After being fired by Opel, Uwe Alzen reacted swiftly - and joined arch-rivals Mercedes, signing up with its best team HWA to replace veteran Klaus Ludwig.

The ball flew back faster and harder than expected. When Opel?s racing director Volker Strycek sacked his fastest driver after a crash between Alzen and fellow Opel driver Manuel Reuter at last year's DTM finale at Hockenheim, little did he expect that Alzen would become one of his hardest rival in the new season.

But it took the 33-year-old less than two months to turn the page his way. After receiving the fax that informed he had been fired, Alzen took legal action against Opel - and immediately started negotiations with Mercedes. In the week before Christmas, he went to Affalterbach where Hans Werner Aufrecht?s HWA team - formerly known as AMG - is based to get his carbon-fibre seat box made. At the same visit, Alzen also left one of his helmets in the office of HWA team manager Hansjurgen Mattheis - who, after weeks of guessing and hoping, finally confirmed the expected on Tuesday afternoon.

"Alzen will be driving for our Mercedes team in the forthcoming season," he told our correspondent.

The details of the deal that shakes the German racing scene are as follows. Alzen will replace 51-year-old Ludwig in the HWA team, where he will team up with reigning champion Bernd Schneider and young Swiss driver Marcel Fassler. Meanwhile, even though it is not yet officially confirmed, it appears that Scottish youngster Peter Dumbreck will be the fourth driver within the HWA outfit.

While his predecessor Ludwig is talking to German TV to start a career as professional co-commentator at the DTM programmes, Alzen signed a two-year contract just before Christmas - with a paragraph that leaves Mercedes the chance to leave the contract after the first year. The back door, however, seems to be little more than a theory.

"We firmly believe that Alzen is too good a driver and too much an interesting character not to be part of the DTM next season," stresses Mattheis, "He would be really missed if he could not start."

Looking back at the years from 1993 to 1995, when Alzen was a semi-works driver for Mercedes before taking the chance of a full factory contract with Opel from 1996 onwards, Mattheis recalls that he had an unblemished record.

"We are confident that Alzen will fit perfectly into our system. There was never even the slightest problem when he was driving for us in the first place. It?s always a question of how you deal with the drivers - and Mercedes, as well as HWA, are quite good with that."

Indeed, the problems only started at Opel, where Alzen met Manuel Reuter - a totally different character than himself. Alzen immediately felt he was not only quicker than Reuter, but also never felt he got the support he deserved.

The first incident occurred as early as Diepholz 1996, where Alzen?s Calibra bumped into Reuter?s sister car on the track and Reuter bumped into Alzen in the paddock. Still feeling treated in an unfair way, the anti-climax of the conflict came in Hockenheim 2000. Reuter was leading, but under constant pressure from Alzen. When he swerved across and braked surprisingly early, Alzen ran into the back of Reuter?s V8 Coupe. While Reuter retired, Alzen drove his heavily damaged Opel to a convincing double victory - only to get sacked the following week.

Alzen had to see a hospital specialist at the end of November with a stomach infection caused by all the hassle, and he was still fuming with rage when he started talking to Mercedes - but remained tight-lipped in the public.

"There have been problems and arguments behind the scene almost all season long - and I would love to explain all that," he said, "But my brain tells me not to because that could only harm my further career."

After Mattheis had confirmed the Alzen deal Tuesday afternoon, the driver?s manager Walter Martes was able to sigh in relief.

"I have never been in a situation that difficult before," he confessed, "I?m glad that the problem could be solved and Uwe can stay in the DTM - because that?s where he really belongs. I know how hard he felt the times were he?s gone through. Everybody who knows him also knows how sensitive he is and how much these things really get to him."

Martes is also sure "that Alzen will not face any difficulties with Mercedes - their system should suit him very well".

Meanwhile, Mattheis not only confirmed that Alzen would drive for HWA, but also stressed that he would get the same equipment as reigning champion Bernd Schneider.

"It?s too early to judge whether Alzen has a realistic chance on the title - but we will provide him with the material needed to be in a good position," Mattheis said, "It would not be appropriate to concentrate on just one driver before the season has actually started. We have to wait and see how Uwe gets to grip with the car - but he?s got as good a chance as any other Mercedes driver."

Alzen?s first tests with his new car will reveal more. He will join HWA's test session at Jarama in Spain this week, where Schneider and Fassler will also test drive the new 2001-spec Mercedes CLK.