Sitting in a busy breakfast spot on Montreal’s Île des Soeurs wearing a long-sleeved white t-shirt and blue jeans, German touring car star Bruno Spengler easily blends in and goes virtually unnoticed by his fellow diners.
Competing in the DTM Series that enjoys little exposure in North America, means the 28-year-old doesn't get the recognition afforded other Canadian racers who stayed closer to home.
Fame may have escaped Spengler so far, but he does have something many of his Canadian racing colleagues don't: A steady paycheque.
“I know how lucky I am to be able to make money doing what I love — not many people can say that,” he said.
“I know everything can change very quickly and you can end up with nothing, as you can end up with a lot of things suddenly. In motorsports you are very quickly a hero or you are very quickly a zero, so you have to always keep your feet firmly on the ground and do your own job without thinking too much about what others are doing.”
“In all the years I raced before I came to DTM, I was never sure I would be racing the next season. It was difficult to find sponsors and getting the money together was always the biggest issue. I also have to say that if it weren't for my parents, I would definitely not be where I am.”
Spengler arrived in Montreal on Saturday and will stay only a few days to do some Canadian media events for his new employer, BMW. Normally, he'd spend the holidays in Canada, but he's cutting his time short to return to Europe where his father is recovering from cardiac surgery.
As he moves to BMW's newly minted DTM team for 2012, Spengler will earn that coveted salary as he tries to get the German manufacturer up to speed in the highly competitive series. While racing at the level of the experienced Audi and Mercedes outfits will be a tall order, Spengler relishes the chance to get the job done.
“It's something very motivating for me. Getting a great opportunity at BMW is an amazing thing and it's a great feeling to have a manufacturer like them coming to you,” he said.
“I am at one of the best manufacturers in the world racing in the best touring car series in the world. For a driver, it's a real challenge going to a new team, so I am really happy to be able to do it.”
Two years ago, BMW announced its intention to return to the German touring car in 2012 after two decades away from DTM. The Canadian was announced as one of its six drivers in late October.
Spengler makes the switch to BMW following seven years with Mercedes in DTM. Joining Spengler with the Bavarian manufacturer are reigning DTM champion Martin Tomczyk, three-time World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) titlist Andy Priaulx, WTCC veteran driver Augusto Farfus, 2011 24 Hours of Daytona co-winner, Joey Hand. One empty seat remains.
“We have very good drivers and we have a good package — we are all looking forward to the season,” he said.
“It might take a bit of time before we are right up front, but BMW is a great brand and they have been successful in everything they have done. They also have good experience from Formula One, the WTCC, and they were very successful this year in GT [in the American Le Mans Series]with the M3.”
One area Spengler feels the team will need to concentrate on is getting pitstops and race strategy right, two things that are always keys to winning in DTM. And with the first race only four months away in late April, there isn't a lot of time to relax.
Spengler will be back in his new car in late January or early February for a test, although the location has not been finalized.
The St-Hippolyte, Que., native began his DTM career in 2005 driving a year-old car as a learning experience. After moving up to the factory team in 2006, Spengler showed his mettle, winning 11 times in 62 starts.
“Definitely my best memory with Mercedes is my first DTM victory in 2006 at the Norisring in 2006,” he said.
“Also, my win at Munich this year in the first ever race in the Olympic stadium was really cool. There was such a great atmosphere there and it was really fun.”
Between 2006 and 2011, Spengler took the most poles (11), put in the most fastest laps (12) and outscored all other DTM drivers in points (306). He also finished on the podium on 26 occasions. A title contender in four of the six seasons he spent with the factory team, the top prize always found a way to elude Spengler. He finished second in 2006 and 2007 and then ended the year third overall in 2010 and 2011.
One thing that also never happened in his time with Mercedes was a Formula One test, something he hoped would materialize as a result of his stellar DTM performances. While disappointed that he didn’t get the chance to drive a grand prix car, Spengler has no regrets about his time with Mercedes.
“I had great years at Mercedes, won races and was very close to winning the championship four times,” he said.
“I had great support from Mercedes and [its motorsport boss]Norbert [Haug] from the very beginning — he gave me the opportunity to drive in DTM and I am very thankful for that. I am here because my career started with Mercedes.”
The Canadian signed as a Mercedes Junior Driver and headed to Europe in 2003 after winning the North American Formula Renault championship the previous year. A violent crash while testing an F3 Euroseries car almost ended things before they got going when the then aspiring driver suffered broken vertebrae in his back.
“I really thought it didn't look good at all. At first the doctors told me I would be out for six months, which is the whole season, and it was almost like the end of the world for me,” he said.
“I did about four hours of physiotherapy five days a week and after three months I was back in the car. In my second race, I finished on the podium in third and then I got two more podiums, so it was a good end to the year.”
Spengler stayed in F3 for 2004 but had a difficult year where he, along with teammate and future F1 driver Robert Kubica, struggled to find speed in their Mucke Motorsport cars. Nevertheless, Spengler impressed his Mercedes backers enough to earn a DTM test at the end of the season where he ran as quickly as the manufacturer's regular drivers after only half a day in the car.
“Mercedes gave me a great opportunity to test a DTM and I had six years of great cars, great fun, great experiences and meeting great people racing with them,” he said.
“Now I am very excited about the future and really looking forward to being with BMW and winning races and being on podiums as soon as we can.”
And, while slow, the recognition is coming too for Spengler. The customs official at Montreal’s Trudeau Airport looked at his passport upon arrival and asked if he was the DTM driver. And before he left the restaurant, he signed an autograph for one of the staff.
Correction: BMW will have six drivers in the 2012 DTM Series.
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