Defending DTM champion Mattias Ekström stole team-mate Timo Scheider's thunder in the opening race of the 2008 campaign at Hockenheim this weekend, by beginning his title defence in the best possible fashion as Audi left rivals Mercedes trailing.
A perfect start and two impeccable pit-stops were the key to Ekström's success, as the Swede catapulted off the front row of the grid ahead of pole-sitter Scheider, and though he would be pushed hard by his Audi Sport Team Abt colleague race-long, he held on to take the chequered flag just over eight tenths of a second to the good to seal his eleventh DTM career victory. To complete the Ingolstadt marque's joy, 'Mr Le Mans' Tom Kristensen came home third after starting fifth on the grid, albeit almost 20 seconds behind the lead pair.
The Dane was another to benefit from his Audi crew's slick pit work as he vaulted Mercedes rival Bruno Spengler in the second round of stops, going on to finish just over a second ahead of the three-pointed star's leading representative on what was a distinctly low-key day – even weekend – for the Stuttgart concern. Indeed, the French-Canadian had his hands rather more full in the race's closing stages in fending off the advances of Martin Tomczyk behind – the Audi Sport Team Abt Sportsline ace fighting back after a tardy getaway – and that he did so was the only thing that prevented Audi from taking a clean sweep of the top four places.
Tomczyk's efforts to get by actually saw him out-brake himself on the penultimate lap, locking up and briefly shooting off the track, but the German maintained his composure to rejoin comfortably ahead of sixth-placed Jamie Green, and indeed still right in the wheeltracks of his quarry Spengler, as the duo took the chequered flag just four tenths of a second apart and both within spitting distance of the final podium spot.
Gary Paffett – the highest-placed driver in a year-old car – and five-time DTM king Bernd Schneider completed the points-scorers, with qualifying star Oliver Jarvis, who made a bright start to run sixth early on, missing out by less than six seconds on his competitive tin-top debut.
There were poorer fortunes still for Paul di Resta, who encountered clutch woes during his second stop on lap 19 whilst lying third, and top Mercedes. The Scot fell back to 13th position in the final reckoning. Fastest lap of the race – a new lap record – was scant consolation.
Formula 1 refugee Ralf Schumacher crossed the line 14th, with Susie Stoddart – who began from the pit-lane – 16th and Katherine Legge 18th on her maiden appearance in the leading pan-European touring car championship. Series returnee Christijan Albers was the race's only retirement, being forced to park his 2007-spec Futurecom-TME Audi A4 on lap two after a collision with Schumacher at the hairpin led to problems with his suspension.
“From Friday onwards, our car has been very good,” enthused race-winner Ekström afterwards, “and I was confident that I would be able to score a good result here. I had a very good start, my new A4 goes like a rocket and the pit-stops were excellent.
“During the race, I lost some time when I was stuck behind Bernd Schneider, and Timo put me under quite some pressure. Especially at the start of the season, everybody wants to get a good result, and so I am very happy with my ten points and the one-two-three for Audi. Such a start is beautiful.”
“It has been a remarkable weekend for us,” agreed runner-up Scheider, who secured his best result to-date at the beginning of his eighth year in the DTM, “especially as it was the first weekend of the season and we managed to come off with such a result.
“I lost first place at the start, but I was very well able to keep up with Mattias during the race. There were some possibilities to attack and I put the pressure on. However, there was no real chance to overtake. The car has been great from the word go – many thanks to Audi and to Abt.”
“Today, I started from the same position as in last year's season-opener in which I had my big accident,” reflected Kristensen. “I was happy that it all went well through the first few corners. My car was great from the very beginning, and during the race I had some fair fights with Paul di Resta and Bruno Spengler. I am happy that I ended up where I am now.”
Spengler admitted his frustration at Mercedes having been unable to match Audi's pace, but the 2006 and 2007 series runner-up was insistent there was still a long way to go. Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug, meanwhile, was full of praise for his drivers, particularly Schumacher.
“On one hand, I am a little bit disappointed,” acknowledged Spengler, “but when you look at the past few years, I have never been able to score points here in the first race at Hockenheim. Now, I have at least five points and I am happy with it, as every point counts in the end.
“It was the first of eleven races and a lot of things can still happen in the ten rounds to come. I am confident that I will be quick again at Oschersleben.”
“It hasn't been a very good weekend for us,” confessed Haug. “In the race, Paul di Resta was really quick – too bad that his clutch didn't work properly during the pit-stop, otherwise he could have been further up front. All-in-all, it was a good season-opener with a good show for the spectators.
“Ralf Schumacher has done well in his first race. He wasn't the slowest driver with a year-old car by far, and his performance is decent. I am especially happy with the fact that we have seen a new Ralf here at Hockenheim.”
Haug's Audi counterpart Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, meanwhile, professed himself pleased with his squad's performance, as the team barely put a foot out of place all weekend.
“It went very well today,” the Audi motorsport director affirmed. “Not only were the drivers quick, but Abt did very good pit-stops. It was clear to us that Mercedes would be strong here as well.
“We have achieved the maximum with three cars on the podium. That is great for the team, which has been working very hard during the last few weeks. Especially because of that, this victory is well-deserved.”
To see the race results in full, click here