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James Newbold

The remarkable rise of the DTM’s first family

The Volkswagen Scirocco R-Cup that supported DTM from 2010 to 2014 is unlikely to be remembered among the greatest one-make saloon car categories. But it was the crucial stepping stone on two-time Nurburgring 24 Hours winner Kelvin van der Linde’s journey from South Africa to becoming an Audi factory GT driver and securing his younger brother Sheldon’s passage to Europe – which this year culminated in the DTM title.

When Autosport sits down with the DTM’s first family in the Schubert Motorsport truck at the Nurburgring to discuss their careers to date, there are still three more race weekends before Sheldon’s coronation. But, arguably, their greatest battle has already been won.

Despite their racing lineage, with father Shaun winning the domestic touring car title for BMW in 1994 and uncle Etienne beating Jenson Button to third in the 1999 Marlboro Masters of Formula 3 at Zandvoort, it was never a certainty that the brothers would be able to make a living from motorsport. The family were prepared to support Kelvin in Europe for 2013 and one more year, after his two seasons of domestic VW Polo racing, then he’d have to go it alone. To secure one factory contract is difficult enough, let alone two…

“I started Googling like crazy series, one-make Cups and whatever,” recalls Kelvin, still only 26. “I knew Formula 1 there was no way, budget-wise. I came across Scirocco Cup which at the time was €70,000 for a season. And if you won the championship, you’d basically get whatever you put in back in prize money. You would be back to zero.

“But you don’t think about the consequence, you just think, ‘We’ll win it.’ You have that confidence inside: ‘We’re going to win and then we can take the next step.’ Everything worked out, luckily.”

He made the trip to Europe with compatriot Jordan Pepper, a future Bentley factory driver, both lining up with the Abt team. Against opposition from the likes of future World Touring Car Cup double champion Yann Ehrlacher, van der Linde won five times to secure the title.

To reach the next step, GT3, “the budgets got more extreme”. He remained with Abt to drive an Audi in ADAC GT Masters, where he teamed up with Porsche Supercup king Rene Rast. They were the 2014 benchmark pair, winning on their first weekend together at Oschersleben and adding a brace at the Sachsenring en route to the crown. Right on schedule, and at the age of 18, Kelvin had a factory contract.

Kelvin van der Linde won the 2014 GT Masters title with Rene Rast, which earned him Audi factory status (Photo by: Gruppe C GmbH)

“I had no idea what GT Masters even was,” he admits. “We didn’t even know which teams were good, which teams were bad. I just picked Abt, went for the test and everything worked out. You can say there was a lot of luck involved, but there were a lot of moments where you think, ‘Jeepers, it could stop tomorrow.’”

Looking back, Kelvin reckons he “wasn’t ready to be a factory driver” in 2015. Without a manager in his corner, he “had nobody to show me how to deal with media, how you deal with the big sponsors on the corporate side”. He won only once in his title defence, at his Sachsenring happy hunting ground alongside fellow teenager Stefan Wackerbauer, then scored just a single point in an aborted 2016 campaign after switching to Car Collection.

“I was way too young at the time,” he says of becoming a professional racer. “Just so inexperienced even on the political side. It was tough mentally, because sometimes it’s not going well on the track and you need to fight for a contract the next year – you’re always signing one-year deals. It’s tough when you’re 18 years old and your parents are thousands of kilometres away.”

"With both of us being at Audi, there were not really any available [DTM] seats at that point, so we needed to split our efforts. That decision was for me the most important one that we did, to split the two of us" Sheldon van der Linde

Three years Kelvin’s junior, Sheldon had arrived in Europe in 2016 and moved into the Kempten apartment that Kelvin until recently also shared with Pepper.

“For me to have [Kelvin], because he arrived like three years before me, it helped me a lot,” says Sheldon, who like his brother has mastered the German language, a point he reckons has “helped us massively” with fan engagement. Sheldon finished fourth in his first season of the Audi TT Cup, which had replaced the Scirocco R-Cup on the DTM support bill, then stepped up to TCR Germany and finished third in 2017.

The same year, Kelvin scored his first Nurburgring 24 victory with Land Motorsport following a tense rain-affected finish. This result, Sheldon believes, “made my career”, and led to an opportunity to race the Land Audi at the Petit Le Mans IMSA SportsCar Championship round. In only his third GT3 start – prior to this he’d paired up with Kelvin for a GT Masters one-off at the Sachsenring and finished fourth in their Aust Motorsport-run R8 – he won the GTD class together with Connor de Phillippi and Christopher Mies.

“That just took my career from here to here,” Sheldon says, making a sweeping motion with his arm. The brothers teamed up full-time for 2018 in GT Masters with Land, taking second in the points, and finished third in the Spa 24 Hours. “They funded my whole [2018] season because he won [at the Nurburgring] and said, ‘My brother is fast, give him a trial.’”

After Kelvin won the 2017 Nurburgring 24 Hours with Land, the team gave Sheldon a chance at Petit Le Mans which turned into a full season together in the 2018 GT Masters (Photo by: Gruppe C GmbH)

Following advice from Rast that the brothers needed to engage a manager to make the next step in their careers, they signed with Dennis Rostek’s Pole Promotion agency at the end of 2018. That helped to smooth Sheldon’s path to joining BMW, a move born of a desire not to compete with each other for the same Audi drives. For both, the DTM was a clear goal, but Audi didn’t have any seats available.

“The idea came from all of us deciding that both of us being at Audi is no good because at the end he steals my opportunities and I steal his,” says Sheldon. “That’s why we decided to go our separate ways.

“We knew that we both have a lot of potential to reach our goal of becoming DTM champion and with both of us being at Audi, there were not really any available seats at that point, so we needed to split our efforts. That decision was for me the most important one that we did, to split the two of us.”

His timing was impeccable. A seat at BMW was open for 2019 because veteran Augusto Farfus had decided to step back from the DTM, and Sheldon aced his evaluation test. With the full might of BMW Motorsport behind it was “a massive step”, but Rast was a key ally as “a kind of mentor at the time”.

“I went from TCR to GT3 to DTM at a full factory level, which is obviously not easy,” Sheldon reflects. Victory at Assen the following year helped to secure him the honour of BMW’s second-best driver in the 2020 standings, as the DTM’s Class 1 era drew to a close.

For Kelvin, who won a second GT Masters crown in 2019 with Rutronik Racing alongside Patric Niederhauser, this was a frustrating spell left on the outside looking in, although he acknowledges that Sheldon racing in DTM “was like seeing him achieve both of our goals”.

“I was invited to multiple DTM tests,” he remembers. “I did one test in 2016 [at Jerez] which went really well, I remember Nyck de Vries was there, Alex Palou as well. But all three of us knew there wasn’t going to be a seat because that year they signed Rene already. And from that point, they never opened up a seat until the end of Class 1.”

Sheldon’s strong form secured him a berth for 2021, the rebooted DTM’s first as a GT3 championship. It proved a mixed blessing as the elderly M6 GT3 was largely uncompetitive, pole at the Lausitzring aside. By contrast, 2021 was the year Kelvin had been waiting for as he finally got his DTM chance.

Sheldon broke his DTM duck at Assen in 2020, while Kelvin had to wait until the following year's switch to GT3 cars to get his break (Photo by: DTM)

Reunited with Abt, he was a winner on the first weekend of the season at Monza, and took the title down to the Norisring finale. But a misjudged move on main rival Liam Lawson at the first corner, which left both badly compromised, allowed Mercedes to shuffle its pack and secure the title for outside bet Maxi Gotz. The social media backlash was swift.

Kelvin apologised to Lawson afterwards, and admits the experience “initially did change me”, but stresses his approach to racing is unaltered.

“None of that was malicious, none of it was on purpose,” he says. “As long as you know what you stand for, it shouldn’t change you. I’m known for my aggressive driving style and to a certain degree you’ve got to stay true to yourself. Why should I go and be a guy that sits behind in the back driving for 60 minutes in a circle? It’s not me.

“I enjoy being an entertainer. I don’t want to be the boring guy. I’ve been in some controversial accidents, but I don’t regret any of it. At the end of the day, that gives you guys a story to tell about our sport.”

"People can’t understand why two brothers support each other. To me it’s very weird, it’s the most natural thing in the world to support your family" Kelvin van der Linde

Winning a second Nurburgring 24 Hours this May served to underline that he has put the experience behind him. But his second DTM season was mixed, with a second place behind Sheldon at the Nurburgring that he labelled “the best day in my life” the main highlight.

Sheldon, armed with BMW’s new M4 GT3 and plenty of pre-season testing under his belt after switching from Rowe Racing to Schubert, emerged as a title challenger following a clean sweep at the Lausitzring. He carried that momentum all the way to the crown after seeing off Rast and top Mercedes challenger Lucas Auer.

Insight: How BMW's new "freestyle" flagbearers swept to 2022 DTM glory

Kelvin says there is “no jealousy at all” when one of the brothers is on top, and reckons “we’re each other’s biggest fans”.

“Sometimes people ask, ‘Why do you guys support each other so much?,’” he reflects. “It’s almost like people can’t understand why two brothers support each other. To me it’s very weird, it’s the most natural thing in the world to support your family.”

The brothers have always had a close bond. Kelvin took an active role in coaching Sheldon during his 2016 Audi TT Cup season (Photo by: Audi)

What comes next for both isn’t clear. Kelvin admits that he’d like to “broaden my horizons” beyond GT3 before too long, having seen a likely avenue to prototypes cut off by Audi’s decision to can its LMDh programme. Sheldon, meanwhile, will race in IMSA’s Daytona season-opener next month with BMW’s Rahal arm, but the uncertainty surrounding the DTM next year means a title defence isn’t guaranteed. He’s been involved in testing the M Hybrid V8 LMDh from an early stage, and is a logical fit for the marque’s World Endurance Championship assault for 2024.

“Guys are now proving that it’s possible to come from GT3 into high-downforce [cars] and that’s obviously good for the market as well,” Sheldon points out, “because we never had the budget to do formula racing or whatever to qualify ourselves for these kinds of seats. That’s a very important step in the whole mentality of motorsport, to know that GT3 drivers are on the level of anybody else in prototypes.”

And will we ever see them racing for the same manufacturer again, given Rostek has negotiated moves to BMW for both Sheldon and Rast?

“Never say never,” is Kelvin’s response. “But I think when we’re a bit older – we’re both extremely young, so we still have a lot of establishing to do. I think when we’re both around the age of 30 we can talk about it then, and probably be mature enough to take on that decision. But I think for the moment it’s not really realistic.”

What is clear is that the van der Linde brothers are here to stay at the top level in sportscars for a long time to come.

Sheldon and Kelvin shared the podium at the Nurburgring as the younger brother took a third victory of the year on his way to the title (Photo by: DTM)
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