In what is now his tenth season of competing for Mercedes-Benz in the DTM, Britain’s Gary Paffett looks ahead to a fierce season of action around the 10 race calendar, fighting with 21 other drivers, who all look to take the “1” off depending champion, Bruno Spengler, who has now become the hunted in his second year with BMW Motorsport.
He may have been the man to beat early on in 2012, but his title hopes were dashed by two notable incidents, which were the first corner accident at the Norisring, as well as being slammed into by 2011 champion Martin Tomczyk at Zandvoort. This meant that the long-standing Vodafone McLaren Mercedes test driver had to fight down to the wire, and lost out to the Canadian by just 3 points after a hard season of racing.
But 2013 sees a new fresh start for all, as the 22 drivers go into a season where the regulations are very much the same, with optimization being key, along with DRS and option tyres from Hankook bringing in a new dynamic for all concerned. We managed to grab a few moments with Gary himself earlier this year for a brief chat with TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk, as the Autosport International Show at the NEC in Birmingham officially kicked off the 2013 racing calendar.
We first started discussing last year, with Gary saying that having the new “DTM-Era” was bringing a sense of the unknown into the series, with everyone unsure of just what would happen with the new cars, but things fell into place rather quickly: “Both Jamie (Green) and myself finished a comfortable 1-2 in the first race of the season, which was an incredible way to start the season, as it flattered us by other people having poor races, which showed us that we clearly had a good car from the start.
“I had a great first four races, getting four podium finishes, including a second place and 2 wins, so I’d built up a great lead in the championship. The pace of the car for the whole year was really good, but BMW got more competitive, as well as closer towards the end of the season.”
Paffett’s chance to stake his claim to the title was still there, as he was the only driver that was in a competitive car for Mercedes that season, but it all got more difficult for the Suffolk-based driver, especially when two or three BMW M3 DTMs were thrown in for good measure. He also mentioned about the two accidents that somewhat put the brakes on his run of success last year, before his dream was finally shattered: “Half way through, it seemed as though the title would have been wrapped up within a couple of races, but it ended going down to the last race, and unfortunately, I got pipped to the title by Bruno on the last race. However, it was a great year for me in comparison with what happened to me in 2011. It was a shame that we didn’t clinch the championship, but we did get very close, which showed what we can do.”
However, he is very hopeful of what 2013 will bring, and is looking forward to giving both BMW and Audi a good fight as per usual, but he said that Audi will come back from last season a lot stronger: “I imagine that Audi will be a lot stronger this season, as they had a couple of good races last year, but were too inconsistent. They aren’t stupid, and will have sorted out their problems, to ensure that they come back fighting. I expect 2013 to be a really close year, and hopefully, we’ll be fighting at the front again.”
This season has seen a major change at the top of the management board for Mercedes-Benz, as Toto Wolff took the reigns as Head of Motorsport for Stuttgart, which was shortly announced after Norbert Haug announced that he was relinquishing the role he had for the last 22 years, and was stepping down. Gary said that he was a big help in his career, as Haug was instrumental in getting him in the DTM, as well as securing the full time test driver role at McLaren. The Brit was incredibly complimentary of his former mentor, and spoke nothing bad about his former boss: “He has been a big part of my development into top-flight motorsport all the way through my career in F1 and DTM, been a great supporter of mine and has backed me the whole way. He has helped me out enormously, and the guy is just so passionate about motorsport, as well as having that passion to succeed.
“It is a real shame to see him leave Mercedes-Benz, you know, but Mercedes will still be very strong and be a big supporter of motorsport, but it will be different without Norbert there. I’ve built up a great friendship with Norbert over the years, and I know he’ll always be at the other end of the phone.”
With the fact that Gary, Jamie and Andy Priaulx are each representing one of the three brands in the DTM this season, so it was only fitting to ask the 2005 champion his thoughts on how his fellow countrymen would fare this coming season. He firstly said that Andy didn’t have such a good first season in the DTM, and clearly wasn’t fighting at the front, but had a lot to say about his former teammate Green, who wasn’t that far behind him last year, but has jumped ship to Ingolstadt, after a long association with the “Three-Pointed Star.”
“It will be interesting how Jamie gets on, because he was just behind me at Mercedes, having some good results, including his annual win at the Norisring (laughs). Audi may have just signed him to win at the Norisring, as he seems to have won that race more than anywhere else. Jamie is going up against a lot of experienced drivers at Audi, so he’s got a lot to prove there I think. It would have probably been easier for him to have a better season at Mercedes, mainly because we haven’t got that many experienced drivers at the moment, as there are a lot of young guys who are really looking good.
“As with experienced drivers, there is just myself who has been front running recently, whereas at Audi, you’ve got Mattias Ekstrom, Mike Rockenfeller, Edoardo Mortara and Timo Scheider obviously, who in recent years hasn’t been as consistent, but still won the championship twice. So Jamie has got a lot of competition in his own team now, and it looks interesting as to how he gets on.”
BMW will also be upping their game for 2013, with the addition of another team, as Mercedes-Benz have said their goodbyes to Susie Wolff, David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher, meaning an aggressive strategy that has been employed by Toto for this year, as Mercedes now have the lowest number of cars on the grid. Gary said that it gets harder every year, especially with BMW upping the ante, and this is why it turns out to be such a competitive series.
It was just a few weeks from the reveal of the new Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-28, which took place at the MTC in Woking, even with the build-up stating that it would be from an “undisclosed location,” so it was only natural to talk about how developments had progressed, as well as how Mexican driver Sergio Perez was fitting in. He was quick to point out that the cars were ‘evolutions’ of what the 2012 vehicles were, as the regulations were in more of a stop-gap, before 2014 really sees an immense change: “It’s really easy to relate to lap times and things we can see, so it is really good to know. Everyone is already estimating where they’re going to be in relation to how much downforce they will need to generate before the first race and hopefully we’ll meet those targets and go above them.
He also said that Sergio has some pretty big shoes to fill, especially as Mercedes AMG Petronas driver Lewis Hamilton had been a big part of the team since 2007, which had given the team some assurance of stability for a few years: “With him leaving, it leaves a big hole for Sergio to fill. He’s quite young and still rather inexperienced, and will have to learn pretty quickly, as being at McLaren, you’re expected to do well. “
“I’ve worked with him quite a bit already in the simulator and everything else, he’s really keen to learn and fit in with the team to try and do everything he can to run at the front, so he’s got the right attitude about it, and I hope he can be running at the front from the start and have a pretty good year.”
So, it all comes down to the final days, hours and minutes, before Gary climbs aboard his EURONICS C-Class AMG Coupe at the legendary Hockenheim track in just 7 days, and gets back down to business. He’ll be spearheading the Stuttgart attack on the title front, and looks to depose BMW, Team Schnitzer and Bruno Spengler from their respective thrones, as the “comeback” kings are now the targets for all to aspire to, as well as to usurp… We’ll find out just how he gets on, as TCF continues its coverage of the DTM in 2013.
We wish Gary all the best for the coming season, and thank both him and Jo at 2MB Sports Management for agreeing to this interview, and look forward to catching up with him later in the year, as he drives his V8-powered beast in anger, hopeful of achieving title glory once again.