by Russell Atkins

Christian Abt has controversially suggested both Bernd Schneider and Tom Kristensen - who count 45 DTM victories between them - should be put out to pasture if they fail to produce the goods in 2008, when he predicts as many as five or six drivers could battle for the crown.

The German hung up his own helmet following eight seasons of competition in the fiercely-competitive pan-European touring car series at the end of last year. He will henceforth focus his efforts on running Audi Sport Team Abt Sportsline, dovetailing that role with acting as a mentor to Audi's young up-and-coming hopes - whom he sees irrefutably as the championship's future.

"The young drivers," he told, when asked who he believed would shine in 2008, "like [2007 title contender Martin] Tomczyk, or Oliver Jarvis who's coming in and is very good. Then there's Alex Pr?mat, who for me is one of the best drivers in the DTM, and [Bruno] Spengler and [Paul] di Resta.

"I think di Resta is very, very strong. Spengler I think will be very strong this year too, but [Jamie] Green less so. If Schneider cannot win the championship I think it's the last year for him and Mercedes should kick him out - that's for sure.

"On the Audi side, I think with Tom [Kristensen] it's the last chance; if this year he's not the quickest at Audi then they have the same problem as Mercedes do with Schneider - I think he should drive only sportscars.

"Tomczyk will be very strong I think; last year he was very good, but Audi are always looking out for [Mattias] Ekstr?m. For me I think Ekstr?m, Spengler, di Resta and Tomczyk will be the top four.

"I think we have the best drivers in the world in this championship, with young drivers coming from GP2 to the DTM. One or two make it to Formula 1, but the others come to the DTM - not the BTCC or GTs for example.

"The DTM is a completely international championship. We drive four races in Germany on some of the best tracks - Hockenheim, the N?rburgring, Norisring and the Lausitzring - and five races elsewhere in Europe, in Spain, France Italy, Great Britain and Holland. Only the name is German."

The 40-year-old was similarly forthright in his views on what new Mercedes signing Ralf Schumacher might achieve in the category, given fellow ex-Formula 1 aces such as Mika Hakkinen, Jean Alesi and Heinz-Harald Frentzen all shone sporadically and won races in the DTM, but were never able to find sufficient consistency in order to string together a genuine title bid.

"I think it's not a bad thing for Ralf to be coming to the DTM," Abt reasoned. "He's very popular in Germany, and many people want to watch him on TV and go to the races to see him.

"He will need someone to help him at the beginning, though, and if Mercedes give him that then I think he will have a chance to close the gap on the cars in front. He is in a 2007 car and it will be completely a learning year, but next year if he has a new car he will have the chance to drive at the front.

"With very good young drivers out there like Spengler and di Resta, it won't be so easy for him though. If he can win races like Mika Hakkinen or Alesi he will be doing a very good job, but the championship? No. It's not possible."

The championship was something that similarly eluded Abt throughout his DTM career, but despite scoring just four points in 2007 he insists he is leaving the series with only good memories. Though he intends to take it somewhat easier this year - with just limited outings in the Porsche Carrera Cup and possibly the N?rburgring and Spa 24 Hours - he is eyeing a full-time comeback the following season, when he aims to make a sportscar return with VW in the transitional year ahead of the birth of the new all-new FIA GT GT1 World Championship in 2010.

As to talk of going back to La Sarthe and the Le Mans 24 Hours, though, he is more circumspect, pointing to the death of former team-mate Michele Alboreto as a turning point in his attitude towards open-top machines. The Italian was tragically killed when he crashed as a result of a high-speed tyre failure whilst testing an Audi R8 at the Lausitzring, in preparation for the 2001 edition of the round-the-clock French classic.

"I will never drive an open car again," the final German Supertouring Championship STW title-winner asserted. "I did so for two years, but after what happened to my team-mate Michele Alboreto I finished my career in open cars. Maybe I can drive there [Le Mans] in 2009 with a GT1 or GT2 car.

"My plan in the DTM was never to win races or championships as a driver; for me it was always about building a good team and Abt Sportsline doing a good job for Audi. I was never the number one in the team; at the beginning it was Laurent [A?ello], then in 2004 Mattias came in, and now there's also Kristensen and Tomcyzk. Ok I missed out on victories in my DTM career, but I finished ten times on the podium which was not so bad.

"I have so many highlights. I won the title three times with Audi - when we won with Laurent in 2002 we were just a private team, and that was for me the biggest highlight in the DTM.

"I think this was the right point to stop my career. I spent eight years in the DTM and drove for Audi as a factory driver for ten, and I think you should always finish at the point where you still have the chance to win races."