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Rachit Thukral

Eight reasons you should follow the DTM in 2022

Largest-ever grid since revival

Ever since Mercedes, Audi and BMW downscaled to six cars each in 2017, the DTM had been struggling to attract more than 20 entries for a full season.

The switch to more widely-available and affordable GT3 machinery in 2021 didn’t immediately bring a reversal in this trend either, with only 19 cars signing up for the year. This was a far cry from the kind of bumper grids seen in other GT3-based categories, including DTM’s direct rivals in Germany and Europe.

However, GT teams and manufacturers were left impressed by what they saw last year and have flocked to the series in large numbers this year. As a result, 29 cars will assemble at Portimao for the opening round of the season, representing the largest grid seen in the DTM since the championship’s revival in 2000. 

Audi, BMW and Mercedes are all back in full force and will be joined by newcomer Porsche, the final member of the ‘Big Four’ from Germany. They will battle against Italy’s two biggest supercar makers Ferrari and Lamborghini, making it a six-way rivalry for one of the biggest prizes in the GT arena.

Drivers from 14 countries will be represented, adding international flavour to a championship that is keen on continuing its expansion beyond its German roots.

Loeb’s grand debut at Portimao

Sébastien Loeb, AF Corse (Photo by: Andreas Beil)

While the GT World Challenge Europe may boast Valentino Rossi, another legend from a different discipline of motorsport will make his DTM debut this weekend at Portimao: nine-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb. The Frenchman has been brought in by Red Bull to replace Nick Cassidy in its AF Corse-run team in the opening round, with the Kiwi unavailable due to clashing commitments in Formula E.

Although Loeb will forever be associated with rallying, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he has been competing on and off in circuit racing for almost two decades - with the highlight being a second place overall in the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2006 at the wheel of a Pescarolo prototype. As such, there really isn’t any question about his ability to be quick in a racing car. 

But of potential concern is his lack of track time in the Ferrari 488 GT3, with Loeb having to share his AlphaTauri-liveried car with Cassidy for all four days of official pre-season testing. The conditions during testing were also far from favourable, with rain hitting the track on both days at Hockenheim, and the Portimao running taking place in colder weather late in the evening to allow the DTM to place TV cameras around the track during daylight.

However, if Loeb does go on to perform well this weekend despite less-than-ideal preparations, it could open the door for more opportunities in the DTM later in the year, with Cassidy also set to miss the Norisring round in July due to another clash with Formula E.

Loeb’s performance will likely be compared with that of his full-season teammate Felipe Fraga, who has essentially replaced Liam Lawson in the team and is Red Bull’s only hope of winning a drivers’ title it narrowly lost out on in 2021.

A Brazilian Stock Car racing champion and a three-time starter at Le Mans, Fraga has the potential to add to his impressive CV in the DTM this year, according to AF Corse chief Ron Reichert.

“Felipe has been very very successful outside of Europe,” he said. “He has been an amazing driver in Brazil and the US. He’s been a little bit under the radar for Europe, but I think he will surprise a lot of people.

“For Nick, there’s not much to say. He jumped into the car last year with no testing and he was on the pace right away, he definitely has the talent and the pace. 

“And for Seb the name speaks for itself. Having that many world championship titles, the guy can definitely drive anything as long as it has wheels and a throttle pedal.”

Rast’s big return 

René Rast, Team ABT Sportsline (Photo by: DTM)

“I feel like a rookie again even though I’m old already. It reminds me a bit of my first DTM year in 2017 when everything was new to me. So it feels like that again. New names, new teams, new cars. I'm used to the tracks but the rest is kind of new. So, I need to learn a lot and get up to speed.”

Those are the words of three-time DTM champion Rene Rast, who has repeatedly downplayed his prospects ahead of his return to the category this year.

On one hand, Rast does have a point. The DTM has gone through a top-to-bottom overhaul during his short absence from the series and he will have to go through a learning phase before he can replicate the form that made him one of the most successful drivers in the series' history. 

However, Rast is the same driver who turned up the DTM at the age of 31 in 2017 and won the title in his rookie season (admittedly in much different circumstances). He also learned the intricacies of Formula E in an incredibly short span of time when Audi recruited him to replace Daniel Abt in the second part of the 2019/20 Formula E season in Berlin.

And let’s not forget that Rast did actively race in GT3 cars in the past and even won the ADAC GT Masters title in 2014 with current teammate Kelvin van der Linde. And while he may have done less than a handful of outings in GT3 cars in recent years, there is every reason to believe that he can be quick out of the blocks in the DTM this year.

It helps that Abt Sportsline has the potential to remain a frontrunner in the DTM again in 2022, making Rast an obvious bet for the title. Not to mention the outfit has two other quality drivers in van der Linde and Ricardo Feller, each armed with years of experience in the Audi R8 LMS GT3. The duo will push Rast this year, while also providing him with the data he needs to improve his own driving.

Porsche’s long overdue entry into the DTM

Laurens Vanthoor, SSR Performance Porsche 911 GT3-R (Photo by: Alexander Trienitz)

The DTM grid feels more complete this year following the entry of Porsche, revered by many for its exotic sportscars and history at Le Mans.

Enough has been written about Porsche’s reluctance to join the DTM when it was essentially restricted to full-factory cars, but it’s positive to see the Stuttgart-based marque jump on the bandwagon when the switch to GT3 regulations removed a major barrier to entry.

“I think Porsche will realise quickly that to be in DTM is a big thing, the return you get with the TV coverage, with the name it is and the tradition. It's a lot in every respect,” said Mike Rockenfeller, who briefly drove for Porsche in the US before joining sister brand Audi in the DTM.

“It's a little money to invest compared to other motorsport platforms now with the GT3 rules. Before it was getting really expensive but now I think it's rather cheap and you get a lot of return and good racing. 

“We know there is some factory support involved and I think Porsche will take it very seriously. They have good drivers, good teams. And, it's great for DTM.”

Porsche has a strong cast of drivers and teams for its first assault on the DTM. Laurens Vanthoor needs no introduction to fans of GT racing, having won major enduros such as the Nurburgring 24 Hours and Spa 24 Hours. His teammate Dennis Olsen is likewise no stranger to success with Porsche, even if he doesn’t have full factory status, and could spring a surprise or two this year. 

Their team SSR Performance joins DTM after two successful seasons in GT Masters, including its title-winning campaign with Michael Ammermuller and Christian Engelhart. With Vanthoor and Olsen at the wheel, SSR could be a potent threat for the title this year.

The third Porsche on the grid will be piloted by Team Bernhard 75 driver Thomas Preining. One of the youngest drivers on the grid at 23, the Austrian has racked up a lot of experience in a wide variety of championships since winning the Porsche Carrera Cup Germany title in 2018. Preining even got to test a Formula E car at Marrakesh in 2020, showing he is regarded highly by Porsche.

Mercedes reshuffles drivers as its expands to eight cars

Maro Engel, Mercedes-AMG Team GruppeM Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Photo by: Alexander Trienitz)

After winning both the drivers’ and the manufacturers’ title in 2021, Mercedes has further upped its involvement in the DTM this year by adding an eighth factory-supported car. This means it will again have the biggest presence of any manufacturer on the grid, and theoretically a better shot at winning the championship.

There are some notable additions to Mercedes’ line-up this year, with Maro Engel returning to the DTM for a third stint and 2018 Blancpain GT champion Luca Stolz making his full-time debut after dipping his toe in the water with a one-off outing last year at the Nurburgring.

Together with reigning champion Maximilian Gotz and seven-time race winner Lucas Auer, both now at Winward, Mercedes has at least four drivers capable of fighting for the title this year. 

There’s also multiple-time Blancpain GT champion Maximilian Buhk, but his primary job will be to refine the Schaeffler-Paravan steer-by-wire system on his car rather than chase outright results.

Arjun Maini also proved rapid over a single lap last year and could be an even more formidable competition now that he’s secured a promotion to the HRT team that carried Gotz to last year’s title.

Formula 3 convert David Schumacher and Canadian racer Mikael Greiner are both rookies and hence unlikely to regularly feature at the front of the grid. But they could well take points off Mercedes’ rivals, which could prove decisive in a series that has a system of success ballast in place.

New BMW M4 GT3 makes DTM debut

Marco Wittmann, Walkenhorst Motorsport BMW M4 GT3 (Photo by: Andreas Beil)

While some of its GT3 rivals like Audi have introduced Evo kits to their existing GT3 offerings this year, BMW has built an all-new car from the ground-up based on the new M4 road car.

A lot of effort went into the development of the M4 GT3, with BMW spending the majority of 2021 testing the car at a variety of tracks in Europe and America, even racing it at the Nurburgring Nordschleife as a factory team before making it available to customers this year.  

The initial feedback about the BMW M4 GT3 has been overwhelmingly positive, with drivers saying it is more versatile and easier on the tyres than the old M6, which was primarily built for endurance racing and hence not suited to the DTM’s sprint-style format.

BMW has also assembled a solid line-up for the car’s debut in the DTM, headed by none other than two-time champion Marco Wittmann driving for Walkenhorst Motorsport.

Sheldon van der Linde and Philipp Eng are also proven race winners and, while their team Schubert Motorsport may be new to the DTM, it has spent considerable amounts of resources on private testing to prepare for the season.

All of this means BMW really has no excuses not to challenge for the championship, according to the marque’s former rival and 2013 DTM champion Rockenfeller.

“From what they showed in America, they have to sort out stuff, but sprint racing is a little bit different to endurance racing, so hopefully they will have the reliability under control.

“Pace-wise the car is very good and they have a very good chance to be very successful. They have to, it's a new car. I mean, come on, you come with a new GT3 car, new development and you go to your first year, you have good drivers, good teams, they have to fight for the championship. Otherwise, it's a disappointment for BMW.” 

GT racing stars at Lamborghini

Mirko Bortolotti, Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini Huracán EVO GT3 (Photo by: Alexander Trienitz)

Even though Mirko Bortolotti is regarded as one of the best GT3 drivers in the world, few would have expected him to finish on the podium when he made a wildcard appearance with T3 Motorsport at Assen last year.

Now with a full-time seat at the factory-supported Grasser Racing team, the Lamborghini driver ought to be considered as one of the early favourites for the title this year.

GRT is also putting its entire focus on the DTM this year, fielding four Huracan GT3 Evos in the series, and will have high hopes from the driver that helped it clinch back-to-back GTD victories in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2018-2019.

“Mirko is here to win races and hopefully to be in the game for the championship at the end of the year, so it’s a clear target,” said GRT boss and 1996 DTM/International Touring Car champion Manuel Reuter.

“But it will be really tough. By our calculations there are more than 15 driver/car combinations who are able to win the championship, so predictions at the moment are impossible.“

Another driver lending star power to Lamborghini’s second season in the DTM is Aston Martin factory racer Nicki Thiim, who will be driving for the T3 team this year in place of Esteban Muth.

T3 is a relatively small team compared to some of its rivals so it might be a little optimistic to expect Thiim to repeat his father Kurt’s title success from 1986 in his first season, but the Danish driver should be able to adapt to the Vantage with relative ease.

Although Thiim has been racing Aston GT cars for what feels like an eternity, he did make a couple of appearances at the wheel of an Audi R8 LMS GT3 in 2015 in the Blancpain sprint series, so 2022 won’t be his first major outing in a car not built by the British manufacturer.

Team order ban and other rule changes

Start practice (Photo by: DTM)

Based on the feedback it received from teams and competitors, the DTM has introduced a number of regulatory changes for the second year of its GT3 era, including a complete ban on team orders. Any kind of outside influence on drivers from teams, manufacturers and sponsors will not be tolerated this year, with the DTM warning that it could go as far as excluding competitors from the championship if found guilty of disobeying the rules.

This follows a controversial ending to the 2021 season at the Norisring, where Gotz became the series’ first GT3 champion after both Auer and Philip Ellis allowed the German driver to come through and take the lead at the request of Mercedes.

The list of changes for 2022 doesn’t stop at team orders. Drivers will now be allowed to pit under a safety car period, with the hopes of widening strategic possibilities. Last year, drivers tended to stop as early as possible for new tyres, partly because there was a risk that a safety car could wreck their race. But following the rule change, there is a possibility that more drivers could try and extend their first stint and charge through the field on fresh tyres towards the end of the race.

Furthermore, the pitstop window will open from the 11th minute of the race this year instead of lap six. This could lead to situations where the race leader misses the pit window and starts a new lap, while drivers running behind get the opportunity to make an early stop and perform an undercut.

Physical safety cars could also make fewer appearances this year, with the series finally adopting a Formula 1-style Full Course Yellow system in 2022.

Another change involves the introduction of a point for the fastest lap, which will be open to any driver who completes the race, irrespective of finishing position.

Finally, the success ballast system has been adjusted for 2022. While the race winner will still have to carry an extra 25kg in the following race, the second-place driver will only be given 15kg (instead of 18kg) and the final podium finisher will only be hit with a 5kg penalty (instead of 15kg).

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