Reigning DTM champion Mattias Ekstr?m has heaped praise on Audi's new A4, after the Ingolstadt manufacturer romped home to a one-two-three finish in the 2008 curtain-raiser at the weekend and the Swede repeated his Hockenheim victory of twelve months ago to become Audi's most successful DTM driver ever.

Indeed, had Martin Tomczyk's late efforts to get past Mercedes' highest-placed representative Bruno Spengler borne fruit, Audi would have left the Baden-W?rttemberg circuit with the top four places in its pocket, after its new machine proved to comfortably have the legs of Mercedes' C-Class. It was a dominant beginning to the season, and as Ekstr?m celebrated the eleventh triumph of his eight-year career in the leading pan-European tin-top series, he agreed that his title defence could not have got off to a better start.

"The car was simply fantastic," the 29-year-old enthused. "I want to thank Audi Sport and everyone in my team who had a part in creating such a good car. These were the best pre-requisites.

"I was able to really enjoy the race because the car did everything I expect a racing car to do. In the end we clinched places one to three, which is great for the team. I think after such a good weekend, we definitely deserved this result."

Having pipped his team-mate to pole position the previous day - his third in the DTM - Timo Scheider went on to finish less than a second behind Ekstr?m in the race to repeat the finest result of his series career, following on from his runner-up spot in the 2007 finale at the same circuit. The pair took the chequered flag almost 20 seconds clear of fellow Audi Sport Team Abt star Tom Kristensen, who in coming home third successfully banished the memories of the hefty opening lap accident that had so badly derailed his season twelve months earlier.

"Starting with the completely newly-developed Audi A4 DTM after the winter break was a difficult task," reflected Scheider. "Nobody would have expected us to strike like this on a circuit that used to be Mercedes territory. I want to really thank Audi and the Abt squad for this brilliant feat. They laid the foundation for what we achieved today.

"Except for my start, my race was perfect. I had a bit too much wheelspin - that's why Mattias passed me. I wasn't able to follow him too closely because my car would have had more understeer in that case.

"The car was good enough for winning the race. I think my team and I are strong enough to fight for podium places and also victories on numerous other occasions this year."

"That was a superb race," agreed Kristensen. "Having started from fifth position on the grid, it was clear to me that I'd have to fight in a Mercedes sandwich. My crew had a good strategy and performed an excellent pit-stop.

"When I left the pit-lane, I fought for half a lap with Bruno Spengler before I was able to get away, but my two team-mates were already too far away at that point so that I took it easier, something I've never done before in the DTM. Places one to three on our rival's home circuit - that's a great feeling."

Tomczyk almost made Audi's day complete, crossing the line a scant four tenths of a second behind Spengler and less than two seconds adrift of the final podium spot. The German - who finished third in the title standings last year, just ten points shy of glory in the final reckoning - slipped back to ninth place at the start, but made good progress throughout the race and attempted a last-ditch manoeuvre to get past his Mercedes rival on the penultimate tour, only to out-brake himself, lock up and briefly go off-track.

"My race was good even though it didn't start well," the 25-year-old mused afterwards. I lost a few places at the start, but the car had a great set-up and was running very well over the whole distance.

"After my second pit-stop I caught Bruno - it was a very tough but always fair duel. I was lacking a tiny bit of speed to overtake him, but it was the first race so scoring points is more important than trying to force the issue."

The significance of Audi's level of superiority over Mercedes - with Ekstr?m lapping on average up to half a second quicker than Spengler and Paul di Resta, who was also in the mix for the rostrum before he was delayed at his second pit-stop, dropping back down to 13th - was not lost on Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, though the German remains aware that the upcoming meeting at Oschersleben this weekend proved to be rather more of a three-pointed star benefit last year.

"This is really a superb start for the new Audi A4 DTM," underlined the Head of Audi Motorsport. "It was obvious that this car delivers very good performance. The front row on the grid and three podium places in the first race - it's hard to wish for a better result than this. Martin even came extremely close to clinching fourth place.

"A great achievement by the squad throughout the winter, as well as here on-site. We were strong in terms of driving performance, and the pit-stops - particularly with the new cars - were sensational. Now we've got a good base. Of course we need to continue working on it to sustain a consistently good performance."

"This was a sensational day," added Audi Sport Team Abt Sportsline team director Hans-J?rgen Abt. "I really, really thank everyone. Everybody was fully in control while doing their job and the cars were perfectly prepared - everything fit.

"Such a made-to-measure opening race is hard to imagine. It wasn't sheer luck, but meticulous, detailed work throughout the winter. Congratulations to the entire team!""