Bernd Schneider did everything but clinch the 2006 DTM title at Barcelona last weekend, with a close second place while his key rival for the crown, Audi's Tom Kristensen, finished outside the points.
The four-time DTM champ came home just under three seconds adrift of maiden race winner Martin Tomczyk at the Spanish track, but that was enough to extend his lead in the standings to 18 points with just two rounds – and 20 points – left to play for.
The German's podium finish – his fourth consecutive runner-up position of the year, proving the importance of consistency in such a tightly-fought series – came despite contact with Audi drivers Mattias Ekstrom and Kristensen along the way.
“I started well, but after being hit by Tom Kristensen my car was severely damaged at the rear and I struggled with oversteer,” Schneider admitted. “During my second pit-stop my team reacted well and changed the tyre pressure, which reduced the problem a bit. I had never expected to post the fastest lap of the race with this car and am happy about my second place which is an important step for me.”
Indeed, Schneider is now the hot favourite to wrap up the honours at the next round at Le Mans in France on 15 October. Kristensen will need to win the race, with the German finishing no higher than seventh in order to take the battle down to the wire in the season finale at Hockenheim two weeks later.
Fellow Mercedes star Bruno Spengler also remains a mathematical possibility to steal the crown, but at 19 points adrift his chances are even more remote than Kristensen's, despite a strong race in Barcelona in which he charged through the field from 19th on the grid to a remarkable fifth at the chequered flag.
“I was quick off the line, but during the messy opening laps it was difficult to find a clean line,” the Canadian said. “Afterwards everything ran well and our strategy and pit-stops were perfect. I thank everybody in my team; without all their efforts it would not been possible to finish where we did.”
A crestfallen Kristensen, meanwhile, was left to rue a lost opportunity to close the gap on Schneider, struggling around to ninth place after the coming-together with his title rival.
“My start was good,” the Dane said. “Up to the re-start after the safety car I was sure it would be a good race. Then I had to lift my foot a bit off the throttle on the counter-straight because Heinz-Harald (Frentzen) made a small mistake, which is when Bernd Schneider passed me.
“We slightly touched and after this the car was hard to drive. I was particularly lacking speed on the straights. Too bad, because we had the chance to turn the championship around for Audi. It's been a tough weekend and a great disappointment.”