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Old 30 Apr 2020, 11:28 (Ref:3973772)   #1
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Why there is no good solution for DTM's dilemma

Bored by being on lockdown, I wrote a 2000 word essay on why DTM is in a really difficult situation now after the Audi pull-out. I don't want to pollute the regular DTM-thread, so I started this one instead.Read at your own peril!

The announcement of Audi’s withdrawal from DTM has put the series into critical condition; its survival more threatened than ever before in the last 20 years. At the same time, speculation about how Germany’s top-ranking motorsports competition could be saved by switching to this or that rule-set has gone into over-drive. In this article, I will explain why none of the proposed rulesets is a good fit for the series – and why its demise might thus be a grim inevitability.

In order to be able to judge the merits of various sets of technical regulations in the context of DTM, we first need to understand what sets DTM apart from other forms of motorsport and why it has been the undisputed number 1 domestic series in Germany for the last 20 years: What it comes down to – essentially – is legitimacy, i.e. the idea that what is going on on the track at Hockenheim, the Noris- or Nürburgring is important. This is why tens of thousands of fans continued to show up even when the on-track product was decidedly lackluster. This is why DTM is the only form of motorsports outside of Formula 1 to get any mainstream attention in Germany. And this is why the series has survived for so long; with 20 years being an astonishingly long run for a professional series in Germany (DRM existed for ten years between 1973 and 1983, the old DTM from 1984 until 1996 and second-tier series like STW or the Group C Supercup for barely more than a handful of seasons).

Now where does this idea of legitimacy come from? For one, there is the legacy of the glory days of the old DTM in the late 1980s and 1990s when motorsport was still a mainstream interest and drivers like Stuck, Winkelhock and Ludwig could be considered household-names. Despite everything that has gone wrong in the series over the last two decades, the letter D, T, and M, still invoke the memories of the Group A and (original) Class 1 days. A second source of legitimacy is the fact that DTM is the battleground of the German premium manufacturers – and one where they go at it without resorting to the dreaded system of Balance of Performance or success penalties, but where manufacturers, teams and drivers sink or swim at their own merit, as evidenced by the miserable season BMW and Aston-Martin had to endure last year without getting much of a helping hand from the series organization. Last, but not least, there are the cars themselves: the on track product might not always be great, but the machines from Audi and BMW are nothing short of awe-inspiring, visually as well as in terms as on-track performance. These are the fastest and most advanced touring cars in Europe – and yet, they look close enough to a road-going Audi A5 or a 4 series BMW that people can just about believe that these monsters are somehow related to the cars in their own drive-ways.

An oft-repeated call on specialist forums is that DTM needs to return to production-based racing, e.g. in the shape of TCR. This opinion, however, ignores the principles of DTM’s legitimacy laid out above. While it is true that DTM was a production based series during the mythical Group A years, it is equally true that the phrase “production based” has meant different things to different people at different times. The cars that raced in DTM in the 1980s were production based only in a technical sense. In reality they were based on outrageous homologation specials that were nothing short of race cars for the road, and in some cases horribly ill-suited for use as a daily driver and grocery-getter. When taken to the track, though, these already spectacular cars transformed into thunderous, flame-spitting, tire-smoking monsters that could easily compete and win in mixed fields against the Porsches and sometimes even Ferraris of the time. What is also worth mentioning is the fact that the Group A cars were typically based on top-of-the-line models rather than the more pedestrian small family cars that form the base of most of today’s TCR cars.
To understand just how important spectacular cars are for motorsport fans in Germany, one needs to look no further than to the Supertourenwagen-Cup of the 1990s. Run to the same super-touring regulations as the BTCC at the time, the series never came close to rivaling DTM in terms of prestige or number of spectators, even during the interregnum of 1997 – 1999 when the series was Germany‘s top-level racing series. While Super-Touring was and is seen as the pinnacle of national touring car racing in many European countries, for the Germans – much like the Australians – it was just not good enough.

That the cars lack much of the visual and aural appeal common to all previous iterations of DTM is not the only aspect in which TCR fails to provide the legitimacy needed to be considered a suitable set of regulations for DTM. In addition to that, the fact that TCR is based on a system of Balance of Performance makes it impossible to fairly judge a car’s or a manufacturer’s sporting credentials based on on track performance; after a race weekend, no one can say if the winner reached the top step of the podium because of their excellence on track and in the garages or because of being dealt a lucky hand by the process of BoP. For all these reasons, TCR cannot be seen as a valid replacement for the current Class-1-cars.

Another ruleset that is sometimes mentioned as a potential life-line for DTM is GT3. While the cars are somewhat more spectacular than those in TCR, there are other problems with the idea of these rules being adopted for DTM. First of all, there is the fact that with GT3s DTM would be nothing special anymore. Between VLN, ADAC GT Masters, at least two club level series and tour stops by international competitions like World Challenge and International GT Open, one can watch a GT3 race somewhere in Germany probably every other weekend during the summer months – at least in a year without a global pandemic, that is. Additionally, GT3 cars might look spectacular when standing still, but do not when running on track as a plethora of driver aids designed to help gentleman drivers make the cars easy to control and prevent things like wheelspin and power-slides. To be able to run even at tracks with strict noise restrictions, most GT3 cars also come factory equipped with muffled exhausts, which further detracts from the spectacle. Finally, there is, of course, the problem of BoP. We have been over this in the paragraph on TCR, so there really is no need to repeat this here. What it all amounts to, though, is that GT3 would not lend DTM the legitimacy it needs to survive as more than a shadow of its former glory.

In a way the best replacement for the current Class-1 regulations – and the one that would most easily be accepted by the majority of fans in Germany – is GTE. A sprint championship for GTE cars otherwise only seen at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and associated events would be sufficiently distinct to set the series apart from other GT series. The cars themselves are truly spectacular in sound as well as performance and BoP does not have as much of a stranglehold on the class as in GT3. With Porsche and BMW, there are two German manufacturers that already run factory teams in the class. And this is where the problems start. The only other brands involved in GTE these days are Ferrari, Aston-Martin, and Corvette – and none of them is particularly likely to be fielding a factory team in a domestic German championship, which would therefore have to rely on privateer entries. This brings us to the biggest problem with GTE: cost. At prices close to €1 million just to buy the car and running costs a multiple of that, these cars are hard to afford for privateer teams, which is evidenced by the fact that the only race that gets a field of GTEs of more than 18 cars are the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where teams from different series all over the world congregate once a year. Furthermore, about half of these cars are run in the GTE-Am category where rich – and often less than gifted – amateurs pay to share their cars with professional drivers. With a one-driver-per-car-format in DTM, these gentleman drivers would have to win or lose at their own merit, which might be a less than appealing proposition for many of them. All in all, GTE has just about the right cars for DTM, but it is unlikely that there would ever be sufficient cars to make a true spectacle out of it. Ironically, GTE is suffering from many of the same problems as Class-1: expensive cars and factory teams that would rather play elsewhere; in the case of GTE that is in the Le Mans affiliated series and in DTM’s case in Super GT.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the TA2-regulations initially devised as an affordable field-filler category for the American Trans-Am series and by now adopted with great success in many countries around the world, from Costa Rica to Norway, Australia and New Zealand. Built on a modified NASCAR late model chassis by American race car builders Howe Engineering and a small number of other firms, the TA2-cars are designed to offer customers a car that is about as fast as a Porsche Cup car at a very competitive cost for initial purchase and operation. The price for this is, however, that the cars are completely standardized and performance-equalized. Since the cars are built on a tubular chassis, the only thing they share with their road-going counterparts is the basic silhouette – and even that one might be somewhat mangled if the base-model is an ill fit for the shape of the chassis, which is primarily geared towards American muscle cars such as the Ford Mustang or Chevy Camaro. While the class was initially open for different V8 crate engines from Ford, GM and FCA, the rules are now transitioning towards a single standard engine even in the mother series in the United States. In other markets the class has used a detuned spec-engine from its very inception. Where TA2 fails as a potential replacement ruleset for DTM is the lack of manufacturer involvement and spectacle: Due to no need or potential for their technical input, it seems almost impossible to imagine that a TA2-based DTM would see direct manufacturer involvement from the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes – and even an indirect presence or the mere blessing of such a series by these brands is more than unlikely since these German premium brands are known to jealously guard their intellectual property against use in unauthorized silhouette series. Over the years, teams in many series have been forced to abandon plans for silhouettes based on the products of these manufacturers. In some cases, this amounted to a total ban, in others teams got away with reducing the visual resemblance of their cars to the road cars they were supposed to be based on while also refraining from using the manufacturers’ names and badges. This has already been the case in the Danish Thundersports Championship, which is run to TA2-rules, and it is more than likely that the same would be occurring if these technical regulations were to be introduced in Germany. Of course, this would in no way help the series’ credibility.
“But the series could still be a success with spectators if the cars are sufficiently spectacular – they are powered by big V8s, after all!” one might argue. But even that assertion would be wide off the mark. As a result of the low-cost nature of these regulations, TA2 cars are designed for durability rather than for spectacle. Consequently, the sound of their V8 engines fall way short of what many spectators would expect. In fact, their tire squeal can often be heard over the engine noise . Equally, with horsepower restricted to the mid-400s, the cars’ on track behavior is relatively tame and benevolent. Despite their looks – snarling, evil V8 beasts they are not.

What it all comes down to is that none of these rulesets tick enough of the boxes needed to continue DTM with anything close to its current standing. Yes, the series would probably survive with TCR, GT3 or TA2-rules, but its standing would be greatly diminished, a shadow of its former self. Maybe that would still be better than nothing, but personally, I am not a fan of seeing a once great series dragging on long beyond the point when it stopped being fun or relevant as happened in the case of Trans-Am or Interserie. If DTM cannot go on as is, perhaps it’s time to let it go for good and to make room for fresh new ideas and to allow for new series to shape their own mythology?
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Ceterum censeo GTE-Am esse delendam.