The DTM team’s final season: A bit of nostalgia and lots of ambition

The smell of gasoline and burning rubber, the roar of the engines, the tension in the command center, the struggle for every hundredth of a second in the pace car — for me, the DTM is more than just a motorsports event. It’s something you can smell, hear, and feel. That’s how it’s been for me ever since my first race in Hockenheim in 1992.

Back then my uncle took me along to the race course, and I could hardly believe that there was more behind these three letters than a couple of crazy people driving around in circles. Today I can hardly believe that after October 14 there will be no more races for us, the Mercedes-AMG Motorsport DTM team, in Hockenheim.

Even more ambition

Nonetheless, it’s true: On the first weekend in May, my team and I will begin our last DTM season with Mercedes-AMG. At the end of 2018 we will part from this racing series and begin racing at Formula E. You might be wondering how this makes me feel as the team leader. I feel ambivalent. Of course there’s a feeling of nostalgia during your preparations when you realize again and again that this is the last time you’re carrying out a certain procedure, having a certain talk, or making certain decisions.

But I also feel a lot of ambition to conclude this final season with a bang. When we announced that this would be our final season, I was a bit worried that the team might have some motivation problems. But the opposite is true. All of us know that there’s only one more title we can win in our DTM history. And that’s why we have to try all the harder.

Responsibility instead of control

Nonetheless, my strategy as the team leader will stay the same. I was never a fan of leadership styles based on control. Instead, I’ve always wanted to give my team members free rein. But free rein also means taking responsibility. It means playing by the rules, properly training the pit stop procedure, taking yet another look at all the documentation so that you know for sure what the right tire pressure is, and checking the equipment to make sure it’s really registering the right figures.

Whenever something is coming to an end, of course you look backward and think about your highlights and lowlights. One low point for me was certainly the “push him out” incident at the Red Bull Ring in 2015. The head of motorsports at Audi at that time was Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. He had radioed to his driver Timo Scheider that he should push Pascal Wehrlein off the track during the race.

I had never imagined that something like this could ever happen. At that point I was very taken aback, not to say disappointed, by the whole subject of motorsports.

You have to want it more

But motorsports are a matter of extremes, and just a short time later we celebrated Pascal’s victory in the next race in Moscow, and after that, his winning the DTM title. This was the greatest Mercedes triumph in motorsports during my tenure as the team leader.

But sometimes small victories are also highlights — for example, the one in Oschersleben in 2014. That was the second race of the season. We were coming from Hockenheim, and we were worlds away from the other automakers. I still remember it as clearly as though it were happening today. Our colleagues from Audi and BMW came to us and asked, “What are you doing here? You don’t even know how to drive cars in a circle.”

Suddenly our team and our drivers developed a strong will to win. It was so extreme that in the end we actually did win this race with our driver Christian Vietoris. Of course our bold strategy helped, but Christian also delivered a fantastic driving performance. And before the race we had thought that winning was completely out of our reach! This convinced me that you simply have to do your job. But there’s also another thing that’s very important: You have to want to win more than all the others do.

How egotists become friends

I think our six drivers contribute a great mix of experience and youthful recklessness to the team. All of them are hungry to once again give it all they’ve got during this final season. The only thing the guys initially had in common, besides the DTM, was the fact that all of them had already had some contact with Formula 1, either as test drivers or regular drivers. You can already see that in their class.

Pascal Wehrlein, Gary Paffett, and Paul Di Resta have already won the DTM, Daniel Juncadella won the Formula 3 European Championship, Edoardo Mortara won the GT World Championship in Macau, and Lucas Auer got off to a rousing start last year. What I personally consider even more important is the fact that all of these guys have by now become friends.

We’ve done a lot to make that happen, because basically we all know that race car drivers are egotists, and ultimately the only thing that matters is sitting in the car yourself and winning. But at the DTM, the game doesn’t work that way. You have to think ahead, you have to be present, and you have to cooperate with your fellow team members. Otherwise, as early as the setup you’re already going to be nowhere.

To foster team spirit, we of course organized team events. We go on a fitness week twice a year. We no longer do something we used to do: going somewhere for three days and struggling up a mountainside. After that, everybody’s so out of breath they can’t even speak. Instead, we play team sports such as soccer and so on.

We’ve also established very clear rules — and those who break them know very clearly that there will be consequences. I think it’s very important to always deal openly and fairly with one another so that everyone knows exactly where he stands.

Our drivers have also accepted that Gary Paffett is the team captain. That too is an important issue. I think there’s no other team in motorsports that has a leader of the pack the way we do. But our team said,

“Hey, we’d like to have a leader of the pack, and Gary would be the right man for that.”

That’s the sign of a good team, and it will help us this year.

In parting, a surprise package

As far as our racing performance on the individual circuits is concerned, it’s always hard to judge before the start of the season. We’ve got a new kind of uniform aerodynamics that corresponds to what Audi and BMW also have under the design line. It’s ultimately all about marrying the individual design of the car to the uniform aerodynamics and finding a good setup.

And it’s all about understanding the car. That’s all the more difficult now because the additional suspension element that stabilizes the car and keeps it in aerodynamic balance has been banned, starting this year. These two components, suspension/shock absorption combined with aerodynamics, are key elements that determine the car’s performance on the track. How does it deal with bumps in the track? How does it behave in special curve combinations? In the end, our car might drive superbly, but another car may simply drive better. That makes it difficult to relativize.

These factors also help to make the DTM such an intensely contested racing series. But it’s also obvious that we want to bring the title back to Stuttgart with us in our final season. The first step is to make sure we’re competitive. And I think that if we miss the championship by three or four points in the final race we can still drive away from Hockenheim with our heads held high.

Ulrich Fritz is the leader of the Mercedes-AMG Motorsport DTM team. In the field of customer sports, he has won more than 110 victories and 16 titles in over 22 racing series on five continents. In the DTM he won the driver and team championship in 2015 together with Pascal Wehrlein and the gooix/genuine parts Mercedes-AMG.