Estoril 2004: Albers edges Ekstrom
3 May 2004
The second round of the 2004 DTM season produced a dramatic finish as last year's championship runner-up Christijan Albers grabbed his first win of the season by less than a second from Audi's Mattias Ekström.
The Dutchman was made to wait for his first victory of the year as, for more than half the race, Ekström was biting at the Mercedes' tail. Audi's pace was already well-known at the Portuguese circuit, and Albers knew that the slightest slip could be enough to let his Swedish rival through - and away.
"This victory was one I had to fight really hard for," he admitted, "Audi was very, very strong today, and I had problems with my last set of tyres. That was why Ekström came closer and closer. Fortunately, I managed to keep him behind me."
The duel had been a three-way battle early on, as the Hockenheim podium trio of Albers, Ekstrom and Gary Paffett battled for supremacy in the run-up to the first round of pit-stops. However, the decisive move was made early on the ninth lap as, right at the end of the finishing straight, Albers overhauled both leader Paffett and Ekström, attacking around the outside.
"Very seldom have I ever seen overtaking manoeuvres like those made by of Christijan, Gary and Mattias Ekström," Mercedes' sporting director Norbert Haug said afterwards.
Ekström was happy enough with his second place, but was just a little peeved about missing victory by such a small margin.
"Today, we would have deserved first place," the Swede reckoned, "My car was better than Christijan's but, unfortunately, I didn't get by him. I hoped that he would make a big mistake - which was what I would have needed - but he simply made none. The most frustrating thing is that I went right into traffic after my pit-stop and my edge was gone."
Paffett's challenge faded as a result of an unscheduled pit-stop to fix a damaged tyre, dropping the Hockenheim race winner back to an unrepresentative 13th at the chequered flag, although he clocked the fastest lap of the race - at 1min 35.528secs - before the end.
“After my first stop, I was hit in the left front corner in the battle with Ekström, and this damaged my tyre," the gutted Briton sighed, "After a good qualifying and a good start to the race, I'm disappointed - because I could have won.”
Third place eventually went to another Audi, and the current domination held by the DTM's crop of youngsters was maintained by Martin Tomczyk, who crossed the line 3.898secs behind the lead battle. After a number of strong runs that had been negated by incidents, the result was a fillip for the young German.
"Finally, in my fourth year, I cut the knot," he said of his maiden podium, "I am absolutely happy. This feels great."
For quite a while, however, it had Opel's own unlucky pilot, Timo Scheider, who had held third place. However, twelve laps from the finish, a technical problem dropped him back to sixth.
"When I tried to brake in corner number seven, my throttle control got stuck and I went right into the gravel," the disappointed German sighed, "After that, for some laps, I went a little smoother. It's a pity. My car was well on the road, and I might have brought home my third position."
The problem allowed DTM newcomer Tom Kristensen to complete an Audi 2-3-4, which had the marque's sporting director, Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, praising the level of competition in the series.
"Mattias, Martin and Tom did an excellent job," he enthused, "We were only a glance away from winning, but Mercedes stayed on top. The most spectacular overtaking manoeuvres we saw are a proof of DTM's high level of performance."
Bernd Schneider also took advantage of his near namesake's misfortune, opening his account after retirement at Hockenheim.
“I made a good start and my car ran well but, on this track, it's difficult to overtake," the reigning champion admitted, "From my seventh position on the grid, I couldn't achieve more.”
The final point-scoring positions were split between the Mercedes of Jean Alesi and Opel's Laurent Aiello, but not before the ex-F1 man had enjoyed a spirited scrap with another Opel newcomer - and former F1 rival - Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
Both pilots were unwilling to give a single millimetre, but Frentzen's challenge eventually waned, dropping the German to twelfth while his French adversary managed to hang on for seventh.
“I had an exciting race and the battle with Frentzen was fun," Alesi said afterwards, "It was difficult to pass here, so I'm happy about the two points I scored today.”
Frentzen's performance, in only his second DTM event, spurred Opel team boss Volker Strycek to comment that the series had not seen the best of the German yet.
"I was absolutely confident in Heinz-Harald after his test sessions in the winter, and was sure that he would be strong," Strycek said, "He showed us here how quick he can be."
Aiello finished eighth despite a spin while chasing Marcel Fässler, inheriting the position when his stable-mate was forced to retire with a broken suspension link late on. The incident also promoted OPC Team Phoenix team-mate Peter Dumbreck to ninth, but the Scot was unable to repeat his point-scoring form from Hockenheim.