Van der Linde made a promising start to his DTM career last year, scoring points on a regular basis and even finishing fifth in only his second weekend at Zolder - despite BMW's obvious disadvantage to Audi at the start of the Class One era.
But the South African really came to the fore at the start of the 2020 season as he established himself as the top BMW driver in the opening round at Spa-Francorchamps. That was followed by a charging drive to second at Lausitzring, opening up the Bavarian manufacturer's podium account for the new campaign.
However, as van der Linde himself admitted, winning the race was “the last thing on my mind” when he lined up 14th on the grid for the second race on a damp Assen circuit. BMW had struggled to match Audi on one-lap pace at the Dutch venue, with the marque’s top qualifier Jonathan Aberdein lapping four tenths slower than polesitter Rene Rast in sixth.
Van der Linde made little progress in the opening stages of the race and was running down in 13th place, seemingly on his way to a disappointing non-points finish.
But BMW elected to bring him into the pits for fresh wet tyres on lap 10 of 31, which turned out to be decisive in him claiming a shock victory in front of a limited Dutch crowd.
Even though race leader Robin Frijns was running in clean air with a 10-second advantage up front, van der Linde was able to lap two-to-three seconds quicker on fresher tyres.
Van der Linde’s pace would have not been overlooked by Audi, especially after Lucas Auer and Timo Glock staged a similar undercut at the Lausitzring to claim a 1-2 finish for BMW. But given van der Linde was so far back, few would have expected the South African to leapfrog the race leaders and then hold on for victory.
When Frijns finally made his pitstop on lap 22, he emerged a few seconds behind van der Linde, who assumed the race lead for the first time.
Had the rest of the race been run in normal circumstances, Frijns and teammate Nico Muller could have pressurised the BMW driver for the race lead and likely passed him.
But Fabio Scherer crashed his WRT Audi heavily on slick tyres on lap 23, necessitating first a safety car and then a red flag. The stoppage allowed all drivers including van der Linde to change to fresh tyres, negating any disadvantage the BMW driver may have had.
The race resumed with a handful of minutes on the clock and van der Linde managed to do an impressive job of keeping the Abt Audi duo behind, scoring his maiden victory in the DTM - and the second for BMW in 2020.
Race winner Sheldon van der Linde, BMW Team RBM
While the red flag certainly played into the hands of van der Linde, the 21-year-old felt he may have hung onto victory even in the absence of it.
“Yeah, I think without the red flag we still had a very good chance,” he said. “We were quite far ahead of Robin. The tyres still felt pretty good and I only had 13 or 12 minutes left to race.
“For me the red flag was actually quite worrying because I knew everyone would close the gap to me and I had like a six-second lead or whatever at that point.
“So it was bit disappointing when I saw Fabio Scherer in the wall and the red flag announced. But in the end we managed it super-well. I’m just happy we got a good restart and we managed to stay at the front.”
Muller, however, disagreed with van der Linde’s views, believing both he and Frijns could have passed him with the kind of tyre advantage they had prior to Scherer’s incident.
“If only there was a safety car which backed the field up, I think Robin and myself would have been clearly in better shape,” he said. “I’m pretty sure we would have passed him, but would have, could have, it’s easy to say afterwards.
“I think without the red flag, let’s say a normal race, it would have been a fight for the win between Robin and myself, I’m pretty sure.
“Not to take credit away, Sheldon did a very good job. Last part of the race after the red flag. He still had to manage switching on those new tyres and he did that perfectly. Still yeah, congratulations. Credit to that, I don’t want to take anything away [from him].”