A week before the 2010 Petit Le Mans a short email popped up on my Blackberry for my BMWBlog. This was the email we’d been waiting for, confirmation that we would have access to interview Dr. Theissen while he was onhand for the Petit Le Mans to see if the gamble on the American Le Mans Series had worked. Thankfully it had, but we at BMWBlog had a problem. “Good news: you can interview Dr. Theissen on the morning of the race. Bad news is that you can only have 10 minutes with him.”
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Recognizing that I would be disappointed by this, our contact at BMW NA quickly noted that Dr. Theissen typically does not grant interviews on race day due to his very hectic schedule. Ultimately, we would come away with access that few, if any media, receive – especially on short notice. With that, we would consider it a victory to meet and interview such an important person with BMW!
However, then came the next inevitable step: What kind of questions can I squeeze into only 10 minutes? After all, Dr. Theissen is the head of BMW Motorsport, he holds the keys to many locked doors for BMW’s racing future and has already had a storied career with BMW across a wide range of departments.
After all, who knows more about the inner-workings of BMW’s powertrain development and racing programs? Dr. Theissen has been with BMW since graduation from school with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1977. Initially, Mario started within the engine department before moving onto several managerial roles with engine development. In the late 1980’s, Theissen received his doctorate in engineering then transitioned into different roles such as Director of Advanced Powertrains and head of BMW Technik before coming stateside for a bit to establish the BMW Technology office in Palo Alto, California.
By 1999, BMW charged ex-F1 racer Gerhard Berger and Dr. Theissen with the roles of Directors of Motorsport, overseeing all of BMW’s racing and motorsport endeavors. Ironically, in Theissen’s first year of the role, BMW took home an overall victory with V12 LMR at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Further challenges awaited the pair as BMW prepared for a re-entry into Formula One. In 2003, with the exit of Berger, Theissen took on the role of Motorsport director alone and, after a falling out with the WilliamsF1 team and new acquisition of the Sauber team, he would dawn a new hat as team principal of the BMW Sauber F1 Team. Under Dr. Theissen, the team was able to reach new heights in Formula One though, by 2009, the board of BMW Group opted to pull out of the sport due to extreme costs to run a team among a variety of other reasons. It was then that Mario Theissen left the role of team principal and continued his role as Director of Motorsport. With this change in direction, BMW Motorsport re-focused all resources towards production car-based series such as the American Le Mans Series, customer cars for endurance races in Europe, the World Touring Car Championship and now DTM and the MINI-Prodrive WRC effort.
With all of that in mind, to say Dr. Theissen, if wounded, would bleed blue, white and black is probably a bit of an understatement.
We prepared a number of more focused questions so we would able to maximize our time with Dr. T. Come the morning of the race, I was in the paddock before our 9:50AM appointment talking with drivers and staff when Dr. Theissen quietly appeared in the tented bay of the BMW RLR trailer. Upon meeting him, his demeanor was a bit intimidating. He was polite, but curt and direct. He wore darkened eye glasses the entire day (and evening) giving him a bit of an Teutonic Enzo Ferrari coldness from behind the glasses – the man has an unbeatable poker face. However, upon sitting down in a quiet space behind the BMW RLR trailer, I found the initially chilly reception melting away and discussions of motorsport revealed a man who may have found his ideal job mixing both his passion of motorsport and the automobile and technical knowledge into one role. The further we delved into the discussions of racing the more enthusiastic Dr. Theissen became, at times laughing about the sheer number of projects currently on his plate as director. By the time the interview was over it felt as if only 30 seconds had elapsed and that I would have enjoyed speaking to him for hours more about all he’s accomplished and has planned.
We’ve included our interview with Dr. Theissen below as we discussed many of the new strides and projects BMW Motorsport is currently engaged in such as the progress of the BMW RLR team, BMW’s re-entry to DTM and the WRC. We hope you enjoy!
Andrew Murphy(AM): Dr. Theissen, thank you for taking the time to meet with BMWBLOG for this interview. You are, in a sense, the CEO of BMW Motorsport, and have a lot of important decisions coming up with BMW moving toward production series racing after leaving Formula One. Obviously, the M3 GT programs and the WTCC have been successful – from your perspective, how are things progressing?
Mario Theissen(MT): Well, when the decision came to pull out of F1, we first had to look what was immediately available to us. Luckily, we had just started the ALMS involvement and the board decision to pull out of F1 included the focus on production car racing and focusing on the M3 as the M3 it is the icon of the M brand. So that is what we wanted to do and we had the right car with the M3 GT2, so it was an easy decision to expand on this program and continue here in the U.S., and run a parallel program in Europe, including the big 24 hour races.
So, that was an easy decision, but then we had to think about the immediate future and long-term future, and based on the M3, the discussion of DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) came up. So far, we’ve also rejected the idea of re-entering DTM for mainly one reason: it is mainly a German or European series with cars that cannot run anywhere else. Our production car philosophy has always been to design develop a car that can be raced by a works team or customer teams in series’ worldwide.
Our request to DTM was that if you can achieve (with the regulations) that these cars are eligible in other series, then we are onboard. So that’s what is currently happening. DTM is in talks with Japanese Super GT and American racing organizers as well, and it looks quite promising that the future DTM cars of 2012 can be raced in Asia and America as well. This is the basis for us to decide on such a program. The final decision hasn’t be made yet, but I expect it soon and for it to be positive. (Our note: the decision came last week. Read here). If that goes on, we have a very strong program for the future and we will have to design and develop the car – which we have already started and this would be the core pillar of our racing in the future covering many markets and positioning the M3 for what it is – the ultimate sports car from BMW.
Apart from that, we have always supported touring car racing and the original form was tin-top cars and we are going to continue to do this. No decision has been made on the future works entry for WTCC, but we have decided to make cars and powertrains available for the European regulations next year and we have offered very attractive packages to our customer teams already to re-fit the original 320Si with the future powertrain.
AM: And that’s the 4 cylinder, turbocharged 1.6 liter engine?
MT: Yes, the 4 cylinder DI (direct injection) turbo and it will be available for our current teams early next year so that they’ll be available to enter the first round of the WTCC next season. And then step-by-step we will be able to supply other customers as well.
So this takes us to the MINI program because the MINI WRC will use the same power plant. This makes it very efficient for us and makes a lot of sense to develop such an engine.
The MINI program itself is run by Prodrive, a turnkey operation. We just supply the engine, the rest is done by Prodrive. Design and development and race operations are carried out by Prodrive.
AM: So will we see much factory support for WRC besides just the engine?
MT: Well, the program is fully factory-funded. It’s just that rallying will always be something special and not part of the core racing program of BMW Motorsport, so it doesn’t make sense to build up all of the experience it takes (to compete) in-house, so Prodrive is a contractor who runs the program on behalf of MINI, but it’s a works program.
AM: Well, one thing you hit upon was with regard to engine develop and trying to build a pillar or anchor around motorsport. With the worldwide credit crunch being felt by everyone, I’m sure even BMW Motorsport have felt the impact of decreased value of the Euro and Dollar. Have you retooled your approach to engine development? Are you possibly only using two or three engine platforms you’re working with to homologate across a number of different series?
MT: No, basically, there is no shift in mindset – we’ve always taken this approach but just in different levels. For example, in Formula One, the engine development piece was very expensive and technology-oriented. You had to come up with something new at every other race. But even in F1, things have slowed down and they’ve frozen the engines – which must be used at four races. So, even their costs have come down.
It’s always been our idea to have engines that can be used in various racing programs and that hasn’t changed. It is certainly due to the economic pressures on everyone. Also, everyone in racing is looking after their costs more than they used to, and many series are struggling and drivers find themselves without rides. However, I hope this will all be over quite soon. I think the toughest year has been last year. This year we’ve seen a slight recovery and we will see a more healthy environment.
AM: How do you feel BMW RLR have done this year? It seems that last year was a teething season, but this year they’ve rocketed forward and shown extreme progress.
MT: Bobby (Rahal) and I talked about it yesterday and if you compare the 2009 12 Hours of Sebring to where we are here (Road Atlanta), it’s a huge difference. I’m really proud of the team and what they’ve done! We also have a very good cooperation with RLR on this side of the ocean and BMW in Munich and the Schnitzer team, and we are pushing each other; the car has gotten better and better and more reliable and I’m really confident about the future.
AM: With BMW and Motorsport, they’ve always gone hand-in-hand and it’s been a piece of the brand image of BMW for the last 30 to 40 years. With that, BMW M division has always held ties to the Motorsport division, especially with the E30 M3 being so successful in touring car series’. What sort of cooperation has there been between BMW Motorsport and BMW M Division?
MT: Well, it’s always been a good cooperation but not always a close cooperation. When we were in F1 apparently there was not much to take over! (Laughs)
But with production car racing and the M3 as a core product we apparently have tied together again much more closely and there will be a closer link to Motorsport and BMW M in the future.
AM: Are there any series right now that you’d like to participate in or wishing to jump back into or anything along those lines?
MT: Well, I would have to say we have more on our plate than we can handle actually!(Laughs)
If you look back at the end of last year, we decided to race the M3 GT in Europe and at the same time we started the Z4 GT3 program and only had a few months over the winter to develop the car. Then we had to do the 1.6L 4 cylinder engine to supply the rally team, look after the M3 GT4 customers and have a works entry into the WTCC.
AM: So you’re just a little busy?
MT: (Laughs) I’m not looking for any more opportunities! (Laughs)
Special thanks goes out to Dr. Theissen and BMW NA Motorsports for helping us to attain such this interview on short notice and a truncated schedule! From our interview with Dr. Theissen, it would seem BMW Motorsport is in continued good hands and that the future of cooperation between BMW Motorsport and M Division could turn up some exciting prospects!