After much speculation, it has finally been revealed that Ralf Schumacher will
race for Mercedes-Benz in the DTM this year – though as was also suggested, the Formula 1 refugee will make his debut in the pan-European tin-top series behind the wheel of a 2007-spec C-Class.
The German has tested twice for the three-pointed star at Estoril – his first association with the Stuttgart marque since he competed as a guest driver in the FIA GT Championship at Spa-Francorchamps back in 1997, the year he made his F1 baptism for Jordan Grand Prix. Now, more than a decade on and on the back of a desultory final campaign in the top flight with Toyota last year, Schumacher says he is off in search of 'sport, fun and excitement' again.
“It was great fun testing the DTM C-Class,” he enthused, “and I am very much looking forward to the new season, more than I have done for a long time. Money and popularity like in Formula 1 don't play the first role for me – now I want sport, fun and excitement, and that's what the DTM features more than any other race series.
“I have known [the DTM] very well since the mid-90s, when I was a young upcoming driver racing in Formula Junior and Formula 3, which was staged on the support programme of the DTM. Then I dreamed of racing in the main event sometime.”
That dream has now become a reality, as the veteran of 180 starts and six victories in the top flight gets ready to take on the cream of the touring car crop. Having witnessed the attempts of predecessors and fellow F1 winners Jean Alesi, Mika Hakkinen and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, however – all of whom won races in the DTM but could never string together a consistent championship bid – Schumacher is well aware it will be no walk in the park.
“I will learn in the DTM,” he admitted. “I will work hard and I will put it behind me if people criticise me should I have problems during the first couple of races.
“It's fine if people have patience with me being an apprentice at the beginning, but if not I don't mind. I already know most of my future competitors, but I don't expect them to let me past just because 'here comes Ralf who doesn't know the DTM so well'.”
The 32-year-old will compete for Trilux AMG throughout the 2008 campaign – the same team for whom Mathias Lauda, son of former grand prix legend Niki Lauda, raced last year. During his testing in Portugal he completed more than 2,000km – equivalent to twelve DTM race distances. Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug praised Schumacher's commitment and motivation for his new challenge, though warned against racing expectations too high for his debut season in the fiercely-fought category.
“It was decisive for our engagement of Ralf that he showed enthusiasm for the DTM,” the German underlined, “and his willingness to commit himself to a learning period with the for him unknown touring cars and enormous competitiveness of the entire field.
“It is clear that in the DTM Ralf has at first to get used to starting positions with two-digit numbers, and that during his learning year he will probably start from the last third of the field rather than from the second third. Ralf is ready to go this way of learning, and our technical team will support him entirely.
“Neither did Ralf ask us for a Formula 1 bonus in his salary, nor did he require a special status within the team – compliments for this attitude. This is the only correct and therefore best pre-condition for his new career.
“I admire Ralf for his commitment to compete, which is what you experience only with a good and fully motivated sportsman.“