The success of British drivers in the past 20 years of the DTM has been considerable. Gary Paffett, Jamie Green and Paul di Resta tallied a combined 51 wins, 41 poles and three titles between 2004 and 2019. In eight of those 16 seasons, one of the trio was either champion or runner-up. Paffett came close to adding to his brace of titles on four occasions, in 2010 finishing second to di Resta in a British 1-2.
But, for the past 12 months, the German category that morphed from a manufacturer-based touring car series into a GT3 championship for customer teams has had no British drivers whatsoever. Green’s contract wasn’t renewed by Audi and he dropped off the grid at the end of the final Class 1 season in 2020, with Esmee Hawkey the sole representative when the DTM rebooted in 2021. She lost her drive when the T3 Motorsport Lamborghini squad disappeared after last year’s Lausitzring round.
Now the unprecedented modern-era absence of a British driver from the DTM is ending with the arrival of sportscar rising star Jack Aitken at newly-aligned Ferrari outfit Emil Frey Racing. But his nationality is only one reason why the one-time Formula 1 race starter is arguably the most significant of the new 2023 intake, which includes his team-mate (and the son of Max Verstappen’s manager) Thierry Vermeulen.
“At that time DTM was probably one of the best things you could do outside of F1,” Aitken says when asked about that halcyon period for British participation. “I think it still is, but it’s a bit different now obviously.”
The fact he’s not doing the full DTM season and will prioritise a factory programme in a prototype over racing at Zandvoort is testament to that. Aitken will be on IMSA SportsCar Championship duty for Cadillac in the Watkins Glen 6 Hours, reprising his role as third driver for the Endurance Cup rounds. Victorious at Sebring with Action Express, his transatlantic programme for 2023 has seen him entered for the Spa World Endurance Championship round (although a fire in practice and Renger van der Zande’s race-ending shunt limited his mileage) and will include a crack at outright Le Mans glory next month.
It’s been a rapid rise for Aitken since he took the plunge into sportscars in 2021, despite suffering a broken collarbone and fractured vertebra in a serious Spa 24 Hours crash that interrupted his maiden season in GT World Challenge Europe with Emil Frey.
He continued in the GTWCE Endurance Cup last year and took a podium in the Barcelona finale, and combined it with a race-winning ADAC GT Masters programme alongside Albert Costa – the driver who will replace him at Zandvoort’s DTM meeting. But it was his impressive showings in a prototype, helping his TF Sport-run Racing Team Turkey outfit to secure the European Le Mans Series LMP2 Pro-Am title, that brought Aitken onto the horizons of Cadillac for his first sportscar factory gig.
Aitken's strong showings in 2022 helped him earn a factory drive with Cadillac in prototype racing, and he's already ticked a Sebring victory off his bucket list
Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images
He’d been in the frame for an IndyCar switch and tested for Ed Carpenter Racing in December 2021 but says “budget was always a concern” and so did a late deal with TF alongside his GT3 programme that meant he had to miss Spa. But he secured three class wins from his five starts and was regularly entrusted with qualifying duties - snaring pole for the final round in Portimao proved well-timed for his 2023 contract discussions. Aitken was signed by Cadillac ahead of the first tests with the new V-Series.R LMDh car in December having “never met the team before” putting pen to paper.
“It was a lot of faith that they showed, signing me blind like that,” he says.
Victory at Sebring went some way to repaying that, although the circumstances were somewhat fortuitous as a clash between the battling Porsche of Mathieu Jaminet and Filipe Albuquerque’s Acura also wiped out Jaminet’s team-mate Felipe Nasr. Like the parting of the Red Sea, Aitken came through from fourth to claim the spoils in the car he shared with Pipo Derani and Alexander Sims.
“Very lucky, you can just say it,” Aitken replies when Autosport broaches the subject. “It’s always a weird feeling when you roll into victory lane and you’re like, ‘I’m not really sure I should be here’. But you have to remember all of the times in motorsport when it’s been snatched away from you and there are many, so sometimes you just deserve a bit of it to come back your way.
“If you drive the same car again and again, it’s great to a point. But you can get stuck into habits and you need to have some elasticity as a driver – that you can jump into something and just be OK with it” Jack Aitken
“And we were there, it was a real dogfight in the race to get even into that position of fourth. So I’ll take it. It’s a race with huge historical significance, so I feel quite fortunate to have that so early in my prototype career.”
In both prototype racing and DTM, where he’s campaigning the new ORECA-built 296 GT3, Aitken has a key role in developing new machinery this season. The situation he concedes is “a double-edged sword” and is not without its frustrations as “inevitably you get tripped up at certain points, issues that never reared their head in 20 hours of testing suddenly pop up during a race”. But he says it’s also hugely rewarding “because you can have a bit more of a guiding hand in what things get addressed” and ultimately, he knows, will bring valuable experience to his toolkit.
Another important experience will be driving solo in DTM, for the first time since his final Formula 2 outings in 2021 with HWA. The focus on one driver puts a premium on nailing set-ups for ultimate speed in a way that is not possible in most sportscar disciplines due to the innate compromise involved with sharing a car. Put simply, there is nowhere to hide.
But with Emil Frey the only Ferrari entrant, Aitken will reap full reward when the car is on song, much as Nick Cassidy and Felipe Fraga were able to do with the AF Corse-run Red Bull Ferrari 488 last year. Both were race winners in their first season in the category, a feat Aitken has a clear eye on repeating in a car that claimed its first major endurance racing victory in last weekend's Nurburgring 24 Hours with the Frikadelli team.
Aitken will have to get used to solo driving again, having not done so since his final Formula 2 races in 2021
Photo by: Alexander Trienitz
“If we can get to a point mid-season, end of season where we’re winning races, that would be pretty mega,” he says. Despite being a series newcomer, Emil Frey has recent experience of the Pirelli rubber DTM will switch to this year from its exploits in GTWCE and GT Masters, compared to DTM-only squads that have had to adapt their set-ups from Michelin. And, after all, Schubert Motorsport was a constant frontrunner and won the title with Sheldon van der Linde in its first season in the championship with the new BMW M4 GT3 last year.
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Also in Aitken’s favour is his season in GT Masters in 2022, which has given him experience of the more esoteric tracks on the 2023 DTM calendar - which has taken a back-to-basics approach after visiting Portimao, Imola and Spa last year. This year, its only trips beyond Germany are to Zandvoort and the Red Bull Ring, as Oschersleben and the Sachsenring both return to the calendar.
“They’re not really places that you drive unless you’re doing these German GT championships so to have done that last year is going to be really helpful I think,” he says. “And otherwise just dealing with cold tyres, because you’re also not allowed the tyre warmers in GT Masters. This year obviously we all put new tyres in the pitstop as well, where in GT Masters you carry on with hot tyres, and I think everybody in testing is agreeing it’s quite challenging.”
Aitken is enjoying all the seat time he’s getting this year, as “the more often I drive and the more variety that I drive, the better I am” and sees his dual programme only as an asset.
“Cadillac have been very helpful, they’re quite keen for me to do more racing where I can,” he says, fresh off a first Formula E test in Berlin with Envision Racing. “If you drive the same car again and again, it’s great to a point. But you can get stuck into habits and you need to have some elasticity as a driver – that you can jump into something and just be OK with it.
“This year I’m really enjoying that with the Cadillac and the Ferrari on the GT side. That’s why I wanted to make sure I had the DTM stuff as well as the prototypes.”
Sooner or later, there will be a decision to make. And that leads onto the other reason Aitken’s arrival in DTM is significant. He’s upfront in admitting that continuing to juggle multiple programmes may not be feasible in the long run, and it remains to be seen how DTM will stack up when the time comes for Aitken to weigh up his options.
Aitken believes his previous experience from GT Masters will aid his cause in DTM, but concedes juggling multiple programmes may not be suitable in the long run
Photo by: Alexander Trienitz
“We’ll see where we land at the end of this year,” he says. “Sometimes it’s better to try and keep things neat and tidy in one package. Some drivers have tried to make it work with two or three factory deals but it always seems a bit messy. So the aim for me is to try and consolidate things but to keep racing as much as possible.”
But, if Aitken can end the year with his reputation further enhanced by direct comparison against the likes of Rene Rast and Mirko Bortolotti, the former expected to join the Lamborghini man in racing Hypercars full-time next year with BMW, then it may well convince others in similar situations looking to fill their weekends – or on the cusp of a factory prototype deal – to consider the DTM as a destination to underline what they can do.
As a single-driver series, its position in the sportscar universe is a unique one, which may play to the DTM’s advantage when it comes to attracting talent even if aficionados would bristle at the idea of it being considered a feeder series.
However it plays out, there will be plenty of people watching how Aitken gets on this year. Which is just as it should be.
Success for Aitken could lead to other drivers adding DTM rounds to their schedules in future
Photo by: Alexander Trienitz2023-05-25T12:39:41Z dg43tfdfdgfd