Skiddmark Interviews Dr Mario Theissen, Director of BMW Motorsport

Racing | February 9th, 2010 by 6
thiessen img6 460x500 Skiddmark Interviews Dr Mario Theissen, Director of BMW Motorsport

Our very close friends over at Skiddmark sat down with BMW’s Motorsport Director, Dr.  Mario Theiseen. When you get an interview with BMW Motorsport boss, …

Our very close friends over at Skiddmark sat down with BMW’s Motorsport Director, Dr.  Mario Theiseen. When you get an interview with BMW Motorsport boss, the subject range can get very wide and as you will see next, Dr. Theissen doesn’t refrain himself from talking about F1 strategy and the decision to pull out, or the green future of Motorsport, and even hybrid/KERS technologies in future racing.

Formula 1 and the Strategy Shift

If you have watched F1 in the last few years, and been paying attention, you would have seen Mario Theissen. As high stress – if you are not winning – high visibility jobs go, being an F1 Team Principal is right up there with Premiership football managers. So I can’t help thinking that a part of Theissen might have been secretly pleased when the BMW board announced, last July, that the company was pulling out of this branch of the sport at the end of the 2009 season.

bmw m 655x373 Skiddmark Interviews Dr Mario Theissen, Director of BMW Motorsport

He is a tall, quite youthful 50 something, dressed in the typical ‘business casual’ style that you find so often in Germany. His office is a tidy person’s dream, with an almost complete lack of clutter or decoration. Just a few scale model cars here and there, to hint at the automotive world that surrounds us. His frameless glasses add a slightly scholarly air, backed up by a quiet and measured speaking style, in excellent English.

He explains the rationale behind the withdrawal.

MT: “There was a shift in overall corporate strategy. The board decided that Motorsport should be more clearly directed towards technologies which are relevant for future mobility, and although we will always be in motor sport, F1 did not comply with the mainstream of this new strategy. On the other hand F1 takes most of the resources in this area, and so this brought about the decision to stop F1 and focus on other areas of motor sport as well as other things that came about with the new strategy.”

The Green Agenda, then….

Changing Emphasis for BMW Motorsport

He seems pretty relaxed about it now – though clearly with some regrets – seeing the strategy as being very positive for BMW Motorsport as a whole, allowing much greater focus on GT and WTCC racing.

He is however thoroughly convinced of the benefits that F1 participation has delivered to BMW and its road cars, over the last 10 years justifying the original rationale for their investment – which has amounted to more than pocket money – by saying “One of the main reasons for our involvement was that we believed it would benefit our capabilities in vehicle electronics and so we took the decision to do all of this in-house.”

I ask him how much of the operation was dedicated to F1 and what sort of difference this will make for 2010.

MT: “F1 took 85 – 90% of BMW Motorsport’s resources, and that refers to personnel as well as to budget” says Theissen, “We will now be able to focus better on GT and WTCC racing.”

This seems to imply that they were almost the poor relations until now, and Theissen is a little guarded in his response when I put this to him.

MT: “Not really. Over the past 5 years the F1 budget itself has been cut by half, and we had enough money….enough funding for the other programmes, although they did not get enough attention. Now with the new situation we are fully focused on the other programmes, and GT racing especially will play a bigger role for BMW Motorsport than it used to do.”

thiessen img6 Skiddmark Interviews Dr Mario Theissen, Director of BMW Motorsport

GT Racing to take Centre Stage

So why does this freeing up of resources increase emphasis on GT racing, rather than touring cars, is it something to do with the competition in each series?

MT: “Traditionally, we have competed in the WTCC 2 litre class and this is still a very important field for us, because it is not just about WTCC. The strong position of WTCC means that most championships – the national championships that is – are run on the basis of Super 2000 regulations, production based tin-top cars with 2-litre engines and limited scope for development. That means that if we can develop one car for WTCC then it is automatically eligible for the other series as well, and it has always been our Motorsport policy that we develop cars not just for our own works efforts, but also for our big private base, the private teams who are able to buy the cars and then race them. It means that such a programme has a big spread and leverage for us, and it makes sense for us to spend the money on designing and developing such a car. It would make sense even if we were not in WTCC – we have to serve our customer base and we would therefore offer a car for S2000 regulations”

So why the stronger emphasis on GT racing – is this part of a wider marketing effort?

MT: “For the touring car side – we would love to have other premium manufacturers as competitors in the WTCC but this is not the most important part of the story..” he continues “..the brand focus of sportiness and dynamics is on the M3 and this why we have decided to concentrate on this car for future GT activities. Last year we brought the new M3 to the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). Originally it was a GT car designed for the GT2S rules, then before the series started they abandoned the GT2S class and offered us the possibility to compete in GT2.”
Targeting

I suggest that this means a very different sort of competitive benchmark from WTCC.

MT: “The car is well balanced and it competes on a level with Porsches and Ferraris, and of course the Corvette. We saw great racing last year, so we decided to expand this programme and bring the car to racing in Europe as well.”

So, in effect you are going to compete in each of the key sales territories for the M3, making your motorsport programmes very closely integrated with marketing?

MT: “Yes – the plan is that we continue with the US programme, so racing with the BMW Rahal/Letterman team in ALMS, and compete in the major European endurance races with Schnitzer. We are working on this programme now. Nürburgring 24 hours is a definite, Le Mans 24 is a highly probable, and Spa 24 is still ‘in progress’.”

All of these European races demand that preparatory races are also attended, for instance in the VLN Nürburgring endurance championship or in the LMS series. So this means a pretty busy season ahead for the organization and the teams.

When will the ‘highly probable’ turn into definite, as far as competing at Le Mans is concerned?

MT: With a wry smile Theissen responds “We have a mutual understanding that the car will race there, but we have to modify the car to adapt it to the GT2 rules. We are working on this now, but the car will not be completed before March and only then can we apply for homologation, which is the final step. But I expect the M3 to be on the grid.”

So with the M cars’ biggest markets over recent years being in the US and Germany, with the UK in 3rd position, the GT circuit activities for 2010 align quite well with these geographies.

MT: “Yes it is natural that if you have sporty sub brand like the M cars you would like this to be quite closely related to your racing activities and originally the GT programme was aimed at the US, as we have a big M3 customer base there. Also at the time we decided on the M3 GT2 programme, it was because we were not well represented in the US, in racing. As at that time we still had F1, and this has global coverage, everywhere outside of the US, this fitted well. Now we have ALMS in the States and various endurance races in Europe.”

Theissen agrees that this leaves the UK a little overlooked, at least in terms of TV coverage of the GT races, moving forward, and we share a small chuckle at the UK’s (in)ability to integrate in Europe.

MT: “But I see the UK as part of Europe… there is anyway a 24 hour race at Silverstone, but it is not as popular and high profile as the other three 24 hour races in Europe. And the 24 hour races at Le Mans and the Nürburgring Nordschleife are very popular with the hard-core British enthusiasts, for them it does not matter if the racing is on the continent and there is no TV, they go there anyway”

Aha, so there is some integration, then…

The Green Agenda, then….

Changing Emphasis for BMW Motorsport

thiessen-img17

He seems pretty relaxed about it now – though clearly with some regrets – seeing the strategy as being very positive for BMW Motorsport as a whole, allowing much greater focus on GT and WTCC racing.

He is however thoroughly convinced of the benefits that F1 participation has delivered to BMW and its road cars, over the last 10 years justifying the original rationale for their investment – which has amounted to more than pocket money – by saying “One of the main reasons for our involvement was that we believed it would benefit our capabilities in vehicle electronics and so we took the decision to do all of this in-house.”

I ask him how much of the operation was dedicated to F1 and what sort of difference this will make for 2010.

MT: “F1 took 85 – 90% of BMW Motorsport’s resources, and that refers to personnel as well as to budget” says Theissen, “We will now be able to focus better on GT and WTCC racing.”

This seems to imply that they were almost the poor relations until now, and Theissen is a little guarded in his response when I put this to him.

MT: “Not really. Over the past 5 years the F1 budget itself has been cut by half, and we had enough money….enough funding for the other programmes, although they did not get enough attention. Now with the new situation we are fully focused on the other programmes, and GT racing especially will play a bigger role for BMW Motorsport than it used to do.”

GT Racing to take Centre Stage
So why does this freeing up of resources increase emphasis on GT racing, rather than touring cars, is it something to do with the competition in each series?

MT: “Traditionally, we have competed in the WTCC 2 litre class and this is still a very important field for us, because it is not just about WTCC. The strong position of WTCC means that most championships – the national championships that is – are run on the basis of Super 2000 regulations, production based tin-top cars with 2-litre engines and limited scope for development. That means that if we can develop one car for WTCC then it is automatically eligible for the other series as well, and it has always been our Motorsport policy that we develop cars not just for our own works efforts, but also for our big private base, the private teams who are able to buy the cars and then race them. It means that such a programme has a big spread and leverage for us, and it makes sense for us to spend the money on designing and developing such a car. It would make sense even if we were not in WTCC – we have to serve our customer base and we would therefore offer a car for S2000 regulations”

So why the stronger emphasis on GT racing – is this part of a wider marketing effort?

MT: “For the touring car side – we would love to have other premium manufacturers as competitors in the WTCC but this is not the most important part of the story..” he continues “..the brand focus of sportiness and dynamics is on the M3 and this why we have decided to concentrate on this car for future GT activities. Last year we brought the new M3 to the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). Originally it was a GT car designed for the GT2S rules, then before the series started they abandoned the GT2S class and offered us the possibility to compete in GT2.”
Targeting
I suggest that this means a very different sort of competitive benchmark from WTCC.

MT: “The car is well balanced and it competes on a level with Porsches and Ferraris, and of course the Corvette. We saw great racing last year, so we decided to expand this programme and bring the car to racing in Europe as well.”

So, in effect you are going to compete in each of the key sales territories for the M3, making your motorsport programmes very closely integrated with marketing?

MT: “Yes – the plan is that we continue with the US programme, so racing with the BMW Rahal/Letterman team in ALMS, and compete in the major European endurance races with Schnitzer. We are working on this programme now. Nürburgring 24 hours is a definite, Le Mans 24 is a highly probable, and Spa 24 is still ‘in progress’.

From Road to Race, or Race to Road

So what about the relationship between race and road, symbiotic, sometimes push, sometimes pull, or a continuous circle – how does he see this?

MT: “Well with F1 we already had a very close link, because in 1997, when we took the decision to enter the sport, one of the first things we decided to do was set up the race factory here, within sight of the corporate R&D centre – it is a separate unit but we are closely linked and we have gained a lot on the road car side from this programme. You asked about push or pull? Well we had push in both directions – the decision to design, develop and produce our own F1 electronics was taken by the board member in charge of R&D within BMW, in order to really strengthen our electronics competence. But then, once we were underway we were developing new generations of F1 electronics, almost on a yearly basis and a lot of components went back from this to the road car side. In a similar way, we decided to build a Formula 1 foundry and a parts machining plant. Both of these facilities were controlled not by Motorsport, but by the respective departments who do the road car parts. So the motorsport foundry facility is in Landshut within the BMW foundry there, with the machining plant right next door, and both are controlled by these people. We have developed new casting technologies there, aluminium castings with complex shapes and extremely thin walls, which now have high performance road car applications, in M cars and in high performance direct injection diesel engines…”

The F1 Payback

As he continues I get the feeling that this is a real source of pride, something which perhaps justifies the F1 investment, even though podium success – the most visible payback – was less apparent.

MT: “We have developed coating technologies, surface treatments which have gone over to the road car side, and then with the decision to stop F1, the entire plant has been taken over by the road car side, so the original F1 foundry has now become the group light alloy casting centre, and similarly with the machining plant”

So, the physical components within the road car range are already reaping the benefits of the F1 programme, and with the recent pullout, perhaps this will become more marked as BMW seek to leverage that investment.

MT: “Another even better one, and an example of ‘pull’, is the electronics department. Although 2 years ago we moved on to standard electronics, so removing the need to develop our own thing, at the same time the KERS project became mandatory for 2009, so in 2007 the entire department started to design and develop KERS (Kinetic Energy Regeneration System – which in BMW’s case is electronic, rather than the electro-mechanical system used by some other teams) From this we have come up with solutions for electric motor-generators, for battery systems, for power electronics, which have a power to weight ratio factor 4 to 5 times better than current road car technologies. When we stopped the F1 programme last year the entire department was pulled over to the road car side and they are developing hybrid powertrain solutions now for future road cars. That is a perfect example.”
Getting the Message Across

So there has been a significant technological benefit for BMW’s road cars – which most people do not fully appreciate – through Motorsport’s involvement in F1 over the years and also now, ironically, as a result of its withdrawal from the sport?

Theissen agrees, and has to live with a perception problem.

MT: “Yes this is true, as most people say ‘you cannot use any part of a Formula 1 car in a road car’, but you can transfer technologies.”
Technological Step Changes for the Road

So – what will we see of KERS in road cars?

MT: “Yes. We had on display at the Frankfurt Motor Show last September a future generation sports car prototype called Vision EfficientDynamics. The battery pack in this car was exactly the same as the Formula 1 Lithium-Ion battery pack. So, what we have learned from F1 has been taken over by the road car side, and meanwhile we are one or two steps beyond this. These technologies will appear step by step in our road cars over the coming years. The power electronics can be included in the next project. On the battery side, probably it has been an intermediate step in what we want to achieve in road cars so that could take a bit longer, but we will have Lithium-Ion battery packs in the very near future, and we have learned how to deal with them in F1.”

The Vision EfficientDynamics concept contains other technology elements, beyond the LI battery technology, are any of these imminent for the road cars?

MT: “Yes – the lightweight concept, which uses carbon fibre in the way that we have in F1, and the hybrid powertrain concept. These are the 2 main areas of technology transfer to road cars, happening now.”

Did we catch your attention? Feel free to head over to Skiddmark for the complete interview

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