End of an era for touring cars and the DTM at the Hockenheimring

The DTM season draws to a close at the Hockenheimring this weekend, with René Rast, Nico Müller and Robin Frijns all battling to claim the last ‘true’ DTM title.

2020 has brought numerous challenges to everyone with the global coronavirus pandemic, and unfortunately the DTM is no exception.

In fact, following a turbulent two years already, COVID-19 proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the high-spec tin-top series.

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After Audi announced its withdrawal from 2021, less than two years after Mercedes-Benz pulled out, the writing was on the wall.

After months of uncertainty, a rescheduled calendar and events without spectators, the DTM revealed that it would become a customer GT racing series next year.

The series has, of course, reinvented itself once before, when the failed attempt at creating an International Touring Car Championship in 1996 saw costs spiral out of control.

But three years away gave series bosses at ITR the chance to go back to basics and revive the DTM as a touring car series in 2000 with support from two of the same manufacturers that raced in the ITC when it collapsed.

This time, though, the situation is very different. The DTM faces numerous headwinds in the global climate, with changes in the global automotive industry and a general shift to greener and electric cars, coupled with the economic fallout of coronavirus.

Maintaining the raw power, sounds and spectacular machinery of the DTM in an environment increasingly predicated towards electric mobility was becoming ever more challenging for manufacturers.

With Audi pulling out, only BMW would be left for next year. Clearly an unattractive proposition, the Munich marque had no option but to go as well, leaving ITR to pursue its new ‘GT Pro’ regulations for 2021.

And so, next year, the DTM will be, perversely, touring cars in only name. Tourenwagen has never seemed more inappropriate, although many would argue the series has not been a true ‘touring car’ series for decades.

A title race as fierce as ever

Against the backdrop of a crisis for the DTM, a truly fascinating battle for the 2020 has been developing all year long.

Reigning champion René Rast was outclassed at the start of the season by Audi Sport Team Abt Sportsline’s Nico Müller and Robin Frijns, with Müller superbly claiming the first three wins of the year.

Nico Müller, Audi Sport Team Abt Sportsline, Audi RS5 DTM
Müller was the title favourite early in the year. Photo: Hoch Zwei / ITR

Such was Müller’s form at the start of the year that Rast could not contain his frustration when the series raced at the Lausitzring for the second weekend in a row, by which time Müller had won three races and claimed a second place.

“Yes, but he can do! He can do different,” exclaimed Rast after once again qualifying behind his Swiss rival.

Müller continued to open up his championship advantage for the first nine races of the season, although after winning the first three races, one of which was thanks to a Rast penalty, he didn’t win again until round nine at the Nürburgring.

Having added another win on the shorter version of the Nürbrugring, Müller’s season went off the boil in the Zolder double-header in Belgium in October.

René Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg, Audi RS5 DTM
Rast couldn’t be stopped at Zolder. Photo: Hoch Zwei / ITR

At the iconic circuit, Rast proved why he can never be discounted, winning all four races and claiming a near-perfect score, save for missing two pole positions.

It already has echoes of the 2018 season, when Rast almost clinched the title at the very end of the year after winning six straight races, falling just four shy of eventual champion Gary Paffett.

The German has proven he can do it, and that he thrives under immense pressure. Already one of the most successful DTM drivers of all-time, Rast has the best wins-to-races ratio of any DTM driver ever, full stop.

But Müller is having by far his best season in the DTM, and as the championship heads back to its traditional home circuit, the Swiss is just 19 points behind Rast.

Also in contention, but only just, is Robin Frijns, who sits 41 points adrift of Rast. The Dutchman was second in the standings ahead of Rast for much of the year, but also suffered at Zolder, with two retirements.

Frijns will in particular rue the mistake he made in race two of the first visit to Belgium, when he crashed out of the race on the pit exit in a rare unforced error.

He then suffered through no fault of his own in the second race of the second visit when he was taken out by WRT’s Fabio Scherer, leaving him firmly on the back foot heading into the title showdown.

Whatever happens this weekend, the champion will have deservedly earned their crown.

Sheldon van der Linde, BMW Team RBM, BMW M4 DTM
Sheldon van der Linde is one of only two BMW victors so far in 2020. Photo: Hoch Zwei / ITR

BMW goes out with a whimper

Amidst all of the press about the withdrawal of Audi, the crisis at the DTM and the fierce title battle, the woes of BMW have seemed less dramatic than they would otherwise have been.

It has been a dire year for the Munich manufacturer, which has never featured in the title race and has only claimed two outright victories out of 16 races so far.

Not one of its drivers is in title contention, and its best-placed driver – Timo Glock, with just one podium finish to his name – has significantly fewer than half the points of series leader Rast.

For arguably the great touring car brand, BMW has had a year to forget in what is set to be its final year in the DTM. Not even under GT Pro rules is the Bavarian brand expected to feature to begin with, thanks to its ageing M6 GT3 no longer being produced.

Like the DTM, it marks the end of an era for BMW in touring car racing, with Motorsport Director Jens Marquardt also moving on. With BMW not currently featuring in TCR, its motorsport heritage in touring car racing seems to be on the verge of fading into history.

The DTM, meanwhile, will soldier on through its current crisis, although with a touch of melancholy, as none of the popular series’ fans will be able to be trackside to witness the chapter close on the Class One era due to coronavirus restrictions.

The name will continue, but TouringCars.Net will be eagerly awaiting the return of the DTM to its touring car roots, if and when the GT ‘sticking plaster’ comes to a conclusion in the future.

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