Bernd Schneider has been crowned the DTM Champion for the fifth time in his career after doing all he needed to do to put the crown out of the reach of his one remaining rival for the title, Tom Kristensen, in the penultimate round of the season at Le Mans.

Schneider needed to finish just sixth in order to guarantee the title, where as Kristensen had to at least win to keep his slim hopes alive. However, the DTM veteran, who scored his first crown for Mercedes way back in 1995, did more than enough to secure victory by crossing the line fifth, although his Danish rival put himself out of the equation anyway when he could only take third in a race dominated by Mercedes duo Bruno Spengler and Mika Hakkinen.

Still, Schneider's fifth place came with a fight, the German tangling with Mattias Ekstrom on a frantic opening lap to end the first revolution down in 16th place, a trip across the gravel that forced him to play catch up for the remaining 39 laps. Ekstrom however was out on the spot.

Nonetheless, despite the best efforts of Kristensen's Audi team-mates, Schneider made swift progress through the field thanks to a strong middle stint to the race, while he was also aided by some useful team work from his Mercedes counterparts, not least Spengler and Hakkinen who denied Kristensen's last shred of hope for victory by producing a text book display of driving to cross the line barely separated, but over ten seconds up on the competition.

Kristensen's hopes took a battering shortly after the start of the race when he bogged down off the line from his front row starting position, finding himself shuffled down to fourth and while he could take heart in the knowledge that Schneider had tumbled down the order too, being behind the Mercedes train of Spengler, Hakkinen and Jamie Green was always going to make it difficult for him to fight back.

However, the start of the race was marred by a massive shunt involving Frank Stippler, Mathias Lauda and Vanina Ickx, after Stippler lost control of his Audi, slamming hard in Lauda and clipping Ickx. Stippler was shaken but unhurt in the incident, although both he and Lauda were out of the race. Ickx continued, although was forced to pit for repairs, dropping her two laps off the lead.

With ground to make up, Schneider was the first driver to pit, coming in very early on lap six for a new set of tyres in an attempt to get some clear air and punch in some competitive lap times. Kristensen followed suit a lap later in an attempt to get the better of the Mercedes trio, although his hopes were dented when Mercedes called third place Green in just a lap later to quell his threat, the Brit duly returning to the circuit directly in front of the Audi.

Schneider meanwhile was moving gradually through the order, although hit a buffer when he was caught behind the Audi of Christian Abt, the German being delayed at the start and running outside the top ten. Nonetheless, despite his year-old machinery, Abt was proving a stubborn prospect for Schneider.

At the midway point, the order was divided between those that had pitted and those that hadn't, although Spengler and Hakkinen were looking comfortable leaders, almost half a minute up on third place Alex Margaritis, the Greek heading the first of those who had pitted, Green and Kristensen.

On lap 22, Spengler pitted, followed a lap later by Hakkinen, although the Canadian had done enough on his long first stint to keep the double F1 World Champion at bay, even if the gap thereafter continued to shorten ever so gradually with every lap.

Kristensen was also back in the pit lane, making another attempt at leapfrogging Green into an effective third place, Mercedes once again wasting no time in getting their driver back in the pit lane for his second and final stop.

Once again, Kristensen found himself staring at the back of the DaimlerChrysler Bank C-Class, a sight that prompted him to turn on the aggression and battle his way through on Green's out lap. In an effort to let him get away, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, struggling to make an impression on the race thanks to his 14th place on the grid, allowed his team-mate through, only to be nudged off the track by Green when he attempted to follow. It was a move that caught the race steward's eye, Green duly being given a drive-through penalty and ending any hopes of a podium finish.

Still, Kristensen was going to need something spectacular to happen if he was ever going to take the necessary victory now, circulating an effective ten seconds down on leaders Spengler and Hakkinen, once they had pitted for second time. That occurred on lap 28 and lap 29, with the order remaining the same, despite Hakkinen's best efforts.

To make matters worse for Kristensen, Schneider was playing himself back into contention, utilising his early stop and a lengthy second stint to pick off his rivals as they came in before him, finding himself in fourth place, just behind Margaritis, who was also yet to stop.

Eventually both drivers succumbed to the lure of fresh rubber over the final stretch of the race, both pitting with nine laps remaining, Margaritis just managing to squeeze Schneider out and rejoining sixth and seventh, behind Kristensen, promoted to third, Martin Tomczyk and the delayed Green.

With Schneider one position off from guaranteeing himself the title regardless of Kristensen's actions, Margaritis wasted no time in bowing to the inevitable, allowing him through, a move that saw him sprint up to the back of the battle between Tomczyk and Green. With just a couple of laps remaining, Green would cement Schneider's hopes by allowing his team-mate through into fifth place and protecting him to the end of the race.

It was Spengler though who was victorious, the Canadian's third win of the season that actually moves him up to second place in the championship, while Hakkinen was a very close second, just over three tenths away from taking his first win of the season, even if second still goes down as his best result of the year.

Kristensen was a disappointed third having failed to get on terms with Mercedes on a circuit dominated by the 'three-pointed star', the pre-season favourite now with an immense battle on his hands to keep second in the championship from a rapidly improving Spengler in the final round at Hockenheim.

Tomczyk endured a quiet race, moving up almost unnoticed from eighth on the grid to back his maiden win in Barcelona up with fourth. Green and Margaritis were sixth and seventh for Mercedes, while Timo Scheider was once again in the points after a battling drive to eighth in his year-old Audi. Newcomer Thed Bjork meanwhile was 14th after colliding early on with Stefan Mucke, while Susie Stoddart claimed one of her best results of the year in 13th.

All eyes were on Schneider though, the 42-year-old defying pre-season predictions of him being superseded by youngsters to claim a fifth title, eleven years on from when he took his first crown in 1995, whilst also adding to his 2000, 2001 and 2003 triumphs, all with Mercedes.

Whether or not the 'Michael Schumacher of touring cars' is to follow his compare into retirement remains to be seen, but it is likely Mercedes will want to keep their stalwart of 17 years, including sportscar racing, well into 2007...


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