The BMW-Williams Era

 

A six-season partnership that for four years were the upstarts in the face of the all-conquering combination of Michael Schumacher.

Williams lost their factory Renault engines at the end of 1997 and it took until 2000 for them to find another factory engine with BMW. The first line-up of that era featured the experienced Ralf Schumacher in his second year with the team and 20-year-old rookie Jenson Button – at the time the youngest ever Formula One driver.

While expectations for their season back in Formula One were low, 2000 proved to be a solid start to the season for BMW Williams. Ralf Schumacher’s consistent driving took him to fifth place with 24 points (Only the top 6 scored in those days) behind the dominant Ferrari and McLaren quartet of Michael Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard. Button impressed in his first season, finishing a solid eighth on 12 while the team’s three podiums all went to Schumacher, with third place finishes in Australia, Belgium and Italy.

2001 was BMW Williams’ breakthrough year. Juan Pablo Montoya joined from Indycars after success in Champ cars and the Indianapolis 500 joined and Button was loaned to the ailing Benetton team. The BMW engine was more powerful and Montoya was in line for his first victory in just his third race at the Brazilian Grand Prix, before a bizarre accident when lapping the Arrows of Jos Verstappen as the Dutchman drove over the back of the Colombian’s car.

Ralf Schumacher took the first victory for Williams since 1997 at the San Marino Grand Prix, dominating after snatching the lead from David Coulthard at the start of the race. His second career win was historic in that it was the first time in Formula One history that siblings had finished first and second as he led home Michael at the Canadian Grand Prix. Schumacher’s third victory came during his home race at the final race around the old Hockenheimring later that season.

Montoya did win a race in his debut season despite a number of technical issues and collisions when he was the class of the field at the Italian Grand Prix. Schumacher finished the season fourth, just seven points behind Barrichello as his brother walked away with his fourth World Drivers’ Championship. Montoya was beaten to fifth by the retiring Hakkinen, the team taking four wins and a further five podiums on their way to third in the standings.

Ferrari were to increase their stranglehold over F1 in 2002, although on occasion Williams did threaten. Williams overhauled McLaren, but their only victory in 2002 was a splendid 1-2 led home by Ralf at the Malaysian Grand Prix to provide the fans and paddock with ultimately false hope that Ferrari would be challenged after 2001. In reality, Ferrari were never off the podium and won the Constructors’ Championship by 129 points, with Williams second on 92.

The 2003 season was as good as it got for BMW Williams. Montoya’s excellent form during the summer almost won him the title, with points npw awarded to the top eight. Ralf Schumacher’s fifth place saw the team finish a much closer second to Ferrari in the constructors in what was the closest Championship fight since 1999.

An indifferent first six races for Montoya heralded three retirements and 15 points as Williams initially struggled for consistency. His season was transformed after victory at the Monaco Grand Prix, during which he led home Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher as the trio were covered by 1.7 seconds.

That victory sparked a run of eight straight podiums including another win at a crash-strewn German Grand Prix lap to leave the Colombian three points behind Schumacher with two races left. Ralf briefly brought himself into contention with a stellar run of form as he won two straight races at the European and French Grands Prix, before tailing off with bad luck and injury.

A drive-through penalty for a collision with Barrichello at the US Grand Prix served just as the heavens opened meant Montoya was condemned to sixth place, which combined with Schumacher’s victory ended his title aspirations with one race left.

After a strong 2003, big things were expected for a 2004 that never took off. BAR and Renault became F1’s new kids on the block and Montoya was on the podium only three times. His triumph at the Brazilian Grand Prix at the end of the season was the last of the BMW era.

Ralf Schumacher suffered broken vertebrae in his back at the US Grand Prix and was forced to miss six races, with his place taken firstly by Marc Gene and Antonio Pizzonia. With Montoya fifth, he was ninth in the standings as BMW Williams limped to fourth in the Constructors’ Championship.

Montoya left to join McLaren for 2005 and Schumacher joined the ambitious Toyota outfit, and the final season of BMW’s association with Williams was contested with Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld at the helm.

Heidfeld was on the podium in Malaysia before a famous 2-3 finish behind the imperious Raikkonen at Monaco, but results dried up as BMW announced their intentions to buy Sauber to form their own factory team.

Webber would end the season tenth on 36 points while Heidfeld left Williams 11th on 28 after missing the final five races, with the team fifth in the Constructors’ Championship in their final year with BMW.

Williams did not buy customer engines from BMW for 2006 and thus ended a six-season partnership during which they scored 10 wins, with 2003 a highlight as they challenged for the title for the only time since Jacques Villeneuve’s 1997 triumph.

After spells with Cosworth, Toyota and Renault the team are now supplied by Mercedes and came closest to winning only their second Grand Prix since the BMW contract ended with a front row lockout by Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas.

The majority of the BMW era will be remembered for Williams being the only team to consistently mount a challenge to the Ferrari juggernaut.

Jack Prentice @JPrentice8

Image Courtesy of Matthew Pigg

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