Broadening Horizons: Maro Engel Speaks To The Checkered Flag

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Maro Engel competed for Mercedes in the 2011 DTM (Photo Credit: DTM media)

Maro Engel competed for Mercedes in the 2011 DTM (Photo Credit: DTM media)

Germany has always been a hotbed of racing talent.  Pre-war legends Bernd Rosemeyer and Rudolf Caracciola were the only men to hold a candle to Tazio Nuvolari, whilst Count Wolfgang von Trips was among the best of his generation and destined to win the 1961 world championship before his premature death in the season finale. And then of course, there is Michael Schumacher, whose record of seven titles is a tally unlikely ever to be beaten, and Sebastian Vettel,Germany's new prodigal son.

With so many success stories emanating from Germany, it is sometimes easy to look beyond those who are equally talented, but whom circumstances have prevented from fully demonstrating their capabilities.  One such case is that of Maro Engel, whose four year foray into the DTM was hamstrung with elderly machinery. But still aged just 26, the AMG Ambassador has plenty of time on his side to create a legacy of his own.

There is quite a chance that I'll be doing some GT1 this year,” Engel says. “Nothing is official or clear at the moment, but I think it might well be that I do something close to 10 races, as many as the DTM really. The GT1 World Championship is very interesting to me and the Spa 24 hours also.  Doing the odd VLN race to get a feel what it's like to race on the old Nordschleife with the SLS is in my sights and even a little endurance racing, maybe the Blancpain series for example. 

I just want to broaden my horizons as a race driver because for now I've only done sprint races, so doing some longer distance races – as well as the sprint races, which I know I'm already good at – is the plan for this year.”

Engel's relationship with Mercedes began back in 2006 as a fresh-faced 21 year old in his first season of British Formula 3.  Running with Carlin, Engel was the year's surprise package and came away with a win at Spa and fifth in points, against the likes of Mike Conway and Bruno Senna.

“I had a pretty good first year in British F3 without having known any of the tracks,” Engel remembers. “It was a culture shock at the beginning because the British circuits I would say have a lot more character; there isn't as much run-off as the European F1 tracks. You know, at my first test at Mondello Park, I thought 'what are we doing here testing at a go-kart track?'”

“It was a good experience and after a strong first year, where probably nobody would have bet anything on me, we ended up fifth in the championship and were in contention for runner up until 1 or 2 races from the end.  It was a good year for me: Mercedes approached me about an opportunity to sign a contract and join the junior programme.”

Staying with Carlin for a second year, Engel won four times and comfortably finished runner-up behind the experienced Estonian Marko Asmer.

We did 2007 together as part of their junior programme, and I was then invited to do the DTM test at the end of the year.  Funnily enough, Marko Asmer was one of the other guys there and I managed to run quicker than him and leave the right impression with the people at Mercedes. And even though I lost the championship to him, I managed to get the DTM seat.”

Maro Engel, 2007 British F3 Championship (Photo Credit: SRO)

Engel's drive in the Mercedes powered F3 car opened the door to DTM with the manufacturer (Photo Credit: SRO)

Engel's graduation to the DTM with a year-old car ran by Mücke Motorsport in 2008 didn't exactly go to plan. Being taken out whilst running strongly at Oschersleben by the out-of-control Audi of Tom Kristensen typified a frustrating year, but 2009 was better, as Engel finished in the points on four separate occasions to comprehensively out-score team-mate Mathias Lauda.  Joined by 13 times grand prix winner David Coulthard in 2010, Engel once again beat his team-mate, a feat he repeated in 2011.  Having done just about all he could do in the older-cars to justify inclusion into the crack HWA squad for 2012 after Bruno Spengler's switch to BMW, Engel was instead overlooked in favour of Christian Vietoris, another man to have been beaten by Engel in 2011.

I think I did a great job in the machinery I had,” Engel says. “I've had very experienced team-mates in my career, like David and Mathias Lauda and I beat them quite clearly! So from that point of view I look to those four years as having learned a lot. I feel I am, or was ready to prove it in better machinery, but now my path has taken me in a little bit of a different way.

I wouldn't say I was disappointed; I mean at the end of the day, it is the decision that has been made, and I wish the whole team the best of luck. I keep my eyes on it, I follow it and if one day the right opportunity arises then maybe I'll be back.”

Rather than loosing any sleep about his exit from the DTM, Engel is relishing the challenge of his new role at AMG, which contrasts greatly from the sheltered-lifestyle of your average DTM driver.

Being a brand ambassador for AMG is a lot more complex,” Engel says. “There is much more to it than previously when I was mainly driving at the DTM weekends and doing a few PR appearances here and there.

There still remains the driving part, which is obviously what I love to do and what I do best, racing in the SLS which is great.  I've just been watching the 24 Hours at the Nurburgring, which is something I have my eyes on for next year.  But that's where it then becomes more complex; there's development for the road cars, which is great, really a lot of fun, and especially in a brand like AMG, because they are such nice cars.

There's racing, there's the AMG driving academy, the development of the road cars and the SLS GT3 which races around the world. There are quite a lot of PR appearances and press appearances where new cars are presented and so on, so it's very complex.  Even with things like the AMG driving academy, it's very fun taking clients out to Sweden, putting spikes on AMG cars and drifting around the circuits there which are made into the snow.  I'll be very busy!”

One of the perks of the job is spending time with the legendary Bernd Schneider, who won the German Touring Car Championship a record five times.  Since his retirement from racing in 2008, Schneider's wealth of advice has been a great asset to his younger counterpart in Engel's ongoing drive to become a better racing driver.

“It’s funny, I've know Bernd for a long time; we raced together in DTM 1 year [2008] but much earlier really.  Back when I started karting, he was the one who put up the cones and told me this is where you need to brake, this is where you need to turn in and so on. It goes back a long time, so it's great to work alongside him and support him in his role. At the end of the day we share the work-load.”

2012 marks a new start for Engel, especially since his diagnosis last year with Myocarditis, the inflammation of the heart muscle.

“It was a bit of a shock when I found out what I had; all I could feel was that I was extremely tired and needed to rest a lot, which was a nuisance especially in between races at the end of last year,” says the German, who is now fully recovered. “But whether it actually affected my race performances?  Most likely a little bit, but it's hard to quantify. Surely when you are 100% fit you are in a better state to deliver a 100% performance.

Recovery has been absolutely fantastic. My fitness level is as good, or better, than it has ever been actually. I'm feeling fit, and well.  It just makes you realise how important health is.

Maro Engel, DTM 2011 (Photo Credit: DTM Media)

"I have no regrets." The 26-year-old reflects on moving from single-seaters to DTM (Photo Credit: DTM Media)

Whilst Engel is yet to attain the heights of the Vettel's of this world, he is sure that in accepting the offer to join Mercedes, he made a wise move. While F1 remains the romantic dream for many a young driver, more and more are quickly beginning to realise that it is just that.  In 2012, Robert Wickens and Roberto Merhi chose to follow Engel in postponing their promising single-seater careers in favour of factory rides in the DTM, and more, such as Felix Rosenqvist and Daniel Juncadella, seem set to follow.

I have no regrets,” Engel says with absolute conviction. “At the end of the day, GP2 can be an option after Formula 3, but if you have the opportunity to accept a works drive from a manufacturer, especially one like Mercedes-Benz, then I think you'd be crazy to turn it down. Especially in hard times [economically] because GP2 requires a very big budget, and going into a season with uncertainty as to whether you can raise a full budget, as opposed to racing for Mercedes-Benz…

For sure the DTM is a great championship and it was already in the past four years when I raced there at an immensely high level.  Now, with the return of BMW, I think the series has gained an even higher profile, and the cars are mega, so for sure it's something I keep my eye on and I'm open to a return in the future. 

“But having said that, at the moment I am fully focused on AMG, because this year at least there isn't that much spare time!”

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James joined The TCF team in January 2012 as the sites NASCAR news and features writer. Follow him on Twitter @james_newbold
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