It wasn’t an easy rookie year. The talent-laden 2005 DTM field boasted four drivers who had recently left F1, including two-time world champion Mika Häkkinen, in addition to two former DTM champions, and a good mix of talented veterans and eager youngsters. To prove he belonged in a factory squad, Spengler had to beat these experienced racers, who were also driving faster cars.
Although he raised more than a few eyebrows by qualifying well in several early races, Spengler didn’t cross the finish line in the top-10 until the eighth of 11 rounds. While a ninth-place finish at the Zandvoort Circuit in Holland was welcomed, it was still one spot shy of scoring the coveted points that would show he had what it takes. At the time, DTM awarded points to the top-eight finishers.
Then things just clicked. Spengler’s maiden points came in the third-to-last race of the year. Then, the first North American to start a race and score a point in the series also became the first to take a DTM pole when he lined up on the front row of the 2005 season’s penultimate round. He ended the year with three consecutive top-eight results, which earned him a spot with a factory team the next season.
The stage was set for Spengler to also become the first North American to score a DTM victory; however, capturing the title would prove to be a frustrating chase, as would his ultimate prize of a shot at F1.
At the top of the racing food chain, F1 boasts the greatest racing talent on the planet driving arguably the most technologically advanced cars built. It’s the ultimate goal of just about every kid who sits in a go-kart and dreams about being a racing driver.
Although conventional wisdom in racing once dictated that the road to F1 was paved through open-wheel development series in Europe, DTM slowly moved on to the radar and drivers now look at it as a way to get to the top.
“I think DTM is probably the closest thing to F1, with three major manufactures battling between each other for the top spot,” said Scotsman Paul Di Resta, who graduated to F1 following his DTM title in 2010. “It’s very true DTM has a high class of drivers – I have a lot of respect for some that I had close battles with through the years.”
Di Resta’s cousin, four-time IndyCar champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti, is the most famous name to jump from DTM to open-wheel success. He raced in the series back in the mid-1990s before Mercedes moved him into IndyCar in 1997.
Di Resta’s recent shift from the series to an F1 seat became another reason for up-and-coming Canadians, like Wickens, to see DTM as a stepping stone.
When Spengler arrived in 2005, he hoped that Mercedes’ involvement in the series would bring a grand prix opportunity. Although he got time in the McLaren F1 team’s simulator and performed well, a chance to test or race in F1 eluded him.
Every year, Mercedes sponsored a breakfast for Canadian reporters at the grand prix in Montreal, and every year Haug would inevitably have to answer a question about Spengler getting an F1 test. He always sidestepped the issue, but now that he’s no longer head of Mercedes Motorsport, Haug is more direct about Spengler’s lack of a F1 testing opportunity.
“There was just no availability,” he explains, sounding almost frustrated by his inability to get Spengler in an F1 car. “If testing is forbidden or there are testing restrictions, a team has two or three days and these days need to be used to develop the car and not to develop the driver. So, that’s why it makes this difficult. If it would have been possible, I would have done it.”
Spengler came closest five years ago when it looked like F1 would allow its top teams to build and sell cars to outfits lower down the grid. It was thought that Spengler was a front-runner for a seat with one of the teams slated to use Mercedes engines, but F1 axed the idea and his hopes were dashed again.
He never really got another chance and, now that he’s with BMW, which isn’t involved in F1, he may not get another.