BMW Tries To Find Formula For Formula One Success
It's never an easy job to set up a Formula One team, even when you're a manufacturer such as BMW and taking over an outfit that already exists. It was June last year when the announcement came that BMW had acquired a majority interest in Sauber and would enter the 2006 championship as a team in its own right.
After eight races this season BMW Sauber is fifth in the constructors' standings with 17 points, only three shy of Sauber's total for the whole of last year. Speaking exclusively to Motorsport.com in Munich, BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen confirmed that the development is going according to plan.
"Yes, it is," he says. "We are in a two year ramp -up phase which covers this year and next year and by then we will have expanded the factory in Hinwil and taken on more than 150 additional people."
He adds that the integration between BMW HQ in Munich and the team base in Hinwil, Switzerland, is also an ongoing project. "It takes at least one winter period to get the engineers together and a race season to get the track people together, so I think by the end of the year we should be there."
BMW, of course, was previously engine partner to Williams, so is not unfamiliar with working across a foreign divide. "It's not as different as some people might expect but there are cultural differences," Theissen says of the current relationship between the German and Swiss bases. "But we understand each other."
BMW made no secret of the fact that it wanted Nick Heidfeld in the team but Jacques Villeneuve's involvement seemed uncertain for a while. The Canadian was eventually confirmed and now Theissen professes to be happy with both race drivers, as well as test and third driver Robert Kubica.
"Nick is essential to the development programme of the car," he comments. "He is racing well, as is Jacques. It's true that Nick has very good technical feedback but we are happy with Jacques as well. He is doing better than most people expected. We are especially happy with our 21 year old Polish test driver, he is doing exceptionally well."
Paddock rumours suggest that Kubica may be in a race seat next year but Theissen edges around the question. "I don't want to put him under pressure," he says. "He is still young, he has to learn about Formula One -- it's very complex, it's not just racing; it's about understanding the car, working through the weekend and knowing how the environment functions. It takes at least a year to understand that."
Heidfeld will be with BMW for next season at least, while Villeuenve's contract expires at the end of this year. Quite a few other drivers will also reach the end of their contracts this year and for the moment nobody really knows who might end up where. Theissen is not about to be drawn into discussing BMW's line up. "It's too early to say," he smiles.
Recently the Grand Prix Manufacturers' Association (GPMA), of which BMW Sauber is a member, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the commercial structure of F1, which should lead to a new Concorde Agreement. So is this the end of the long-running dispute between the GPMA and the sport's commercial bodies?
"Basically it is," Theissen confirms. "What happens now is the preparing for a new Concorde Agreement on the basis of the MoU. The MoU is fully accepted by everybody who signed it, so this is the commercial basis from 2008 onwards, even from now onwards because the money will be paid from 2006."
However, the technical and sporting regulations for the future, which are not part of the Concorde Agreement, are still to be resolved. "That's an ongoing discussion with the FIA," Theissen says. One proposal that has attracted criticism is the 'freeze' on engine development from 2008. BMW was thought to be against it but that's not quite the team's view.
"We are supporting engine homologation, just not in the strict way it was proposed," Theissen explains. "But I think we have a very good proposal on the way which would achieve the targets of the FIA and would be acceptable the teams as well. I have to say I hadn't pushed for new regulations but it absolutely makes sense to get costs under control and in order to do that you need some form of regulations."
FIA President Max Mosley recently said the homologation rule will be implemented despite differing opinions on it. The rule was proposed to cut costs and while Theissen obviously supports that, it is at odds with any manufacturers' instinct to keep developing. "Yes, of course," he agrees. "But you cannot only follow your instincts!"
Outside of F1, BMW has a history of touring cars. Being a German manufacturer one might expect it to be involved in the German Touring Car series (DTM) but Theissen prefers the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) as it's better for BMW's customer base.
"BMW probably has the strongest touring car heritage of any manufacturer and not just a heritage, we have a broad customer base as private teams so it's very important to us if we develop a touring car to do something which is useful to our customers as well," he says.
"The WTCC is operated with two litre cars which are identical to cars used in national racing series all over the world. So our new 320SI, as a works developed car, races in the world championship but every team can buy this car and take it to their national championship."
"As opposed to that, for instance with the DTM, it's great cars as well but you have to build new cars every year and you cannot use them anywhere but in the DTM. That would have been a problem because, for our customers worldwide, we need the two litre touring cars and you cannot do everything at the same time!"
Former CART (now Champ Car) and F1 racer Alex Zanardi now drives for BMW in the WTCC. After Zanardi's terrible accident at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz in September 2001, in which he lost both legs, it looked like his racing career was over. But Zanardi's determination saw him back in a race car in 2003.
He returned to the EuroSpeedway that year to drive 13 laps in a specially-designed and modified Champ Car to complete the 2001 race distance. Now it's possible Zanardi may try an adapted F1 car for size. "We are thinking about it," Theissen smiles. "We are discussing it and I think we could do it. We are teasing him a bit and he is teasing us!"
He concludes: "He (Zanardi) is able to use the foot brake... it's amazing, I really admire how he is able to do that." And on that thought-provoking comment, given Zanardi's history, there is little else to say. BMW and its drivers are forging ahead.