The DTM went through a lot of trouble to reinvent itself after its near-collapse during the final years of the Class One ruleset. It seemingly worked too – attracting new manufacturers, some top international sportscar teams, driving talent from various series and disciplines.
Even the almighty Red Bull dipped its toe in the water, teaming up with top GT squad AF Corse to enter two cars for its exiled F1 star Alex Albon and junior protege Liam Lawson.
But it will be the latter that is going to look back on the conclusion of his maiden and possibly last season in the series with an undoubtedly sour aftertaste after the series produced one of the most controversial season finales in its history.
Coming in, the stage was set for what on paper seemed like an extremely exciting championship decider: Lawson with the points lead ahead of fellow rookie Kelvin van der Linde, while Maximilian Götz was the Norisring home hero with an outside chance at the title. That chance grew even greater with a dominant and well-deserved win on Saturday, leaving the way clear for a memorable three-way fight on Sunday.
Instead, very few will look back on the conclusion of DTM’s first season of its new era with positive memories thanks to a combination of extremely questionable driving, even more questionable steward decisions and a championship decision that felt more manufactured than organic.
The controversy began with Kelvin van der Linde’s ill-advised overtake attempt at the very first corner of the race. The South African had already attempted something identical the day before and nearly ended up in the wall, but a day later he went for the exact same move.
This time, however, he cut the first corner completely and rammed Lawson off the road. For the Red Bull junior, his race was over before he had even navigated a single corner, as the impact damaged the steering on his Ferrari. The team opted to not retire Lawson, instead leaving him crawling around at slow pace as his title hopes hung by a thread.
Van der Linde’s overly aggressive attack on the opening lap of a 55-minute contest left many baffled. Yes, the Audi driver needed a victory to even have a chance of wrestling the championship away from Lawson. But even under those odds torpedoing your championship rival at the very first corner reeked of desperation, to put it mildly.
Van der Linde escaped unharmed and into third place, but surely race control would not see the funny side and throw the book at the young star. Even if it was not deliberate, which in all honesty it probably was not, taking out the points leader at the first corner of the final round with a reckless move typically isn’t much appreciated by stewards.
Instead, spectators were left baffled again as Van der Linde was only served a meager five second penalty for leaving the track. No further punishment was handed down, meaning that the collision with Lawson – running a championship contender off the track, let’s not forget – went completely unpunished.
It’s apples and oranges, but the punishment that Van der Linde received for a widely and rightly criticised move was only half what Lewis Hamilton received for the colllision with Max Verstappen at the British Grand Prix. Some will even still argue that that was a racing incident. The collision between Van der Linde and Lawson was anything but, making five seconds seem like a laughably mild penalty for the infringement.
Van der Linde, logically sensing an opportunity now that Lawson had been reduced to a moving roadblock, stayed aggressive throughout but fate ultimately caught up with him when a sideways swipe at Götz left him spinning out with a puncture.
With Van der Linde out of the way and Götz seemingly not able to get to the leading pair of Lucas Auer and Philip Ellis, Lawson seemed to cling on to the championship. That arguably would have been the right outcome to Sunday’s decider.
Not just in the context of Van der Linde’s turn one antics, but also because it would have been deserved given Lawson’s consistent and impressive rookie season. The title was Lawson’s to lose, even if two consecutive pole positions at the Norisring had seen him divebombed at turn one twice.
Mercedes, however, had a different idea. Götz had Daniel Juncadella behind acting as a rear gunner, but the two drivers ahead – Auer and Ellis – also had the three-pointed star on the front of their cars, much like Götz. And so Ellis and Auer slowed down significantly in the closing stages, allowing Götz through.
It was a turn of events that gave yours truly a sinking gut feeling, coupled with feelings of ‘is it really coming down to this?’
As it turned out, it did. Götz took the win and the title from a completely devastated Lawson, who logically wanted absolutely nothing to do with the celebrations afterwards. The young New Zealander begrudgingly made his way to the podium to receive his trophy for second place in the standings, but declined to participate in further celebrations as Götz and Van der Linde sprayed the champagne.
Of course, team orders in motorsport are a common occurrence in a sport where the stakes are this high for teams and manufacturers. It’s been controversial in the past and DTM has had its fair share of cases of it.
And yes, Liam Lawson had team-mate Nick Cassidy in the other Ferrari trying his absolute hardest to keep Lawson’s title hopes from falling to pieces. But he was left on his own against the combined might of three Mercedes drivers in Juncadella, Auer and Ellis. A man can only do so much.
It’s also not to say that Götz was completely undeserving of the crown. Based on his extremely consistent performance throughout the season (only failing to score points in a single race) the German would have been a deserving champion had he won the race under his own strenghts. The German is a well-liked presence in the paddock and a fast and talented racing driver and there are few that would say otherwise.
In a true, one-on-one fight, both Götz and Lawson would have been more than deserving of winning the title. But this outcome, with Mercedes rolling out the red carpet while Lawson is left in ruins with broken steering, leaves many with a sore aftertaste, and rightly so.
DTM’s GT3 era had earned praise for its high caliber of competition and extremely tense title race between three strong championship contenders. Justifiably, I might add. The series looked like it had successfully reinvented itself and won back a lot of hearts and minds. But with one disastrous afternoon in Nuremberg, it’s thrown a lot of that away.