DTM, GT3 and the Slow Death of European Motorsport

On Saturday the 21st August the seventh round of the 2021 DTM season was taking place at the world-famous Nürburgring in its Sprintstrecke variation. The championship battle in the best German motorsport series intensified, and coming off of an impressive victory, DTM legend Marco Wittmann was launched back into the realms of contenders; there was absolutely no reason to miss this exciting thriller.

Yet, the author went ahead and recorded the first episode of the Teammate Collision podcast at the very same time the race was on and did not rewatch it. Now, it would be easy to just assume the podcast was more important or that the schedule overlap was noted too late, but that is not the case.

There simply was no interest.

Audi R8 LMS #3 (Team ABT Sportsline), Kelvin van der Linde

Audi R8 LMS #3 (Team ABT Sportsline), Kelvin van der Linde

Though what is the point of noting all of this? It is not like reduced interest in a sport is anything to stop the presses over. Anyone has points where the sports they like either temporarily or permanently lose their appeal, so why would that be worth a column?

Well, the GT3 shift that directly lessened the appeal of DTM represents a general and severe problem in European motorsport: the death of the unique.

Before analysing why the GT3 shift proved harmful for DTM, a quick history lesson on DTM and the factors that led to said shift is helpful. After the original Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft became the International Touring Car Championship in 1995, rising costs and a loss of audience interest quickly proved the series untenable and the series dissolved after Alfa Romeo and Opel withdrew. However, Opel soon worked on creating a new series that would translate the impressive performance of the old cars to a new, much more financially bearable, platform. Thus, in 2000, the new DTM was born with Mercedes-Benz and Opel competing with works outfits and Audi privateers joining in on the fun.

Audi would join with a full works effort during the same season Opel denounced their departure in 2004. The series carried on with two manufacturers through some tough years, including a scandalous race at Barcelona in 2007 in which Audi runners withdrew from the race as they felt Mercedes drivers intentionally punted their cars out of the race.

The series experienced a PR boost when former Formula One race winner Ralf Schumacher joined the field for the 2008 season. This helped DTM weather the storm until BMW arrived in 2012 along with a new set of regulations. Eventually, this led to the creation of the Class One ruleset. Despite Mercedes-Benz demanding turbo engines as part of said regulations, they spelled the end of the DTM as it was known by withdrawing from the series after 2018. Aston Martin’s short-lived but very unsuccessful 2019 entry delayed the inevitable for a year, but after the Covid-affected 2020 season, Audi withdrew as well. With BMW understandably unwilling to run a Class One brand cup, they ended their works involvement as well.

In an attempt to save the series, ITR chairman Gerhard Berger first tried a “GT Plus” concept that would use GT3 cars as a basis and would severely change them to enhance performance and create a spectacle unlike any other GT3 series. With the short notice of that decision, the plan fell apart and the current DTM ruleset is the standard GT3 set, albeit with a different balance of performance. Berger himself seemed to be aware of the need to differentiate himself from the many GT3/GT4 series that are present in Europe.

Bless his heart, Berger tried whatever options were available. Pushing GT3 engine output to the maximum to the point that the Monza races had to be shortened so the cars would not run out of fuel, finally executing the dream of using Turn 1 of the EuroSpeedway Lausitz oval and courting with any and all possible prominent entries (such as the Red Bull-powered AF Corse outfit with Alexander Albon and hopefully soon-to-be Formula One star Liam Lawson) as well as talking to any stars that could help the series (such as claiming to talk to Valentino Rossi about a DTM engagement).

Regrettably, his success has been limited, no matter how the man himself feels about it. The differentiation from the normal GT3 cars is a failed endeavour, given as the current standings have drivers with noticeable GT3 experience at the top, with the only exceptions being aforementioned Marco Wittmann and the two Red Bull youngsters. The Class One drivers that stayed with the series through the switch (e.g. Lucas Auer, Sheldon van der Linde and Timo Glock) are mostly midfielders or backmarkers; given the proven class of DTM drivers, this logically must be a result of lacking experience in the vehicles used, which would not be such a significant factor if the DTM BoP truly had caused relevant change to the GT3 concept.

However, with that in mind, DTM still produced a number of fun races this season (such as the feisty Sunday race at the very same Nürburgring mentioned earlier, as well as the first race at the EuroSpeedway), so the accusation of the title being clickbait looms large. One series losing a bit of its appeal to the author hardly classifies as “the slow death of European motorsport”, now does it?

Sept BThe title will become more understandable once it is understood that this is just the most prominent example of a phenomenon that is going on across Continental Europe. Currently, the European motorsport world is making a point of proving the statement that the stars that burn the brightest burn the fastest. There are only three (technically four) Euro-focussed road circuit series that can be considered unique compared to the other series on the continent: Formula One, FIA Formula E and the NASCAR Euro Whelen series. The author has to concede that Formula 2 technically is unique, but given a lack of a true feature standing out, it is irrelevant to the point at hand. All other series are part of a larger connection of series using the same rulesets: LMP series, F3 series, F4 series, GT2/3/4 series or TCR series.

Of those series, one is already aiming to make itself less unique: given the tightly regulated 2022 chassis, fears of Formula One becoming a store-brand IndyCar series at luxury prices are not completely irrational. Adding mostly street venues (such as in Saudi Arabia) and deliberately using resets such as safety cars and red flags are only enhancing the comparison. As the smaller teams currently on the grid have alliances with larger works teams that cause them to use many parts similar to said works teams, Formula One could in the worst-case scenario resemble the CART series of the 80s with teams running a handful of chassis suppliers. Many fans would not object to that happening, given the high quality of racing of that time, but remember the lessons of DTM to understand why that would be worrisome for Formula One.

One already had to forfeit a number of the concepts of the American series that ratifies it (the Euro NASCAR schedule has not featured any oval tracks in 2020 and 2021 and it is highly unlikely that any will be added into the future) and can only be considered unique because the series it shares its rulebook with races around 8,000 km to the west.

The last one is still making it a focus to emphatically differentiate itself from the competition beyond merely using different propulsion methods. Adding unseen concepts and “gimmicks”, Formula E tries hard to be unique. Regrettably, those methods have a tendency to result in hare-brained approaches that hurt the image of the sport more than emphasise its strengths and make it truly stand out. With major manufacturers dropping out, some pundits are already preparing the eulogies (premature as that is) for Formula E and thus are more than willing to write the possibly last unique European series into the grave.

Proving correct the ideological phrase of “With Europe, but not of it”, comes the situation in Great Britain. The strong motorsport culture still leaves room for more distinct approaches to the sport: the British Touring Car Championship still trucks on with the NGTC concept that other series in Europe have long abandoned and will do so at least until 2026. With a Cosworth-built hybrid system being introduced in 2022, the future of the BTCC looks quite promising. The “free-for-all” Touring Car Trophy also presents an interesting multi-class challenge not seen in European touring car racing since the European Touring Car Cup was supplanted by the TCR Europe Touring Car Series in 2018.

For those still sceptical even despite those facts, there is a further question that must be answered: why does this matter? Even if series were less unique, that would not be a bad thing. After all, as the author himself put it in last month’s column, all sports experience evolution. So why is an evolution towards standardisation a bad thing?

The answer to that is economics: the creation of an oligopoly.

Even with DTM doing their own thing in the GT3 sector, most of European GT and touring car motorsport is currently under direct or indirect control of SRO.

Sept C

This picture shows all series directly organised by SRO, with the European-based series circled blue. Even beyond that, a lot of other European series are more or less indirectly linked to SRO and its fortunes. The aforementioned TCR Europe Touring Car Series is a support event for the GT World Challenge Europe, to name one example.

Even if an assumption is made that the DTM BoP is able to prevent SRO from getting power hungry or corrupt by offering an alternative, there is the simple fact that it is just not viable for car manufacturers who desire the sportive image of GT racing to produce cars to anything but the SRO’s standard.

With that, racing across the continent becomes more alike with only the names and the venues changing. Even the change of names is only limited by the scales of time and interest. If, say, Luca Stolz (who already is competing in four GT series as it is) wanted to add the French and British GT Championships to his schedule and there were no schedule conflicts, what would stop him from being a top driver there? A lack of track knowledge, mostly, but that would be a problem for a half-season at most (given as many national GT championships use some tracks already visited by the international GT series).

So with similar cars driven by similar “stars” driven on similar tracks, what reason is there to watch any one series in particular? Given that SRO liberally showcases its content on Youtube, there is basically no limit to the GT content any European fan can watch. The author himself has started following the Championnat de France FFSA Tourisme with one quarter of his eye (and will not permit any slander of Steven Palette, the most legit name in French motorsport right now).

This logically reduces attachment to one’s local series (especially if there are no race tracks in one’s immediate vicinity) and leaves those that are not directly part of SRO’s platforms struggling to really stand out (such as the ADAC GT Masters, which has a reliable TV audience in Germany, but one that cannot compare to the ratings drawn by Formula E and DTM under the Class One rules). This of course forces more standardisation and more pay drivers, resulting in a lower quality product. This in turn makes it unappealing for marquees to do more than slap together a package for the GT subdivisions and focus on non-motorsport marketing.

Such problems do not exist at such a level in other parts of the world, where unique tin-top motorsport concepts do struggle, but not to the extent they do in Europe. NASCAR suffers from a noticeable lack of popularity compared to its heyday, but those wounds are very much self-inflicted and not a direct result of manufacturers abandoning the sports to leave it to fend for itself. The Japanese Super GT series is doing well: the manufacturers are committed to a long-term future of GT500. While it is in a bit of a holding situation with the topic of sustainability looming over it (as it does for pretty much all of ICU-powered motorsport), there is no reason to worry about it. V8 Supercars went through a crisis, but at least the Gen3 rules and Chevrolet’s entry have provided some optimism for the future.

Of course SRO and TCR are strong around the globe, and there is the GT World Challenge in America, Asia and Australia after all. Their presence alone is not a problem. Only the situation in Europe, where it is the sole force in GT/touring car sport, is most concerning.

The question now is: what can be done about this situation?

The answer: honestly, not much.

Re-establishing unique concepts would require at least one of three things: dedicated manufacturer interest, an investor with more money than sense or a concentrated effort by the FIA. The last one is DOA, at least as long as Jean Todt has anything to say or, heaven forbid, his successor follows his mindset. Any billionaires with passion for motorsport currently are more occupied with getting their children into Formula One or keeping them there than revolutionising racing. Manufacturers currently chase the marketing cloud of sustainability by either taking part in novelty events while making a quick buck on selling GT cars to gentlemen drivers, or abandoning motorsport programs as a whole (or, in the case of the Volkswagen AG, jumping from race series to race series with what seems to be no coherent rhyme or reason).

One small hope beyond could be found in grassroots motorsports bringing to life a unique concept worth following. However, since a) it would require a novelty gimmick to attract attention of larger investment that would cause most motorsport purists to dismiss it outright, immediately reducing potential for growth, and b) car culture as a whole is dying as urbanisation reduces the need for car ownership, causing club racing to just outright disappear, that is not a particularly worthwhile bet.

Sept DThere still is one last trump card: the neo-futuristic approach. One such example is seen in DTM, who have been working on an electrical concept study for a while now and have announced a DTM Electric series for the future. Said concept has now developed a prototype that recently drove a fully autonomous lap around the Red Bull Ring. This is a high-risk, high-reward investment in conceptual technology to provide a breakthrough in regards to unique motorsport experiences. The risks are three-fold: the technology could provide little motorsport appeal (Roborace is so far mostly drawing bemused reactions by motorsport’s faithful, with its first season in 2022 not drawing any noteworthy hype), the conservative minds at the top of motorsport could underestimate their value (Berger, for example, has made no statement on whether DTM Electric will be a gimmick to pad out race weekends or a vision for the future of the “proper” DTM (though that could be a strategic decision)), or developments could be so slow that conventional motorsport will immediately use the concept itself and thus again remove the unique feature (such was the case with hybrid engines, to name a recent example).

The author hopes the risk yields some worthwhile racing rewards and/or that the concerns about Formula One’s future direction are overblown.

Otherwise, well … European motorsport, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.

Sources: carsguide.com.au, hotcars.com, motorsport-total.com. Motorsport Magazine, Quotenmeter, Racingblog, SRO, Wikipedia

Image sources: Audi (HOCH ZWEI), Jaguar Racing, Roborace, sro-motorsports.com (screenshot)