In 2005 BMW made a big decision to abandon their partnership with Williams and purchase the Sauber Formula One Team. Dr Mario Theissen convinced the board of directors to invest the extra millions into their racing programme by selling them his plan to make BMW Formula One World Champions. His ideas for the team were, and still are, very ambitious.
When the Sauber deal was first announced there were a number of people who thought it would not bear the fruit BMW management expected. Numerous well funded teams have arrived in Formula One over the past twenty years with big plans and most have failed to deliver. Toyota is a prime example.
Patrick Head was particularly vocal about Mario Theissen’s objectives. The bitter Williams Director said “As I understand it he’s told the board not only that he will arrange that the team is fully funded through sponsorship, but also that they will win the championship in 2007. Well good luck to you Mario”.
BMW made it immediately clear their plans were “long term” so it is likely that Head’s version of events is not entirely accurate. However there is no doubt that BMW executives expect a strong return on their F1 investment, and that means world titles.
Three years after the Sauber buyout, Theissen’s championship vision no longer seems unrealistic. The team have improved greatly since 2005 and are well on their way to further success.
The team are yet to score a win though, and BMW have made it very clear this is their main target in 2008. It seems like they are in a very good position to achieve just that.
The Sauber days must feel like a distant memory for the team who now have much higher standards and expectations. Before BMW came on board Sauber’s best season was 2001. That year they finished fourth in the Constructors Championship and scored points on nine occasions. They were thrilled with the season, although results like that would now be disappointing.
They have come an awful long way.
Sauber were always a decent team, and were very sensible and effective. They were very ‘Swiss’ in other words. The only thing holding them back from their potential was a distinct lack of serious cash.
This is no longer a concern to them with the backing and resources of BMW.
It is ironic that Sauber are scaling the heights of Formula One with BMW since the team was originally created in partnership with their German arch rivals, Mercedes Benz. It just goes to show that a lot can change in fifteen years.
Last year BMW developed into a competitive outfit and the team landed two podiums throughout the season. Amazingly they have managed to equal that statistic within the first week of their 2008 campaign. There was a little luck behind their strong results in Australia and Malaysia, but that should not detract from BMW’s astonishing pace. Robert Kubica went oh-so-close to securing pole position in Melbourne, and Nick Heidfeld set the fastest race lap of anyone at Sepang. They have a very quick machine at their disposal this year and are currently making the most of it.
With consecutive second places, the question may no longer be if BMW can score their first win in 2008, but which of their drivers it will be?
It is a tough question to answer.
Before the season started the most obvious choice would have been Nick Heidfeld. He was the leading BMW charge throughout 2007 and scored most of the teams points.
However, Robert Kubica is every bit as competitive this year.
Kubica should really have taken pole position in Australia. His qualifying slide at turn twelve cost BMW some well earned glory, along with the dream “pole on pole” newspaper headline. It would have been a genuine pole position too, because he had a similar fuel load to Lewis Hamilton.
The first race did not turn out so great for Kubica since he was one of the drivers whose strategy was hurt by the safety car. Despite that he would still have finished in the top six if Kazuki Nakajima didn’t have a penchant for hitting things.
Kubica had some better luck in Sepang and impressed many with his drive to second. He may have benefitted from Jarno Trulli’s first corner skirmish, and also from Felipe Massa’s embarrassing spin, but he led the race for eight laps which shows just how much fuel he had on board. He may have been much slower than the Ferrari’s but he was also much heavier. A more aggressive strategy would have yielded a similar result but the gap between Kubica and Ferrari was not as large as it seemed.
The 23 year old is really on it this year, and is very much Nick Heidfeld’s equal.
Not that quick Nick is about to become uncompetitive. He is a very quiet achiever in Formula One and is often underrated. It is easy to forget that he beat Kimi Raikkonen in the same car.
It seems his talents will be more evident this year in a friendlier BMW chassis. Heidfeld performed very well in the Australian Grand Prix, fighting off the strong efforts of Nico Rosberg to capture his eighth podium result. The German was even more impressive at Sepang. Not only did he race brilliantly with Fernando Alonso and David Coulthard (passing both in one corner) but he also set the fastest lap of the whole race. If it wasn’t for a blameless scuffle with Jarno Trulli at turn one there would have been two BMWs on the rostrum.
It might not be long before that actually happens.
It will be fascinating to see who will scalp BMW’s first race victory, because at this stage it could be either driver. It will also add an interesting twist to their rivalry because the two are not particularly close. Heidfeld may have felt a little perturbed in 2006 when Kubica debuted and stole his thunder, especially since the Polish driver shoved Nick off the circuit whilst driving to his first podium.
They quarrelled on-track more than once last year also and this created significant tension within the team. When they collided at the European Grand Prix, Kubica suggested that Nick Heidfeld was displaying the qualities of a driver who “won’t last long in F1”. That is not the sort of thing you would usually say about your teammate.
Heidfeld and Kubica work well together though, and are also pushing each other which can only be good for the team. There is a very fine line between healthy competition, and a destructive rivalry, and BMW appear to be managing that line particularly well.
This could change now that BMW are competitive because the stakes between Kubica and Heidfeld are much higher.
If they do start fighting with each other more often, they can rest assured that both drivers have the full support of management. When it was suggested to Mario Theissen that his team would be more successful with someone like Kimi Raikkonen behind the wheel, he said “I am very sure that when we have a car on the grid that is able to win races, then Nick and Robert will win races. They have what it takes”.
He is right too. Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica are both extremely talented drivers and if the BMW F1.08 continues to surprise they will have the opportunity to break into the elite circle of Grand Prix winners.
According to Mario Theissen’s grand plan, one of them will be World Champion within a few years also.
Which one of them it will be remains to be seen.