BMW is a team with no time to waste – not if it is to overcome Ferrari and McLaren for its first win in F1
By Rob Widdows
The man is immaculate, not a hair out of place, not a crease in the crisp white shirt, the black shoes dazzling. Immaculate in manner and speech too, the sentences clipped and considered, the eyes behind the twinkling spectacles friendly but revealing very little.
Dr Mario Theissen, director of motor sport at BMW-Sauber F1, is an engineer through and through, a man with a sharp brain that cuts to the chase. There is precious little chit-chat, a feeling that time is tight, that he really ought to be getting on with business. He glances again at his watch, asks me how long this will take, what is it that I want to know? I want to know if he thinks BMW can ever get to grips with Ferrari and McLaren.
“Yes, I think so, but it will not be easy.” The response is instant. “We’ve made good progress so far, coming from eighth to fifth and now to third – some might say second” – he smiles to underline the meaning of this political point – “and now to bridge the gap between us and the front runners will be the hardest job. We have been about half a second behind Ferrari and McLaren but to close this gap will be a huge challenge. They are the strongest and most experienced teams on the grid and we know they will make a lot of progress over the winter. So, as I say, to close this gap will be hard and it will mean that we have to develop faster than them, simple as that, and yes, the task is huge. But we managed to make progress during our first two seasons and we are very committed to doing this again – we need to get as close as possible so that when the opportunity comes we are ready to win our first race. This last step is the hardest, absolutely.”
Some say the team should take more risks, be a little more daring.
“I think we are doing that already,” he says. “The 2008 car will incorporate bigger changes than we had with its predecessor but if you do everything like your competitors do it, then clearly all you will do is close the gap, you will never get in front of them. So we continue to focus on excellence of engineering; that is the BMW way. And I must say that this is why Formula 1 is the natural stage for us to demonstrate our competencies as a car manufacturer, like innovative technology, dynamics, a sporting image and – last but not least – a car that is fun to drive.”
But success in Grand Prix racing demands that little something extra, yes? A harder edge?
“Yes. It takes excellence, in all areas. That is why we are there. You ask if we need a Michael Schumacher or a Ross Brawn? OK, we need drivers who are able to win races, yes, and we need engineers who are able to put a car on the grid which is able to win races. Of course these are the ingredients. We are growing into this role, we have people with this potential, and I am confident that we will get there with these people.”
Yes, but that doesn’t exactly answer the question. Surely a superstar makes a difference?
Dr Theissen looks me very straight in the eye, and there’s a moment of impatience. “Look, the likes of Schumacher, or Hamilton, add several components to a team – including some that perhaps you would not want to have,” he smiles. “So it is down to the individuals that we have to create a winning formula, and that is what we have been doing.
“To make clear what I have said already about drivers, I am very sure that when we have a car on the grid that is able to win races, then Nick [Heidfeld] and Robert [Kubica] will win races. They have what it takes.”
He is aware, no doubt, that Lewis Hamilton has gone on the record as saying that Kubica is the only man on the grid that he fears.
“I have nothing to add to that,” says Theissen.
Moving swiftly on then, what about the political maelstrom that swept through F1 in 2007? The espionage, the accusations, the fines and the poisonous clouds that hung over the sport?
“As long as these things do not affect BMW, then we are not so concerned,” he says. “Certainly we would not want to get into any of these situations ourselves as a company. It is not good for the sport to have too much of the kind of troubles we have seen in the last season. But we have seen this sort of thing in other major sports and, while much of it may be avoidable, it does attract a certain amount of attention from people who are otherwise not interested in Formula 1. In that sense there is more publicity but it is not the way we would like to see extra publicity generated.”
Can we venture into the machinations of the FIA, touch on the new rules? We can.
“I have some sympathy for Max Mosley and the FIA,” he begins. “We do need to make sure that the energy, the resources and the budget that we put into F1 are directed in such a way that gives us something back. Some of the costs, some of the expenditure by the bigger teams, simply does not make sense. A thousand dollars for a wheelnut, for example. There is no sense in spending such large sums of money, and effort, on things which only produce the slightest potential advantage over the competition when in terms of technology they are just not relevant to the rest of the world. I sympathise with a desire to reduce costs, as long as we open up new areas and focus our engineering resources on areas which will give not just the team an advantage, but also the car industry as a whole. I am happy to support investment that benefits a broader market, not just an F1 team.”
Not surprisingly, as a doctor of mechanical engineering, Theissen is not satisfied with some of the new rules, specifically those that frustrate further excellence and innovation.
“I do not like the introduction of the common ECU for the engines,” he says. “In my view this is a mistake. It is not good for us, or for F1. But we can try to be more environmentally acceptable. At BMW we have fully supported the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) and we have been behind this from day one. The more we develop KERS, the more I am convinced that the system will be an unprecedented and an undisputed way for F1 to pioneer a technology we would not otherwise have seen in road cars for several years. We are speeding up the development of energy recovery – we will have technology in our cars only 15 months from now which is just not available today. You can be sure that road car technology will strongly benefit from the speed and momentum we gain from developing these systems for F1 cars. This is an exciting aspect of the way the sport is moving and, while F1 will never be green, we can at least develop technologies that will greatly improve the quality of our road cars. BMW supports this, especially as CO² emissions are such an important topic in the world today.”
He’s looking at that expensive watch again. Time then to consider the position of BMW in Grand Prix racing in 2008. No longer just an engine supplier, the company has nowhere to hide, nobody else to blame. Mario Theissen is comfortable with progress thus far.
“It became very clear to us, in the years before 2005, that we were not in the perfect situation, not in the perfect partnership, as an engine supplier. That led us to make the decision to take over responsibility for the whole project; once you do that, you have total control and it should be a better situation all round. It is paying off, it is developing as expected, and it is more rewarding. We want to win our first race in 2008; it is on our agenda, that is very clear.”
In Munich, and in Hinwil, there is not a soul unaware of this agenda, and sights are firmly trained on the targets from Woking and Maranello. As Dr Theissen says, catching up is one thing, overtaking quite another. Just one aspect of a new season that promises plenty.
In it to win it
History shows that BMW is committed to sporting success
BMW had already won numerous motorcycle championships before starting car racing with the 328 and taking victory in the 1940 Mille Miglia. After the war there was more success on two wheels, and then in 1960 Hans Stuck Sr won the German hillclimb championship.
In 1980, seeing the turbo Grand Prix formula as a way of improving and promoting its high-performance road cars, BMW revealed a partnership with the Brabham team. Paul Rosche’s compact four-cylinder engine produced 650bhp and later up to 1400bhp in qualifying spec. In 1983, Nelson Piquet (above), Brabham and BMW won the world championship. It had taken just 630 days from the engine’s first appearance.
In 1987 the turbo era ended and BMW pulled out, having achieved what it set out to do.
BMW entered Formula 1 again in 2000, supplying V10 normally-aspirated engines to Williams, but this coincided with a loss of form at the team and, despite some wins, a championship eluded them. Meanwhile communications between Munich and Grove were not always cordial; by 2005 both sides had had enough and BMW once again walked away. But this time, not for long.
In 2006 it bought the Sauber team and became a fully-fledged F1 manufacturer. Building the V8 engines in Munich and assembling the cars in Hinwil, Mario Theissen has over the past two years gradually created a front-running team. Now the BMW board and shareholders expect the race team to deliver victories while also promoting new road car technologies.
Thus far they have supported the FIA’s proposals for a “greener Formula 1” but no major manufacturer, with the possible exception of Toyota, will stay with this kind of expense unless it starts to win. BMW is firmly committed to motor sport, but manufacturers will not tolerate another season of scandal. BMW is a serious, image-conscious company and, unlike the independent teams, does not rely on racing for its existence.
As history proves, BMW comes to the races to do a job, and when the job is done it goes away to regroup. In this latest guise, the job is not yet done.