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The DTM is celebrating its 40th birthday this weekend as part of the Norisring race. ABT Sportsline has been competing in the DTM for 25 years and is the most successful active DTM team with 76 victories, 256 podiums, five drivers’ and five teams’ titles. Hans-Jürgen Abt, CEO of the ABT Group, in an interview on the anniversary.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the three letters “DTM”?

Hans-Jürgen Abt: “The DTM was and is the most important championship in German motorsport, which offers great racing and attracts many fans. We’ve felt at home in the DTM as a team from the very beginning and have won plenty of trophies and numerous races and championships since 2000. We have now been involved for 25 years and are proud to be one of the most successful DTM teams.”

How did the idea of entering the DTM come about 25 years ago?

Hans-Jürgen Abt: “Actually out of necessity. In 1998, we were the Audi factory team in the STW (Super Touring Car Championship, editor’s note). When Audi decided to go to Le Mans in a big way, we continued as a private team in the STW. Suddenly, STW no longer existed. In other words, we had built up a professional team, but no longer had a field of activity. The TT concept was created in a cloak-and-dagger operation. We applied to the ITR (DTM umbrella organisation until 2020, editor’s note) with a single sheet of paper and a drawing. It wasn’t that easy to get the permission to compete in the DTM at all.”

At first it was a race against time to even be on the grid for the first race in the DTM, wasn’t it?

Hans-Jürgen Abt: “Yes, that was crazy. We built a car in 100 days. That would no longer be possible in this form today. In the end, we managed to get the cars ready and do the roll-out at Hockenheim – on the race weekend! Only to realize that we were quite far off the pace. But this Herculean task welded us all together and created a team with this unique DNA.”

In the beginning, ABT Sportsline was ridiculed, but the competitors quickly stopped laughing: first points in the first season, the first victory in the second and the championship title in the third.

Hans-Jürgen Abt: “As a team, we were very popular with the fans right from the start with our yellow cars – and later the blue ones too. There were huge seas of ABT flags. The drivers sacrificed themselves to improve the car from weekend to weekend. The commitment of the mechanics was also incredible. We overtook Opel at some point and then fought for victories with Mercedes.”

A very special victory against Mercedes was certainly at the Norisring in 2002, when Laurent Aiello passed Bernd Schneider on the very last corner?

Hans-Jürgen Abt: “That was of course the top highlight. Bernd was really annoyed off back then. He was ‘Mister DTM’, the best and most successful DTM driver of all time. Only Aiello managed to beat him like that. He outsmarted him on the last corner. Bernd thought he saw a yellow flag. But there wasn’t one, at most a yellow ABT flag. The Norisring is our home race and winning there has always been particularly difficult. It was one of the few Audi victories at the Norisring that brought us a lot of attention. Races like this are few and far between.”

After a long time as a factory team, ABT Sportsline is now back in the DTM as a private team. What do you think?

Hans-Jürgen Abt: “I’m very happy that we can go our own way again and decide everything ourselves in the team. In the last few years of the factory dynasty, we weren’t even able to work on our own set-ups. Everything was transparent. If we changed something, the other teams from Phoenix and Rosberg knew about it. In the end, our only asset was actually the pit stops. That was not my ambition. It was all about the car and the brand. In the fourth race, it was already decided which driver to back. For me, it was no longer real racing, as we have it again today: fighting, having fun and taking risks on the track.”

But you can’t manage the DTM as a private team without strong partners. What role does Head of Sports Marketing Harry Unflath play in this?

Hans-Jürgen Abt: “Harry is unique and part of the family. He built up motorsport at ABT Sportsline together with me from the scratch. Back then, he also convinced Michael Beck from Hasseröder to join us in the DTM, otherwise we wouldn’t have managed it all. Harry later even organized the partners for Audi. He is the important person in the background and tries to integrate the partners into the family. His strategy and his network are unique.”

With Laurent Aiello, Mattias Ekström and Timo Scheider, three drivers have won the DTM for ABT Sportsline. How do you see the three of them?

Hans-Jürgen Abt: “Laurent Aiello was really wild. He was the absolute superstar in the scene at the time with his special manner. But he was also very familiar and that’s why he enjoyed driving for us so much. He lived in his own world, but brought a lot to us as a company. He was there when we needed performance. He actually got us to where we are today. Then came Mattias Ekström, also a very strong character. He came to us as a young boy and fought his way into the DTM cockpit with performance. For many years, Mattias was to us what Bernd Schneider was to Mercedes. We trusted each other and even today Mattias is still successful wherever he drives. Timo Scheider always wanted to drive for us and tried everything he could to get into the so-called A-Team. From the day he joined us, he was very fast and became champion twice. I think all three of them are happy today that they raced with us. They can also be somewhat grateful to us for contributing to their careers.”

Kelvin van der Linde and Ricardo Feller are currently racing for ABT Sportsline in the DTM. What do you think of them?

Hans-Jürgen Abt: “In terms of performance, Kelvin is one of the best in the DTM paddock and I also really appreciate Ricardo’s raw speed. Both are strong characters. But I’d rather have them in the same team and manage them than have them racing against us. We are in a great position with both of them and I hope that they will continue to drive for us for a long time to come.”

Martin Tomczyk, a former DTM driver from ABT Sportsline, is now your motorsport director. How is he doing?

Hans-Jürgen Abt: “Very good, I think. Of course, everyone needs their time. It’s not that easy to be team principal with so many strong personalities in the team. I think he does a good job, brings calm and is also successful.”

The current CEO of ABT Sportsline, Thomas Biermaier, started his career with ABT Sportsline in the DTM. Do you remember that?

Hans-Jürgen Abt: “Back then, it was a so-called ‘noble intern’ that Harry Unflath brought into the company. He stood out due to his size and was very committed right from the start. He wanted to do something in the DTM and so he got the job of washing the tyres as an intern in the DTM. In America they say ‘from dishwasher to millionaire’. Thomas has gone from washing tyres to the very top of ABT Sportsline. He has my complete trust. He has a mega instinct for how to run a racing team or a company.”

After 25 years together with Audi in the DTM, the end of this partnership is imminent. Do you understand Audi’s decision to discontinue the customer racing programme?

Hans-Jürgen Abt: “I can’t identify myself with this company policy and would like the current Audi CEO Gernot Döllner to reconsider it. Customer racing is a business model and can be achieved with relatively little money. What’s more, it’s booming. Audi’s successes have appealed to customers worldwide for many years and made them happy. And then you throw away something like that. I believe that customers don’t like this at all and, in the worst case, they will move on to competitors such as BMW or Mercedes. Bringing them back costs more money than keeping the department alive.”

But the DTM is still important for ABT Sportsline?

Hans-Jürgen Abt: “Of course. We are an innovative company. ‘From the racetrack to the road’ is our slogan. We want to show people that we do good work, are technically adept and reliable. Through motorsport, people can build trust in our products. We prove our technical expertise in the DTM.”

How do you see the future of the DTM?

Hans-Jürgen Abt: “The ADAC used to be a partner of the DTM in the past, but since last year it has been a promoter and, in my opinion, is doing its job quite well. It is important to focus on CO2 reduction through sustainable technologies, such as fuel, in order not to make ourselves vulnerable in the future. At the same time, the teams should be strengthened so that they can make a long-term commitment without being too dependent on the manufacturers. Formula 1 and MotoGP show how a business model can work for promoters, organisers and teams. That’s where we need to go with the DTM in Germany. I think it’s exactly right to concentrate on the German market, with a few races in neighbouring countries. The interest of the fans is there. The spectator numbers are increasing and the TV ratings are also very good. If the ADAC works hard, the DTM has a good chance of being well positioned for the future.”

Published by: ABT Sportsline

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