Monday, April 2, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: German Touring Endurance?

It was Easter weekend and while most series were relaxing, a few were on track. Paul Tracy returned to competition for the first time in almost seven years in Trans-Am but another name familiar to IndyCar fans took victory. Across the pond, Billy Monger returned to racing a little under a year after losing his legs in a Formula 4 accident and he finished third on his British F3 debut. Meanwhile, a handful of series will race on Easter Monday. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

German Touring Endurance?
A championship is dying. The once heralded Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, a pedigree for touring car racing finds itself with a date of death already scheduled. When the season concludes on October 14th long-time manufacture Mercedes-Benz will exit the series and the DTM faces a future with two manufactures fielding a combined dozen cars.

The DTM was a secret of sorts, a series where world champion Mika Häkkinen and other grand prix winners Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jean Alesi still competed at a high level. Along with the familiar names from Formula One were Tom Kristensen, Bernd Schneider and a handful of young and promising names such as Mattias Ekström, Gary Paffett, Martin Tomczyk, Timo Scheider, Bruno Spengler and Jamie Green.

It was only a decade ago DTM races were unavailable in the States until the winter when Speed Channel would rebroadcast a race a weekend in its entirety from the first round to the last. You would get bits and pieces of a season through other forms of motorsports. I first learned of the infamous 2007 Barcelona round where all the Audis withdrew in protest of overaggressive driving from Mercedes-Benz drivers through Bob Varsha one week later while he called qualifying for a Formula One race. It was a fascinating series and one that I wished was more available.

I hate to say the DTM has become boring but that spark is gone. It could be because of the proliferation of series. In recent years we have seen the FIA World Endurance Championship rise as a top series in the world while GT3-spec series have also grown in recent years and featured large and star-studded grids from Blancpain GT Series to Pirelli World Challenge.

It has not been for a lack of effort. The series has been running doubleheaders for the last three seasons, in recent years a handful of young drivers have gotten their breaks in DTM such as Paul di Resta, Pascal Wehrlein, Robert Wickens, Marco Wittmann and António Félix da Costa. Ekström has just exited the series to focus on rallycross but the likes of Green, Paffett and Spengler are still around, di Resta has returned to the series while Le Mans winners Loïc Duval and Mike Rockenfeller are both on the grid. There is even Timo Glock.

With Mercedes-Benz on the way out, the series needs a way to remain relevant. The issue is it has to do something different. Adopting GT3-spec isn't an option as the ADAC GT Masters series already owns that territory in Germany. While the TCR regulations are spreading over the touring car world, once again, that territory is taken in Germany and TCR would be a step down from what DTM is at this moment, not to forget mentioning that of the three current DTM manufactures only Audi has a TCR-spec car.

The rumor that has the most attention is DTM becoming a GTE series and while this has the same issue as TCR with BMW being the only current manufacture fielding a GTE-spec car, it would at least keep DTM in a top echelon of motorsports. GTE has many manufactures ready to play. BMW is one of five manufactures in the FIA WEC alongside Ferrari, Ford, Porsche and Aston Martin and Corvette also fields GTE-spec cars.

With the FIA WEC switching its schedule and the 2019-20 season starting in August or September and ending at Le Mans in 2020, the summer will be open for GTE competition. The issue is could a GTE-only series based in Germany draw in the same type of numbers that the FIA WEC GTE grid already draws?

There are 19 GTE cars between the Pro and Am classes for WEC this season but I doubt the financial backing is there for Ford to field two Ford GTs in the WEC and a summer GTE series. The same goes for the other manufactures. However, maybe the money is there especially if the series is not an endurance series. The DTM has been running two, 55-minute races over race weekends and those races fit nicely into a TV window but a GTE series would need more than two sprint races. A format change to a single two-hour or two-and-a-half hour race each weekend allowing for driver changes could be the answer.

I think there would be a lot of interest in a GTE-only series and this series could attract more manufactures, as it would be a playing ground where these manufactures could compete for the overall victory. Audi has had a lot of success with its GT3 program and if this series was German-based it would make sense for it to have the Audi R8 step up into the GTE platform. The same can be said for Mercedes. Outside of those two German makes the like of McLaren and Lamborghini have been successful in GT3 and has at least shown interest in GTE. Maybe Honda could be ready for the NSX to be a GTE competitor in a few seasons.

For a GTE series to succeed the ACO would need to support it and that could require a switch in the current makeup of the sports car landscape. There are six GTE cars entered for the upcoming European Le Mans Series while 17 LMP2 entries and 18 LMP3 entries comprise the rest of the grid. ELMS can live as a prototype series and the six GTE entries could slide into the GTE-spec DTM with Le Mans invitations given out to the Pro champion and Am champion in the series.

I think there is a place in this world for a GTE series and the DTM adopting the regulation could turn the series around. A GTE series could draw in more teams that want to run GTE at a higher level than ELMS but with a budget cheaper than the WEC. There would be some difficulty in making sure this series could exist along with the WEC and ELMS and making sure there were no schedule conflicts. The summer would be open and that could fill the gap between Le Mans and the start of the next season.

The start of the DTM series would have to be a little earlier than its current May 6th season opener to avoid conflict with the Spa-Francorchamps WEC round and also to allow for two rounds to be completed before the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. After Le Mans, the series could take hold in the summer, returning to competition at the Norisring and then running regularly, almost every other week until the start of the next WEC season. There will still be gaps in the schedule between the likely WEC season opener in August and the rounds in Asia in the middle of autumn and the final rounds of the DTM could take place during that time.

DTM might not be on your radar for 2018 but imagine an eight-round GTE championship with each race weekend having a two-hour race evenly split between four German tracks and four other European tracks with at least the five manufactures in the WEC represented along with Corvette and a dozen entries in each GTE-Pro and GTE-Am. I think that would grab your attention.

Winners From the Weekend
It was Easter weekend so not many series were on track but...

Raphael Matos won the Trans-Am TA2 race from Road Atlanta while his teammate Paul Tracy finished seventh. Chris Dyson won the TA/TA3/TA4 race

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar's first oval race of the season from Phoenix.
Formula One's first night race from Bahrain.
MotoGP's first race in the Western Hemisphere in Argentina.
Formula E's first visit to Rome.
Blancpain Sprint Series first race weekend of the season at Zolder.
The World Touring Car Cup's first round at Marrakesh.
Super GT's first race of the season at Okayama.
Supercross returns to the West Coast and will be in Seattle.
NASCAR returns to a mile-and-a-half oval and specifically Texas.
Supercars will also be at a 1.5-mile racetrack but it is not an oval. Symmons Plains Raceway is a seven-turn road course.
The World Rally Championship heads to Corsica.