Bruno Spengler pokes at a chocolate- and fresh-fruit-covered crepe with his fork before slicing off a healthy chunk and popping it in his mouth.
Wearing a blue BMW sweater and jeans, Spengler’s slim but chiselled frame leaves no doubt that he is a top athlete; his team kit makes it obvious the 29-year-old from St-Hippolyte, Que., is a racing driver.
But as he snacks on his gooey prize, no one in the breakfast joint on Montreal`s Nun`s Island – just minutes away from the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve – appears to notice the Quebec racing driver who just won this country’s first major professional motor racing championship in a decade: the 2012 Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) title. Even those who should be in the know – Canada’s sports reporters – overlooked him when voting for the 2012 Lou Marsh award, given to the Canadian athlete of the year.
“It’s not like I’m totally unknown in Canada,” Spengler protests almost half-heartedly, before adding, “but, of course, when you go to Germany and 150,000 fans come to the races, you get pretty well known.”
“At the beginning of my DTM career, it was only those who were very interested in motorsport, but I’ve started to get more and more e-mails from people who were watching and cheering from over here, which is very nice.”
It’s a wonder anyone knows about him at all. Spengler’s touring car series – which features Audi, BMW and Mercedes as manufacturers – gets no TV exposure in Canada and the few die-hard fans who follow his career rely on hard-to-find and often-spotty Internet streams of his races. The lack of coverage means most missed his spine-tingling, come-from-behind championship performance with a first-year BMW team. His performance was akin to a rookie winning the National Hockey League scoring title and leading his team to the Stanley Cup.
Spengler’s title – Canada’s first in a top-tier professional series since Paul Tracy won the Champ Car crown in 2003 – marked a comeback for this country in international racing and may make the DTM Series a magnet for its budding racing stars. With another Canadian – Guelph, Ont.’s Robert Wickens – joining DTM after not being able to raise the cash needed to secure a Formula One seat, it’s already happening.
And, if a DTM North America Series gets going in 2015 as planned, Spengler thinks it will draw more Canadians and make him more recognized at home.
He’s already received international recognition: BMW announced last year that it will produce 54 limited-edition BMW M3s styled after Spengler’s all-black DTM racer to celebrate his title.
BMW’s exuberance was understandable considering most experts felt the Bavarian auto maker’s DTM squad would be hard-pressed to win a race in 2012 after 20 years away from the series. But Spengler, who jumped to the BMW camp in 2012 after seven years with Mercedes, notched up a victory in the second start of the season. However, he trailed championship leader Gary Paffett of Mercedes by 40 points after four of 10 races and, with drivers getting 25 points for a win, most experts felt the championship was already over.
Spengler closed the gap to just three points by the time the season finale rolled around at the famed Hockenheimring in southwest Germany. He drove flawlessly despite intense pressure from his rival, who stayed glued to the Canadian’s rear bumper for most of the race. In the end, Spengler’s season-high fourth win was enough to edge Paffett by a slim four points.
As Spengler did his trademark hood surf in the winner’s circle to celebrate the victory and his DTM maiden title, his father Alexis sat in the grandstands. Long after fireworks bracketed the front straight as his son crossed the finish line, Alexis pondered the long road the Spengler clan had travelled to reach that championship moment.
“I stayed in the stands for about half an hour after he won – everyone was gone and I was still sitting there,” Alexis recalls. “Of course, it was a very great feeling. From the first season he arrived in DTM, he was always in the championship battle and this year shows you need a little bit of luck to get there.”
Bruno also needed lots of sacrifice – and money – from his parents, who footed most of the bill for their son’s racing until he signed as a DTM driver with Mercedes in 2005.
One thing that’s never far from Alexis Spengler’s thoughts is “the accident.”
After dominating the 2002 Fran-Am 2000 North American Pro Championship, scoring six wins in eight races, Spengler inked a deal to join the Mercedes-Benz Junior Team that had produced several successful Formula One drivers, including seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher.
The 18-year-old packed his bags for Europe where he would test his mettle against some of the planet’s best open-wheel talent in the Formula Three Euroseries. A month before the season was set to begin, he arrived at a test session at the Dijon-Prenois Circuit in France ready to show the world why he was Canada’s next F1 star in waiting.
Then, going through a high-speed corner on the undulating French circuit, Spengler’s car snapped away from him like a bucking bronco, sending him violently into the barriers lining the outside of the circuit. When the dust cleared, Spengler immediately knew something wasn’t right – the excruciating pain burning through his lower back would be later diagnosed as a fractured L-1 vertebrae.
“I was very worried. By the time I got to the hospital, I was sure that my career was, maybe, over,” he recalls.
Clearly oblivious to the proper procedures for extricating a driver from a car, the track’s makeshift safety crew couldn’t figure out how to get the injured driver out of the cockpit. In the end, Spengler gingerly pulled himself out of the car and got into a waiting ambulance.
Alexis arrived at the scene moments after the crash and his blood still boils as he describes what he saw. “It was a very dangerous situation; he came very close to being paralyzed,” he snaps. “It was very difficult to watch.”
Once Bruno arrived at the local hospital, fear turned to relief when he learned the fracture would not require surgery. Although the doctors felt he could resume racing in about six months, it was still devastating news. He knew that in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of racing, being away from the track that long was a potential death knell for his just budding career.
The next day, Spengler got the phone call he knew would come from Mercedes Motorsport boss Norbert Haug. Much to Spengler’s surprise, Haug’s call didn’t deliver the message he dreaded.
“I was sure somebody was going to step into my car because I wasn’t there,” Spengler says. “But Norbert called me at the hospital and he said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll keep your seat and, as soon as you’re fit, you can come back.’ This helped me a lot.”
Spengler called Haug’s gesture “the best thing that happened to me in my career.”
A couple of days later, Haug sent a medical plane to pick up the injured driver and take him back to his European home in Strasbourg, France. Buoyed by Haug’s guarantee, the six-month layoff shrank to three, and Spengler was back on track well ahead of schedule.
Although their son was determined to get back to racing, Spengler’s parents found themselves balking at the idea after the accident. Alexis Spengler’s voice softens as he talks about seeing his son lying in the French hospital bed and fighting his gut reaction to order Bruno to stop racing.
“The first thing I said to him after he was okay was: ‘You have to think about this and make sure this is what you want to do.’ I think we hoped he would say to himself, ‘I don’t want to do that any more,’ but he never thought anything like that.”
Ironically, when Bruno began karting as a 10-year-old boy, his parents always thought he would stop after a couple of years and do something else. Instead, he always drove well and continued up the ladder. They went year by year and step by step, scraping together enough money to keep him on track.
“It was difficult at first because of the danger,” Alexis says. “The type of karting was very fast and it was expensive and we always had to look for money and sponsors or pay ourselves. But it was a pleasure.”
Soon enough, Bruno was racing in Europe against some of the best karters in the world – and winning.
Park Omega Days
Born in the western French town of Schiltigheim, just kilometres from the German border, Bruno’s parents immigrated to Canada when he was a toddler. He spent much of his formative years working with the wildlife alongside Alexis and Corinne at the Park Omega business they started near Montebello, Que.
“He helped us in the kitchen and feeding the animals,” Alexis says. “He had fun with that and, from the time he was about six or seven years old, he was always driving the pickup.”
The place made such an impression on young Bruno that he began carrying around a little stuffed caribou (it just might be a moose) he got from the park’s gift shop soon after he started karting. The good-luck charm has attended every race since 1998.
“I was car crazy when I was a kid and I knew everything possible,” Bruno says. “I would always be able to see the difference between a car from one year to the next: If the light was a bit different in the front, a different shape, I was going to see it immediately. I could see all details.”
The young Bruno always wanted to go faster when riding in the family car and often urged dad to overtake on the highway.
Once he got into a go-kart seat, Bruno was hooked even before it moved. “I just wanted to drive fast and nothing gave me that adrenaline and feeling like a car, like a racing car. I just wanted to be sitting in a car 24/7.”
Soon, the family’s summers were spent driving from race to race in a motor home as Bruno climbed the karting ladder with dad playing mechanic. After taking both North American and French titles, it was time to try formula cars.
Philippe Létourneau remembers Spengler as the kid who never made a mistake.
The future host of the Discovery Channel’s Canada’s Worst Driver was the chief instructor when Spengler arrived to take a driving school at the Autodrome St-Eustache, Que., northeast of Montreal, about 13 years ago.
“It was actually scary how good he was,” said Létourneau, who is now BMW’s chief driving instructor.
“For Bruno it seemed that it was just natural; regardless of the type of car, the adjustment was made right away and he was super-quick – the consistency was fantastic. After 10 years of coaching and teaching, I knew those kinds of drivers are rare.”
At the time, Spengler was entertaining an offer of a factory drive with one of the kart manufacturers, but Létourneau encouraged his father to keep the young racer moving towards cars. It was good advice.
After getting his feet wet in cars by racing in a pair of European Formula Renault Series in 2001, Spengler entered the North American Formula Renault Series the next year and won the championship
After missing the opening six races of his first F3 season in Europe, Spengler couldn’t wait to get back into his car. In a year where seven of the top-10 overall finishers in F3 points that year went on to a role in F1 as a race or test driver, Spengler ended the season an incredible 10th overall despite missing almost a third of the schedule.
The great expectations fizzled quickly in his sophomore F3 year, as he never got to grips with his 2004 car and struggled though the season. After finishing 11th overall, Spengler worried that his lacklustre performance had put his career back in the pits.
Once again, Haug had a surprise in store for the young Canadian. Despite the rough year, the Mercedes motorsport boss saw a spark in Spengler and wanted to see how he would handle the DTM car.
At the time, DTM was essentially split into two camps: the factory teams running brand-new cars and the “satellite teams” that raced the previous year’s models, which were marginally slower. The year-old cars were given to young drivers who used them in a learning year to help the manufacturers decide whether the prospects deserved a seat with a top factory team.
For Spengler, it represented his last shot at making a career of racing, but he found perspective in his own private fishbowl.
“Of course you feel pressure; you think, if I don’t show this year, maybe I don’t have a second chance, but on the other side, the nice part was much bigger,” he said with a satisfied grin. “To be honest, I felt more happiness – I was like a relief: I was a professional driver so, for me, it was more like, ‘Now it really starts and who knows where it can take you. It’s only up to you’.”
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.
“It’s not a regret – I don’t regret anything – but I think it’s still possible for me to test the F1 some day,” Spengler says.
One thing is certain: When he raced against proven F1 talent, Spengler was no slouch.
The Elusive Title
Spengler’s teammate in 2006 was Häkkinen, who won 20 F1 races between 1991 and 2001 and took home two consecutive world championships beginning in 1998 with McLaren. Known as the “Flying Finn,” Häkkinen joined the Mercedes DTM squad in 2005 and scored three wins, three poles and eight top-three finishes in 31 starts over three seasons.
“DTM is an extremely competitive series and far more complicated than people can imagine,” Häkkinen explained. “Even as a two-time world champion in F1, you need to adapt and learn quickly. DTM has a lot of experienced drivers, all very talented in that kind of car, so you really need to roll up your sleeves and go for the maximum attack.”
Spengler won a season-high four times in 10 starts during his first year with the top Mercedes team and ended the season second overall in points, while Häkkinen was sixth.
While falling short of the title was disappointing, Spengler fondly remembers a season of battling for wins with the likes of Häkkinen and another ex-F1 star Jean Alesi, as well as DTM legend Bernd Schneider, who won his record fifth championship that year.
“The first time I beat Mika in 2006 was a very special moment for me because I know what he achieved, I know what he did, and I know what he could do,” Spengler said as he smiled broadly.
“Just being up there with these guys was nice and I enjoyed it a lot. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh yeah, I beat these guys.’ They were much more experienced than me and they won in F1 and they won all the championships, so it was more like, ‘It’s nice to race with these guys.’ I learned a lot of things from them.”
He applied the lessons well. In the past seven DTM seasons, the Canadian scored the most points, poles, and wins and finished fifth overall or better since moving up to a factory team. He narrowly missed a title four times and seemed destined to be a perennial bridesmaid until he brought home the hardware in 2012.
Some may have become discouraged after coming up short year after year, but Spengler always saw it differently.
“I heard that question a lot before my last race in 2012: ‘You’ve been so close so often and maybe you don’t have the last luck you need to win the championship.’ …
“I took it lot more positive than negative and people struggle to understand that and I don’t understand why because what can you take as negative? I mean you’re fighting five times to win a championship, you should win it once, at some point. You just have to carry on working and do your best.”
THE RISE OF BRUNO SPENGLER
French champion in the Junior Category, scores one win in the Montreal Cup Series.
|1997||Karting||Finishes third overall in the Quebec Karting Junior Cup.|
|1998||Karting||Takes third overall in a partial season of Canadian Junior Karting Championhip, with four wins in six starts.|
Takes third in the North-American Formula A Karting Championship, fifth in the French Formula A Championship and is 16th overall in the 1999 Formula A World Cup.
|2000||Karting||Champion in the French Formula A Karting Championship, as well as taking two wins in four starts in the Belgian Karting Championship. He was also 7th in the 2000 Karting World Cup.|
|2001||Formula Renault Sport Eurocup and Championnat de France de Formule Renault||Spengler scores his first career victory in a car at the Magny-Cours Circuit in France in the third race of the 2001 Formula Renault Sport Eurocup season. He ends the year ninth overall. Coincidently, his now BMW teammate in DTM, Augusto Farfus was the series champion that year. He also takes one win in the Championnat de France de Formule Renault and finishes fifth overall.|
|2002||German Formula Renault and the Fran-Am 2000 North American Pro Championship||Spengler wins six of eight races in the Fran-Am 2000 North American Pro Championship to take the championship. Three wins in German Formula Renault Series put him second overall in the final standings|
|2003||Formula 3 Euroseries with the ASM F3|
Spengler crashes his Mercedes-Dallara F3 car heavily in a pre-season test at the Dijon Circuit on March 18 and fractures his L1 vertebrae. He takes three podiums in 14 starts in the Formula 3 Euroseries to finish 10th overall in points despite missing six races.
Formula 3 Euroseries with ASL-Mücke Motorsport
|In a disappointing sophomore year, Spengler scores only one podium and a total of three top-5 finishes in 20 races. He is 11th overall. His teammate is future Formula One star Robert Kubica.|
|2005||DTM Rookie year with Persson Motorsport (Mercedes)|
Driving a slower year-old car in his DTM "learning year," Spengler takes his three consecutive points finish to end the 2005 season. While he finishes 16th overall in points, his performance in a year-old car earns him a promotion to a factory sponsored car in 2006.
|2006||DTM with HWA (Mercedes)||After only one podium in four starts, Spengler takes his first career DTM win in the fifth race at the Norisring. He wins three of the next five starts to post a season high four victories but it is not enough to be champion. He finishes second overall to now five-time DTM champion Bernd Schneider.|
|2007||DTM with HWA (Mercedes)|
Spengler's season gets off to a rough start in the Hockenheim opener where a controversial penalty for avoidable contact pushes him from a podium finish in third to 14th and out of the points. At the end of the year, the six points he lost after the controversial penalty would prove costly as he ended the year three markers behind eventual champion Mattias Ekström.
|2008||DTM with HWA (Mercedes)|
The Canadian has his worst season in a factory car in DTM, scoring only two podiums and ending the year fifth overall in points.
|2009||DTM with HWA (Mercedes)|
After a tough 2008, the following season is not much better with only three podiums and fourth overall in the final standings.
|2010||DTM with HWA (Mercedes)|
The 2010 season is a bitter pill for Spengler to swallow. While he finished third overall, he went into the season finale on a tight and dangerous Shanghai street circuit leading the championship by four points but crashed in qualifying and ended up 17th on the grid. All he could manage in the race was 13th, while his two title rivals Gary Paffett and Paul Di Resta finished 1-2. Di Resta took the crown by four points over Paffett who ended up second. Spengler was third overall.
|2011||DTM with HWA (Mercedes)||In his final season with Mercedes, Spengler took two wins and five podiums in 10 starts and finished the year third overall. He was the top scoring Mercedes driver in DTM that year.|
|2012||DTM with BMW Team Schnitzer||In a year where he was supposed to struggle for wins, Spengler took four wins, three poles, and six podiums in 10 starts to capture his first championship by four markers over Gary Paffett. Not only did Spengler take the drivers' title, his Schnitzer outfit won the team title while he also led BMW to the manufacturer's crown in the car maker's first year back in DTM in two decades.|
|May 19||Brands Hatch, U.K.|
|Red Bull Ring, Austria|
EuroSpeedway, Lausitz, Germany
|July 14||Norisring, Germany|
Moscow Raceway, Russia
Motorsport Arena Oschersleben, Germany
|Oct. 20||Hockenheimring, Germany|