SRO-governed Balance of Performance seeks to equalise such fundamentally different car concepts as the front-engine Mercedes and BMW with rear-engine Porsche and mid-engine Audi, Lamborghini and Ferrari – the latter’s ORECA-built 296 a new car for this year without a bank of data to base equalisation on – a different set of contenders are at the front. That can even change between each double-header race with mid-weekend shifts in the BoP. Criticism is never far away – as was the case last year, when AVL was partnered with former DTM organiser ITR.

“Teams are always complaining about BoP, no matter who is delivering it or supplying it,” says ADAC motorsport director Thomas Voss, who points out that SRO is still learning the ropes when it comes to providing a BoP for a series with one driver per car and performance pitstops in the equation too. In this regard, the DTM is very much an outlier in the sportscar stratosphere.

But is DTM 2023 too unpredictable? And what would that look like?

As something of a DTM ringer, having only raced in it once before at the Red Bull Ring in 2021, Paul’s opinion is an interesting one. To the GT Open regular, who won in spectacular fashion at the Hungaroring with a final corner move earlier this year, DTM’s rate of different winners “shows how high the level of the championship is, and how high the level of all the teams and the drivers is”.

"To be at the front you need to absolutely nail it. It also means that the vast majority of times if you’ve won a race, you’ve done an exceptional job on that day" Maro Engel

It’s certainly true that the DTM doesn’t struggle for depth of competition. Among those drivers yet to win this year are three-time champion Rene Rast and double champion Marco Wittmann (both BMW), last year’s runner-up Auer, as well as past winners including 2021 title challenger Kelvin van der Linde, Porsche ace Dennis Olsen and Mercedes gun Luca Stolz.

In cars with ABS that are designed to allow gentlemen drivers to get within the ballpark of pros in multi-driver races, accessing the final fractions of a second takes a finely-tuned set-up and proper commitment to reach the sharp end of the grid. All it takes is something minor like a tyre pressure or camber setting to be slightly off, and the closeness of the competition will ruthlessly capitalise, such is the closeness of the competition.

“From my perspective the only problem is there haven’t been enough Mercedes-AMG wins!” says Maro Engel, who scored the Affalterbach marque’s only victory to date in the Zandvoort opener. “Having a championship that’s competitive and challenging as DTM is a positive for all of us, it makes sure you’re on your toes. To be at the front you need to absolutely nail it. It also means that the vast majority of times if you’ve won a race, you’ve done an exceptional job on that day.”

Engel was on top form at Zandvoort, but the vagaries of BoP mean different cars come to the fore each weekend

Engel was on top form at Zandvoort, but the vagaries of BoP mean different cars come to the fore each weekend

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

“I think it’s good that there’s always a different winner, because if always the same people will win then it’s not me!” said Bernhard Porsche rookie Laurin Heinrich after his choice of wets for the Nurburgring race two start, like Paul, paid dividends by finishing second. “I will try to be the ninth [winner], let’s see. But I think it speaks for the championship and also the format, also the level of this championship, it’s incredibly high. Yesterday I finished P19 and today I finished P2.”

Also in DTM’s favour, the results aren’t the product of a gimmicky format to spice up the action (unless you view the very presence of BoP as a gimmick, rather than a prerequisite of GT3 racing’s existence, a debate to be had elsewhere). Formula E earned criticism before the introduction of its current knockout qualifying for a group format that effectively penalised the drivers best-placed in the standings, making it difficult for anybody week to week to run consistently up the front and build a championship challenge in conventional fashion.

Part of what made FE’s group qualifying so unpopular was the notion that it was manufactured, taking the driver’s skill and potential of the package out of the equation. By throwing them onto a gripless track surface, those in the first session invariably ended up towards the rear of the grid. But while the vagaries of BoP will occasionally mean that a car which is dynamite one weekend is off-kilter the next, it would be wrong to say that the drivers and teams that do the best job aren’t rewarded.

Arguments to the contrary are somewhat undermined by Manthey’s points leader Thomas Preining, the only driver to have scored one podium at every round. Had it not been for a pitstop violation at Oschersleben that dropped him to third and handed victory to fellow Porsche driver Christian Engelhart (who parted ways with Toksport WRT earlier this week and has been replaced by Marvin Dienst), the rapid Austrian would have become the first double winner after his aggressive move on Norisring poleman Rast.

A rough diamond polished by Timo Bernhard last year, he’s also amassed 11 bonus points thanks to qualifying in the top three on five occasions. That qualifying prowess is unmatched by anybody else.

Preining rather summed it up after placing third in the Nurburgring opener behind Mirko Bortolotti’s SSR Lambo and Auer, a result he described as “like a win”. “All in all, a good day at the office,” was his conclusion. It’s fair to say he’s had a few of them recently.

But that’s not to say that others can’t do the same.

Preining has been a consistent force and deservedly leads the points at the halfway stage

Preining has been a consistent force and deservedly leads the points at the halfway stage

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

“Fair enough, it was not like other people did mistakes or something,” opined Auer. “It was always the fastest [who] won the race, so I think it’s good. And sooner or later we will see the first one to win two races.”

“At the moment it’s really cool to just have different winners all the time because it keeps the championship really open,” says Stolz. “I also would like to win a race at some stage!”

GT3 racing, driven by sales of customer cars, serves a different purpose to the pinnacle of world motorsport. BoP’s presence in the DTM shouldn’t be used as a stick to beat it with

It is only right that F1 steers clear of BoP, as it seeks to retain a total meritocracy. But GT3 racing, driven by sales of customer cars, serves a different purpose to the pinnacle of world motorsport. BoP’s presence in the DTM shouldn’t be used as a stick to beat it with, especially when a Red Bull-esque whitewash would likely result in oblivion. Right now, it’s helping to deliver an entertaining product in the DTM that F1 can only dream of.

Can Preining deliver Porsche a first DTM title? It's truly anybody's guess right now, and that kind of unpredictability comes as a welcome tonic.

With so many strong driver/team combinations to face off against, defending champion van der Linde has only won once at the Norisring

With so many strong driver/team combinations to face off against, defending champion van der Linde has only won once at the Norisring

Photo by: ADAC Motorsport

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