Opinion: DTM has proved naysayers wrong with GT3 move

The DTM’s decision to drop Class One in favour of GT3 regulations was met with a largely negative response last year, but a strong cast of drivers and manufacturer-backed teams has restored faith in the championship ahead of the start of its new era, says Rachit Thukral.

Opinion: DTM has proved naysayers wrong with GT3 move

It came as little surprise that fans didn’t initially approve of the DTM’s move to a customer-focused, GT3-based formula back when it was first announced. After all, high-performance, technologically advanced silhouette race cars were what set the series apart in a crowded market of European-based touring car and sportscar racing championships, and losing them in favour of GT3 cars was never going to sit well with its fanbase.

But the fact remains that the DTM was far too reliant on manufacturers to remain sustainable in its previous form. While the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes spent millions of dollars in marketing the DTM every year, also constantly supplying top quality driver talent, the series was always at the mercy of their respective boards for continued support. 

So when a major push towards electrification, among other factors, forced manufacturers to re-evaluate their motorsport programmes, the DTM was no longer as attractive as it had been, despite the series having laid out its own plans for hybridisation and eventually running electric motors. BMW was the only marque left after both Mercedes and Audi pulled the plug, with Audi’s decision to quit this time last year acting as the final nail in the coffin for Class One.

Promoter ITR envisioned a ‘new-new DTM’ following the manufacturer exodus, and this time it was keen on avoiding a repeat of the mistakes it made in its previous era. Primarily, it meant putting privateer teams at the centre of the DTM, taking the focus away from manufacturers. While it left the door open for manufacturer support, whether technical or financial, it stressed that teams would be responsible for raising the funding needed to go racing largely alone.

A switch of machinery was also made, with purpose-made Class One cars dropped in favour of the much more accessible GT3 ruleset. The original plan was to upgrade these cars to help the series stand out from other championships using the same regulations, but this idea was quietly shelved in the face of opposition from manufacturers unwilling to incur additional expenditure on them.

Nico Müller, Audi Sport Team Abt Sportsline, Audi RS 5 DTM, René Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg, Audi RS 5 DTM

Nico Müller, Audi Sport Team Abt Sportsline, Audi RS 5 DTM, René Rast, Audi Sport Team Rosberg, Audi RS 5 DTM

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Of course, the combination of GT3 cars and privateer teams is commonplace in a host of other championships, so the sceptism surrounding the direction the DTM was taking was valid.

However, the calibre of drivers and teams, as well as some limited manufacturer backing continuing behind the scenes, shows how the DTM brand name still carries a certain prestige that the likes of GT World Challenge Europe or International GT Open simply do not.

The biggest coup for the category has arguably been the addition of Alex Albon in an AlphaTauri-liveried Ferrari 488 GT3 car run by AF Corse, to be shared with SUPER GT and Super Formula champion Nick Cassidy. Red Bull had previously enjoyed a decade-plus stint in the DTM as the chief sponsor of Mattias Ekstrom’s Audi and ITR chairman Gerhard Berger is believed to have personally convinced the energy drinks giant to return to the series.

But it doesn't stop there. Of the previous Mercedes roster, two-time champion Gary Paffett, Daniel Juncadella and Lucas Auer are all back, while many of last year's frontrunners will remain in the series (with the obvious exception of Rene Rast). That includes champions Mike Rockenfeller and Marco Wittmann, 2019 and ‘20 runner-up Nico Muller and race winners Timo Glock and Sheldon van der Linde. And that's without mentioning a host of ‘GT3 specialists’ joining (or re-joining) the DTM like Kelvin van der Linde and Maximilian Gotz.

There is no shortage of top-quality squads either, with Abt and Team Rosberg joined by proven race-winning newcomers in Rowe Racing, GruppeM and Mucke Motorsport, among others.

Audi, BMW and Mercedes have all pledged support for the DTM’s GT3 era and the last-named is even believed to have put together a lucrative financial package for the seven AMG GT3s in the field.

2021 DTM presentation

2021 DTM presentation

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Perhaps the only downside is the absence of a Porsche or a Lamborghini on the grid, leaving just four full-time manufacturers on the grid - plus a part-season McLaren entry run by JP Motorsport for ex-F1 driver Christian Klien. There are some pay drivers on the grid too, as feared by many, but they are easily outnumbered by professional racers.

All in all, with 10 teams and 19 drivers of mostly high quality, the 2021 DTM field has already exceeded expectations. But having said that, the jury is still out on the series' new ruleset. 

Chiefly, the cost of competing in the 'new-new DTM' is going to be significantly higher than other GT3 championships on account of a steeper entry fee and a larger parts bill. The DTM will have to justify that premium for the teams and the drivers involved - and if it can't, it won't take long for them to jump ship and join a more affordable GT3 category. 

Fans, too, will have to get accustomed to a series that will bear little resemblance to its glorious past, and it remains to be seen whether they will remain as invested as before once the novelty value of the new era wears off.

While the initial signs have been undeniably encouraging, it might not be until 2022 that the DTM's move to GT3 cars can be truly declared a success.

Alexander Albon, AF Corse, Ferrari 488 GT3 Evo

Alexander Albon, AF Corse, Ferrari 488 GT3 Evo

Photo by: DTM

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