Jürgen Hubbert on 30 years of the DTM: “A marvellous experience which has boosted the attractiveness of the Mercedes brand, just as we intended”
30 years of Mercedes-AMG Motorsport: At the start of the 2018 anniversary season, we reminisce with former Daimler AG board member Jürgen Hubbert about the return of the brand to motorsport and various other emotional memories from the past 30 years.
- About strange races: “The AVUS – because a car slid over the finish line upside down. That was just amazing!”
- On laying the groundwork: “Our American colleagues looked at the cup and asked: ‘What’s that?’”
- On what can be learnt from motorsport: “Things that take months, sometimes years, in a standard test can be tried out under race conditions within a matter of weeks to see if they work or not.”
How did the decision come about after so many years to enter these two series – Formula 1 and the DTM – at the same time in 1988?
Jürgen Hubbert: You have to understand that there were people in the company who never stopped being involved in motorsport, even during a period when we weren’t officially doing it. This went on with the tacit permission and support of Dr Hörnig who was chairman of the board in those days. He gave the Waxenbergers of this world a free hand to dabble in motorsport. When I was appointed as deputy member of the Executive Board in 1987 and looked at the situation the company was in, it became clear to me that we had got ourselves into some difficulties. Due to an ongoing internal debate, we had been neglecting our vehicles. The focus was on becoming an ‘ Integrated Technology Group’. I hoped that we could polish up the image of the brand by means of motorsport activities. I remembered the 1950s, when I was still at school and took a lively interest in the sport, and I also looked back to the 1930s. There were always times when the company was not doing all that well and it was motorsport that gave the brand an extra push. It had worked on those occasions, and I had something like that at the back of my mind. Then something happened which helped us. Our tuning partner at the time, Hans-Werner Aufrecht, got together with Burkhard Bovensiepen to devise a new set of regulations for production car sport, and the two of them founded the ITR. HWA lobbied vigorously within the company to get involved in the series. That eventually happened in 1988.
How hard was it to get motorsport re-established in the group?
Jürgen Hubbert: We had a fight on our hands initially. The company was directing its attention to other areas up to 1995 when Jürgen Schrempp came along and said: “Back to the car!” Up to that point, it had always been a struggle. Werner Niefer was essentially on our side, as was his successor from 1993, Helmut Werner. I still remember when we became Formula 1 world champions in 1998. At that time, I was in Japan with Dieter Zetsche. We won the world championship in the final race, picked up the trophy, dashed for the plane, booked an extra seat for this huge cup and flew to Detroit. We wanted to meet up with our Chrysler board colleagues at Auburn Hills and present them with the trophy. We both imagined that we would be warmly congratulated. But our American colleagues took one look at the trophy and asked “What’s that?”. They couldn’t understand why we had turned up with a cup from a racing series none of them had ever heard of. Fortunately, the enthusiasm for motor racing within the group has since changed for the better.
How important was the DTM for the development of Mercedes and AMG?
Jürgen Hubbert: As I said, at first it was mainly about giving the brand – and especially the 190 model – a more positive and sporty image. With the 190, we were entering a new market segment in 1982. Long before I joined the board, we were racing with the 190. For example, with Senna at the Nürburgring, just to show that the cars were suited for that purpose as well. Then there were the world record attempts at Nardo. But the biggest push came with our entry in the DTM, and that brought our first successes on the track. Parallel with that, interest grew in performance-enhanced vehicles sporting the Mercedes AMG badge.
So success in the DTM helped the brand a lot in the 1990s?
Jürgen Hubbert: Absolutely! If you’re the sort of person with a feel for fast cars, where else can you get to see them close up? In the DTM, the fans stand next to the racing cars. We have consistently made a point of facilitating that. Norbert Haug was always a marketing man who wanted to involve customers. From very early on, we had lavish hospitality suites where customers were welcome to come. And Norbert made sure that the drivers put in an appearance as well. The public came within touching distance not only of the cars but also of the drivers. Then we had the idea of the ‘race taxi’. These are all things that had the desired effect. For example, I went to Hockenheim with my whole team, and all of my departmental and divisional heads got a ride in a racing car. Every one of them came back with a twinkle in their eye. That motivated people inside and outside the company. We achieved the impact that we had set out to achieve. And the fact that our recent successes in Formula 1 have made Mercedes such a dominant force today all goes back to this concept.
You just mentioned Norbert Haug. I read an interview with a former Audi high-up who said that Mercedes was the first brand to recognise the vital role of marketing in motor racing. How did you reach the decision to make a journalist a director of motorsport?
Jürgen Hubbert: In Jochen Neerpasch, we had someone who understood the business, but he had no idea about marketing. He concerned himself with the drivers, the regulations and all sorts of other important things. And ultimately, the decision was made. I narrowed it down to two excellent candidates and, strangely enough, both had worked at “Auto, Motor und Sport”. Both of them were interviewed by Werner Niefer. You know how it is: “Where are you from?” – “From Pforzheim!” – “Ah, from Pforzheim – that’s half the battle!” That was enough to put the other out of the running. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
Which drivers have been the defining faces of Mercedes in the 30 years of the DTM?
Jürgen Hubbert: At the very beginning, it was Roland Asch. He was so down to earth, of course, and he talked the local Swabian dialect, which went down very well around here. And he was also very fast. We had a few whose name you heard once, maybe twice, and after that nothing much again. There are some names that even I can’ t remember. Among the names that were influential you would certainly include Jörg van Ommen and Kurt Thiim. And then along came Klaus Ludwig. He came to us from Ford and was the big star until Bernd Schneider arrived. But Ellen Lohr was also a star, because she was the first woman to win a race. The ex-Formula 1 racing drivers Mika Häkkinen, Jean Alesi, David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher were also important to us and to the DTM, of course.
What is the strangest race that you saw in 30 years of the DTM?
Jürgen Hubbert: The AVUS – because a car slid over the finish line upside down! That was just amazing. It was Dieter Quester in a BMW. He came out of the banked corner, collided with another car, hit the tyre wall and flipped over on his roof. I was there when it happened. We were always conscious of the risk to life and limb. In that area, we got two things right. We campaigned on the issue of safety right from the start, both in the development of touring cars and in Formula 1. Mercedes has participated in many technical developments, for example in the HANS head restraint and also in many previous initiatives. As a result, the FIA and ITR have always spoken to Mercedes first when some new safety precaution became necessary.
How important was the DTM for series production during this time?
Jürgen Hubbert: Motorsport is about testing certain developments under extreme conditions in an extremely short time. Things that take months, sometimes years, in a standard test can be tried out under race conditions within a matter of weeks to see if they work or not. The stress test that motorsport provides can definitely be helpful.
What was the most gratifying victory in the DTM?
Jürgen Hubbert: It’s hard to say. The sensation generated by Ellen Lohr’s victory was obviously extraordinary. She was the first woman to win a DTM race. And then there were our years of dominance at the Norisring – in ‘enemy country’, so to speak.
And what was the best championship?
Jürgen Hubbert: In Formula 1, that’s easy to answer. We started out in 1994, and it didn’t work out at all. We just went from one setback to another. Cars in which the engine blew up on the home straight on the penultimate lap – and in front of massive audiences. 1994, 1995 and 1996 were catastrophic years, but then in 1997, Ron said: “It’s coming, it’s coming! You can smell it!” And I thought, “What’s he on about?” And then we won in Australia. That was 1997 – the first Mercedes win – with David Coulthard at the wheel. And next year, we finished as world champions. You cannot beat that, even though every race and every season has its own narrative. And in the DTM... of course, the first successes were important, but every championship is always special. The most amazing moment was when we heard over the Audi radio: “Push him out of the way!” You could never imagine that a sporting director would say something like that to his driver, and that the driver would then go and do it.
Which brand did you most enjoy competing against in the DTM? And which brand did you take most satisfaction in beating?
Jürgen Hubbert: That has always been BMW. They are our natural competitors, right through to the present. Audi came on the scene much later. And we knew, of course, that Herr von Kuenheim had put together his team at the time and drummed into them the mantra: “ Beat Mercedes! We want to be out in front!” But we were also in it for the sporting challenge and for the sake of the series itself. Otherwise, we would have got out when all the other brands left instead of competing in a German-Italian championship. We said to ourselves, this series is too valuable to be thrown away. Despite the not inconsiderable expense, and we weren’t popular in the company for that reason either, because there was this opportunity to beat Fiat and Alfa Romeo. “So what!” But it proved to be the correct choice. The DTM is today the second-most attractive championship after Formula 1.
How did the revival of the DTM come about in 2000?
Jürgen Hubbert: Hans-Werner Aufrecht fought incredibly hard for it. Of course, he had our backing and knew that we would play our part. That’s why he was able to lobby and say: “Mercedes can be relied on, so it will be worthwhile for you too.” A good reason for Audi and BMW, to join in again. So it was all settled pretty quickly.
What was the most spectacular DTM car for you?
Jürgen Hubbert: A coupé always looks better than a saloon car. But essentially, the cars have become more attractive with each new generation. When I look at the spoiler on the 190 23 -16, I still cannot understand how that ever got approval for use on the road.
In your opinion, what was the golden age of the DTM?
Jürgen Hubbert: The beginning was great, but with an emphasis on ‘great’ in the sense of size. In the first season, there were over 50 drivers in the starting line‑up, and confusion reigned. There were some talented individuals who developed into world-class drivers, and there were also amateurs there who were just along for the ride. It was an exploratory phase. There was no broad public appeal either. Then the manufacturers came up with an extensive support programme. The live TV broadcasts on ARD also contributed to the growing popularity of the series. The fact that Formula 1 drivers signed up for the DTM says something about the quality of the races and their significance for motorsport as a whole.
How would you complete the following sentence? “For me personally, the 30 years in the DTM have been...”
Jürgen Hubbert: “... a marvellous experience which has helped to boost the attractiveness of the Mercedes brand, just as we intended.”