From the wonderful Donington Revived! event, it was a quiet cruise down the M1 and clockwise around the M25 to glamorous Thurrock and a night in the shadow on the Dartford Bridge in preparation for a day of motor racing of an entirely different kind. One of the world’s most exciting championships was making its annual foray to UK shores: The Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters. Sunday morning, and despite the Premier Inn’s most calorific breakfast, it was in jaunty spirits that we approached Brands Hatch to enjoy the spectacle of fire breathing V8 monsters from Germany attacking the Indy Circuit.
The DTM is incredibly important to its two participants – Mercedes Benz and Audi – and they throw an enormous amount of money at the championship, as well as providing engines to the F3 Euro Series which runs in support. With a smattering of star names and powerful, noisy saloon cars, it is well worth the annual trip south to revel in the intensity.
The morning pit lane walk-about sees all the cars and a few of the drivers proudly on display for the fortunate pass-holder. While there is a little less openness and fewer autograph opportunities than 1990s BTCC, this is a nice way to get up close and personal with the cars and get a feeling for the tight pit lane at Brands which has to manage the fearsome natural topography. Upon leaving the pit lane we wander the track towards Paddock Hill and the sheer scale of the corner and its gradient necessitates a second look. To think the Champ Cars which thrilled us here in 2003 were knocking on 190mph on the approach…
We took up our positions on the exit of Paddock Hill for morning warm-up, joining a huge crowd in the morning sunshine. Despite the quality of drivers, several made excursions across the edge of the gravel trap on the exit, with the Audi drivers adding much to the spectacle with huge bursts of sparks as they hit the compression before the run up to Druids. It’s easy to forget how quick these cars are – they were absolutely flying.
A walk over the footbridge and to the infield at Druids for the F3 Euro Series encounter. Being periodically patriotic, I was rather hoping to see a strong performance from Alexander Sims, who had walked on water to a mighty win for ART at the FIA GT1 supporting British F3 round earlier in the season. Sadly he was off the pace, coming home eighth. The win went to Antonio Felix da Costa from a small field. Champion-elect Edoardo Mortara did not start, which was something of a disappointment given his phenomenal season. In fact, in recent weeks, he has been signed to race for Audi in the DTM. His is a name we will surely see much more of in years to come.
Moving onto the main event and we adopted a spot on the grass banking between Druids and Graham Hill corners which offered a commanding view of the circuit, though was slightly restricted for photography. The formbook was all about Paul Di Resta who was chasing down long-time championship leader Bruno Spengler. Di Resta was mighty in the DTM’s previous two visits to Brands and, having snatched pole, was favourite for the 2010 race. Behind him, former champion and Brands Hatch race winner Timo Scheider, Gary Paffett and Spengler all fancied their chances. The first corner and another former DTM champion, Mattias Ekstrom, found himself in the gravel on the outside of Paddock Hill. As he limped round, a deranged rear wheel indicated this was to be an early bath for the Swede. At the front and Di Resta made his break, putting in a sequence of stunning early laps which broke the back of the opposition. Spengler trailed in his wake and Paffett, also a title contender, had no answer for the pace at the front.
As the laps were reeled off – all 98 of them – it was apparent that we were witnessing a particularly virtuoso performance from Di Resta and his graduation to Formula One with Force India is no surprise. The big mover in the race was Miguel Molina. An unknown to me until this season, he was consistently quick in his two year old Audi and eventually rose to a fine fourth place, demoting Paffett. Also on good form was the evergreen David Coulthard, who seems to be enjoying his second career in the Mercedes Benz camp more than his old sparring partner Michael Schumacher in M-B’s Grand Prix team. He remains a crowd favourite and his progress in the DTM will be monitored with interest. 98 laps of ultra-loud racing, with the cars lapping in something like 44 seconds is a particularly intense and visceral experience; unusually so in fact. It offers a sensory experience quite unlike any other and cannot be recommended highly enough. While the Indy Circuit with downforce cars doesn’t offer the best theatre for overtaking, this is the might of the German automotive industry flexing its muscles and it’s a wonderful thing to behold. It will only improve in 2012 when BMW returns – seemingly a far better fit for the marque’s image than being beaten in WTCC by diesel SEATs and re-badged Daewoos.
It wasn’t just the heavy-hitters from F3 and DTM wowing the crowds, as a packed race card featured an excellent supporting cast. Also heading over from Germany was their domestic Porsche Carrera championship, employing the same Cup cars as the UK and European championships. The home interest was piqued by the presence of Nick Tandy. Like his late brother, Joe, Nick is a tremendously skilled and determined driver and has had to turn his back on single seater racing and is carving out a terrific niche as a Porsche driver. He was chasing a slim title chance and gave it his all at Brands, winning in style, despite missing half his front splitter. Behind him former DTM racer Uwe Alzen was as combatant as ever in his sinister black machine, but had no response to Tandy’s pace. It was sad to learn that Nick did not nail the title, but it was fun to watch him try.
The Trofeo Abarth has gained something of a reputation in the UK for the cars’ propensity to roll over with alarmingly little provocation. Mercifully they all remained righted at Brands, unlike Silverstone and Oulton Park earlier in the year when chaos ensued. It wasn’t a classic race, and in some respects it’s hard to see what the Abarths add to a crowded one-make market place in British domestic racing. Still, the cars sound great and they make a welcome change to MINIs and Clios.
Having never been fortunate enough to attend the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, I can only hope that we enjoyed something like a representative race from the British Championship. There was a mega scrap for the podium places, with young Josh Hill showing his father Damon’s spirit in battle. Lap-after-lap, the pack came through Paddock Hill with wheels interlocked, helmets twisted to check the opposition. The cars move around constantly and the battle was genuinely thrilling – this is what FFord racing is all about; it was classic stuff. Champion-in-waiting Scott Pye won by less than half a second in a race where the top six were covered by only three seconds. While the racing in the DTM might not be over-burdened with such dicing, FFord never fails.
Into the final race of the day and a treat for the Lotus fan as the Elise Trophy hit the tarmac for its second daily battle. As if unwilling to be shown up by the FFord battle, the Elise drivers went at it hammer and tongs – this was a multi-car brawl of epic proportions. I cannot honestly recall a better motor race in my 20-odd years trackside. Every lap, positions were changing throughout the top ten and it was often impossible to keep up with the leaderboard from second to second. Three abreast across the finish line was the order of the day. It was all looking very respectful until just near the end of the race when suddenly there was contact through Clearways. John LaMaster was pitched into a terrifying series of barrel rolls before his car eventually landed on its wheels. The relief in the crowd was tangible as he walked away unaided. Despite one comprehensively ruined Elise, he can consider himself very fortunate. It was a rather sorry end to such a terrific race which once again highlighted the joy of clubman’s motor racing on the British Isles. Brands was resplendent, and it was with heavy heart that we headed back to the car; another fantastic day trackside.