It's nice to be wrong sometimes.
Just ask Canadian Bruno Spengler who headed into his 2012 Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) season looking to help BMW learn the ropes in its return to the highly competitive German touring car series after two decades away.
Instead, Spengler won the season drivers' title, led his Schnitzer outfit to the team title, and scored the lion's share of the points that delivered the manufacturers' crown to BMW.
"It was a huge surprise for all of us that we were on the same level [as rivals Audi and Mercedes] right from the start," he said.
"It was definitely something we did not expect and it was an amazing season. I knew we were going to win races with BMW because I knew how good they are, but I thought it was a question of time due to our inexperience."
"The performance that we had to win the drivers', team, and manufacturers' championships in our first year just shows what an amazing brand BMW is."
Spengler scored an impressive victory in a late October winner-take-all, pressure-cooker season finale in Hockenheim to edge ahead of Mercedes driver Gary Paffett in the title race by a scant four points.
Spengler joined BMW this year after seven seasons with Mercedes in DTM. The Bavarian manufacturer returned to the DTM series in 2012 after leaving the sport in the early 1990s. Prior to going back to DTM, factory-backed BMW sedans raced in the World Touring Car Championship and the American LeMans Series.
The 2012 DTM championship made Spengler the first Canadian to win a major international, professional racing title since Jacques Villeneuve took the Formula One driver's crown in 1997. He is the first North American to win a DTM race and championship. While he's raced in Europe for a decade and often goes unrecognized in his home country, flying the Maple Leaf abroad is always something special for Spengler.
"I am definitely very proud to be the first Canadian to win the DTM championship," he said.
"I am very proud to carry the Canadian colours high in DTM and it is something I find amazing. I would really like to have us race in Canada – I don't know how true or possible it is, but I would love to race at home in Montreal."
The manufacturers in DTM have made rumblings about wanting to showcase it on this side of the Atlantic and Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve has been floated as a possible venue in 2014.
Until that happens, Spengler's only regular appearance at home will be during the Christmas holidays, although he tries to make a trip during the summer when his racing schedule allows. This year, he arrives in Canada a few days after Christmas to spend a few weeks with friends and family before returning to Europe to prepare his 2012 championship defence.
Although he had been with Mercedes since he moved to Europe to race in the F3 Euroseries as a member of its driver development program in 2003, Spengler jumped to rival BMW following the 2011 season.
While Spengler would never say so, many feel his failure to get a F1 test with one of the Mercedes-powered teams weighed heavily in the decision, especially since the manufacturer offered the privilege to other DTM drivers. Most insiders felt he deserved a shot at an F1 test after he finished second overall twice and was never worse than fifth in points once he moved to a factory Mercedes team in 2006.
Although some might conclude that racing against Mercedes brought added motivation, Spengler dismissed any suggestion that beating his old ally played a role in the title finally coming to him.
"I haven't done anything different this year – I am the same guy," he said.
"If you look at last year, I was the driver going for the championship. I have had some bad luck, but I came close to winning the championship four times and there was no reason to think I couldn't win it."
But he added quickly that it is always a team effort to win a championship in any series, and DTM is no different.
Simply put, he added, a driver giving 100 per cent is not enough to win in a series like DTM where strong rivals fight hard in every aspect of the racing, from the battles for position on track to beating your opponents' times in pitstops.
"It was very important to me to bring BMW up to the front as quickly as possible, but behind me I had great support, great people, motivated people, and everybody working in the same direction," he said.
"I had a lot of fun with the team this year and I always felt really well supported. This is really important because it's a team effort – we all won together this year."
Whatever the reason, the move to the new manufacturer suited the 29-year-old from St-Hippolyte, Que., who was easily the leader of the BMW field. Spengler scored four wins and 149 points, while the make's other five drivers took home a total of one victory and 197 markers. Drivers get 25 points for a win in DTM.
Looking back on the season, it's easy to see that his dominant victory in the second race at the Euro Speedway Lausitz circuit was a clear indication of things to come. At the time, Spengler was pleased to get BMW onto the top step of the podium early, although he was a bit surprised that the win came so quickly. But Spengler admitted that he certainly didn't think that the victory had put the DTM title in play.
"At that point I thought: 'OK, we had a great weekend, the car was amazing, but we still have to learn at every track' because more or less it was all was new to us," he said.
"I only started really thinking that the title was possible after Zandvoort. We started 18th and finished sixth and still managed to be ahead of Gary Paffett, and picked up a few points on him. At that moment, I felt we had a chance if we carried on that way."
In the Dutch race, Spengler started near the back of the 22-car grid because he and the team misjudged the times his rivals would put in on a drying track and it cost him dearly.
The Zandvoort performance punctuated the kind of comeback spirit that Spengler and BMW showed in 2012. After the first four races, the BMW driver was 40 points behind leader Paffett before he outscored him 106-62 in the next six races and didn't finish behind his title rival once. He trailed his rival in points until the clutch victory in the finale delivered the title.
"It wasn't easy for sure – they were hard races," said Spengler.
"We never kind of thought: 'Yeah, this is fun, we are catching up.' We knew we had the possibility but we really had to keep our heads down, push hard and try to optimize everything we could. The one who is ahead always has a bit of an advantage and we were always a bit behind."
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