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Sport Can the DTM’s reigning champion turn around his sluggish title defence?

02:40  14 august  2022
02:40  14 august  2022 Source:   autosport.com

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It’s often said in sport that once you reach the top, the only way is down. All you can do is prolong the inevitable. To carry the champion's #1 is to have a target daubed on your back, signifying to all the benchmark against which success is measured. And it also means more scrutiny than normal is applied when results aren’t coming.

That the high points of defending DTM champion Maximilian Gotz’s 2022 season so far have not come in the series he won last year says much about a title defence that has yet to properly get going. Finishing runner-up in the Nurburgring 24 Hours and the recent Spa 24 Hours is nothing to be sniffed at, and shows that the AMG Mercedes stalwart hasn't forgotten how to drive overnight. After all, it’s not for nothing that champion status is earned.

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But the Bavarian’s DTM results across the first half of the season make for unquestionably disappointing reading. He has a best finish of fifth to show for his switch from the Haupt Racing Team (HRT) to Winward Racing, and lies only 16th in the standings with 29 points to his name. At the equivalent stage in last year’s ultimately successful tilt, he’d claimed a win, two runner-up finishes and a brace of fourths to lie second on the table with 96 points.

So why has Gotz struggled to match his 2021 form, and can he turn the tide in the remainder of the year?

Two factors are immediately apparent. The DTM is far more competitive this year, with more manufacturers and top drivers making it harder to feature consistently at the front. And then there’s the change of team orchestrated by Mercedes and key sponsor BWT for “business reasons”, as Gotz puts it, albeit to a very familiar one that he “knows very well from the past”, having last raced for it in the 2020 GT Masters.

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“I saw a great possibility in the team because they had a great performance at the end of the last season,” he tells Autosport as we sit down in Winward’s truck at the Norisring. “Luggi [Auer] and Philip [Ellis] were really good and there was no doubt that in the end this couldn’t be wrong.”

Gotz made the switch over the off-season from the Haupt Racing Team to the Winward squad © Autosport.com Gotz made the switch over the off-season from the Haupt Racing Team to the Winward squad

Gotz made the switch over the off-season from the Haupt Racing Team to the Winward squad

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Under the team’s previous guise as HTP Motorsport, prior to its takeover by Texan Bryce Ward and former driver Christian Hohenadel (with whom Gotz had shared a car at the 2018 and 2019 Nurburgring 24 Hours), Gotz claimed victory in the 2013 Spa 24 Hours and secured the 2014 Blancpain Sprint title. That period marked him out as one of AMG’s top GT3 aces, after he’d scooped the ADAC GT Masters (Germany’s other GT3 series) crown in 2012 with MS Racing. More than simply speed, it also gave him a reputation as a reliable driver who looked after his equipment and could finish races - a desirable quality in a cut-and-thrust series such as DTM.

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Gotz returned to the DTM in 2021, five years after his previous campaign, which yielded a best finish of fourth at Moscow Raceway, for the championship’s first year with GT3 regulations. Already fully up to speed with the nuances of racing with the ABS required in GT3 machines, he was the Stuttgart brand’s foremost contender on its own series return and, after his strong start, overturned a 33-point gap to Kelvin van der Linde before denying Liam Lawson at the Norisring finale.

Sure, he’d needed an over-zealous move from van der Linde on Lawson - which hobbled the Kiwi’s Ferrari - and a healthy amount of cooperation from his Mercedes stablemates to snatch the crown, but team orders were nothing new in the annals of DTM history. And Gotz put himself in position to capitalise by being the best Mercedes over the course of the year.

"It’s more up and down because [DTM this year is] closer, everything. You have to be even more on point than last year I would say" Maximilian Gotz

He was engineered last year by Frenchman Renaud Dufour, who had previously run Gotz in his 2013-14 purple patch. Dufour, who now runs HRT’s Luca Stolz in DTM, tells Autosport: “I always said to him, ‘You have to be the best Mercedes at the end. And when you are the best Mercedes at the end, some more will come to you.’ And that’s what he did. He was very reliable in the races. It was very good.

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“It made a difference, the experience of not winning championships by being always the fastest but by always being there and taking the best out of everything. There were a lot of people who lost their cool heads - and in the end that made the difference.”

But, reckons Dufour, where last year Gotz could afford to play the percentages and keep racking up points, “this year it’s a bit different”.

“Last year it was a long game,” he says. “We were in a position where we were always more or less at the front. I think we had a better BoP everywhere than what we have this year, so it was easier to score points every time. Now, the problem is that if you don’t start from the top, it’s difficult to score points and you can even lose positions. That’s it.”

Any shortfall is ruthlessly exposed, to a greater degree than was the case in 2021. Gotz recognises this point too.

A change in environment is something Gotz is still getting used to in 2022 after last year's title triumph © Autosport.com A change in environment is something Gotz is still getting used to in 2022 after last year's title triumph

A change in environment is something Gotz is still getting used to in 2022 after last year's title triumph

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

“The DTM this year changed, so it’s more challenging and even harder to bring it on point to be there all the time,” he says. “And we've also seen that there were many guys on the podium so it was not only one guy who won or finished P3 all the time. It’s more up and down because it’s closer, everything. You have to be even more on point than last year I would say.”

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One area in which Gotz has struggled relative to Winward team-mate Lucas Auer in 2022 is qualifying, with the Austrian having only once started outside the top 10. Auer, one of just two Mercedes drivers remaining with the same team as last year (the other being Gotz’s former team-mate Maxi Buhk in the Mucke example that uses steer-by-wire technology) and so fully up to speed with engineer Mauricio Moreira in their second year together, has a pole at the Lausitzring to his name, was on the second row for both Portimao races and used that advantageous grid spot to become the only Mercedes driver to win a race thus far.

Gotz, by comparison, is still getting reacquainted with engineer Thomas Gleibs. He's qualified no higher than the fifth spot he managed at the Norisring, and missed the top 10 on five occasions. He started 19th in the second Lausitzring race – “We didn’t find the right set-up there,” he admits – and was 20th on the grid for both races at Imola, a circuit where Mercedes were uniformly disgruntled with the BoP. He describes the Italian track as an “unknown”, given nobody had raced there before on Michelins.

Dufour explains that Gotz “doesn’t like oversteer, he likes a stable rear”, but the driver himself stresses that Winward’s “starting set-up is always the same I would say, like what I know from last year”.

“In qualifying, to be honest, it’s more difficult than last year to get the tyre working,” he says. “I don’t know why, but it changed a little bit in this way.”

Naturally, these struggles have had an impact on results. And although Gotz did well to battle through to ninth in the safety car-interrupted second Imola race, a brace of sixths at the Norisring isn’t much to show for his best weekend of the year. He is cheered though by his race performances.

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“The race pace has always been great,” he says. “I mean, coming from P20 to P9 [at Imola] or in the first race in Portimao, when I went from P10 to P5. So we did good steps in the races.

“I got some confidence at Imola because the race was good and I know from the sector times I am there, it’s just bringing it together. This was maybe a mental thing or maybe not having the right pressure, for example. So now we’re trying to learn from the mistakes we made in the early races and now nail it.”

With half of the season to go, Gotz is hoping to turn his year around © Autosport.com With half of the season to go, Gotz is hoping to turn his year around

With half of the season to go, Gotz is hoping to turn his year around

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Gotz understands what needs to be done to improve things, describing the importance of engineering meetings before the weekend as “much more important than in the past”.

“The good thing is we have every on-board and every data point from last year. So before we go into a weekend, we sit together in the workshop for half a day preparing, looking back at what happened, what wasn't good in general for Mercedes and what we need to improve,” he says. “To be in front this year, we need to put even more effort in to prepare everything in the right way and have everything together as soon as we start the weekend.

“There are only two practice [sessions] and it’s not much time to figure out if [the set-up] works or not. You have to start with a good base to do little changes and then be up there. If you need to change a lot and you're not happy with the car, there is just no time to bring you up in this position. It’s the same for everybody.”

But at the same time, he isn’t getting carried away. Mercedes’ ‘one team’ approach means he has a full overview of what Auer, as well as marque stablemates such as Stolz and GruppeM’s Maro Engel are doing. And he believes some good tracks for the Mercedes are coming up - not least Nurburgring and Spa.

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“There are many tracks coming up which I really like, so I think the season is not done yet,” he points out. “It’s still such a long way to go, and there's still potential to get big points. Only the big points really count. If you’re P8, P9, whatever, you get some points, yes - but not big points. I like the tracks coming up, and the Mercedes works quite well on them, so in the end this could be a turnaround here.”

"I got some confidence at Imola because the race was good and I know from the sector times I am there, it’s just bringing it together. This was maybe a mental thing or maybe not having the right pressure, for example" Maximilian Gotz

And a Gotz character trait Dufour observes will surely help too: “He’s very easy to work with, to be honest, always quite positive. He's very easy in his head: no stress, no pressure. This is clear.”

It’s always a dangerous business to write off DTM champions. Take Gary Paffett, for example. The 2005 title-winner bounced back from the nadir of finishing 22nd in the standings in 2014 to win the 2018 title ahead of Mercedes bowing out of the DTM’s manufacturer era in favour of Formula E.

And in an unpredictable year where no one driver has managed more than a single pole position so far, with plenty more twists and turns surely in store, Gotz has all the determination required to at last get his season going.

Can Gotz break his 2022 hoodoo? © Autosport.com Can Gotz break his 2022 hoodoo?

Can Gotz break his 2022 hoodoo?

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Emma Raducanu earns important boost for US Open defence after Williams and Azarenka wins .
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