BMW have been a Formula One manufacturer for a relatively short period of time in comparison to most of their competitors, however they have been involved in motor sport for a lot longer. They first entered Formula One as an engine supplier to Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team in 1982 with great success, winning the championship with Nelson Piquet in 1983.
Between 1987 and 1999 the German marque stayed away from Formula One, instead concentrating on sports car racing and continuing their success as a road car manufacturer. However, in 2000 the time had come to take the fight to the top of motor sport once again and BMW partnered the once victorious Williams team.
2000-2004: The Williams Years
At the time Williams had been suffering a drought, having not won a championship since Jacques Villeneuve’s triumphant 1997 campaign. The knowledge and wealth of BMW put them in a good position though and the deal between the German manufacturer and the British team was seen as a huge boost to the struggling Oxfordshire based squad.
It wasn’t long before the Formula One fraternity realised that BMW had created one of the greatest engines to have ever been placed in an F1 car, with some speculation that, under the rules of the time, the power unit was producing close to 1000bhp. Combined with good reliability it is almost astonishing that Williams couldn’t use the engines to championship success, and although a few wins came their way, the team couldn’t break the stranglehold Ferrari had over the sport.
By 2004 it was clear for most that relations between BMW and Williams were fraught. Victories were few and far between and the Munich company saw this as almost damaging to their reputation. Although the options were limited and full of risk, BMW started to court the idea of running their own team.
The 2005 season ended up being the last they supplied Williams, forcing the British team to look elsewhere for an engine partner. But the end of one chapter in BMW’s motor sport history was just the beginning of another and by the time they had severed links with Frank Williams and Patrick Head, they had already bought the ailing Sauber team from Swiss entrepreneur Peter Sauber.
2006: Going It Alone
Sauber had been competing in Formula One since 1993, then with backing from BMW rival Mercedes Benz. Sauber had a strong relationship with the other German car manufacturer and enjoyed great success in sports cars in the late 1980s. However, Formula One was to prove to be a different beast for Sauber and although the team could be considered as successful, they never won a race, claimed a pole position or set the fastest lap during a race. Their ten years in F1 fluctuated between bottom of the midfield and top of the midfield, their most successful campaign being in 2001 where the squad finished in fourth in the constructors title.
The team though were known for building decent cars on a relatively tight budget, having reasonable resources and a core group of talented people. This was attractive to BMW, not least that buying a team cuts costs and saves time in the process of entering two cars in one of the world’s most expensive sports.
In 2006, Sauber became BMW Sauber, the German marque keeping the name out of respect of its origins. Peter Sauber remained with the team in an advisory role, and still does to this very day. The squad remain at the old Hinwil headquarters in Switzerland, although the team is now somewhat divided with a lot of staff working in BMW’s home city of Munich, Germany.
2006: Success From The Start
BMW’s inaugural season in Formula One was generally hailed as a great success. Considering the top of the timing sheets was dominated by not just one or two teams as it was when they supplied Williams, the squad now had to fight with Ferrari, McLaren, Renault and Honda. In an attempt to counter this, BMW employed two ex-Williams drivers and launched an aggressive development strategy and driver training programme.
The two drivers competing for BMW in their first season were world champion Jacques Villeneuve and understated Nick Heidfeld. Both had previously driven for Williams and Sauber and had a great knowledge of the sport. This move was to greatly benefit the team as they set about learning the ropes of running in Formula One.
For the first half of the season both drivers were regularly running in the points, picking up one and two and pushing the top four teams on occasion. However, the salary for employing a previous world champion was starting to grate on the minds of BMW chiefs, only made worse by the fact that Villeneuve was doing no better than his team mate on the track.
At the German Grand Prix BMW finally had a fairly good reason to allow their test driver a chance to race, following Villeneuve’s incident that led to doctors advising the Canadian to not run at the next meeting. Although it was reported that Jacques wanted to race, BMW insisted that he sit the Hungarian race out and Polish driver Robert Kubica was drafted in to the second seat. Kubica was to become the very first Pole to compete in motor sport’s pinnacle series.
The Hungarian Grand Prix was to the team’s most successful race in 2006, with Nick Heidfeld finishing in third on the podium and Robert Kubica ending his maiden race in eighth. Unfortunately for Kubica, the FIA found his car to be slightly underweight and was penalised, thus pushing him out of the points. The fault was judged to be a minor infraction and something that wasn’t really the teams fault, more of just one of those things. However, the result showed BMW that they were on the right track, doing things correctly, and interestingly, didn’t necessarily need Jacques Villeneuve in order to get points.
Soon after the Hungarian Grand Prix success, it was announced that Villeneuve had been fired and Robert Kubica would be driving the second car for the remainder of the season. The decision would prove to be a very good one for BMW, and as Kubica settled into Formula One he garnered admirable feedback from his competitors, no less than Lewis Hamilton who (perhaps slightly arrogantly) stated that he believed Kubica would he one of his greatest rivals in the future.
In only his third race in the sport, Robert Kubica made the paddock stand up and notice him as he drove for most of the Italian Grand Prix in third place, only moving from the position during pitstops which actually allowed him to become the first Pole to lead a race, albeit very briefly. Kubica eventually finished on the podium, the second for the team although utterly demoralising for Heidfeld who struggled with the car’s set up all weekend and could only manage eighth.
The remainder of the season went by with continued points for Heidfeld, the Swiss-German team finally ending up in fifth place in the constructors with 36 points. Although they were a substantial amount behind fourth-placed Honda, the difference being 50, BMW had arrived in Formula One and the future looked very good for the team. They had proven that the decision to leave Williams and go it alone was correct and their development programme would only improve their standings as the years went on.
2007: Following The Plan
During the winter of 2006-2007, BMW were busily building on the success of their first campaign in Formula One. With two podiums to improve upon the squad needed to push themselves hard to design and develop a car capable of reaching the front of the field with regularity. The team opted to remain with both drivers from the year previous, themselves having proved their worth and continuity being a key area to a F1 success. Young hotshot Sebastian Vettel was promoted to test and reserve driver despite being only 19 years old; his future it seemed was being mapped out by the German marque.
Initially Robert Kubica struggled with the new F1.07 car, retiring in the first race and finishing in only eighteenth in the second. Compared with Nick Heidfeld who claimed three fourth places in the first three races, Kubica appeared flustered with the new chassis. However, the third round saw improvement and the Polish driver was able to climb into sixth place before the chequered flag.
Results improved for Kubica for the rest of the campaign although the Canadian Grand Prix would prove to be a set back as he suffered a massive high-speed accident, forcing him to sit out the following United States Grand Prix.
Coming out of the back chicane and leading on to the back straight at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Kubica came across the slightly slower moving Toyota of Jarno Trulli. Kubica darted right to avoid an impact but his front-left tyre caught the rear-right of Trulli’s. Kubica’s BMW was launched spectacularly in to the air and flew over to the right side of the track. Narrowly missing an advertising hoarding the BMW came back down with a thump, not too unlike the horrific scenes that ended Gilles Villeneuve’s life in 1982. As Kubica’s nose came down the car pitched in and started to roll. He grazed the rear of Jenson Button’s Honda and eventually came to a rest on the left side of the circuit just inside the boundaries of the hairpin.
The accident immediately prompted the safety car as debris was littered all over the tarmac and fears quickly became increasingly aroused as Kubica appeared motionless in the car. Paramedics were quick to the scene and eventually the Pole was rushed to the medical centre and then on to hospital. Despite initial concerns of broken limbs, Kubica actually walked out of hospital the following day with minor concussion and a sprained ankle. The force of his accident was measured at 70g at its peak, the visual process of it utterly shocking. Amazingly though, Kubica was ordered to sit out one race in case of repeated concussion and was desperate to get back in the car as soon as possible.
The Canadian Grand Prix was bitter sweet for the team though as Nick Heidfeld recorded the team’s highest finishing position with second place. The German drove well despite the complicated proceedings and the car appeared to be developing well during the season, pushing the Ferrari and McLaren teams at the front.
The United States Grand Prix would therefore mark the maiden race for young Sebastian Vettel, having been a BMW protégé and a part of their young driver development programme. It had been thought that Vettel would eventually form a part of BMW’s future, and although he now drives for Scuderia Toro Rosso, he may still return at some point. Vettel’s first race went well, especially considering his youthfulness.
The United States Grand Prix, the last in recent times, would see Vettel finish in a strong eighth position, becoming the youngest driver to claim a world championship point and causing many people to raise their eyebrows at the young talent. Sebastian’s time at BMW, although successful, was soon over as Kubica returned to the cockpit for the following French Grand Prix.
The rest of 2007 season saw BMW run closely behind the leading pair of teams; Ferrari and McLaren. On occasion they would manage to outrace one of the top four drivers but generally speaking they had improved from their 2006 form, moving up from fifth fastest to third fastest. The development was proving good and the German marque managed to keep up and more importantly, keep ahead of their tailing teams. They actually finished 2007 in second place in the constructor’s championship, but only due to McLaren being disqualified for infringing the rules. The BMW F1.07 was considered the third fastest car though and they were once hailed as a greatly improving team that will eventually dominate the sport they have grown to love.