Despite a lack of mileage in pre-season testing, Esmee Hawkey had a remarkable DTM debut: after an impressive qualifying, she battled with seasoned drivers and just managed to finish ahead of Sophia Floersch, who had spent most of the race in third place due to a different strategy.
The first race of the new DTM era was delivered highly spectacular racing and provided exciting battles - and a maiden victory on home soil for Ferrari in the series.
It was a day of many first times: DTM's first visit to the Temple of Speed; the first race under the GT3 regulations; the first entry for manufacturers like Ferrari and Lamborghini, and the first DTM start for highly ranked drivers switching to the popular German series.
Among them are two exciting up-and-coming talents: former FIA F3 and current WEC driver Sophia Floersch and Esmee Hawkey - who had previously raced in the DTM platform in the inaugural season of the all-female F3 championship W Series.
Floersch announced in March a double-campaign in WEC and DTM: a very demanding schedule for the young German driver, who had made her endurance and sports cars debut last year and finished her first ever Le Mans 24 Hours in the top-10.
Thanks to her partnership with electronics giant Schaeffler, Floersch will drive the #99 Audi R8 LMS GT3 Evo by team ABT Sportsline.
"First of all I'm really happy to be racing in DTM this year, with ABT. It's a big opportunity for me that Schaeffler made possible." - she commented. "But of course GT and touring cars in general is something new for me: I'm used to single-seaters and cars with more aerodynamics." - explained Floersch. "Also, ABS is something completely new. But I'm getting there, I did some test days and I'm getting better lap by lap."
With the same target of learning session after session, Esmee Hawkey was a very late addition to the series after her previous program had fallen through late on. Hawkey comes from a dominant victory in the Pro-Am class of the Porsche Carrera Cup GB, where she drove three seasons and extensively proved her skills at the wheel of the Porsche 991 GT3 Cup car.
"At the beginning of this season we were looking for something to do and in the racing world you're always looking to move up. I come from the Carrera Cup so it's a big jump into DTM." - said Esmee.
"My first plans came together and then disappeared quite late on in the season, when a lot of championships had already started", she continued. "Obviously I saw Sophia also in DTM and I think that it's great that DTM is promoting female empowerment and females in the series, so I thought why not add another one to the grid?"
"Without my sponsor ROKiT I wouldn't be sitting here, so big thanks to them for coming onboard so late in the season".
Having missed all-pre season testing, Hawkey also had a mountain to climb.
"I came on very late on, so I missed all the pre-season testing. We were able to fit a bit of testing in, but for me it has been a huge step up: I come from a car that has no ABS, so to learn that has been a huge step. Also, being in a GT3 car with some of the top guys in the world in motorsport - I've definitely thrown myself in the deep end but I have a great team and great support around me and the aim is just to learn throughout the whole season."
"I try to keep my expectations as low as possible - I am here just to do my best on track. You don't need the stress of expectations, we're here just to improve every time."
Vincent Abril scored the first pole position of the GT3 era, in a Mercedes 1-2-3-4 that saw DTM veterans Daniel Juncadella, Lucas Auer and Maximilian Götz lining up behind the Frenchman. In fifth place, the first of the two T3 Motorsport's Lamborghini of Esteban Muth preceded the Mercedes of Philip Ellis and the Ferrari or F2-racer Liam Lawson.
Nico Muller was the first Audi driver in eighth, ahead of Kelvin van der Linde. But one of the biggest surprises of the session was Esmee Hawkey, who finished 12th in her first DTM qualifying and was just over 7 tenths from pole position - and ahead of Formula 1 star Alexander Albon (AF Corse Ferrari), who finished P14.
Sophia Floersch had a more difficult session and was P19, as she continues to learn and adapt to the tricks of GT3 machinery.
Floersch had previously stated that braking would be one of the areas where she would need to adapt the most - and the Monza circuit will prove particularly demanding in this regard.
At the start of the first race of the weekend, Abril led Juncadella into the first chicane - as everyone navigated cleanly through the iconic Prima Variante. Lawson had a good start from seventh and was almost on the grass before the first big braking; the New Zealander gained a position and placed his Red Bull-sponsored Ferrari behind a train of five Mercedes.
Albon - right behind Hawkey at the first chicane - was looking menacing behind the ROKiT Lamborghini, but the British lady defended superbly throughout the first part of the race.
Timo Glock was off on the first lap in the gravel at Lesmo 2, but rejoined and got back ahead of Floersch at Parabolica.
On the main straight - and after just one lap - the Mercedes of fourth-placed Ellis slowed down suddenly and the Winward Racing driver was forced to retire, parking his car in the escape road at Prima Variante.
Just one lap later, a similar fate awaited Team Rosberg's Dev Gore: the American was hit by Timo Glock at the first chicane and was sent into a spin. His beached Audi R8 required the intervention of the marshals to be removed, but the race remained green.
Esmee Hawkey battled hard with Alex Albon and the Thai driver made a move stick at Turn 1 on lap 5; Hawkey tried to switch back, but then had to defend from Sheldon van der Linde in the ROWE Racing BMW. After a small mistake at Parabolica, Esmee dropped to P13, behind the South African.
On lap 6, the first drivers dived into the pitlane for a very early pit stop: the two Audi of Nico Muller and Mike Rockenfeller were followed by Esmee Hawkey, who pitted for new tyres.
Kelvin van der Linde was not happy with having his pit area blocked by the pitcrew of another Audi and had a slower stop - just like Auer, who lost almost 10 positions due to an issue on the right-rear at the mandatory pit-stop.
After some close wheel-to-wheel action, Albon slotted behind the Audi of Muller and van der Linde after his stop, just before race leader Vincent Abril pitted.
Liam Lawson, who had stopped on lap 8, crucially got ahead of Abril and Juncadella with a firm move into Prima Variante on warmer tyres.
Sophia Floersch got back ahead of former F1 driver Timo Glock and opted for a very different strategy: together with Maximilian Buhk and Arjun Maini, Sophia stayed out and ran in third place for the majority of the race.
When the Audi early-stoppers started to struggle with tyre wear, it looked like the three front-runners could gain several places in the final stages with fresher rubber. On lap 21, though, Lawson caught up with Floersch and Maini, who were losing pace on very old tyres.
Sophia Floersch pitted on lap 23 and rejoined in P16, just behind Esmee Hawkey.
Meanwhile, Albon got ahead of Muller after contact at La Roggia - and the Swiss driver would also tangle with Juncadella at the same corner a few laps later.
After the round of pit stops, Lawson managed to keep Abril at bay, with Gotz safely in third.
Alex Albon battled with Juncadella for fourth and Kelvin van der Linde in fifth.
On new tyres, Sophia Floersch was approximately one second per lap faster than Hawkey and closed the gap from over 5 seconds to 2 seconds, but the Audi driver ran out of time before the chequered flag.
Liam Lawson became the youngest ever DTM winner at 19 years of age and gave Ferrari its first win in the series on home soil.
Esmee Hawkey and Sophia Floersch completed their debut races in P15 and P16 respectively.
“I’m so happy with how today has gone." - commented Esmee.
"Having had such little time in the car beforehand, there was so much to learn and get on top of and I didn’t really have any idea where we would stack up compared to everyone else."
“To qualify P12 ahead of people like Alex [Albon] and Timo [Glock] was a huge confidence boost and gave me a real buzz for the race. It was an exciting first few laps and my aim was to simply keep it on the track and avoid any possible dramas."
"I enjoyed my battle with Alex, I did my best to keep him behind for as long as I could but he just had that extra bit of pace. We pitted early in the race and I just kept chipping away in my second stint, managing the tyres. I’ve learnt so much and I can’t wait to get back in the car tomorrow. I’d also like to say a huge thanks to the team for all of their hard work, we’ve got a great base to build on from here.”
"Day 2 was mixed." - was Floersch's comment on social medias after the race. "Not where we wanna be yet but many details which need to fall into place so new push tomorrow trying to got for it."
The second qualifying will get underway at 10:10 local time, while Race 2 will go green at 13:30 CEST.