‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.’
So wrote William Shakespeare, clearly grappling with the timeless ‘nature vs nurture’ debate, and at just what age you should get behind the wheel of your first kart.
Still, there’s an element of truth to it. For while no fewer than 78 drivers have won a DTM race since the series began in 1984, you’d probably only class a handful of them as truly ‘great’.
That’s not to deny the abilities of the majority of those worthy racers; more a means of clarifying the objective of this feature – to run you through the top 10 greatest drivers in DTM history.
Okay, you’ve read the clickbait headline. We’ve done the math. Now we proudly present the ultimate ranking of DTM’s greatest ever racers.
10th MARCO WITTMANN (GER)
The German blitzed Formula BMW and the Formula 3 EuroSeries to earn a test role seat with BMW for 2012. Promoted to a race drive the following year, he truly blossomed in ’14, winning the season-opening race and going on to dominate the season, claiming three further victories and his first DTM title. In 2016, he was pushed all the way to the final race by Audi’s Edoardo Mortara before clinching his second title. Wittmann’s greatest strength is his racecraft – he can clinically carve through the field as easily as maintain the lead from the front. A formidable racer.
9th BRUNO SPENGLER (CDN)
Bruno Spengler graduated to the DTM with Mercedes-AMG in 2005, scoring his maiden win the following year at the Norisring – a track that would prove a happy hunting ground, yielding four further victories the French-born Canadian. If Spengler earned his stripes with Mercedes, he would earn glory with BMW, helping to steer the Munich marque to the title upon its return to the series in 2012. One of the nicest guys in the paddock, he left the series at the end of last year to continue his BMW career in North America’s IMSA series.
8th RENÉ RAST (GER)
Despite a string of one-make and GT championship titles, it looked like Rast would never make the jump to the DTM – until he got a late call to stand in for injured Audi driver Adrien Tambay at Zandvoort in 2016. In his first full season, he won the title, narrowly missed the top spot in ’18 after duking it out with Brits Paffett and Di Resta, and restored the honours for Audi last year by dominating the series. Despite starting fewer than 60 races, the German’s blistering speed – in 2019, he racked up 35 points in qualifying alone – leaves him poised to emulate the all-time greats of the series.
7th JAMIE GREEN (GBR)
Green was one of many aspiring F3 Euro Series stars to make the leap from single-seaters into DTM. After eclipsing no less than Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica in F3 in 2004, he made his touring car debut with Mercedes-AMG in ’06. A year later, he took the first of eight wins for Mercedes before switching to Audi in 2013 to help bolster the Ingolstadt marque’s works DTM effort. A DTM perennial, he earned pole position at the series’ 500th race, at the Laustizring last year, and meshes seamlessly with team-mate and man-of-the-moment, Rene Rast.
6th NICOLA LARINI (ITA)
The little Italian’s DTM’s career is indelibly linked to Alfa Romeo, with whom he achieved all his success, winning 18 races and dominating the 1993 series – all in the utterly iconic blood-red 155 V6 Ti. Having won the Italian touring car series in’ 92, it was only logical that Larini would lead the brand into DTM – where, to the surprise of many, the Italian marque immediately steamrollered the opposition. His 11 victories that year still sets the bar for most wins in a single DTM season. It’s impossible to imagine him driving anything else!
5th KURT THIIM (DEN)
After winning the 1984 German F3 title, the Dane turned to the still-young DTM series, scoring a maiden victory at Zolder in 1986 with the beefy but swift Rover Vitesse. A consistent string of results, as well as victories at the Wunstorf airfield circuit and the Nürburgring saw him lift the title at the end of the year. After brief spells with privateer Alfa Romeo and BMW teams, Thiim joined the Mercedes works line-up in ’88, racing for the three-pointed start until the end of 1996.
4th GARY PAFFETT (GBR)
Paffett’s early single-seater successes singled him out as a driver to watch – but a stalled entry to F1 feeder series F3000 largely put paid to his grand prix ambitions. Switching direction, he quickly blossomed as an ace DTM pilot, despite beginning his touring car career in year-old machinery. In 2005, he took the first of his two titles – and, with one eye still on an F1 career, became McLaren’s F1 tester the following year. A return to DTM yielded further successes, and he drove sensationally to clinch the title a second time in 2018, emerging victorious from a titanic three-way scrap between himself, Rene Rast and Paul Di Resta to claim farewell honours for departing marque Mercedes-Benz.
3rd MATTIAS EKSTRÖM (SWE)
The son of a successful rallycross driver, Mattias Ekström never showed any real interest in single-seaters – he always wanted to race touring cars. The young Swede proved a quick learner, joining privateer Abt Sportsline in 2001, taking his first win a year later; then, when Abt adopted full works status in 2004, he became champion. He added a second title in 2007 before finally bowing out of the series in 2018. He proved his versatility by dovetailing the end of his DTM career with a burgeoning passion for Rallycross, which culminated in a WRX championship title in 2016 – the series in which he still competes today.
2nd KLAUS LUDWIG (GER)
The German veteran was already considered a star of the Deutsche Rennsport-Meisterschaft – often considered DTM’s predecessor – back in the 1970s and early ’80s, so it was a natural step for him to join the fledgling series, taking his first win, at Zolder, in 1985. Three years later, he drove a turbo-powered Ford Sierra to his first title before transferring to Mercedes, to whom he remained loyal for the next six years, adding further titles in ’92 and ’94. He then stunned the motorsport world by switching allegiance to Opel, winning yet more races and becoming the only works driver in our Top 10 to have tasted victory with three different manufacturers. When DTM was relaunched in 2000, Ludwig was still – incredibly – onboard, back once again with Mercedes, and scoring a pair of wins in his final season, aged 50!
1st BENRD SCHNEIDER (GER)
The driver who defines the DTM. Even in the early stages of his career, he combined F3 and F1 with a role as Ford Junior driver in DTM. But it was only after joining Mercedes in 1992 that he began to achieve his defining successes, dominating in 1995 to clinch titles in both DTM and the parallel International Touring Car series (ITC). With utter commitment, he vowed to take the title when DTM was reborn in 2000 – and duly did, going on to become the first-ever back-to-back champion with a third title in ’01. His fourth and fifth championships followed in 2003 and ’06 before he announced his retirement at the end of 2008. Schneider had crossed the DTM generations – fighting the likes of Ludwig during his youth, but graduating to battling the likes of Dario Franchitti and Jan Magnussen in the mid-1990s, and young stars such as Gary Paffett, Christijan Albers, Jamie Green and Bruno Spengler in the ‘new’ DTM. Schneider rewrote the book, and remains DTM’s greatest champion.