Why there was more to DTM 2021 than Norisring farce

While the 2021 DTM season will always be remembered for the controversial Norisring finale, it would be wrong to judge the year based on one race alone. Here's Autosport's review of the series' first campaign under GT3 regulations.

Why there was more to DTM 2021 than Norisring farce

2021 was a year of monumental change for the DTM. Gone were the manufacturers that were integral to the running of the series itself - and with them the much-loved, purpose-built Class One cars that rivalled prototype racers in terms of performance. Customer teams were now supposed to be the stars of the show, with off-the-shelf GT3 cars another new feature thanks to their wide availability and cost effectiveness.

Coming into the season, many fans were pessimistic about the direction the ITR had taken this year - even if it wasn’t by choice - but the DTM's brand name managed to pull in a strong cast of drivers and teams to keep the interest high in the series.

The racing was generally exciting and a thrilling, multi-driver battle gave fans reasons to tune in round after round. It’s a shame the season ended the way it did, because series boss Gerhard Berger had put together a strong - if slightly flawed - product that could distinguish itself in a crowded marketplace.

Make no mistake, the season finale tarnished the series' reputation and will have repercussions on next year's campaign as well, but in isolation the ‘new DTM’ did tick most of the boxes for a modern sportscar racing series.

Here are some of the highlights of the 2021 DTM season, as well as the challenges the series faces to rebuild its image in the winter.

Multi-manufacturer battle

Christian Klien, JP Motorsport, McLaren 720S GT3

Christian Klien, JP Motorsport, McLaren 720S GT3

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

The final season of the Class One rules cycle in 2020 was characterised by a largely one-sided battle. R-Motorsport Aston Martin had left the DTM after just a single season and BMW had lost so much ground trying to improve the reliability of the M4 Turbo that it could no longer match Audi on pace. Such was the Ingolstadt-based manufacturer’s dominance that it won 16 out of 18 races and locked out the podium at nine different occasions - meaning there was rarely a day where the two German rivals fought for positions at the front of the field.

Hence, the sight of multiple manufacturers battling competitively against each other this year marked a refreshing change for the DTM. The switch to GT3 cars opened the DTM to a wider variety of manufacturers, who were previously turned off by high cost of competition and other barriers to entry. Audi, BMW and Mercedes all returned to revive their three-way rivalry from 2012-18, while Lamborghini and Ferrari ensured the series wasn’t just limited to German car makers.

Crucially, each of the five full-season manufacturers provided extensive technical support, while some of them even assembled a lucrative financial package to aid their customers.

The extensive manufacturer involvement raised the game in the DTM and ultimately contributed to a multi-driver battle for the championship. Out of the quintet, Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Ferrari all scored multiple victories over the course of the season - and each had a driver in contention for the title going into the final round at the Norisring.

Then there was the small matter of Porsche making its long-awaited debut in the DTM this year. For all its history and past success, the DTM had never been able to lure the Weissach-based marque, even as fellow Volkswagen Group brand Audi continued to pour millions into the series every year. But finally, a Porsche was seen on the DTM grid for the first time when SSR Performance fielded a 911 GT3 R for reigning GT Masters champion Michael Ammermuller at the Nurburgring.

Apart from Porsche, another noted supercar manufacturer McLaren also made its first appearance in the DTM, thanks to a part-season entry run by JP Motorsport for ex-F1 driver Christian Klien.

Top notch drivers and teams

Alex Albon, AF Corse

Alex Albon, AF Corse

Photo by: Gruppe C GmbH

Direct manufacturer involvement was the reason why the DTM had one of the strongest grids of any racing championship outside of F1 in years gone by. So there were understandable fears that the quality of the field would shrink when the series shifted to customer teams and GT3 cars in 2021, with there also being a risk that pay drivers would become a common feature in the series.

But much to everyone’s surprise, there was no shortage of talent in the DTM in 2021. While it’s true that several drivers from both Audi and BMW’s stable moved on to pastures new, with three-time champion Rene Rast being the most high-profile racer to deflect to another category, many familiar names did stay on for another year and maintained one of the USPs of the DTM. 

Most notably, Rast’s former title rival Nico Muller continued in the series in 2021 with the hope of another championship assault, while Mike Rockenfeller ensured there was an ex-Audi champion on the grid.

From the BMW camp, two-time champion Marco Wittmann and Timo Glock both returned to the series with Walkenhorst and Rowe Racing respectively, and the former ran near the front of the pack for much of the season.

There was also an influx of top drivers from the sportscar racing arena who brought with them extensive experience of GT3 cars. Kelvin van der Linde joined crack Audi squad Abt Sportsline after two titles in GT Masters and an outright win at the Nurburgring 24 Hours, and eventual champion Maximilian Gotz had also shown what he is capable of during his time away from DTM in 2017-20.

But by far the biggest draw on the grid was the addition of Red Bull duo Alex Albon and Liam Lawson, who were able to adapt their driving style to GT3 cars with relative ease. What Lawson achieved in his rookie season in sportscars was commendable and will only serve to help him secure an F1 seat in the near future. Credit must also go to Albon, who was never meant to do a full season in the DTM - and hence was primarily focusing on his reserve role with Red Bull in F1.

It must also be stated that the 2021 DTM grid wasn’t entirely made up of professional drivers. Team Rosberg - which powered Rast to all three of his titles - did have to resort to an out-and-out pay driver, while some other drivers brought financial packages with them. But all in all, the overall quality of the field was incredibly high for what is now a customer-based GT3 championship.

Guest entries

Chris Reinke, Head of Audi Sport Customer Racing and Lucas di Grassi, Abt Sportsline

Chris Reinke, Head of Audi Sport Customer Racing and Lucas di Grassi, Abt Sportsline

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

During the last few years, the DTM attracted several drivers from various disciplines of motorsport as wildcard entrants, with Sebastien Ogier, Alex Zanardi and Andrea Dovizioso being the best examples. But seven guest drivers in one season has got to be a record for the DTM.

With there being no difference in machinery to GT World Challenge Europe and other SRO categories, quite a few noted sportscar drivers got a chance to make their debut in the DTM this season, including factory Lamborghini driver Mirko Bortolotti - who finished on the podium at Assen -  reigning GT Masters champion Michael Ammermuller, Mercedes driver Luca Stolz, and ex-F1 racer Christian Klien.

Also, with production-based GT3 cars easier to drive than Class One prototypes, it was possible for 2016/17 Formula E champion Lucas di Grassi to perform admirably in the final two rounds of the season - even if the results didn’t show the progress he made every time he hopped into the car.

It’s also important to highlight that some of the wildcards were able to race near the front this year, something that would have been impossible in the Class One era. This served to raise the level of competition in the DTM, with Bortolotti for instance showing the way to his less experienced team-mates at T3 Motorsport.

Plus, teams also employed some top quality replacement drivers when their full-season signings were absent due to clashing commitments. Nick Cassidy is the finest example of that, as he did a stellar job deputising for Alex Albon in the title decider at the Norisring.

Intense title fight

Maximilian Götz, Haupt Racing Team Mercedes AMG GT3, Liam Lawson, AF Corse Ferrari 488 GT3 Evo

Maximilian Götz, Haupt Racing Team Mercedes AMG GT3, Liam Lawson, AF Corse Ferrari 488 GT3 Evo

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

It’s not that the DTM didn’t deliver exciting battles after switching to Class One engines in 2019. But the fact that only Audi drivers were in contention for the championship did take away some shine from the title fight.

Which is why the four-way shootout between Liam Lawson (Ferrari), Kelvin van der Linde (Audi), Maximilian Gotz (Mercedes) and Marco Wittmann (BMW) was better than the all-Audi affair between Rene Rast and Nico Muller in 2019 and 2020.

The championship dynamics changed from track-to-track, leaving everyone guessing which car would be faster come the next round.

In the first half of the season, it was van der Linde who held the advantage as he built a massive 33-point lead in the opening four rounds. But Lawson quickly turned the tables with a fine double victory at the Red Bull Ring and, with just three races to go, the two were level on points at the top of the table.

Meanwhile, Gotz kept himself in the championship hunt all through the year with a consistent run of form, while only some late BoP changes for BMW denied Wittmann a realistic chance of fighting for a third title at the Norisring.

It’s a shame that the events of the final race took away the spotlight from what had been a brilliant title fight between the quartet all season long.

More outspoken drivers

Mike Rockenfeller, Abt Sportsline

Mike Rockenfeller, Abt Sportsline

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Without the manufacturers and their PR machines working behind the scenes, the drivers were able to speak their minds more freely in the DTM this year, providing some interesting soundbites during the season.

At the Nurburgring, Mike Rockenfeller called out Liam Lawson on live television for “losing his mind” in their late-race clash, adding he “doesn’t know what he was smoking”.

Lawson himself pulled no punches after the manner in which he was denied the title, labelling Kelvin van der Linde an “idiot” in a post-race interview that was also broadcast live on TV.

No overtaking aids

Arjun Maini, GetSpeed Performance Mercedes AMG GT3

Arjun Maini, GetSpeed Performance Mercedes AMG GT3

Photo by: Gruppe C GmbH

This year the DTM did away with both DRS and push-to-pass as part of its switch to GT3 cars. ITR actually wanted to have some kind of overtaking aid to spice up the racing, but had to shelve those plans in the face of resistance from manufacturers.

It turned out to be the right move for the series, as the kind of passing we saw this year was more natural, and drivers could race each other for several corners in a row - instead of blasting past their rivals down the straight.

This was evident in the first race weekend of the year at Monza when Sheldon van der Linde got a great run out of the second chicane to pass both Nico Muller and Liam Lawson in a single move going into the first Lesmo corner.

Later in the season, Mike Rockenfeller and Lawson battled hard for a podium spot on the final lap at Hockenheim, with Rockenfeller able to pull off a brilliant move going into the Turn 8 left-hander.

Marco Wittmann’s brave charge through the field at Assen was also brilliant to watch, even if he picked a five-second penalty for his pass on Maximilian Gotz.

GT3 cars inferior to Class One

René Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg, Audi RS 5 DTM

René Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg, Audi RS 5 DTM

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Let’s face it, the switch to GT3 regulations was a step down for the DTM from every single angle.

While the new cars didn’t look much slower than their Class One brethren on TV, the lap times actually plummeted by eight seconds around Hockenheim - which is too big a performance gulf to be ignored. For reference, this is similar to the deficit F1 faced when it first switched to heavier hybrid power units in 2014 after nearly a decade running V8 engines. And unlike in F1, these cars won’t go any faster in the coming years.

Plus, all GT3 cars continue to be equipped with ABS, which shouldn’t have a place in what is supposed to be an all-professional championship. While the ITR would rather not have ABS in the DTM, it’s both expensive and time-consuming for teams to remove the system and put it back on again when they have to use the same car in another category.

But worst of all, GT3 cars completely changed the look and feel of the DTM - and not for the better. Even as they continue to grow on fans, it wouldn’t be wrong to say they simply cannot replicate the spectacle that Class One cars provided, especially when the series switched to more powerful turbocharged engines in 2019.

BoP mess

Marco Wittmann, Walkenhorst Motorsport BMW M6 GT3

Marco Wittmann, Walkenhorst Motorsport BMW M6 GT3

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

The DTM was forced to adopt a system of Balance of Performance in 2021 and that came with its own set of headaches for the series. 

Not only equalising performance of conceptually different cars is a huge task, more often than not there is a team that feels it has been unfairly treated - no matter how accurate the BoP is. Hence, it was common for drivers to grumble about how BoP was affecting the championship at every round.

On some occasions, their concerns were genuine. When BMW struggled in the opening race of the season, the DTM did admit that the M6 has been incorrectly graded against other cars and made amends for it mid-weekend - as allowed for the first three rounds of the year. 

However, it was quite ludicrous of teams to ask the DTM to bring tyre changes under the purview of BoP, just so they could negate the performance advantage AF Corse had gained with a superior pitstop technique.

Equally disappointing was rival teams blocking BMW’s request to hold a BoP test at Hockenheim, when results from the previous race had clearly shown that the M6 was lagging behind other cars.

There were also some whispers in the paddock that Red Bull had been given a performance boost for its home race when Liam Lawson won the second race in Austria with 25kg of ballast on his Ferrari. Even if that rumour had no basis, that certainly didn’t do the DTM’s image any good.

Poor driving standards 

Maximilian Buhk, Mücke Motorsport Mercedes AMG GT3 after the crash

Maximilian Buhk, Mücke Motorsport Mercedes AMG GT3 after the crash

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

After some relatively clean racing in the Monza season opener, the driving standards increasingly worsened as the year progressed, reaching a new low in the fourth round at the Nurburgring.

Against the background of an expanded 23-car grid thanks to a number of guest entries, seven drivers retired from the second race due to on-track collisions - and several other sustained heavy damage to their cars.

Even those within the series were critical about the action that unfolded in front of their eyes, with Abt team chief Thomas Biermaier likening the race to “bumper cars” and Winward Mercedes boss Christian Hohenadel calling out drivers for “acting wildly and undisciplined”.

The final race at the Norisring didn’t do the DTM any favours either. Apart from Kelvin van der Linde’s irresponsible attempt at passing Liam Lawson for the lead at the start, there were several other instances where drivers went too far to support their - or their team-mate's - title bid.

Notably, Mercedes drivers defended hard against a fast-charging Nick Cassidy in the closing stages of the race, eager to prevent him from getting any closer to title aspirant Maximilian Gotz. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a collision between Cassidy and Mercedes man Philip Ellis which left both drivers tumbling down the order.

Track limits chaos

Daniel Juncadella, Mercedes-AMG Team GruppeM Racing Mercedes AMG GT3, Lucas Auer, Mercedes AMG Team Winward Mercedes AMG GT3

Daniel Juncadella, Mercedes-AMG Team GruppeM Racing Mercedes AMG GT3, Lucas Auer, Mercedes AMG Team Winward Mercedes AMG GT3

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Track limits is not a new issue in the DTM or motorsport in general, but there were points this season where it left the viewers simply too confused.

The addition of the Red Bull Ring to the calendar didn’t help, but Assen was where it became a serious issue. Several drivers who qualified inside the top 10 were stripped of their best laps for breaching track limits, with some of them demoted on the grid only after the chequered flag was shown. 

Worse still, all these drivers had their times reinstated just before the race, leading to a completely different grid than what had been expected after qualifying.

Most notably, guest Lamborghini driver Mirko Bortolotti was allowed to start the race from third having provisionally qualified in 12th place. Christian Klien, too, was a big mover thanks to the late reshuffle, taking the start in sixth place instead of 16th.

The title decider

Start action

Start action

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Anyone who was invested into the 2021 DTM season has the right to be outraged by the manner in which the championship was decided at the Norisring. It was the most controversial of championship finales in recent motorsport history and overshadowed what had otherwise been a brilliant season.

Kelvin van der Linde’s move at the start was not only over-opportunistic, he also cut the corner in his bid to pass championship leader Liam Lawson - something that should have warranted a bigger sanction than the five-second penalty he received during the race.

The fact that Lawson didn’t even have a chance to prevent the title from slipping away from his fingers was extremely unfair on him, given the job he had done to build a 19-point lead in the standings over van der Linde - and 22 over eventual champion Maximilian Gotz.

Van der Linde wasn’t the only culprit as Mercedes made a mockery of DTM’s new customer racing approach by enforcing team orders, exerting the kind of influence that shouldn’t be allowed in the series’ new era. And the way Mercedes celebrated its success in the immediate aftermath of the race - seemingly unaware of the storm that was ensuing on social media - made for terrible viewing on TV.

PLUS: How the DTM's shambolic finale poses awkward future questions

While van der Linde did publicly apologise for his actions, and Gotz can be considered a worthy champion in his own right, there’s no denying that fan favourite Lawson did a better job all season and was cruelly denied the big prize.

Final thoughts

Start Formation lap

Start Formation lap

Photo by: Gruppe C GmbH

All in all, the DTM most certainly exceeded expectations in its first season with GT3 regulations. For all the pessimism regarding the direction it had taken this year, the DTM vehemently responded with a product that could appeal to both its existing audience and those new to the series.

Even after the novelty factor had worn off, the championship continued to provide compelling reasons to tune in every race weekend, especially as the title battle ebbed and flowed between van der Linde and Lawson in the second half of the campaign.

However, the farcical Norisring finale highlighted some major flaws with the new-look DTM that must be addressed over the winter if the series wants to make a fresh start in 2022.

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