When Mercedes announced its driver line-up for 2017 this week, there were four casualties. But the Stuttgart manufacturer arguably has one of the strongest line-ups in the paddock, argues Editor-in-Chief Andrew Abbott.
It’s no secret that Mercedes have been struggling in recent years in the DTM. Ever since the new regulations came into force in 2012, when BMW joined the fray, the once dominant marque has been the weaker competitor up against Audi and BMW.
Over the past five years, Mercedes have won just 15 out of 66 races, with the other 51 wins being shared between their Ingolstadt and Munich rivals. During that time, Mercedes have taken just one drivers’ title, in 2015 with Pascal Wehrlein. Even that title could be said to be an anomaly of sorts, as the young German was the only Mercedes driver inside the top six in the standings, and he took the title more by consistency than outright pace.
Audi have taken one title too, but arguably should have more than that (they’ve occupied the second and third places in the drivers’ standings for the past three years now), whilst BMW have scooped three drivers’ crowns.
The lack of success for Mercedes is more down to the car than its drivers, who are proven champions in previous seasons. The manufacturer was even allowed a special dispensation in 2014 that allowed them to complete an extra day of testing and temporarily develop their race car further.
With those issues now in the past, Mercedes have been looking to the future with its recent signings, signalling a clear intent to take the title back in 2016.
By far the biggest coup for the Silver Arrows has been to sign the fast Italian Edoardo Mortara, who finished as the runner-up in the 2016 season to eventual champion Marco Wittmann.
Mortara has proven that he has the hunger, evidenced by his close duels with Wittmann and Audi stable-mate Jamie Green in Budapest last year, and the pace – with five wins to his name in 2016, Mortara took more victories in a single season than any driver since Gary Paffett in 2005 (although with the advent of the 18-race calendar, direct comparisons are, as always, not to be taken at face value).
The 30-year-old brings with him to Mercedes six years’ of experience at Audi, having made his début in 2011. Aside from the 2013 season, which by all accounts was an absolute disaster for Mortara as he finished the year join bottom of the standings (with future 2015 champion and F1 driver Wehrlein, it should be added), the Italian has finished inside the top ten at the end of every year.
In Brits Gary Paffett and Paul di Resta the manufacturer has two long-term, capable hands that between them have racked up an impressive 20 seasons of racing for the Silver Arrows.
Paffett, though, really needs to remind Mercedes why they have kept him in a drive for so long. After finishing second bottom of the 2014 championship standings, Paffett bounced back in 2015 to finish the year in ninth overall. But in 2016 he sometimes struggled again, finishing outside the points in 12 of the season’s 18 races.
A brace of podiums and flashes of speed here and there helped Paffett to finish the year in 11th overall, but it’s now been over three years, and 53 races, since he stood on the top step of the podium. That title-contending season of 2012, where Paffett narrowly lost out to BMW’s Bruno Spengler, seems a long time ago now…
Maro Engel is a surprise return to the DTM field, having previously competed in the German series between 2008 and 2011 before going on to compete in predominantly GT racing, although the 31-year-old also took part in a season of V8 Supercars racing in 2013, remaining loyal to Mercedes by racing an Erebus Motorsport Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG.
Engel will have a busy season ahead of him in 2017 as he is also contesting the Formula E season for Venturi Grand Prix.
Canadian Robert Wickens has won races for Mercedes every year since 2013, and he was in contention for the 2016 title until the penultimate meeting in Budapest. Wickens has been getting better and better in recent seasons, and he carries the air of a champion-to-be about him. There’s only previously been one North American DTM champion (Spengler) but another one is surely just around the corner.
Finally, for the current line-up, Lucas Auer remains for a third straight season in 2017, his pole positions and maiden race win in 2016 earning him a drive for the year ahead.
It is unsurprising to see that Daniel Juncadella, once the victor against Wehrlein in the battle for the 2012 FIA Formula 3 European Championship, has not been retained for 2017. The Spaniard never really gelled with DTM machinery like his former rival, and out of 56 races he only finished in the points on 14 occasions. 2016 failed to provide any improvement in form for the 25-year-old, and he ended the year as the worst-placed full-season driver.
That 25-year-old Swede Felix Rosenqvist has lost his seat for the coming season is a huge shame, as he put in a string of strong début performances in the second half of the 2016 season to even outscore his F1-bound counterpart Esteban Ocon. Rosenqvist will instead focus on his Formula E efforts in 2017, which Mercedes chief Ulrich Fritz admitted was one of the reasons why he didn’t retain his DTM drive.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the shake-up is that Christian Vietoris has lost his drive. The German drove what he believed to be his best-ever DTM season last year, and was also on the receiving end of some bad luck. If Mattias Ekström had not dive-bombed him whilst leading at the Norisring, and if Vietoris had gone on to win, then he wouldn’t have been looking at finishing the year in 14th overall, but could have cracked the top ten. But then again, motorsport doesn’t have time for ‘what ifs’…
The Mercedes line-up for this year is intriguing, as it seems to tick all of the boxes: young talent (Auer), poached talent (Mortara), returning hunger (Engel), proven champions (Paffett and Di Resta) and regular race winner (Wickens). Don’t bet against them being in the hunt for the title this year.