You should be, BMW. Mercedes have triumphed in Sunday’s Grand Prix of Shanghai, and have trophies on the shelf to show for it – that is, if Norbert Haug is finished drinking champagne out of his constructor’s trophy (watch the race win ceremony…). From pole position to the final lap, Mercedes performed a flawless race weekend (save for Shumi’s race-ending wheel nut mishap), and Nico Rosberg drove a perfect race. To Mercedes and Nico, we say, congratulations on a hard-earned victory!
Mercedes-Benz had not won a Formula 1 race as a factory team since the Italian Grand Prix of 1955, held at the famous, high-speed Monza track. Juan Manuel Fangio piloted the Mercedes-Benz W 196 R Formula 1 car to win the high-speed race. As the story goes, Mercedes knew of the unique high-speed demands of Monza and hence altered the bodywork to reduce aero drag at this race. They also brought along a long-wheel base car, allowing better stability through high-speed corners. Track-specific aero packages were not the norm of the era as they are today, so clearly Mercedes-Benz were ahead of the times, and the result clearly showed – putting the Ferraris to shame.
If history is due to repeat itself, then Mercedes will find themselves collecting a few more trophies this year, on the way to a world championship title. Fangio took the Formula 1 championship crown after dominating both the 1954 and 1955 world championships behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz. Clearly, Mercedes have plenty of rich motorsport history to live up to, and it’s about time they do so in the realm of Formula 1. The celebrations inside Stuttgart must be ongoing, and rightfully so.
After a 55 year absence from the sport, Mercedes returned to the grid in 2010 after buying the Brawn team from Ross Brawn – wisely keeping him at the helm. No doubt Mercedes expected out-of-the-box wins considering the remarkable dominance of the Brawn cars which won the 2009 world championship, but as they often do, teething problems posed problems for the team, causing them to recede their performance advantage. Falling victim to the Red Bulls, Mclarens and Ferraris, which bullied their way to the top 3 spots, Mercedes were left off the final podium spot in 4th once the dust settled at the end of the championship.
2011 showed the team slipping further behind, securing fewer final points in the championship – though they managed to hold on to their 4th place constructor’s championship finish. Clearly, after investing in the right drivers (can you say, “Shumacher”?) and the right team of engineers and team leads, the results are starting to show. Based on their performance in China, I would be shocked if Mercedes did not collect at least one more race win this year. Many tip them to be title contenders, and with the much loved, hated and feared Michael Schumacher at the helm alongside Nico Rosberg, the all-German outfit could be on a war path.
BMW did not put up any fight in the Chinese Grand Prix because BMW did not contest the Shanghai Grand Prix on Sunday. The remnants of their team and factory, sold back to Peter Sauber in 2010, have been performing well however – with Sergio Perez placed 7th in the drivers’ championship after three races. Perez managed to nip at the heels of eventual race winner Fernando Alonso, securing a second place podium spot in his second-ever Formula 1 race – the Malaysian rains allowing his driving brilliance to shine through the machinery around him. I can’t help but picture a BMW roundel on the nose of that car, driving through the rain to the podium.
BMW will tell you several reasons why they left Formula 1 racing at the end of the 2009 season. All of them are rubbish, and at best a diversion from the real political and corporate realities that led to their withdrawal (in my humble opinion).
First off, BMW has rich, winning history in Formula 1. It’s lengthy but since we’re on the topic, let’s get into the bratwurst and potatoes of it. Back in 1980, BMW joined the F1 grid as an engine supplier, powering Brabham, Arrows and Benetton cars. It took two years for BMW to win while powering a Brabham chassis, but in 1982 they secured their first-ever Formula 1 victory at the Canadian Grand Prix (makes me feel all warm and fuzzy). Once they got their engine sorted in the Brabham, many wins followed.
Interestingly enough, Gordon Murray, the same man responsible for the all-conquering BMW-powered McLaren F1 road car, designed the Brabham-BMW BT52 Formula 1 car. By this point in the 1.5 liter turbocharged engine’s development, the mighty 4 cylinder was putting out as much as 1,400 hp in qualifying form. That is a specific power output of nearly 1,000 hp/liter, or in other words, complete insanity. Hell hath no fury as this 4 banger’s scorn, and it went on to power the BT52 to several wins in the 1983 season, eventually going on to secure the world championship with Nelson Piquet at the helm.
In 1987, Formula 1’s supremos Ecclestone and Mosley approve a rules change that saw the end of the turbocharged era. BMW decided to exit the series instead of developing an all-new F1 power plant from scratch. They left with their heads held high, successful and victorious in their position of engine supplier to some of the finest F1 teams of the times.
After a 12 year hiatus, BMW came back to the sport in 2000, again fulfilling the role of engine manufacturer, this time powering the Williams duo. In the next 5 years, BMW went on to secure 10 Grand Prix victories with Williams, as well as 17 pole positions – marking a successful era for both BMW and Williams in Formula 1. But this measure of success was not enough, and BMW were constantly rumored to be lamenting the Williams’ chassis and aero performance. The general word on the grid was that BMW were dissatisfied in the partnership, feeling that Frank Williams’ car did not measure up to the performance of their power plant.
Even during the era of Shumacher’s Ferrari dominance, the Williams-BMW cars were often touted to have the most horsepower on the grid. They also enjoyed the highest revving V10 engines of the time, and often managed the quickest trap speeds – frequently beating out the Ferrari’s and McLarens, but falling behind them in the all-important corners (this ‘aint no drag race!). In short, BMW knew they had a winning engine, but needed a winning car to put it in.
BMW’s grumblings eventually led to the end of their relationship with Frank Williams and in 2006, BMW bought out Peter Sauber’s Formula 1 outfit to become a full-fledged Formula 1 constructor. Fielding both engine and chassis, the BMW was a clean slate project. Never had I fallen more in love with Formula 1. Rooting for the clear underdog, following BMW’s advancement through the grid, proved a fascinating pass-time. Reading of their technical achievements was also grand, and I enjoyed watching their technical expertise advance in the pinnacle of motorsport.
Winter time was nearly as exciting as the racing season, because testing would hint towards the performance and technical advancement of the new car. In 2008, when I laid eyes on the BMW F108, I had wobbly knees below me. The BMW F108 is probably the most beautiful Formula 1 car of the modern era, just as the Mercedes-Benz W 196 R of 1955 was undeniably one of the most beautiful F1 cars of the early era. Its flowing lines and sharp creases look organic, in a space-ship kind of way. You can almost see the airflow passing over its body work. This car was as much art as racer. It was quick too, securing BMW’s first factory team pole position at the Grand Prix of Bahrain. Later in the year, the F108 secured two podium finishes, taking P2 at at the Malaysian and Monaco Grand Prix. But the F108 had more performance in it, and Polish Formula 1 driver Robert Kubica piloted it to victory in the Canadian Grand Prix of 2008 (again, that fuzzy feeling…). At this point in the year, Kubica was leading the drivers’ championship (!) but during the second half of the season BMW slipped up in the development race and lost ground, eventually finishing 4th overall – still an impressive achievement with valuable lessons learned.
Finally we reach 2009, BMW’s final year in Formula 1. The season started out, as it often does, with a heavy dose of political upheaval. Three teams, Brawn, Toyota and Williams, arrived at the first race of the championship in Australia with an aerodynamic appendage dubbed the “double diffuser.” The rules change for 2009 clearly outlined a much smaller rear diffuser with the intention of slowing the cars for safety reasons. If any team is to push the boundaries of what is technically allowed in the rule book, it’s Ferrari, with McLaren a close second – but tellingly, neither of these teams showed up with the clearly illegal device.
True, Brawn, Toyota and Williams had found a “loop hole” in the written rules, but their cars were clearly in contravention of the spirit and intention of the written rules (as well as the actual written rules, many would argue) and should have been deemed illegal. Unfortunately, their lawyers fought well, and after several races had transpired, the FIA ruled the “double diffuser” legal. This meant a desperate scramble by every other team to adopt a similar design at the rear of their car, gaining significant downforce (and nullifying the entire purpose of the rules change). BMW’s F109 was thus left with a serious disadvantage from the first race, and BMW were forced to essentially redesign the entire aero package of the car several races into the season. It was, in a word, a disaster.
Disastrous as it may have been, the F109 was a blindingly quick car. So quick was the F109, that even without the huge performance advantage of the double diffuser, it managed to carry Robert Kubica to a 4th place qualifying spot on the grid in Australia. I remember watching this race both on TV and on my computer, watching for official split time updates from all teams during the race. Kubica was terribly fast, moving into P3, and closing the gap to P2 in serious haste. Kubica was gaining tenths per sector – not lap, and by extrapolating the lap times it was clear that Kubica was in line for the race win. While chasing down second place (and getting quite close I might add) Sebastian Vettel tried to overtake Kubica, but made a very ugly attempt at a pass, going up the inside of a right-hander and torpedoing the BMW. I remember it like it happened yesterday. My heart dropped. The BMW was eliminated from the race. Vettel was later penalized with a 10-place grid penalty for causing this accident, but the damage had been done. As they say in motorsport, “That’s racing.”
Interestingly, Mario Theissen, BMW Motorsport Director at the time, agreed with my in-race calculations in Australia and famously stated that had Vettel not caused the crash, Kubica was in line for a race win. It’s a shame that this win never materialized, as in my opinion, this single incident was instrumental in getting papers shifted to the wrong file in Munich. Had BMW secured their second race win in the first race of 2009, the argument for continued F1 involvement would have been much easier won. Of course, this factor was a drop in the bucket in the greater pool of political problems.
That BMW’s F109 could manage that kind of race pace without the advantage of a double-diffuser is remarkable and one of the most impressive technical achievements witnessed in modern F1. Responsible for an estimated 30 – 40 percent of total downforce, the diffuser is a key component of the modern F1 car. The BMW F109 had an incredibly trick aero package – and had the controversial double diffuser been ruled illegal in the spirit of the rules, BMW would have run circles around the competition from Ferrari, McLaren and most certainly Brawn – leaving them to catch up throughout the season, not the other way around. To this day, I firmly believe that had the FIA ruled the double diffuser illegal, BMW would have went on to secure the 2009 driver’s and constructor’s world championships. BMW would have been racing in China last Sunday.
As if the above was not nauseating enough, there was even more political fecal matter to deal with during the 2009 calendar year. In an effort to align Formula 1 with modern environmental and consumption realities, the FIA announced the introduction of hybrid drivetrains in Formula 1. The teams began testing systems throughout 2008, and first raced with them in 2009.
BMW had been the strongest advocate of the hybrid technology dubbed “KERS,” standing for “Kinetic Energy Regeneration System.” (Editor’s note: Two paths to energy storage were allowed, one chemical (using batteries) and one mechanical (using a flywheel – this system was picked up by Williams F1, and later by Porsche in their 911 GT3 Le Mans racer (apparently Porsche purchased most or all of their flywheel storage system tech from Williams))). Other teams were quick to jump on the KERS bandwagon, but once testing got underway the teams quickly realized that the rule book-limited 81 hp gain would be offset by the approximate 25 kg weight penalty (in ballast, not overall car weight) and every team except for BMW began to back-paddle. Having already been signed into the rules, KERS could not be dropped from the 2009 season unless every team mutually agreed to drop the technology. Every team except for one signed the petition to the FIA; the team that overruled the majority was BMW.
While BMW’s lone vote was enough to keep the hybrid technology for the 2009 season, the writing was on the wall, and based on the rules for the 2010 season (rendering KERS useless, not illegal, mind you), all teams abandoned the use of KERS. This, friends, gets us to the heart of the matter. The abandonment of KERS during the 2010 season was the real reason BMW left Formula 1. The legalization of the clearly illegal double diffuser was another important nail in the coffin. Vettel ramming the F109 out of contention from a 2009 race win in Australia left BMW Motorsport without a prayer when that fatal board meeting convened in the lofty offices of Munich. Plenty of angry German was spoken, and the decision was not unanimous – many within the company felt (and still feel) that leaving F1 was the wrong thing to do – but at the end of 2009, BMW withdrew from the pinnacle of motorsport.
It’s funny, the difference a year can make. After a KERSless 2010 season, the FIA and remaining Formula 1 teams recognized what BMW saw all along: the critical importance of relevant techology and environmentally friendly tech advancement in F1. As we all know, BMW are on a crusade of efficiency. Now more important to BMW than motorsport or performance driving, efficiency is shaping the way BMW cars consume, drive, and feel. When F1 turned its back on hybrid development, it nullified BMW’s interest in the sport, and it tarnished F1’s newly found “green” image. BMW wanted to distance itself from crude-oil sucking, shameless motorsport, and on top of this, they wanted to win in the series they participated in. Abandoning KERS topped with the legalization of the double diffuser was the double shot to the chest that brought BMW’s F1 team to an end. I lament their exit from the grid to this day. I feel like I had to pick a new team to cheer for – when the one I saw on the cusp of a championship walked away.
To the future of BMW in Formula 1.
KERS is now firmly back in Formula 1, and has been since 2011. The technology will soon be allowed to flourish in 2014, when the FIA will allow the systems to generate double the power – 160 hp instead of the 81 hp currently allowed. This will make the hybrid tech more influential in the overall performance of the cars, and hence more important to the sport.
On top of the development of KERS, a new engine spec is to be implemented in 2014. Moving from the current naturally aspirated 2.4 liter V8s, F1 will adopt turbocharged 1.6 liter V6s. BMW is well adept to the 1.6 liter engine displacement, and could easily leverage this connection in its marketing activities. We all know what the M stands for in BMW. And it’s clear from their involvement in Formula 1 during the ’80 and 2000s that BMW can produce an F1 engine to be reckoned with – never mind the brilliant chassis and aero design of late.
Rumor has it that BMW will be exiting ALMS as soon as the end of this season. They have entered DTM, which might become a sport with international appeal and viewership with races held in North America and Asia – but even if that materializes, it’s still only a 3 horse German race. It does not compare to the spectacle, grandeur, or technical advancement of Formula 1.
Moving into 2014, no form of top tier motorsport can claim to be as “green” as Formula 1. No other platform of motorsport can spur the level of hybrid tech development that F1 is capable of. And most important to a multi-national car company – no other venue of motorsport can capture the hearts and attention of so many million viewers across the world every race weekend. The marketing power of Formula 1 is untouchable. F1 is the undisputed pinnacle of motorsport, the ultimate place to showcase technical superiority to the world.
Mercedes-Benz are enjoying the spotlight, having captured a solid race win in China. If BMW aren’t jealous, they should check their pulse. In 2014, it’s time to rejoin the grid. I sincerely hope that somewhere in a dimly-lit Munich laboratory, a select group of BMW engineers are hard at work on a mighty, fire-breathing, flame-spitting 1.6 liter turbo-V6.