by Russell Atkins

Susie Stoddart established herself as one of the most popular drivers in the DTM last year, but in 2007 she is aiming for another tag altogether - that of one of the quickest.

The Oban-born star enjoyed a solid debut season in the hotly-contested series, and heading into the new campaign she is clearly hoping to build on what she learned last year and turn promising pace into on-track results.

"Everything has come together well," she enthused to Crash.net. "I've been re-signed by Mercedes to continue in the DTM, and now I'm really looking forward to the season. It's an awesome championship to be in and I was very proud to be asked to do it.

"It's great racing - very much door handle to door handle - and very tough out there, but it forces you to up your game and always be at 110 per cent. There's a fantastic atmosphere too and the crowds are amazing - that's what makes the DTM so special."

The 24-year-old's entry into the championship acknowledged as one of the premier tin-top series in the world came about almost by accident rather than design, however. After following a single-seater trajectory all the way up to British F3 in 2005, Stoddart expected to continue her apprenticeship in the World Series by Renault, but fate took another twist...

"When I was one of the finalists for the BRDC McLaren/Autosport Young Driver of the Year Award, the DTM car was the one I loved more than any of the others," she explained. "I felt quite at home in it straightaway. It handles like an F3 car and for me it wasn't too bad a transition to make.

"I was fully committed to carrying on in the World Series then got a last-minute call to go and do a test with Mercedes. Two minutes later I was a Mercedes DTM driver! It was a dream come true for me."

It was indeed a whirlwind few days for the 2003 BRDC Rising Star of the Year, though she says her cross-over of disciplines was greatly facilitated by the way she was received inside a team already home to superstars such as double Formula One world champion Mika Hakkinen, fellow grand prix refugee Jean Alesi and DTM legend and multiple title-winner Bernd Schneider.

"I have to say I was welcomed into Mercedes-Benz with open arms," she stated. "It really is like a big family there. Bernd and Mika were both very supportive and helped me through my first season, and Bruno Spengler as well. Obviously when you're out on the track everybody wants to win, but we all work together to make sure as many Mercedes drivers are as far up the grid as possible."

Looking back over her maiden campaign in the category, Stoddart said she was satisfied with her showing on the whole, and is now keen to really make her mark in her sophomore season.

"There was a lot to learn," she confessed. "Obviously there are pit-stops, the races are much longer and there's all the strategies to take into account. The fact you are doing an hour-long race, with all the tyre degradation and strategies involved in that, and not always having to just go flat-out all the time took a bit of getting used to.

"What's more, you are up against drivers like Bernd and Tom Kristensen, who are so completely on top of their game that you have to get everything perfect just to be on the same lap as them. I was also running in a two-year-old car, and the manufacturers are spending so much money over the year to develop the new cars that a two-year-old machine is never going to be in the points."

Uphill a struggle as it may have been, Stoddart did come close to troubling the scorers on more than one occasion, most notably in the season opener and finale, both held at Hockenheim. Indeed, in the latter she was a tantalising two seconds shy of registering her first DTM point, a target that is most definitely on the agenda for 2007.

"I feel like I learnt a lot but I still have a lot left to learn too," she admitted. "A lot will depend on the car that I'm given this year and which team I'm in. Hopefully I might be in a better situation this time round. Obviously that's up to Mercedes, but I will be giving everything I can for sure - I want to get some points.

"I'm really happy in the DTM and my aim ultimately is to win a race. Obviously I'm not going to do that until I get into a factory car, but if I can perform well it will open doors for me. Last year was a positive year but for sure there's a lot I need to improve on, and this year I aim to do just that."