BMW-Sauber: A love story which didn’t last long
BMW (Bavarian Motors Wors) made its first appearance into the world of Formula 1 in the 1950s and 1960s. Their history as an engine supplier started in 1982, where BMW supplied the Brabham team, which was owned by Bernie Ecclestone. The result of this agreement was Nelson Piquet’s victory in the Canadian Grand Prix in 1982.
The following year, Nelson Piquet won the Drivers’ Championship with the BMW-powered Brabham BT52.
At the same time, BMW also supplied ATS, Arrows, Benetton and Ligier with the BMW M12/13 inline-four turbocharged engine. The M12/13 was producing more than 1350 bhp.
A few years later, Brabham decided to withdraw from F1 and BMW also withdrew their official engines. Arrows was still supplied by BMW with engines but under the “Megatron” badge.
Andrian Newey’s decision to move from Williams to McLaren in 1998 and also Renault’s decision to quit from Formula 1 at the same season, left the Williams exposed. Renault was Williams’s engine-supplier since 1989.
Williams had to look for a new engine supplier and BMW was the ideal candidate for that time. In 1999 Williams made a six-year agreement with BMW, with one condition: that they had to have a German driver in their team. Hence, Williams announced Ralf Schumacher as their driver. The following season, R. Schumacher and P. Montoya won four Grand Prix with the FW23, and Williams finished third in the Championship. In 2003, Williams achieved to finish second in the Constructors’ standings and Montoya finished third in the Drivers’ Championship with four victories. It was one of the most successful seasons for BMW-Williams.
The June of the same year, Williams and BMW agreed to extend their deal until 2009. But whilst everyone waiting for better results, Williams performance dropped rapidly and they finished fourth at that season and fifth in 2005.
The results created a crack, between Williams and BMW. In June 2005 Frank Williams said to Autosport: “Our partnerships in the past with Renault and Honda have been more successful and co-operative, you never had this constant finger-pointing. We do not constantly ask why BMW had some 150 engine failures in 2000 alone.”
BMW took the decision to start their own team in Formula 1, and they made an offer to purchase Williams, but they refused their offer. Hence, BMW had to aim at another team. This team was Sauber.
That summer, BMW spend $100 million to acquire 80% of Sauber. The teams split their responsibilities, Sauber had to design the chassis and run wind tunnel test in their Hinwil factory, while BMW was responsible for the design of the engine.
The following season, 2006, Sauber-BMW signed a deal with Nick Heidfeld who used to race for Williams. Jacques Villeneuve joined him and the two were the main drivers for Sauber, whilst Robert Kubica signed a deal as the third driver.
The first results were not satisfied and many assumed that BMW used Formula 1 in order to test technologies which they could transfer to their public cars.
Villeneuve scored the first points for Sauber in the second race of the season, in Malaysia. The next race was held in Australia, Nick Heidfeld finished fourth, ahead of his team-mate. In Hungary, Robert Kubica replaced Villeneuve and since then Robert remained as the second driver for the rest of the season. Two podium finishes followed that season, the first one was in Hungary, where Heidfeld finished third. The second podium achieved by Kubica in Italy, where the Polish driver finished 3rd.
At that year, Sauber finished fifth in the Construction’s standings, ahead of Toyota.
The following year, Villeneuve announced his departure from Sauber and Kubica was his official replacement. It was Sebastian Vettel’s turn to sign a deal with Sauber as a reserve driver.
BMW-Sauber considered as the third most powerful team on the grid, behind Ferrari and McLaren. Nick Heidfeld started the season with three consecutive fourth-place finishes, whilst his team-mate Kubica had three top-four finishes and three retirements in that season.
Heidfeld finished twice on the podium. In Canada, he finished second, while in Hungary he finished third. Also, Vettel finished eighth in the USA.
In 2007, Sauber-BMW finished 2nd in the championship and scored 101 points.
Sauber’s second position and high performance in 2007 set the bar high for the next season. Everyone in the team hoped that either Heidfeld or Kubica will manage to win at least one race during the season.
In the season premiere in Australia, Nick Heidfeld finished second, and just a race later, in Malaysia, it was Kubica’s turn to finish second and score another podium for the team.
In Canada, Sauber-BMW felt for the first time, how it is to be a winner. Robert Kubica qualified second, behind Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren and at the end of the race he managed to take the chequered flag first, a year on from a horror crash at the same circuit. Nick Heidfeld, started the race from the eighth position, but he finished behind his team-mate and they scored the first 1-2 for Sauber-BMW.
At the end of the season, BMW-Sauber finished third, behind Ferrari and McLaren.
In 2009, BMW-Sauber faced some serious problems. Before the start of the season, Sauber hoped that they can challenge Ferrari and McLaren for the title, but the season didn’t go as they planned.
The team focused on the new regulations and the tried to upgrade their aerodynamic package and also invested almost everything into the KERS system. The results were disappointing, at the first half of the season, BMW-Sauber had less than ten points. New upgraded packages for Kubica and Heidfeld never arrived, due to some huge financial issues.
All these issues meant the team was only 6th in the constructors championship and relationships between Sauber and BMW were not the same as they used to be.
In July, of the same year, BMW announced their departure from Formula 1 and the German group decided to focus on the commercial sales and improve the quality and design of their commercial cars.
Sauber took the decision to buy BMW’s shares and in 2010 Formula 1 decided to allow to Sauber to race in F1.
“When I decided to take over, I had to make the decision in a short period of time, I was led purely by my gut feelings, which is something you should try to avoid. If it was a purely logical decision, you wouldn’t have done it, but, in the end, I didn’t have a choice because Hinwil would have been closed down.” Sauber said.
Now Sauber uses Ferrari’s engines and their two drivers are Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr.
At this point I would like to thank BMW for their help and also to mention that all the pictures are courtesy of BMW.
Victor Archakis @FP_Passion