My 18 years of DTM: Highlights, lowlights and friction points

Things couldn’t have gone better for us: On the last weekend of the racing season, we brought the Triple Crown back with us to Stuttgart — and that was a very fitting way to say farewell to the DTM. I still feel extremely moved by this very special finale of the season in Hockenheim.

Of course a four-point lead was ultimately not a gigantic lead for Gary Paffett — but we had already gained the manufacturer’s and team championships early on. The drivers’ championship is now the icing on the cake, the last thing we needed to top things off. I also like the way that Gary asserted himself.

When he’s driving, he’s always extremely aggressive and he gets very emotional. That’s how it has to be, there’s no other way it can work. But as soon as the race is over, he’s rational again and he tells us technicians what we have to do. Besides, he’s an outstanding test driver. I really have a good connection with Gary.

My personal experiences over 18 years in the DTM

The drivers and we technicians really live in two different worlds — but we belong together, inseparably. I’ve been a member of the motor racing team at HWA since 1998. I’ve occupied several positions in which I was responsible for the DTM vehicles from Mercedes — first in the chassis area, then as the head of design, and now as the head of development.

I can think of several moments in which one of the race car drivers helped me get out of a tough situation. After all, in the end it’s very simple: If none of your cars ends up in one of the top positions, the car is bad. But if four cars end up last and one of them ends up in first place, the car is good. In that case, one of the drivers has shown that the car is working well.

The relationship between technicians and drivers: very special

That’s why I’ve always been especially impressed by drivers who get the most out of what they’ve been given. Take for example Pascal Wehrlein in 2015. My hat’s still off to him because of the way he won the DTM championship in spite of difficult circumstances.

And Bernd Schneider, who in my opinion is one of the best drivers we’ve ever had, always gave it his best effort and maintained his typical basic speed — almost regardless of how far we had gotten with our setup. Even if Bernd wasn’t completely satisfied with our car, he was always fast. And of course the way Gary Paffett won for us this year was also fantastic!

Bernd Schneider, hier beim DTM-Lauf in Barcelona auf Vodafone AMG-Mercedes C Klasse, wird 2006 zum fünften Mal DTM-Champion

Bernd Schneider, hier beim DTM-Lauf in Barcelona auf Vodafone AMG-Mercedes C Klasse, wird 2006 zum fünften Mal DTM-Champion

Jean Alesi and Ralf Schumacher

As an engineer, technician or mechanic, you collaborate very closely with the drivers. Each side depends on the other in order to be successful. Sometimes the only thing that can help you is unsparing honesty. When Jean Alesi started racing in the DTM in 2002, initially he was not especially successful. Many former Formula 1 drivers need some time to get used to the touring cars. That’s the way it was with Jean.

On the Lausitzring in 2003, I went to him and told him, as his data engineer, that he had to change his driving style if he wanted to be successful. He went through the roof! Jean Alesi was normally as gentle as a lamb, but as soon as he climbed into a racing car he became an untamable beast of prey. So he screamed at me, to the effect that he had driven in 201 Formula 1 races and everyone had constantly told him he had to change his driving style. But he hadn’t done that in the Formula 1 and he wouldn’t do it now, he roared. Whereupon I answered, “Yes, Jean, but you won only one of those 201 races.” He looked at me, laughed, and said, “Yes, you’re right!”

Switching to the DTM from the Formula 1 wasn’t easy for Ralf Schumacher either. In the beginning he was not on pace, and he couldn’t understand why. Ralf, like Jean, was good with the brake and had incredible control of the car. All of the Formula 1 drivers I got to know had those skills. But in a DTM car you need a more sensitive touch when you’re taking a curve or changing direction.

In 2010, we arrived at the Norisring on a Friday evening and I said to him, “Ralf, this is your track. It only has four curves.” He knew right away what I meant, and he said, “You’re right, this is my track.” The next day he really did take the pole position – I think it was the only time he did that on the Norisring. Unfortunately, he blew the race due to his own fault, with a false start.

Rauchsilberner Feuerwagen: Ralf Schumachers Trilux AMG Mercedes C-Klasse in der DTM-Saison 2009

Rauchsilberner Feuerwagen: Ralf Schumachers Trilux AMG Mercedes C-Klasse in der DTM-Saison 2009.

The lost championship and the Mercedes Ring

I don’t have to tell you that things don’t always run smoothly in motorsports. I’m thinking of the year 2012, our first racing season with the new DTM cars. We’d been in the lead for the championship all year — until the last weekend of the racing season. In the last race, Gary Paffett let the championship slide out of his grasp by making a bad start.

This sense of disappointment is a lasting memory, something I’ll never forget. But low points like that one are just as much a part of motorsports as triumphant successes like the one we had this year. They help teams to grow.

The races on the Norisring have always been real highlights for me during my years at the DTM. In fact, at some point we started to call it the Mercedes Ring among ourselves, because our cars were unbeatable on that circuit for years. We’ve also seen some fantastic duels on the Norisring: between Bernd Schneider and Laurent Aïello or Jamie Green, who also ran some splendid races on the Norisring. These are beautiful moments for the spectators — but for me as a technician they go right to the heart. After all, that’s exactly what we love about this sport: those moments when the last touch makes all the difference.

Racing = being on call, even when you’re at home

That’s why I love touring cars. Of course a Formula 1 car drives superbly. Compared to that, a DTM racing car is just slow. But I simply like the racing situations you see during the DTM better than the ones you see at the Formula 1. These situations in the DTM when two cars are driving wheel-to-wheel with contact, or when three cars are coming in to a curve together — it gives me goosebumps every time.

That happens even when I’m watching a race on TV together with my family. In recent years I haven’t gone directly to the racetrack for every single race. All the same, I’ve always been there live! Technology makes it possible: I sit on my sofa at home, but I’m constantly on call. If necessary, I can directly log into the system and communicate with the racing engineers.

The DTM team: addicted, crazy, passionate

The people who work at the DTM are a special kind of human being, and that goes for me as well. All of us, especially at HWA, are somewhat addicted, crazy, and extremely passionate about what we do. We really never give up. The hours just fly past, and often we don’t care how long it takes us to get something done.

In particular, our previous supervisor, Gerhard Ungar, taught us things you can’t learn at any school: never giving up, as well as ways of working that I still benefit from today. For example, when a problem occurs in a car, you often think, “Okay, that’s the solution.” But in most cases the first idea is not the solution. Here’s another phenomenon: When something goes wrong with one car and you don’t make any changes, the same thing will happen to all of the other cars. That means you really have to react to every tiny problem. You aren’t going to get very far if you always think, “Oh, it will all work out somehow!”

Competitors in the daytime, friends in the evening

This passion for motorsports goes right across all the brands. Before BMW reentered the DTM in 2012, we had a really close connection with the Audi colleagues from Abt in particular. During the day we fought each other like lions, but in the evenings we’d get together at Audi or Mercedes.

Norisring Speedweekend, 30.06.2002. Bernd Schneider (Zweiter), Vodafone AMG-Mercedes, kämpft mit Laurent Aiello, Abt-Audi TT-R um die Spitze

Norisring Speedweekend, 30.06.2002. Bernd Schneider (Zweiter), Vodafone AMG-Mercedes, kämpft mit Laurent Aiello, Abt-Audi TT-R um die Spitze

I still remember the time after an Audi victory when we used a forklift to transport all of our beer to a spot in front of the Audi hospitality center. I remember all the parties too. There are so many stories, and it was a really wonderful time. That’s why the farewell video they sent to Mercedes was very moving for all of us.

The arrival of BMW has made the whole series much more professional. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still party together. When Marco Wittmann won the DTM championship in 2016, at some point during the final party that evening we pulled down the Mercedes star from our hospitality center, used a rope to raise it up above the BMW hospitality center, and set it up again. At some point, the security people put a stop to all the fun we were having.

Building cars? It’s similar to having babies!

The process of developing a racing car from scratch is really a bit like being pregnant. I have two children, so I know what I’m talking about. When you start to develop a car, cars are all you can think about day and night — for months at a time. Unfortunately, you seldom have nine months to develop a car. Usually you get much less time. The first time the car is taken out for a run, it’s like watching a child take its first steps.

I can see immediately whether or not the car will work, and I develop a feeling relatively early on as to whether our efforts have been successful. It’s always that way when I see the car running for the first time, even today. By now I’ve had the privilege of building 18 DTM cars, two GT3 cars, one GT4 car, and one V8 Supercar. That has brought many moments that gave me goosebumps.

A new chapter: Formula E

After the race is before the race. From now on I’ll be part of the Formula E series. It’s completely new territory for me. I watched my first Formula E race in London in 2016. During the final race I briefly had the following thought: All of this is weird, somehow. Why can I hear the birds singing? Why can I clearly understand what the announcer’s saying, and why can I conduct a conversation at a normal volume? Where are the noises and smells I’m used to?

I also saw the final race of the 2017 season in Montreal, and I really enjoyed it. You can feel that there’s something like a startup mood. There’s a DJ playing songs in the VIP area, and the spectators are all in a good frame of mind. Besides, I’m convinced that in the cities electric vehicles will own the future. All of us are going to work really hard and integrate a high-performance electric powertrain in the racing cars from Mercedes. It will be an exciting challenge for all of us, me included.

Hubert Hügle worked at HWA for 18 years, first in the chassis area, then as the head of design, and finally as the head of development. He has experienced all of the highs and lows of Mercedes’ participation in the DTM racing series. Now he’s looking forward to a new start in the Formula E series.