Gary Paffett will start his fifteenth and final season in the DTM this weekend as the 2005 Champion and his Mercedes-AMG Motorsport outfit head to Hockenheim, Germany, for the first round of the 2018 season.
After 30 years in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM), Mercedes-AMG Motorsport will be leaving the German touring cars series at the end of the year, making the 2018 season an emotional affair for all involved. For Gary, who has been a cornerstone in the German team since 2003, the final year presents an opportunity to pick up his elusive second title after winning in 2005 and then finishing runner-up on four occasions - most recently in 2012!
Commencing the year at Hockenheim, the 4.574-kilometre track has long been the season-opening event of the DTM season and Gary will be looking to add to his four victories and ten podium visits at the circuit since his first race there back in 2003.
New rule changes brought in over the winter will see a reduction in aerodynamics by almost a third with standard aero components to be used by all three manufacturers. The purpose of this is to help create more of a level-playing field - putting greater emphasis on driver ability and setup.
"It has been a long winter and a long time since we were at Hockenheim back in October,” commented Paffett. “Quite a lot has changed in the DTM in the meantime. The new rules this year with the standard aero components are making a big difference. We are heading to Hockenheim on a much more level playing field with regards to the cars than we did last year.”
Testing at Hockenheim took place early last month, with Mercedes racking up a staggering 7,000 kilometres of data gathering laps on the German circuit; Gary himself recorded 269 laps over his two days and posted the fastest lap time of the second day. Despite the extensive testing programme, Gary is still unsure how they stack up against their competition heading into round one.
“I don't think we know exactly where we are in comparison to the others. In testing, you work on your own car and your own balance and you try to find something you are happy with, but the lap times really don't mean anything. I was quickest on the second day, but it goes up and down with the different days, and you don't know what fuel people are running or how long their runs were. Really and truly, it is impossible to know where we are, but we know it is going to be close. The cars are so closely matched, and it will be very competitive.”
Remaining confident, however, Gary believes that if he brings a good car balance to Hockenheim then there’s every chance of a positive performance this weekend.
“I think if we go there with a good car balance from the start and we do a really good job, we've got a chance of winning the race. That's the perspective we have to have every weekend. I really can't wait to get going."
Ulrich Fritz, Head of Mercedes-AMG Motorsport DTM, believes this season will be emotional but knows how crucial it is to get the season off to a good start.
"The build-up to the DTM weekend, which is coming around at last, is massive, both for the team and for me. Of course, the emotions this year are even more intense than usual, because this will, after all, be the last time that we go to Hockenheim for a season opener. It is always important to get the season off to a solid start. As the 2018 DTM will certainly be even tighter than in previous years, the margin for error is also smaller. Consequently, everyone in the team will have to focus fully on the upcoming races."
Track action at Hockenheim gets started on Friday with the first practice session of the weekend at 14:45 (BST). Following last year’s format, the weekend will host two races with Saturday and Sunday following identical timetables. Free practice at 08:00, qualifying at 10:25 and the races getting underway at 12:30.