BMW have to be one of the fastest growing teams on the grid at the moment in terms of overall performance. In 2006 they finished in 5th, improved to 2nd (3rd inc. McLaren) in 2007 and now enter 2008 with a lot of expectations on their shoulders. While BMW finished third in reality last year, can we really expect the squad to improve on this in 2008? With McLaren and Ferrari keeping a firm grip on the top of the grid, it is going to be difficult for the Swiss-German team to break through. They will need a good combination of drivers, car and team to split the front row. It’s not impossible, but I fear BMW will struggle to improve on their current form in the short term.
It is, as always, difficult to judge cars during pre-season testing, and while Ferrari have opted for private testing for some of the winter, I think it would be a little foolish to suggest they won’t be joint-favourites for the 2008 titles with McLaren. But that isn’t all that has happened over the winter, as Renault welcome the return of double world champion Fernando Alonso and Red Bull look more reliable and innovative.
This could spell trouble for Mario Thiessen and his team. The squad are still yet to win a race and the gap between them and the teams in front, although small, is very hard to make up. What’s more, during testing this year we have seen the midfield pack very closely bunched together. At times it was a second that separated the top twelve or so drivers. This implies the teams are finding ways to improve in different areas and the field is leveling out a little. This won’t necessarily transfer to the race track, but it should be a cause for concern for BMW. One slip up and they won’t be losing a couple of places, they could find themselves nearer the back and struggling to regain positions.
So how have BMW attempted to, at minimum, retain their third position in the general order?
For a start, the team have wisely opted to keep both drivers onboard. Stability on the driver side of things helps a team immeasurably, providing of course you have decent pair of pilots to begin with. The engineers know how the drivers behave, what they like and where they are weak. The drivers are able to learn what feedback the team needs and relationships generally flourish over time. Michael Schumacher and Ferrari are possibly the finest example of this.
Nick Heidfeld, the seemingly quiet German who, in his own words “likes to party between races” has been given a new lease of life at BMW. His performances show a mature driver who keeps his head down and gets on with the job. He doesn’t have the personality of Montoya at a race meeting, nor does he have the immense speed of Hakkinen, or Raikkonen. But what Heidfeld does have is a level head that makes decisions based on logic. There is no question in my mind that he has helped BMW as much as they have helped him and the combination of the two is a good fit. I’m not so sure Heidfeld has the ability to win the championship, but he can certainly become a multiple race winner and challenge the considered best in the sport on occasion.
Robert Kubica is a good match for Heidfeld. The Pole has talent and has received many complimentary comments from other drivers. At times he seems a little young, making a few moves that a wiser head may not, but this is called competitive spirit and Kubica has it by the bucket-load. Robert has the ability to push his team mate and keep him on his toes, but currently loses out to experience. Last time around, Heidfeld scored 61 points, Kubica brought home 39 points. It was a good result, the pair finished in fifth and sixth in the drivers title, just behind the top four. But even taking the missed race for Kubica into account, the numbers suggest he needs up his pace or make fewer errors.
Watching Robert develop as a Formula One driver is fascinating and will undoubtedly continue to be so. He has courage and ability and there is little doubt in my mind he has what it takes to win in the future. BMW will do well to keep their current line-up for a couple more years at least.
The F1.08 causes me concern. When it was launched in January it looked great. I believe I even said I actually liked the look of it – something of a rarity for me to say. Initial testing went well and the car looked like a decent development of the F1.07. It wasn’t anything special, but it was certainly solid. However, as testing went on the BMW drivers appeared to fall down the timing sheets. By the time the final test at Barcelona was over, BMW had fallen off the radar and were, on the last day, languishing in fourteenth and seventeenth. Testing should be looked at with an open mind, but a top team shouldn’t really be floundering like that at the final big test prior to a season start.
In late January when the circus rolled into the Valencia paddock, BMW unveiled a striking new feature on their car. They updated the aerodynamics on the nose cone, adding horns that protrude from the side and curve upwards. This striking new addition caused a lot of humour around the paddock and media, but in hindsight I’m wondering if this semi-radical update came at a time when the squad realised that the F1.08 wasn’t all that special. Teams often do this when they know they’re in trouble; they’ll append anything to the car in the hope they might strike it lucky and find something that works. Having said that, the team did play around with ‘nose-towers’ last year so maybe they’re just innovating?
I would dearly love to say a win is on the cards for BMW this year. 2007 saw only Ferrari and McLaren win, and while the competition was good, I did get a little tired of the same old national anthems. Of course, most of us older fans are probably very tired of the German anthem but that’s a whole other story.
I can’t see BMW breaking into the top two and making it three. Woking and Maranello are just too far ahead the moment. I can see either BMW pilot getting a pole though, maybe acquiring a couple of fastest laps and hopefully, providing Fernando Alonso doesn’t add too many of those six-tenths he speaks of, the drivers should spend some more time on the podiums.