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Rachit Thukral

The 10 drivers gunning for DTM title glory at Hockenheim

It’s astonishing to think that after seven rounds and 14 races across Europe, more than a third of the grid has a chance of becoming the DTM's second GT3 champion following Maximilian Gotz’s title success last year. And at least half of them can claim to have a realistic shot at the crown, with the top five drivers in the standings separated by just 16 points with a total of 58 on offer this weekend.

Sheldon van der Linde sits at the top of the pile on 130 points, followed by Lucas Auer (119), Rene Rast (118), Thomas Preining (116) and Mirko Bortolotti (114). Those five drivers represent five different manufacturers, BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Porsche and Lamborghini respectively, with Ferrari the only brand not in contention for the title.

Here are all the players in this year's championship battle:

Sheldon van der Linde

Sheldon van der Linde, Schubert Motorsport BMW M4 GT3 (Photo by: Alexander Trienitz)

Those who followed the 2020 DTM season closely wouldn’t be surprised to see how Sheldon van der Linde has made the best use of the tools available to him to put BMW in a position to score its first drivers’ title since Marco Wittmann in 2016. During that season, which was only his second in DTM, he dragged a BMW Class 1 car that was no match for the Audi to an emphatic victory in the wet at Assen. Now equipped with the new BMW M4 that is as quick as the competition, if not faster, it's only natural that he is fighting for the elusive title.

Van der Linde has scored three wins so far this year - the most of any driver - and his second success at the Lausitzring was particularly impressive as he shrugged off 25kg of success ballast to complete a fine double, reminiscent of Liam Lawson’s twin wins at the Red Bull Ring last year. And much like Lawson, van der Linde also heads to the final round of the season as the championship leader, albeit with a slightly smaller 11-point lead compared to the Kiwi’s 15-point advantage at the same stage last year. There will be no team orders at play following a change in regulations, which means he can expect a fair fight this time.

That said, van der Linde must bring his A-game to the finale, having dropped the ball at a crucial junction of the season at the Red Bull Ring a fortnight ago. To be fair to him, van der Linde had to try hard to compensate for the M4’s lack of pace at the Austrian venue, but that doesn’t explain how he logged a whopping nine-place grid penalty for repeatedly exceeding track limits in the opening race of the weekend. And the 23-year-old was most definitely pushing the boundaries on a wet opening lap in race two, leaving him spinning down to last position and without any points for a second contest in succession.

However, given the experience and maturity he has shown at a relatively young age, one can expect him to bounce back strongly at Hockenheim as he chases a maiden title in the DTM - and a seat in BMW’s LMDh programme.

Lucas Auer

Lucas Auer, Mercedes-AMG Team WINWARD (Photo by: Alexander Trienitz)

It would have been cruel if Lucas Auer wasn’t in the DTM title fight this year given how consistent he’s been in a Mercedes package that is nowhere near as strong as it was in 2021.

Easily one of the most likeable personalities in the paddock, Auer has finished inside the top five in half of the races so far, which is quite an achievement considering how regularly his rivals have faltered during the season. Indeed, van der Linde only has two top-five finishes outside of his three wins, while Rast, Preining and Bortolotti also fall short of the Mercedes driver on this count.

Auer started his season with a fine victory at Portimao and would have bagged a solid haul of points in the second race of the weekend had he not been forced to pit twice due to an error on the team’s part. A couple of third-place finishes followed at the Lausitzring and the Nurburgring, and it was only factors outside of his control that broke this run of consistent results. At the Norisring, for instance, Red Bull stand-in Ayhancan Guven took him out in a race of attrition, while a puncture cost him a likely second place at Spa. 

Hand him back the points for those three races and Auer would have been heading to Hockenheim with a handsome lead in the standings. Nevertheless, he remains the nearest rival to van der Linde in the standings, and a relatively low 11-point deficit means he has a real chance of defending Mercedes’ crown in the second year of DTM’s GT3 ruleset.

Rene Rast

Rene Rast, Team ABT Sportsline Audi R8 LMS GT3 (Photo by: Alexander Trienitz)

Considering all the success they have enjoyed together, it would only be fitting for Rene Rast to depart Audi as the 2022 DTM champion. With three titles, 25 wins and 45 podiums, Rast is already the most successful Audi driver to grace the DTM, and a fourth championship success in 2022 will only add to his legacy.

A DNF and a 12th place in the Portimao season opener wasn’t how Rast would have imagined his DTM comeback to look, especially with Audi stablemate Nico Muller scoring a race win. But the German driver quashed any doubts about his ability to re-adapt to GT3 cars with a podium next time out at the Lausitzring, before dominating proceedings at Imola to chalk up a fine victory. Two further third places at the Norisring added to his points tally, putting him third in the championship going into the summer break.

It is a shame that Rast then lost a huge chunk of points at the Nurburgring due to callous driving from some of his rivals, with a puncture at Spa dealing a further blow to his title hopes. But the German driver can't entirely blame external factors for his points deficit to van der Linde as he has made some unforced errors too, with his overly aggressive defence on Nick Cassidy at Spa the first to come to mind.

However, with only 12 points separating him and the top spot, he ought to be considered a serious contender for the title. Moreover, the 35-year-old’s one-lap prowess could come in particularly handy at Hockenheim, having scored pole position thrice this year and qualified inside the first two rows a further three times.

Thomas Preining

Thomas Preining, KuS Team Bernhard Porsche 911 GT3-R (Photo by: Alexander Trienitz)

Few could have predicted Thomas Preining contending for the title in his first season in the DTM. If a Porsche driver was going to be in the thick of the championship fight heading to Hockenheim, it would have been Spa 24 Hours winner Laurens Vanthoor rather than one of his less popular colleagues.

Yet, it’s Preining who is carrying the marque's championship hopes after a season in which he has underlined his credentials as a rising star, and it would be naive to rule out the Austrian causing a major upset this weekend.

It wasn’t an ideal start to Preining’s DTM career at Portimao, with a 13th place finish on debut. This was followed by three straight retirements - all caused by crashes or punctures. A fighting fourth place finish at Imola finally put his season back on track, before he survived a race of attrition at the Norisring to score a historic win for himself and Porsche.

A pair of podiums at Spa further added to his tally, but it was his impressive wet-weather drive at the Red Bull Ring that thrust him into the title battle - and will make him a worthy champion should he emerge on top come Sunday.

In tricky conditions that caught out several of his rivals, Preining shone in his 911 GT3 R to charge his way up the field, before wiping out Maro Engel’s five-second lead with incredible ease. The way he was then able to pull out a handsome gap showed he was head and shoulders above the rest of the pack that day, with even a slow pitstop not enough to deny him a second win of the season.

Given the possibility of more rain on Saturday, he ought to be considered a dark horse for the title.

Mirko Bortolotti

Mirko Bortolotti, Grasser Racing Team (Photo by: Alexander Trienitz)

It’s a bit disappointing to see Mirko Bortolotti slide to fifth in the championship and face a 16-point deficit to Sheldon van der Linde ahead of the Hockenheim finale. After all, he had marked himself out as one of the favourites for the title with a strong run of consistent results in the first half of the season and was even leading the standings at the midway point of the year.

But the Grasser driver has only himself to blame for this fall from grace, as he now plays catch up to van der Linde and the rest when in fact he could have been at the top of the table.

The downslide began at the Nurburgring in August, the round that marked the start of the second half of the season after a month-long summer break. Chasing Felipe Fraga for victory in race one, Bortolotti was so desperate to grab the lead that he crashed into the Red Bull driver at the final turn, throwing away at least 18 points in the process. Another collision followed in the second leg of the Nurburgring event, this time with Abt Audi driver Kelvin van der Linde, forcing him to return home from the weekend empty-handed.

There was no repeat of his unnecessary incidents at the following round in Belgium, but two poor qualifying results meant he could muster only five points, conceding further ground to his rivals in the championship.

Bortolotti has since returned to his usual form with a podium at the Red Bull Ring and will be a credible threat for the title at Hockenheim, given how rapidly he and the Lamborghini package have proved so far this year. A 16-point deficit may sound big on paper, but Maximilian Gotz came from 26 points down in the table to win at the Norisring last year, showing there’s all to play for in the title decider.

Other contenders

There are five further drivers in mathematical contention for the title at Hockenheim, but Luca Stolz is the only one with a real hope of usurping the leading quintet across the two races at the former Formula 1 venue. 

The winner of this year’s Bathurst 12 Hour and a seasoned GT3 racer, Stolz finished on the podium twice in his first three races and claimed a maiden DTM win in impressive fashion at the Nurburgring later in the year. His wet-weather drive in Austria was further proof of his skills behind the wheel and one can certainly see the Mercedes driver in a stronger position to challenge for the title in coming years.

Nico Muller is also theoretically in the title hunt ahead of his expected departure from the DTM, but a 37-point gap means he is unlikely to make amends for the 2020 title he lost so narrowly to Audi stablemate Rast.

Porsche driver Dennis Olsen’s chances are also purely mathematical, while Kelvin van der Linde (Audi) and Gotz (Mercedes) are likewise too far behind in the standings to have any realistic chance of snatching the top prize.

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