The unpredictable season that we have seen so far in the DTM has seen one man from Ingolstadt’s finest rise to the top at the half way point, as 2010 Le Mans winner and current points leader, Team Phoenix’s Mike Rockenfeller leads defending champion Bruno Spengler by just two points in the race for the title.
The 29-year-old, who currently resides in Switzerland, is concentrating on the DTM as his main focus, a title he is clearly set on getting his hands on. He has already tasted the highs of victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 2010, before suffering that hefty accident deep into the night the following year behind the wheel of the R18 Ultra on the Mulsanne straight.
“Rocky” took time out of the busy home race for Audi Sport at the famed street track based in Nuremberg, that is almost a stone’s throw from Audi AG’s base in Ingolstadt, to talk to us here at TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk on his pride as a works driver, his adventures going from race to race, as well as what is needed to go for the title.
We asked him first about his choice to elect not to race at Le Mans this season, whether it was an easy one to make, but his focus was clearly paramount, whilst remembering the ups and downs he has had at the iconic 24 hour race: “Le Mans will always be something very special for me, as I have many memories on this race. This includes bad memories as well as very good ones, such as my victory in 2010. But as the DTM is so competitive this year, you have to be fully concentrated on this. I’ve won at Le Mans, but I have not won the DTM championship so far.”
Fellow sportscar veteran and former DTM alumni, Tom Kristensen, aka “Mr. Le Mans,” who has won the prestigious event nine times, was on hand this past weekend to drive the R18 e-tron Quattro around the Norisring track, and Mike showed just how much it meant for the event to take place during a DTM race weekend, especially with his history with Ingolstadt: “I’m proud to be an Audian from the moment I signed my first contract with Audi. Tom is not only a great race driver with huge achievements but also a very nice person.”
Alongside that was the challenge to break the streak that rivals Mercedes-Benz had at the track since 2003, with Laurent Aiello being the last Audi driver to secure the last victory for Ingolstadt on a home track. Rockenfeller’s teammates, Timo Scheider and Mattias Ekstrom, who was stripped of victory after a parc ferme regulation issue after winning this past Sunday, have been the only ones that have been on the podium several times. He said that it was one of the biggest goals that any brand or team wants to achieve: “For an Audi driver it is one of the biggest goals to win in front of a home crowd. Let it be Jamie, Mattias, Timo or me: It’s only important to see the four rings in front.”
The topics that have come under discussion, the Hankook option tyres and DRS, are a change that needed to inject some form of excitement into the series. We asked him his thoughts about these new changes, along with the optimization of the cars themselves, and how it has affected the way the racing has become more exciting: “You may think that the new rules help the experienced drivers more than the rookies. But the qualifying results proved us to be wrong with that. The good thing is: Your weekend is not over when you experience a bad Saturday. That is good news for both drivers and fans.”
The Norisring is an uncompromising track, with its high-speed straights and heavy braking zones, where Rockenfeller said, “the smallest mistake can push you out.” This was true of events at the weekend, as several drivers, including Edoardo Mortara, Martin Tomczyk and title contender Gary Paffett, found out the hard way, irrespective of whose fault it was at the time. But as ever, the consummate professional is still remaining the focus to keep him in “the zone,” as well as making sure that it is the same routine, every time a race weekend comes around: “The approach of a race weekend is always the same: Try to work perfectly with the team from the very first practice session, do some good laps in qualifying, make a good start and no mistakes in the race. It doesn’t matter if your are the points leader or not.”
During the first part of the season, Rockenfeller had a very busy weekend from the moment the DTM was competing “auf die Insel,” at Brands Hatch for race 2 of the championship. This was because he, along with Tomczyk and Augusto Farfus, headed off to the infamous Nordschleife on the Pentecostal weekend, where he would be taking his turn behind the wheel of Phoenix Racing’s Audi R8 LMS.
It was full-throttle for the driver, having won the lap marathon at the Kent track, before jetting off straight after the press conference to the Nurburgring. The team, who were the defending champions, finished the tough-as-nails event placing 5th overall in treacherous conditions, but Rockenfeller took it all in his stride as usual: “It didn’t stress me at all, but was a lot of fun. I was doing both races for the Phoenix team. Together with Audi they organized the trip perfectly. Concerning the Nurburgring race: It may be an endurance race, but in these days, it’s a sprint race at the same time. The aim is the same: zero mistakes from start to finish.”
Our final question to the series leader was about the new additions joining the great depth of talent that populates the DTM this year, and said that it is a case of an open championship this year, with all the changes that the DMSB has brought in as well: “It was no big surprise that Timo Glock did very well during the first races. But also the young guns at Mercedes get used to the DTM very quickly. But everybody knows: Who ever competes in DTM is able to win races.”
The battle is still raging on, as the series heads to Moscow Speedway for the very first time during the first week of August, but “Rocky” is there to fight hard, fight fair and finish first. TCF wishes this driver all the very best in his bid to become “DTM-Meister,” and thank Mike for speaking to us. When it is all said and done, and all the dust settles after the final race at Hockenheim this coming October, the question “Who is next?” will finally be answered.