Mattias Ekstrom is the new DTM champion, after clinching his first title a round early with an impressive start-finish win at the Czech circuit of Brno. The Audi star now has an unassailable lead in the overall standings, leading by 20 points ahead of the season finale at the Hockenheimring in two weeks' time.

Audi team-mate Tom Kristensen made it a weekend to remember for the marque - which only returned to the series on an official basis at the start of the season - by coming home second ahead of Mercedes-Benz driver Gary Paffett. It was the third double 1-2 result for Audi in as many races.

"It is a fantastic day for me," Ekstrom enthused, "I think that was the nicest race of the season, although it wasn't easy. I tried to drive constant lap times and concentrate on bringing the car safely into the finish. It's going to be a long night today."

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Kristensen was equally happy with another podium result, and has some nice things to say about a team-mate who, for a Dane, would normally be the man to beat.

"Mattias is a truly deserving champion," Kristensen insisted, "He's a great guy, he has a natural talent, he has car control, and he's got lots of experience in the DTM and in the team. These are five things that he's put together perfectly. And if a Dane has so many positive things to say about a Swede, that really means something."

"I'm over the moon," commented Audi motorsport director Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, "Mattias has done an excellent and flawless job the entire season and therefore truly deserved this title. I also want to thank the Abt team, which worked equally excellently.

"Winning the title in the first year of the 'works' comeback is a success for Audi that one can't rate highly enough. That's because the DTM is the best and toughest touring car series in the world. I'm convinced that we'll see a fantastic race at the finale in Hockenheim in two weeks - everyone will be trying to prove one more time that he's the best."

Thing weren't as clear-cut as the headlines make out, however, and the spectators witnessed a turbulent race.

While Ekstr?m took the lead from pole position, second-placed Christijan Albers - the only driver with a 'real' chance of overhauling the Swede - was overtaken in the first turn by Martin Tomczyk and Kristensen. Albers, who lay 13 points behind Ekstrom heading to the Czech Republic, managed to recapture third place on the first lap but, after the first pit-stop, collided with Christian Abt's Audi.

The German spun, but was able to continue the race, but Albers wasn't done there. Another collision on the eighth lap, amid the fight for second position, ended Tomczyk's otherwise promising race, while Albers was slapped with a drive-through penalty for his part in the incident, all but ending his title hopes. To cement Ekstrom's success, the Dutchman then had to abandon his damaged car on lap 15.

"I wanted to keep my championship hopes alive and was pushing hard," Albers reported, "The collision with Tomczyk was the result of a misunderstanding. I braked earlier than him, he pulled to the right and our cars touched."

"I feel sorry for Christijan Albers," a sympathetic Norbert Haug added, "He had the speed to attack, but acted a bit unfortunately. I'm sure he didn't do it on purpose - that's not his style."

Albers' exit not only dashed his hopes of the championship, however, but also allowed the consistent Paffett to leapfrog him for second place in the overall standings. The Briton had only qualified seventh in the Superpole session, but made the most of his impressive race speed to climb the order and secure another podium finish. Paffett, who had been talked about as a potential Sauber F1 pilot before Jacques Villeneuve's recent signing, held slim title hopes before the race, but would have required Ekstrom to non-score to increase his chances.

"Congratulations to Mattias - he deserved the win and the championship," the Mercedes man said, "For me, it's still a super result here, having driven from seventh into third. But it's a pity that the gap to the front was too big and that the championship is no longer an open affair. I'm now second in the overall standings and that's also where I want to be at the end of the season."

Opel enjoyed one of its strongest showings of the season at Brno, with three drivers making it into the points, four among the top ten and Manuel Reuter clocking the fastest lap. Swiss star Marcel F?ssler just missed out on a podium with his Opel Vectra GTS V8, coming home fourth ahead of another Audi, as Emanuele Pirro recorded the best result of the year for Infineon Team Joest.

"I had the best start of the season," Fassler claimed, "The race itself was really good fun, as I did some good overtaking, but my second pit stop was a bit botched, and that cost me third place."

Heinz-Harald Frentzen collected his first championship points after taking sixth for Opel, while stablemate Timo Scheider also left Brno with two points for his seventh place.

"We are proud that three Opels made it into the points, and that Manuel Reuter pulled off the fastest race lap," commented motorsport manager Volker Strycek, "And we're particularly pleased with Heinz-Harald Frentzen's sixth place, too. He has worked his way [into the DTM] step-by-step forward and finally collected some deserved points. However, we must say 'well done' to Audi and Mattias Ekstr?m for their title win."

The DTM's debut at Brno was also a great success, with 35,000 spectators visiting over the weekend. The 'old' DTM last staged a race at the Czech circuit in 1992, but each of the three current marques were pleased with its reintroduction to the venue.

"Compliments also to the organisers," Strycek said, echoing the views of both Haug and Ullrich, "The premiere of the new DTM here was very well organised, and the response from spectators impressive. I hope we come back again next year."