Timo Scheider was in ebullient mood at the end of qualifying for the opening race of the 2008 DTM season at Hockenheim this weekend, after Audi proved their advantage over rivals Mercedes in pre-season testing had been no false dawn.

The four Audi Sport Team Abt cars have been on top form since the word 'go' around the Baden-W?rttemberg circuit - home to the German Grand Prix - and seemingly hold the upper hand over Mercedes come rain or shine. In qualifying Scheider and team-mate Mattias Ekstr?m were the only drivers to dip below the 1m33s barrier as they line up alongside each other on the front row of the grid, and both are clearly in confident spirits for the race.

"Sensational!" enthused series veteran Scheider after taking the third top spot in qualifying of his DTM career, though the German has yet to seal his debut victory. "A perfect lap, a perfect car, a perfect day. We were strong from the very first practice session onwards - straight from my first lap I had a very good feeling.

"We changed almost none of the settings on the car after the first practice session; that's unusual for a race weekend. Normally we do a lot more mechanical work, but here very minor changes resulted in a perfect balance. That's why we're on pole.

"It was a breathtaking qualifying. In fact, my third pole came as a little bit of a surprise to me. I owe quite a lot to my mechanics and I want to thank Audi and the Abt squad as they have provided me with an excellent car."

"I am very happy with second place," added defending series champion Ekstr?m, "and I am impressed to see the new Audi A4 DTM working so well. I feel really comfortable in it. Before the season, I already had a good feeling and expected the car to be good, however it is even better than I had expected.

"Qualifying is qualifying and the race is the race, but I'm convinced we are well-prepared. We did a good long run during the test, managed a strong qualifying performance and I'm on the front row. Our chances for the race on Sunday are good."

Bruno Spengler was the highest-placed of the three-pointed star's nine drivers at the end of the session, albeit almost four tenths of a second shy of Scheider's quickest effort. The 2007 championship runner-up, however, insisted Mercedes should not be written off in the race.

"[It was] a tough fight," the Canadian admitted. "This time, it wasn't enough for pole position. Of course, I am a little bit disappointed. I had a problem with oversteer in the first sector, but with my best time in the second sector I made it up.

"The race weekend isn't over yet, though, and in the race victory is at stake. We should be in good shape, I am certain we will have a very strong car and I want to fight for victory."

Further down the grid, Ralf Schumacher ultimately missed out on making it through into Q2 by the narrowest margin of just 88 thousandths of a second on his maiden series appearance, though the German stressed he was not unhappy with his performance and had 'learned a lot'. The Formula 1 refugee will begin the 37-lap race from 15th position, one spot behind DTM returnee Christijan Albers, the Dutch star an impressive 14th on his comeback in his two-year-old Audi Futurecom-TME machine.

"So far we've got every reason to be satisfied," summarised Head of Audi Motorsport Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, "because we showed a very strong team performance. Obviously, the new Audi A4 DTM functions very well.

"Clinching pole the first time out - that's definitely a superb accomplishment. What's more, we've shown a solid team performance. I'm particularly happy for Timo, who has been very strong all weekend and managed to translate this strength into pole position, but all the others showed a really good performance as well

"Of course, having the first pole of the year is very nice, but this doesn't tell us at all what the rest of the season will be like. We have to wait to see how the race will turn out, but based on the long-runs, I am optimistic. During the winter, we have developed an entirely new car and the benchmark for those defending the title is very high, as everyone is expecting a special performance."

"It was an exciting qualifying session," agreed Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug, "and I am happy with the result, as I had expected a far worse result. From the very beginning, we haven't been that strong here and we haven't been working in the right direction. In the DTM, a gap of four tenths of a second to Timo Scheider is a lot.

"Audi was simply better - congratulations for the first pole of the season - but this was only qualifying. The race is something totally different, and our test results show good consistency. Ralf Schumacher only just failed to make it into the top 14, but we are not disappointed - it went according to plan for him."