Hockenheim 2005: Alesi leads Mercedes sweep
17 April 2005
Jean Alesi enjoyed a comparatively easy ride to victory in the opening round of the 2005 DTM series, but his Mercedes team-mates had to battle for position before completing a podium sweep.
The Frenchman, something of a forgotten figure in the hype surrounding Mika Hakkinen's arrival and Gary Paffett's title hopes, used a long first stint to establish himself in the leading group and then retained his mid-race lead following his second stop to pull away from the scrapping field.
Team-mate Paffett had got the initial jump from second on the grid, but any hope that the Briton had had of making an early break over poleman - and reigning champion - Mathias Ekstrom was halted by a first corner pile-up that eliminated half the Opel entry as well as potential winner Tom Kristensen.
Opel's Laurent Aiello was largely to blame for the incident, locking up into the corner after a good getaway, running wide and then , getting caught out by the still wet kerbs, speared back to the inside of the track. The black Playboy-backed Vectra collected Kristensen's Audi, while the 2004-spec A4 of 'Dindo' Capello smacked into the back of the already imbedded Opel. Manuel Reuter was the other unwitting victim of his stablemate's impetuosity, retiring the Valvoline Vectra in the pits.
The safety car remained out until the end of lap six, by which time Audi had also lost the fast -starting Martin Tomczyk. The youngster appeared to have missed the worst of the melee, but two pit-stops to check over his Red Bull car eventually diagnosed suspension problems.
That left Paffett at the head of the field, but with a much reduced advantage over Ekstrom, who was intent on moving back to the front. Marcel Fassler gave Opel something to cheer early on, a flying start elevating him to third to the road, ahead of debutant Jamie Green, Alesi, Bernd Schneider, Bruno Spengler, Stefan Mucke and Allan McNish.
Ekstrom and Paffett began their battle almost as soon as the safety car had withdrawn, the Swede flicking on his lights as he attempted to muscle past into the hairpin on lap seven. Paffett, however, was in no mood to cede his advantage, getting back alongside the Audi on the run down to the Mercedes complex and holding position. The leading trio then proceeded to pit, and all Paffett's efforts proved to be in vain as the Audi crew turned his rival around in shorter order.
Worse was to come for the Briton, however, as it quickly became apparent that his driver-side door had been damaged in the contact with Ekstrom, and was now flapping open on right-handers.
With Alesi getting ahead of Green on the same lap, the Frenchman was now the nominal leader, and he continued to run out front while those behind him took turns to stop for the first of two mandatory tyre changes. Green pitted from second on lap ten, allowing multiple champion Schneider to slot in behind Alesi, but the German's race was not to be easy either, as a jump-start penalty saw him making the first of three pit visits a lap later.
Alesi finally pitted for the first time on lap 15, but the advantage he had built up in the early stages was good enough for him to slot back in only a couple of places adrift of the new leader - Schneider.... A second stop on lap 21, immediately after the German had made his second call, reinstated the Frenchman at the head of the field and, with both his required stops now banked, he was able to cruise to the chequered flag.
Behind the AMG-branded Mercedes, however, things were far from settled. With Schneider having made a second pit-stop, Hakkinen appeared to be the best placed two-stopper until Alesi rejoined at the front of the field, but the Finn was also to make a third stop, a startline penalty having caught many observers unaware.
With the former F1 champion out of the reckoning, it was Paffett - still with his door flapping despite the best attempts of his crew to tape it in place at his second stop - who took up the pursuit of Alesi. The Briton still had Ekstrom for company with ten laps to run, but the Audi driver appeared to drop off the pace as the final stint unwound, eventually losing the final podium spot to Schneider, whose own performance suggested potential victory had it not been for his indiscretion at the start.
Ekstrom's afternoon wasn't over there, however, as Green and the surprising Christian Abt, running a 2004-spec Audi, closed in rapidly, the Briton looking particularly racy as he sensed a Mercedes 1-2-3-4. Sadly, the rookie's enthusiasm got the better of him on lap 30, having already out-braked himself at the hairpin immediately after his final pit-stop, and, after banging doors with the champion, he eventually ran wide coming into the stadium. The error allowed both chasing Audis through, but it was Abt that came out ahead, eventually pulling out enough of a gap to be the best-placed A4 at the flag!
Further back, Stefan Mucke overcame a brush with Pierre Kaffer's Audi to be running in seventh, ahead of Hakkinen, while Fassler was left to rue his own misfortune after a brush with Mercedes junior Bruno Spengler saw the last remaining Opel - Heinz-Harald Frentzen having retired following contact with Alex Margaritis early on - spin down the order. The Swiss driver eventually finished ninth, one spot out of the points and immediately ahead of the '04 Audi of Frank Stippler.
With darkening skies accompanying the cars to the finish, there was caution in the air over the closing laps, with Schneider not really opting to launch an assault on second place. Paffett thus led the former champion to the flag, but neither had anything to offer Alesi, who had passed the chequer some six seconds earlier.