How a rookie conquered one of racing's toughest series

Audi driver Rene Rast did what many believed was impossible - won the DTM title as a rookie. How did he manage it? David Gruz tells the story of the German's amazing year.

How a rookie conquered one of racing's toughest series

On Saturday 17 June, at the Hungaroring, Rast takes his maiden pole position in DTM.

He only finishes sixth in a race completely turned on its head by random tyre strategies, but Audi motorsport boss Dieter Gass was nevertheless impressed by his driver's performance.

"I think it is fair to say that so far he [Rast] is exceeding slightly expectations," said Gass.

Can he fight for the title? "Now that's a bit bold to say. He is very far behind already in the points so I think that is a very big ask for this year, especially as he is in his first season."

One day later - Rast takes his second pole position and also celebrates his first victory in DTM, passing the championship's most experienced driver, Mattias Ekstrom, in the process.

Afterwards, Gass speaks of Rast, who is now first in the championship, in a different tone.

"Sometimes you get positively surprised, that is the situation," he said. "He is performing extremely well, always, really. I am really curious to follow up what is going on in the future there."

In Hungary, Rast exceeded expectations - not for the first time, and most definitely not for the last time.

From humble beginnings to Audi’s next LMP1 starPace laps: #111 Volkswagen Motorsport VW Golf5: Rene Rast, Jimmy Johansen, Florian Gruber, Ulrich Hackenberg

Pace laps: #111 Volkswagen Motorsport VW Golf5: Rene Rast, Jimmy Johansen, Florian Gruber, Ulrich Hackenberg

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Anyone who has followed sportscar racing closely in recent seasons would have been delighted when Audi announced Rast as one of its six DTM drivers for 2017.

But why it took Rast, long considered as one of the best drivers in GT racing, 13 years to secure a full-time seat in either DTM or WEC, is a mystery.

Rast began his car racing career in Formula BMW, but was forced to leave the single-seater ladder after only two years, effectively ending any hopes of one day making it to F1.

He switched to the one-make ADAC Volkswagen Cup, and for the 19-year-old youngster from the small town of Minden in northwest Germany, DTM became the new, albeit still distant, target.

A step up to the German Porsche Carrera Cup gave him the platform to dominate Porsche Supercup for three years on the trot from 2010-12, finally putting himself on the map.

His Porsche success was enough to get him tests with Audi and BMW in DTM, and although he was passed over for a race seat, he quickly became a mainstay of the former brand's GT stable.

#2 Abt Team Mamerow Audi R8 LMS ultra (SP9): Christian Mamerow, Thomas Mutsch, René Rast, Marc Basseng

#2 Abt Team Mamerow Audi R8 LMS ultra (SP9): Christian Mamerow, Thomas Mutsch, René Rast, Marc Basseng

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Rast enjoyed success in everything he tried, including blue riband sportscar races such as the Rolex 24 at Daytona or the Nurburgring 24 Hours, as well as the Blancpain GT and ADAC GT series.

He was eventually rewarded with a chance in Audi's flagship LMP1 programme when the Ingolstadt marque entered a third car in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa and Le Mans 24 Hours in 2015, earning himself unofficial reserve driver status in the process.

He was reliably the quickest driver in class during his stint with the G-Drive LMP2 squad last year, helping the Russian-entered squad to four successive poles and an incredible burn-from-the-stern victory in Bahrain.

By this point, Rast had long established himself as Audi's go-to guy – if someone got injured, like Laurens Vanthoor before the 2015 Macau GT Cup, or Craig Lowndes ahead of the 2016 Bathurst 12 Hours, Rast was there to fill in for them and do a respectable job.

This is exactly how Rast got his first chance in DTM, when Audi needed a substitute for the injured Adrien Tambay for the Sunday Zandvoort race in 2016. 

Despite a low-key run to 19th place, he was given another shot when Mattias Ekstrom decided to focus on his World Rallycross title bid at the Hockenheim finale, and grabbed an eye-catching sixth place.

Those eight points he scored in his only second DTM race made giving him a full-time seat an easy call, despite all three manufacturers downsizing their line-ups from eight to six cars.

Rene Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg, Audi RS 5 DTM

Rene Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg, Audi RS 5 DTM

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

One of the main things that made Rast look so impressive throughout 2017, especially in the first half of the season, is how he kept doing better than what had been expected of him.

His strong GT and prototype racing record meant he was expected to be competitive, but for a rookie to match the level of the DTM's seasoned stars is a famously tough ask, especially over a full season.

At Hockenheim, Rast's campaign started inauspiciously - the door on his car flung open on the formation lap and he had to start last in the opening race. He still finished sixth on Saturday, and was denied a strong result from the front row after a collision on Sunday.

With no such bad luck at Lausitzring, Rast claimed his maiden podium finish, achieving what turned out to be in hindsight a spectacularly modest season target.

"My goal [for the year] was actually to be on the podium, I reached that already. Obviously now a win would be nice," said a cheery Rast after the race.

Unfortunately for Rast, he again needed a new goal next time around because he won in Hungary, along with scoring two pole positions.

At that point, it felt like the German's career was already at an all-time high – he had finally made it to DTM after so many years of trying, only to start bagging strong results almost instantly.

"I can't really put it into words I waited for this moment actually my whole career, especially the last 10 years,” said Rast after his victory.

"When I crossed the start/finish line first, it's one of the best feelings I have ever had in motorsport.”

Race winner René Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg, Audi RS 5 DTM

Race winner René Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg, Audi RS 5 DTM

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

In just three weekends, Rast achieved everything he could in a single DTM race and he wasn't the new kid on the block anymore – he was a serious threat for the title.

Perhaps luckily for Rast, that's when reality kicked in, putting an end to his fairytale run.

At the Norisring, although still quick, he betrayed his lack of experience by throwing away a solid points-scoring position with the rather silly mistake of crossing the pit exit line.

That was the start of an up-and-down few rounds when the rookie sensation was relegated to a mere sideshow amid the controversy surrounding Audi’s race strategies and then Mercedes’ shock announcement that it planned to quit the DTM.

Rast won again at Moscow, but a pair of sub-par weekends Zandvoort or Nurburgring left him 38 points adrift of the championship lead with three races to go.

Just when it seemed his challenge was on the verge of petering out, Rast won on Sunday at the Red Bull Ring, entering the Hockenheim finale as points leader Ekstrom's main rival.

He fell behind another one of his Audi stablemates Jamie Green with a quiet run to sixth on Saturday, and lost out at the start of the critical final race with a piece of equipment hanging in front of him.

But Rast kept his cool, fought back to second, and won the title.

Best qualifier, best ever rookieRené Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg, Audi RS 5 DTM

René Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg, Audi RS 5 DTM

Photo by: Audi Communications Motorsport

In the end, Ekstrom and Green were only three and six points shy of the title and a serious case could be made for both, as well as for BMW star Marco Wittmann, deserving the crown just as much as Rast.

Rast was indeed not necessarily clearly better than his fellow Audi teammates in too many races, but what really made his season so impressive was his peerless qualifying record.

The DTM field is always brutally close, with the entire 18-car field being split by less than a second at certain tracks. Dropping one or two tenths can mean losing several positions on the grid, which can have a big impact with overtaking being so difficult.

On top of that, this year the series started awarding points to the top three in each qualifying session.

This was the key to Rast's title, as he outscored Ekstrom and Green by six and 12 points respectively. Without the 17 qualifying bonus points he earned, he would have lost the title by nine points.

For a driver who spent a large part of his career in endurance racing, where one-lap pace is far from the most important thing, Rast was a monster in qualifying, finishing in the top three eight times out of 18 sessions and ending up the fastest Audi nine times.

Only outgoing champion Wittmann's record was comparable, the BMW driver scoring 15 bonus points compared to 11 for Green, five for Ekstrom and a measly one for Mike Rockenfeller, Audi's other title contender.

René Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg, Audi RS 5 DTM, Mike Rockenfeller, Audi Sport Team Phoenix, Audi RS 5 DTM

René Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg, Audi RS 5 DTM, Mike Rockenfeller, Audi Sport Team Phoenix, Audi RS 5 DTM

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

What made Rast's achievement all the more special was the contrast between his record and that of another Audi rookie with an impressive sportscar racing CV - Loic Duval.

The French driver - a former champion in Formula Nippon, Super GT and the FIA World Endurance Championship, as well as a Le Mans 24 Hours winner - endured an utterly wretched year, scoring 22 points (compared to Rast's 179) and ending up at the very bottom of the standings.

While it's fair to say Duval underperformed, historically rookies in DTM have tended to have seasons more like his rather than Rast's.

Since the championship's relaunch in 2000, not only have there not been any newcomers capable of fighting for the title, Paul di Resta was the last to even finish in the top six, a full decade ago.

Best rookies of DTM since 2000:

Year Pos. Driver Age Car Best result Top 10s/Races Poles Past experience
2000 4th  Marcel Fassler* 24 Mercedes 2nd (x3) 12/18 0 German F3
2001 6th  Patrick Huisman 35 Mercedes 1st 13/20 0 Porsche Supercup
2001 8th  Mattias Ekstrom 23 Audi 2nd (x2) 12/20 0 STCC
2002 5th  Jean Alesi 38 Mercedes 1st (x2) 12/20 0 F1
2004 4th  Tom Kristensen 37 Audi 1st 10/11 0 LMP1
2005 5th  Mika Hakkinen 37 Mercedes 1st 5/11 1 F1
2005 6th  Jamie Green 23 Mercedes 2nd 7/11 2 Euro F3
2007 5th  Paul di Resta 21 Mercedes 2nd (x2) 7/10 0 Euro F3
2011 9th  Edoardo Mortara 24 Audi 3rd (x2) 5/10 0 Euro F3, GP2
2012 7th  Augusto Farfus 29 BMW 1st 7/10 2 WTCC, GT
2013 8th  Marco Wittmann 24 BMW 2nd 6/10 1 Euro F3, GT
2014 7th  Maxime Martin 28 BMW 1st 4/10 1 GT, LMP2
2017 1st  Rene Rast 31 Audi 1st (x3) 12/18 3 GT, LMP1, LMP2

* First year of the modern DTM era

Oddly enough, winning races has been a more common sight for rookies than topping qualifying, and only Mika Hakkinen, Augusto Farfus and Maxime Martin were able to achieve both.

Then came Rast, with three wins and three poles apiece.

Some of Rast's fellow DTM drivers argued the 31-year-old is not a true rookie, given his considerable experience in GT racing, LMP1 and touring cars.

Indeed, GT experience has seemingly become crucial to DTM success in the recent past, with Martin, Wittmann and Farfus - all top rookies in their respective first seasons - having spent at least one year in sportscars prior to joining the series.

Rast himself admitted that the low-downforce GT cars were a major help: "Especially the GT cars [helped], where you have really low downforce.

"You are just managing the tyres because the cars at the end of the stints are sliding quite a lot. Also maybe LMP1 driving helps in high-speed corners."

#9 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 e-tron quattro: René Rast, Filipe Albuquerque, Marco Bonanomi

#9 Audi Sport Team Joest Audi R18 e-tron quattro: René Rast, Filipe Albuquerque, Marco Bonanomi

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

That experience had a big influence in other aspects, too, as some of DTM's changes for 2017 were almost tailor-made for Rast.

The series introduced tyres with more degradation, something that's no problem for a seasoned endurance driver to handle, while the removal of tyre warmers - which made out-laps after pitstops a banana skin - was equally no issue for someone with plenty of experience of this in other categories.

In a year, Rast has gone from being DTM's rogue outsider to one of its established top drivers. Now the question is whether he can go on to be a true star of the championship, a difficult feat in a series with such a tightly-packed, high-quality field.

DTM has not had a truly dominant force since the days of Bernd Schneider, and perhaps with the exception of the evergreen Ekstrom, nobody has really been able to transcend the series in recent years.

Rast has checked off many milestones in just one year - a podium finish, a pole position, a race win and the championship title. He's already achieved more than most in the series - and, should he carry on in this stead, he will no doubt become one of the very best in DTM's history.

Nico Rosberg with René Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg

Nico Rosberg with René Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg

Photo by: Audi Communications Motorsport

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