How BMW conquered F1 with Brabham and Piquet in 1983

BMW is quitting F1, its title ambitions in tatters. The same thing could have happened in the 1980s, but for an inspired Nelson Piquet and the stunning Brabham BT52

6 1983 Dutch GP Brabham Nelson Piquet

Brabham BT52 plus BMW's M12/13 equalled drivers' title success in 1983

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

If you ask me, the blokes on the board at BMW lost their nerve. “We communicated our 2009 target four years ago,” said Mario Theissen in Valencia at the roll-out of this year’s car, barely seven months ago. “We set out a plan aiming at the first points in 2006, the first podium in 2007, to win in 2008, and we then stated that we want to fight for the championship from this year onwards. So far all targets have been met, so there is no reason to abandon the final and most important target. We want to fight for the title with the two big teams and whoever else is up there.”

Then, in July, the members of the BMW board were faced with having to sign up to the new Concorde Agreement. They looked at this year’s results (eight points from 10 races at that juncture), decided they had a good reason to abandon that cherished target, and shut off the money supply forthwith. Now we’ll never know if they made a timely decision or if they surrendered a golden opportunity to follow Renault as a mass-market car manufacturer capable of beating all those dedicated racing teams at their own game by designing, building and steering their own car to a world title.

To put things in perspective, it’s worth looking back at the similar potential disaster which Munich faced in 1982. It was an ugly scene. BMW’s racing boss was in open conflict with Bernie Ecclestone, owner of the company’s racing partner, Brabham, and Ecclestone’s sponsor was in dispute with the car company.

In those days, however, drivers exerted more influence on team strategy than they would be allowed to do now, and it was only an open rebellion against Ecclestone by number one driver Nelson Piquet that resolved the rows. The reward for Piquet, BMW, Ecclestone and two groups of exceptionally talented technicians in Germany and England was the glorious drivers’ championship, which the Brazilian snatched out of the grasp of Alain Prost and Renault in the final race of the 1983 season.

3 1983 Brazilian GP Brabham Nelson Piquet

First Brabham-BMW win of 1983 came in Brazil

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Although BMW had become a consistent winning force in both touring car racing and Formula 2 throughout the ’70s, the company’s first F1 campaign was amazingly short-lived. It wasn’t until April 1980 that Munich officially announced it would be entering Grand Prix races, and although the first turbocharged BMW four-cylinder engine made its GP debut in the first race of the 1981 season, the whole programme was almost immediately put on hold while Piquet concentrated on winning the ’81 title using Cosworth-Ford power. The first victory with BMW came in June 1982 when Piquet won in Canada, but a series of irritating breakdowns meant that the second had to wait until March ’83, in Brazil. Although the Brazilian only won two more races that year, much-improved reliability and some close battling between all four drivers in the Renault and McLaren-TAG teams kept Piquet at the top of the points table and ultimately allowed him to steal the title.

Right from the first appearance of Renault’s ‘yellow teapot’ in July 1977, Ecclestone and the mainly British teams which formed part of the constructors’ association (FOCA) had demonstrated their strong philosophical opposition to the French company’s exploitation of the rules which permitted ‘supercharged’ 1.5-litre engines. By the end of 1980, though, even Ecclestone had to concede that the future lay with the new turbo technology. When BMW approached him, he agreed on a technical collaboration that the German company hoped would result in a BMW-engined Brabham being ready to race in 1981.

“Nelson just said ‘perfect, perfect, perfect’”

Piquet already had good contacts with several of BMW’s personnel. He had contested two 1000km races at the Nürburgring in works BMW M1s, each time with Hans Stuck co-driving, and they had won outright in 1981, the year the race was stopped following the fatal accident that claimed the life of Swiss driver Herbert Müller.

As soon as the first turbo-powered F1 Brabham ‘hack’ chassis was available, Piquet was there to test it. The car ran regularly throughout 1981, with Piquet – who could see the engine’s extraordinary potential – ready to go testing at every opportunity. As BMW’s popular racing boss Dieter Stappert told me 10 years later, the BMW board of directors was becoming just as anxious as Piquet to get it back into action again. Meanwhile, Brabham’s sponsor, the Italian giant Parmalat, insisted on seeing results and demanded that Ecclestone should run at least one car with the ancient but reliable Cosworth V8.

“Bernie said it would be too difficult and complicated to run two different types of car at the same time,” Stappert explained, “so we decided to postpone our race debut until the first GP of 1982 at Kyalami. I could understand Bernie’s attitude, because I had already been in racing for a long time. But it was difficult to explain all this to the board of BMW and to the German public. Anyway, we got over that…”

5 1983 British GP Brabham Nelson Piquet

Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone negotiated an engine deal with BMW

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The practical difficulties of making the BMW engine reliable were not so easy to surmount. “The first engines used a mechanical fuel injection system and the first time we tried the new [digital] Bosch Motronic engine management was at the end of 1981, in the pouring rain at Donington Park,” Stappert recalled. “That was a great test for us, because the Motronic worked perfectly. I remember Nelson coming in to the pits when it was so late in the day that all you could see on the car was the turbo glowing red on the left-hand side. He just said, ‘perfect, perfect, perfect.’

“The Bosch people were there, of course, so we told them to carry on their development programme but first to make three copies of the box we’d used at Donington, because we knew it was working well. That way we could carry on the chassis testing. But somehow Bosch screwed it up. Although we didn’t find out until much later, apparently in measuring the box someone put several hundred volts through it and it blew up in a little cloud of smoke. And they couldn’t get it back together.

“That was bad enough, but what made it worse was that they wouldn’t tell us what had happened. They insisted it was the same, even when Nelson complained. We then went testing at Paul Ricard, one of the most difficult times in my life, because in two weeks we blew something like 17 engines. Nelson was doing all the turbo testing whenever there was a car for him to run, while Riccardo [Patrese] had the Cosworth-engined car. That Brabham handled beautifully, and every day it seemed Riccardo broke the lap record. I was amazed how Nelson stuck to the turbo test. You must remember that in 1982 he was the current World Champion, but not once did he go to [Brabham designer] Gordon Murray and ask to be given the Cosworth car so that he could do five laps and beat Riccardo’s time. He couldn’t care less about Patrese’s lap records.”

For the South African GP at Kyalami in January ’82, BMW played safe and took engines fitted with mechanical fuel injection pumps instead of the electronic system. The BMW board was demanding positive results from the big investment in F1, and the last thing they wanted to read about was the famous drivers’ strike which caused the cancellation of the first day of qualifying.

From the archive

“A lot of people got upset with Nelson, because he was the driving force behind the strike with Niki Lauda,” said Stappert. “I didn’t know Nelson as well then as I would later, but I was sure there must have been a serious reason which at that moment I didn’t understand. I took all my courage in my hands and went up to Bernie and told him the same. Right there in the pitlane, our racing partner screamed at me as though I was a little boy. It made me feel so sick that I just turned around and left.”

After some more histrionics from Ecclestone, who at first refused to let Nelson practise on day two of qualifying, the new Brabham-BMW BT50 only just missed pole position. “The engine characteristics were still rudimentary,” confessed Stappert, “and although that car was very quick on the straight, you really needed someone brave to drive it. In the race, Nelson made a mess of the start. Trying to catch up, he missed the braking point at the end of the straight and slid straight on.”

Nelson and his German/Dutch girlfriend Sylvia Tamsma (in 1985 she gave birth to ‘young’ Nelson) spent a week with Stappert in Austria at the ski World Championships on their return from Kyalami, and a lasting friendship was established. The genial but practical Stappert found a great ally in Piquet, who was as dedicated to making the BMW turbo a success as anyone in the engine shop. They both wanted to test and race the new car intensively, to speed up progress. But Ecclestone had a sponsor, Parmalat, to placate. He wanted BMW to withdraw the turbo in Brazil and Long Beach, the next two races, and cleverly he managed to outwit Stappert at a lunch he arranged with Hans-Erdmann Schönbeck, one of BMW’s board members, soon after the team returned from South Africa.

Stappert: “Bernie issued a press release saying that the engine was too strong and Brabham needed to improve their brakes, etc. That was all bullshit. We continued testing but we always had trouble with the electronic management. Then there was a test in April at Zolder. Bosch had four or five different boxes, and all five of them worked. Nelson would do five laps, everything was OK, then five more with another box.

2 1983 Brazilian GP Brabham Nelson Piquet

Piquet was dedicated to solving BMW issues despite teething troubles

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“After the test in Zolder Nelson called Bernie from the little office in the pitlane. They were shouting at each other, apparently because Bernie wanted to discourage Nelson from running the turbo. But Nelson insisted that he wanted to use the turbo for racing, starting at the next GP, which would mean splitting the team by using different engines for each driver. He came out of the office and immediately told our engine chief Paul Rosche and me, ‘listen, I’m prepared to stick my neck out with Bernie, but I now rely on you to convince your BMW board to run only the one turbo car for me.’

“The funny sequel to this took place the day after I got back to Munich from the test, only a few minutes after I had persuaded Herr Schönbeck to agree to Nelson’s proposal. I was still in Schönbeck’s office when Bernie rang, and Schönbeck switched on the loudspeaker so I could hear what was being said. I couldn’t believe my ears as I listened to Bernie telling Schönbeck that he personally had managed to persuade Nelson to run just one engine.”

With most of the leading teams in direct confrontation with the FIA president, garrulous Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre, over car regulations (sound familiar?), off-track politics threatened to destroy the 1982 season. Piquet had won the Brazilian GP in March, driving a Cosworth-engined car, but was disqualified (in favour, yes, of a French Renault) when Murray’s ingenious but infamous water-cooled braking system was ruled illegal. Ten teams, predominantly British, then boycotted the first race of the European season. Although Piquet’s BWW-powered car made a low-key return (fifth place) at the Belgian GP, the patience of the BMW board was being stretched very thin.

At Detroit in June, the decision to run only one BMW-engined car seemed to have gone horribly wrong when Piquet failed to qualify. “That was partly our fault,” confessed Stappert, “because the engine stopped on the far side of the circuit, and by the time he got back to the pits qualifying was over. The next day it was pouring with rain… Gordon Murray was completely flattened. He couldn’t believe that one of his cars hadn’t qualified. He insisted that the only way to go was to stop racing the turbo and go back to intensive testing.

7 1982 Monaco GP Brabham Nelson Piquet

Gordon was “flattened” by Piquet’s failure to qualify at Detroit ’82

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I said, ‘No, Gordon, this is not possible. The board will not accept it. We have to race in Montréal in one week’s time.’”

After a series of threats and counter-bluffs, Murray agreed to Stappert’s pleadings. With the BMW sounding tremendous, Piquet went into the lead from René Arnoux’s Renault after eight laps. Stappert was on cloud nine. “For me, the world could have ended there and then: after the hard time we’d been given in Detroit, we had shown the people back home in Germany that we had a competitive combination.”

Stappert got a big shock 10 laps from the end of the race when Ecclestone started to gather his things together in readiness to go to the airport for the evening flight home to London. Nelson was leading, but Patrese in the Ford car was not too far behind in second place. Stappert couldn’t believe that even Ecclestone would walk away from a race that his drivers were about to win in one-two order. “Feeling a bit helpless, I said, ‘but what do I do if Patrese catches Nelson and they start fighting for the lead?’ He just turned round and said, ‘Do what you like!’”

“I’d done all the development on that car, no f***ing way was he going to win” Nelson Piquet

Inside the car, Piquet was in serious pain. “For that race the guys had done a lot of modifications, including an extra radiator in the nose of the car, which produced lots of heat which came straight back onto my feet. We should never have won – in fact it wasn’t BMW who won the race, it was me, because I did 72 laps with my feet completely burned.

“I didn’t stop because Patrese was behind me in the Ford car. I told myself there was no way I would stop, I’d done all the development on that car, no f***ing way was he going to win.”

Coming at a moment when BMW was ready to quit F1 racing, the Canadian victory saved a situation which had seemed lost. The BMW board agreed to continue signing cheques and the Brabham crew breathed a sigh of relief. However, a string of mishaps and mechanical failures prevented Nelson from finishing six of the remaining eight races of the 1982 season. It wouldn’t be until ’83 that BMW could celebrate the World Championship.

Of his three titles, Nelson has always said that his 1983 success is the one which gave him the most satisfaction. “That was a fantastic period,” he remembers. “Wing cars with lots of downforce, turbo engines with 1500 horsepower, qualifying tyres good for maybe two laps. I loved it! If there are no escape areas, that makes perfection! We got paid a lot of money to drive those things in those conditions. It was the same for everybody. And good for me – that was my mentality.”

There was also an incentive to beat Renault. With four races to go, and 36 points still available, the manufacturer rashly plastered billboards across France with smug posters to congratulate Alain Prost, “our champion”. Granted, Alain had built up a 14-point advantage in the championship, but the adulation was to prove horribly premature…

Piquet was to win only three GPs that year (against Prost’s four), but he had four other podium finishes and two fourth places. Murray’s Brabham BT52 was a completely new design to meet the emergency ‘flat bottom’ regulations imposed at the end of ’82. With its small fuel tanks, the BT52 was also able to take full advantage of the mid-race refuelling ploy that Murray had introduced in mid-82. Fearing the legal consequences that would surely follow a fire in the pits, Renault hesitated to adopt making fuel stops. By the time this policy had been reversed mid-season, the French had probably sacrificed the two or three points which would have been enough to defeat Brabham, BMW and Piquet. As Nelson himself says: “It wasn’t Prost who lost the championship, it was Renault who threw it away.”

Renault’s overcautious strategy would again cause it to miss out on the F1 title that had eluded the company for more than five years. With that 14-point cushion built up before Zandvoort, Renault’s technicians were given instructions to “freeze” the specification of their engine. BMW’s Paul Rosche pounced on this weakness to press on with his development programme, squeezing more and more power from the little four-cylinder stock-block.

7 1983 European GP Brabham Nelson Piquet

European GP win at brands edged Piquet closer to ’83 title

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Aided splendidly by team-mate Patrese, Nelson led all but three laps at Monza, where Prost’s turbo failed. In the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, he beat Prost hands down despite a scare during the pitstop when an air gun failed. Suddenly, Prost’s advantage had been cut from 14 points to two. The title would be decided in the final race at Kyalami.

Prost never looked more than second-best in South Africa. Renault’s technical equality with Brabham-BMW was gone, and he was resigned to defeat, even if he finished. When a turbo failure forced him to stop in the early laps, it was just a matter of Piquet bringing the Brabham home safely. Expecting that it might be necessary to out-psyche Renault, Murray had started both drivers on soft tyres and (of course) with light fuel. Nelson built up a 30-second lead in 28 laps before his stop: he first waved Patrese through, then the Alfa Romeo of de Cesaris. One or two hearts fluttered in the Brabham pit when his BMW seemed to be misfiring. In fact, he had cut back the boost to almost nothing as he cruised to the third place which would give him the title.

“Imagine, I nearly lost a championship because I lost my knob!” Nelson Piquet

“I dropped back because I wanted to be sure of the championship,” Piquet recalled when I visited him at home in Brasilia in 2000. “There was this boost control inside the cockpit, and I backed off until there was probably just one bar boost. The engine was fine, but it was making a strange noise, which worried me.

“Then suddenly I found myself in fourth. I needed to be third, and the guy behind me [Derek Warwick in a Toleman-Hart] was catching me. But when I tried to turn up the boost, the knob fell off. For five or six laps I was trying to find this thing, accelerating to make it come back, or braking to make it go forward, before I could put it back on the dash. Imagine, I nearly lost a championship because I lost my knob!”

The first man to congratulate Piquet after his slowing-down lap was Prost. Ecclestone, as usual, was an early departure, looking amazingly disgruntled for someone whose driver was about to win the title for the second time in three years. In fact, he left instructions for Nelson to be admonished for letting de Cesaris through.

From the archive

The new champion got back at his boss in the press room, where he was thumping his knee in delight as he chatted with the journalists. “I wanted to win [the championship] this year even more than the first time,” he said. “In 1981 I won it for Ecclestone, for my family and for the people who had shown their faith by taking me into F1 straight from Formula 3.

“This time I won for me. We were a long way behind on points, so we said ‘OK, we’ll win the last three or four races and get the championship.’ We planned it all, we did it – and it was fantastic. Every time Brabham gave me a chance to win the championship, I never let them down. I never lost the championship by a few points. And that makes me feel very good.”

There was a nasty postscript to come when rumours began to circulate that BMW had used fuel with illegal additives to boost its power in those crucial last four races. A sample taken from Piquet’s car in Kyalami was sent for analysis, and the eventual FISA report indicated that it met all the requirements. Rosche insisted ever after that there had been no cheating, and he was justifiably upset to discover that part of the scrutineers’ sample had found its way into the hands of Elf, Renault’s fuel supplier.

The defeated challenger was in no doubt about the propriety of the win, though. In one of the tough statements that (along with a more personal indiscretion) would cost him his job at Renault, Alain Prost gallantly observed that, “the best car won the championship – and Nelson was the best man to drive it”.

Our thanks to Bernie Ecclestone and Robert Dean for their help with this feature.

7 1983 South African GP Brabham Nelson Piquet

Piquet crosses line to seal title in Kyalami

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Insight: Fought on camera

There’s more to the Piquet/Salazar fight of ’82 than met the eye…

As driver punch-ups go, few are as notorious as the incident at Hockenheim in 1982, when Nelson Piquet set about Eliseo Salazar.

Piquet’s fury was understandable. Brabham’s development of the turbo BMW engine had been badly delayed and the team needed a good finish at the car company’s home race. With a narrow lead over Patrick Tambay’s Ferrari and half the race still to go, Piquet was taken off by Salazar, whose ATS was a lap behind. Once out of his car, Nelson laid into the Chilean with fists and feet, under the gaze of a TV camera.

The incident added nothing to the Piquet image. But an interesting justification for the outburst is offered by Gregg Siddle, former F3 team owner and a close friend of Piquet.

“In 1979 Nelson had gone to Thruxton for an F3 race, and as he was driving home he saw a guy walking down the road outside the circuit, ” says Siddle. “It was a bleak day, so he picked the guy up. It was Salazar, who’d arrived in England a few days earlier with an ambition to go F3 racing and a briefcase full of money. Nelson asked me to help. Salazar was pleasant, but I’ve never let anyone race one of my cars because of the money he offered, and I didn’t want him on those terms. But I introduced him to someone who would do the job, and he was on his way.

“What infuriated Nelson at Hockenheim was that Salazar was to blame. Nelson said his first reaction had been to head-butt him in the chest. But he realised it might break his ribs. So then he vented his anger in the way the world saw. What the world didn’t see was what happened when a VW Kombi arrived to ferry the two back to the pits. They both climbed aboard, but somewhere along the way Salazar was firmly booted out.”

The most embarrassing consequence of the fight didn’t spring to light until 1993, when Paul Rosche spoke to Piquet at the annual BMW party. “Paul said that when they took the engine back to Munich, they found the skirt on one of the pistons had started to break up,” says Piquet. “If I hadn’t crashed out, the engine would have blown up. Imagine what the press would’ve said about that…”


Insight Unfinished business: BMW’s return to F1 as an engine supplier and then team owner is ending in disappointment

By Adam Cooper

BMW’s second Formula 1 adventure was inspired by Paul Rosche, the man who led the first. The chance to return came when Renault confirmed that it was to leave the sport at the end of 1997, and veteran motor sport boss Rosche persuaded the Munich board that the opportunity to team up with Williams was too good to miss. The decision was announced on September 8 at that year’s Frankfurt Motor Show.

“At that time the feeling was to be in F1 as an engine manufacturer or supplier and to take the chance to partner with the then most successful team in order to win the World Championship,” says Mario Theissen, who was then still working in BMW’s production car division.

“There was no right or wrong time. After BMW had stepped out [of F1] in the late ’80s the issue was discussed every year by the board. And then there are a lot of impact factors which influence such a decision. It took until 1997 for us to think it was the right time.”

BMW’s schedule allowed for two and a half years of development before a debut in 2000. The company got to know its new partner in sports car racing, winning Le Mans with a Williams-developed car in 1999. Rosche meanwhile slipped into retirement, and it took two men to replace him as joint motor sport directors. Gerhard Berger was appointed in October 1998, while Theissen was switched from road car duties in April 1999.

Williams and BMW seemed like a marriage made in heaven, but it was to end in a messy divorce after six years. The paddock contained an ominous portent. Parked alongside each other were two mirror image motorhomes, one belonging to Williams, and one to BMW. There was a clear ‘them and us’ demarcation line.

There were to be 10 Grand Prix wins for Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, and in 2003 the team was a genuine title contender, only to throw away its chance. Berger left that season, at the end of his five-year contract, and thus Theissen became sole leader. Through 2004 (with the infamous ‘walrus’ nose) and into ’05, the team lost competitiveness. BMW became frustrated as Frank Williams refused to either sell a share of his team, or embrace extra Munich technical input.

“It became clear to us that the engine would not make the difference of winning or losing a championship,” says Theissen, “and that with the combination we would probably not get to a position to win the championship. It was the more strategic aspect that led us to a review and then to the decision of taking a fresh approach, and taking charge of the entire package.”

In June 2005 BMW bought Sauber. Most observers thought that leaving Williams – albeit during a slump in the team’s fortunes – was a crazy decision. But over the next three seasons Theissen proved everyone wrong as he became an increasingly influential figure in the paddock, and the rebranded BMW Sauber met every target he had set with metronomic precision. During 2008 Robert Kubica earned the first pole and race win, and had the team not lost form in the closing races, he might even have stolen the title.

Kubica then loudly complained that the team’s engineers had put too much R&D focus into the new 2009 rules rather than fully grasping the chance that had unexpectedly presented itself. It was certainly easy to imagine the team sticking rigidly to its plan of challenging for the championship only in ’09. Theissen disagreed, insisting that the problem was that ongoing developments simply hadn’t worked as planned.

7 2008 Canadian GP Brabham Robert Kubica

Kubica’s Canada ’08 win was BMW works team’s only victory

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The irony was that when the F1.09 (below) appeared, it was hopelessly uncompetitive. By June BMW had even abandoned KERS, which it had long insisted was a cornerstone of its future plans.

Just a few weeks after that came the shock decision by the board to leave F1, just as the new Concorde Agreement came up for signing. The move paralleled Honda’s, since both had by far the slowest works car at the time. However, Theissen flatly denies that the results on track had any influence on the decision.

“The underlying theme was a shift in the corporate strategy,” says Theissen. “This is not something which happens from one day to another, it’s a long-term issue, a sort of continuous move. Then there are other instant events which trigger such a decision. In this case it’s been the obligation to sign up for three more years under a certain environment, and that was basically the culmination point.”

BMW’s departure is certainly a loss for the sport, and the company has to be respected for producing its F1 engines alongside its production units, in stark contrast to Mercedes.

“It’s unfinished business in that we haven’t won the title,” says a bitterly frustrated Theissen. “We have achieved a lot, but not the ultimate step.”