Alesi's day, Bernd's year in dramatic DTM finale
6 October 2003
The 2003 DTM season boiled down to 37 laps around the new Hockenheim Grand Prix circuit on Sunday with veteran Bernd Schneider and young gun Christijan Albers knowing that whoever crossed the line first out of the two of them would take the glory.
In front of more than 100,000 passionate touring car fans, it was Schneider's guile that won the day as Albers challenge became derailed just as the young Dutchman looked set to beat the 'Meister' on his home turf.
Both drivers had to overcome their share of hurdles, a legacy of mediocre qualifying performances in the wet on Saturday but, in true Championship winning style, Schneider had a little bit better luck than Albers.
From fifth on the grid Schneider's Vodafone-AMG Mercedes battled Peter Dumbreck in the opening laps for third place through the first round of pit stops while Albers struggled to deal with the Opel of Timo Scheider in seventh spot following a poor first stop.
Things were still pretty much up in the air despite Schneider's slender early advantage when Albers ran wide entering the Stadium section on lap 16 and lost valuable seconds. However Schneider had little time to celebrate as less than half a lap later he suffered a left rear puncture, crucially though just one turn away from pit exit and just inside the second pit window.
Schneider's early second stop initially dropped him to twelfth, putting Albers in control of his own destiny even though he still had to make his final stop. However Timo Scheider was still proving a tough nut to crack and it wasn't until the Opel man made his final stop on lap 20 did Albers get into some clean air.
Schneider's comeback drive was already gathering steam and when Albers made his final stop at the end of lap 21, Schneider had overcome the time lost with the puncture and still held a slender lead over his rival with the aptly named Scheider acting as a buffer.
Schneider couldn't breathe too easily however as less than two seconds covered all three drivers and although the race was for sixth place on the track, all eyes were focused on it.
On lap 23 Schneider lost a small amount of ground coming out of the third turn and Scheider was quickly crawling all over the rear end of the #4 Mercedes heading into the tight Hockenheim hairpin. One lap later it was Albers' turn to attack, his slight nudge sending Scheider into a lazy spin and the crowd wild as the two title combatants finally locked horns.
With Mercedes' Norbert Haug and Co. watching captively on pit wall, Albers spent lap 25 sizing up his teammate, occasionally darting out from Schneider's slipstream as if to try and distract the former Zakspeed and Arrows Formula One driver and factory Mercedes GT star.
However disaster struck on the very next lap for as the two began braking for the hairpin, Albers' left rear tyre went flat in similar fashion to Schneider's and the former FIA International Formula 3000 pilot was just about able to haul his car onto the outside rumble strip and into the run-off area without collecting his oblivious teammate. After more than half a lap running at reduced pace on his way back to the pits, Albers' third stop dropped him to 17th and brought the title chase to a disappointing end.
With Schneider now staring a third DTM title in four years straight in the face, attention turned to the battle for the lead, a highly dramatic affair from the word go as polesitter Mattias Ekstrom fought to hold off Jean Alesi in the opening laps only to watch the mercurial French Sicilian grab the point on lap eight.
Barring the pit-stop shuffles, which yet again allowed Gary Paffett to lead the field for a short time, Alesi maintained top spot throughout, with Ekstrom sitting a couple of seconds in arrears and a relatively safe distance ahead of the intense battle for third initially between Dumbreck and Schneider but later disputed by Dumbreck, Marcel Fassler and Laurent Aiello.
However as the laps wound down the Red Bull Abt Audi driver gathered a final wind and began to exert more pressure on Alesi, even giving the ex-Ferrari driver a couple of love taps on the 37th and final lap before completing a MotoGP-esque criss-cross battle across the finish line to the absolute delight of the German crowd.
Alesi's first DTM win outside of Donington Park was greeted with major smiles all round and he, new Champ Schneider and the gracious-in-defeat Albers all performed an impressive set of collective victory donuts in front of the imposing new infield grandstand at Hockenheim.
“I am just happy”, said a largely lost-for-words Schneider at the finish. “I'm extremely happy about the championship and I thank everybody in the team for the excellent work throughout the season. This title is something really special for me, because I won it after a hard season and against strong opposition.”
“Indeed, you need that little bit of luck, and that is what I missed today”, Albers summed up. “I am still young, and I can look back upon a fantastic season.“
Schneider also gave credit to his rival. “It would have been really close. But I can live with the fact that it finally was like this”, added a slightly relieved Champion.
Mercedes-Benz motorsport director Norbert Haug felt compassion with Albers:
“It is hard, and I feel sorry for him. But the script for this season couldn't have been better. A big hand also to Jean Alesi, he showed a great drive. And I also would like to give a compliment to our opponents of Audi and Opel: maybe, we were a little bit better here and there, but all in all, the three makes were balanced.”
Ekstrom only just missed out on his second DTM-victory. At the finish, the Swede only was 0.213 seconds behind Alesi and was left ruing a small delay on his first stop that led to Alesi's initial passing move back on lap eight.
“Too bad, the pit stop wasn't completely right,” mused Ekstrom. “I tried until the finish. Today, my car was ready for victory.“
“It is very close up in front, you always have to be sorted perfectly”, Ekstrom's team-boss Hans-Jurgen Abt summed up. “I am already looking forward to the 2004 season, we will be attacking all out again.”
Third eventually fell to Fassler following a decisive lap 22 on Dumbreck, who continued to hassle the Mercedes man to the finish in another gritty drive from the Scotsman that yet again earned praise from Opel boss Volker Strycek.
“It was incredibly exciting for everyone,” said the former DTM Champ turned motorsport director. “We would have liked to be on the podium, because today, Peter was among the front runners from the very beginning. He has been driving a magnificent race. But when it is so close in front, the slightest mistake makes you lose one place.
“During the season, we kept on developing and we were capable of winning during the last races. Just that is what we wanted to achieve, and right here at this great final, we have proven it once again. Congratulations to Bernd Schneider, he is a worthy champion.”
“I have been fighting hard, but it just wasn't enough,” said an exhausted Dumbreck. “Now, we will continue in 2004 where we have finished here. I am very satisfied with the season, because we have reached our goals. My goal for 2004 is quite easy: I want to stay with Opel and win the championship!”
Aiello salvaged some pride from a disappointing season with fifth place, just two seconds behind Dumbreck at the finish and seven seconds ahead of Schneider with Timo Scheider and Audi Junior driver Peter Terting claiming the final two points scoring positions.
A rash of late retirements, including Manuel Reuter and Gary Paffett, and a Karl Wendlinger assisted spin for Jeroen Bleekemolen allowed Albers to move up to 12th at the finish although 'Smokin' Jo Winkelhock's final DTM appearance ended with a whimper after just nine laps.
In the final standings Schneider claimed title number four by a margin of four points (68-64) over Albers with Fassler eleven points adrift in third with 57. Ekstrom's second place run cemented his status as top Audi driver of the year in fourth place overall thanks to nine point scoring efforts in ten races while Alesi pipped Aiello for fifth with his second win of the season. Dumbreck was comfortably the best Opel driver with 31 points in seventh position overall while Mercedes easily claimed manufacturers honours.