Why ‘Class 1’ DTM was too good to be true
In 1995 and 1996 the DTM and ITC had it all: great racing, hi-tech cars, superstar drivers and three willing manufacturers hell-bent on making it the best racing series in the world. These were the halcyon days of state-of-the-art, over-the-top touring car racing.
WHAT WAS IT?
If you had a blank sheet of paper to come up with the ultimate blueprint for a race championship, you wouldn’t go far wrong if you looked back to the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft (DTM), and its world-bashing younger brother, the FIA International Touring Car championship (ITC) from 1995-96.
The DTM was already Germany’s premier national race series, and its popularity was growing in leaps and bounds in the early 1990s. With Class 1 regulations, and three willing and able manufacturers as the lynchpin, the groundwork was in place and by 1994 the big-budget, high-tech fuse was lit and ready for take off.
The racing was fraught, competitive and flame-spitting, with a healthy chunk of hug and kisses contact throughout the field. Kerbs were to be bounced over rather than driven round, titanium floor plans provided F1-style showers of sparks, brakes glowed molten orange, engines roared a beautiful cacophony; it was an unapologetic assault on the senses.
Alfa Romeo, Mercedes and Opel provided 2.5-litre engines which produced around 450bhp with semi-automatic gearboxes (if they chose), active suspension and ABS (also if they chose), all wrapped in a body shape based on a silhouette of a model from within their range. Then the vital ingredients: passion, enthusiasm, and a desire to entertain to a level previously unknown, and you have Class 1 in a nutshell
Manufacturers got behind the DTM and ITC in a big way, all of them providing enormous hospitality possibilities for guests; an open paddock meant that the thousands – make that tens of thousands – of fans at the events could see and meet their heroes.
Spectators were recognised as an important part of the show, with the manufacturers offering discounted tickets to their vast workforces and production line staff to fill the stands and cheer on their personal brand. Supply them with caps, flags and fireworks, and we had a three-way biased party.
The opening and closing rounds (two races in a day as well to keep the fans happy) were held by tradition at Hockenheim in Germany, the stadium section of the circuit perfect for raising the proverbial roof. Fireworks, smoke flares, flags, and a drivers’ parade that had the teams push their cars to the grid through the stadium to wave at the packed stands.
The cars were purpose-built high-tech racing cars, clothed in a road car body. The driver sat way back, and low, to get better weight distribution, and in a safety move, some were moved to sit as close as possible to the centre of the cockpit.
The two races took place on Sundays, with a 30-minute gap between. Crews were allowed to repair damaged cars for only 22 minutes before having to make the grid.
This led to some extreme packages, and none more so than the design of the C Class. The whole front end, including engine, suspension, cooling and electronic systems could be removed by uncoupling the pipes, and sliding it off the four locator pins, and a brand new unit was installed in time to start race two! Their best time for an engine change was just over 10 minutes.
Opel had an active suspension system designed and built by the Williams F1 team, Alfa had a semi automatic gearbox (useful for Alessandro Nannini).
The one ‘special’ that never truly had the lid lifted on it was Mercedes’ weight transfer package. While Opel and Alfa had four-wheel-drive electronic transmissions, Mercedes stuck with what it built for the road – rear-wheel-drive. The trick up AMG’s sleeve was a pair of ‘tunnels’ that ran along the door sills on the floor of the monocoque, front wheel to back wheel. In the tunnels were floating weights, operated hydraulically. The car was ‘taught’ the circuit in the first session – the braking and acceleration points, and transferred the weight automatically during laps, a bigger version of what a kart racer does with his weight, getting it next to the driven wheels at the back on acceleration, and moving to balance out the braking…
Former Grand Prix driver Tiff Needell tested Klaus Ludwig’s Mercedes C Class at Hockenheim for Top Gear TVat the end of 1994. Here is his take on the series and the car…
We’ve not even fired up the engines yet! It was an unmistakable noise. The Alfas growled, the Mercedes had a purposeful high-pitched rasp, and the Opel was quiet and unassuming – until you put the animal skills of the likes of Keke Rosberg and Klaus Ludwig behind the Calibra’s wheel.
The ITC was an official FIA championship and Bernie certainly kept an eye on its progress, surveying the level of hospitality and re-christening the series, “ITC: The International Catering Championshp”.
It had races from Germany to Italy, to Brazil and Japan. Then there was the mid-season week-long Thunder in Helsinki festival, the ITC’s Monaco – even if the harbour circuit was in the Industrial part of Finland’s capital. Drivers Rosberg, JJ Lehto and rally legend Markku Alen were racing, and Mikas Hakkinen and Salo were on hand to give the mad Finnish fans another reason to party.
As for the racing. It was pure gloves off action. Sure the cream rose to the top, but two races meant that the second race always had an extra element: the car wasn’t needed for at least two weeks after… It was war.
By Andy Hallbery, www.romanceofracing.com
Photos by DTM.de, Mobil, Opel and Daimler Benz