BMW-Sauber F1 team: A testimony to ‘what could have been’
The BMW Sauber F1 Team had a brief but fairly successful existence on the Formula 1 racing circuit. The partnership was born out of BMW’s desire to achieve more victories on the racetrack, but it ended when that same desire waned. BMW nearly achieved greatness during the team’s run—rocketing from eighth place to second within two years of acquiring Sauber—but the pair never reached the peak of the highly prestigious class of single-seater auto racing. The relationship would disintegrate after just four years, but it did produce a memorable chapter in F1 history.
How it all started
Both German automaker BMW and the Swiss-based Sauber were established parts of Formula 1 for years before they ever considered a merger. Sauber had worked its way up to Formula 1 in 1993, after two decades competing on lower racing circuits, and earned a reputation as one of the better independent teams on the circuit by the dawn of the 21st century.
Meanwhile, BMW—which enjoys major name recognition across the globe—had been a part of racing in several capacities throughout the post-World War II period of the 20th century, mainly as an engine supplier but also as an occasional constructor. It had been a presence on the F1 circuit during the 1980s but left for several years after 1990 when a proposed move to make race car chassis was quashed by the company’s directors.
After the hiatus, BMW became an engine supplier to the Williams Team, and the two groups united to become the BMW Williams F1 Team in 2000. BMW and Williams enjoyed two straight third-place finishes in the overall standings, followed by two straight second-place finishes. The team slipped a bit thereafter, though, dropping to fourth in 2004 and fifth in 2005.
BMW officials believed the car’s chassis—provided by Williams—was slowing down the team. As a result, BMW tried to buy Williams outright—so it could assume total control of the racing operation. But Williams officials refused to sell. Facing a dilemma, BMW reached out to Sauber and bought that team instead.
Interestingly, Sauber had endured a falling out with its own partner, Ferrari. The Italian giant claimed its Sauber-made engines weren’t living up to expectations. The team was coming off an eighth-place finish, which had been preceded by two sixth-place finishes. Considering Sauber was having trouble generating its Formula 1 operating budget—hundreds of millions of dollars at the time—the Swiss team was ripe for a sale.
Founder Peter Sauber sold an 80 percent stake of his team to BMW after the 2005 season. The agreement was this: Sauber would handle chassis production and wind tunnel work in its Swiss factory, while BMW would make the engine at its Munich headquarters.
The 2006 season
Driver Nick Heidfeld, who had competed for Williams, came to the team with BMW. He joined former world champion Jacques Villeneuve, who was retained by Sauber. Robert Kubica was brought on as the third driver.
From the start, BMW proved it wasn’t completely focused on the on-track product. One of the team’s main sponsors for its inaugural season was Intel, which was expected to supply microchip technology for vehicle maintenance. BMW officials touted the ability of Intel technology to improve vehicle operation for all its vehicles—those in dealerships across the world as well as those on the racetrack. The message was clear: BMW officials were intent on using the Formula 1 team as a testing ground for technology that could eventually be applied on a mass, consumer-based scale. Was the company more concerned about overall sales than winning F1 titles?
Meanwhile, on the track, Villeneuve recorded the team’s first points with a seventh-place finish in the second race of the 2006 season—in Malaysia. But Heidfeld topped him a race later in Australia, finishing fourth to his sixth, and outpaced Villeneuve for much of the season thereafter. Kubica filled in during the 13th race in Hungary for an injured Villeneuve and stayed on as the No. 2 driver for the rest of the season. It was at that race that Heidfeld grabbed the team’s highest finish of the year—to that point— and got to the podium with a third-place finish. Kubica tied that third-place feat only two races later in Italy. The team ended the year in fifth place—ahead of Toyota. (Williams ended the year in eighth place and failed to claim a single podium finish.)
The 2007 season
Villeneuve left the team after the 2006 season, saying he did not want to get into a competition for the job with Kubica because he felt he’d already proven himself. (Villeneuve had effectively been dumped after Kubica’s impressive debut in 2006.) So Kubica began 2007 as the No. 2 driver on the team behind Heidfeld. Sebastian Vettel was brought on board as the reserve driver.
With its new roster, the BMW and Sauber union began to pay off. Observers considered BMW-Sauber the third-best team on the circuit behind Ferrari and McLaren. BMW’s Mario Thiessen, the company’s director of motorsport, said its revved-up 2006 performance helped the company earn this reputation, but living up to it might be harder than expected:
“In 2006, we exceeded our own targets,” Thiessen said. “Now expectations are rising faster than the team can develop. That’s the punishment for excelling yourself.”
Heidfeld helped BMW-Sauber live up to these lofty expectations with three straight fourth-place finishes to start the season. After retiring in the fourth race, he finished sixth and second in the next two races. Kubica had a strong start of his own, coming in sixth, fourth and fifth in races three, four and five.
Kubica produced an impressive 2007 season, finishing outside the top eight only twice—with three top-four finishes and three retirements. But Heidfeld was even better. He had only one finish outside the top seven—with one second-place finish and one third-place finish. He did retire from two races, but his strong showing helped BMW-Sauber finish second overall at the end of the Formula 1 season—with more than double the points of third-place Renault. BMW and Sauber had proved they were better competing together and seemed to set themselves up as a legitimate championship contender in Formula 1.
The 2008 season
The bar was set high for 2008. Team officials declared their goal for that season: We want a No. 1 finish in a race for either Heidfeld or Kubica. Actually, Heidfeld came close in the opening race of the season, finishing second in Australia. And Kubica did the same thing a race later in Malaysia. He then finished third, fourth, fourth and second before breaking through in the seventh race in Canada. Kubica gave his team officials their wish—and then some—by coming in right ahead of Heidfeld to give BMW-Sauber a scintillating one-two finish. The win was the first for a BMW engine in four years.
Kubica was leading in the race for the individual championship at this point, and BMW-Sauber had been atop the team championship standings during the season, but the team decided to switch gears after Canada and started preparing for rules changes in 2009. Kubica had two more third-place finishes and a second-place finish over the remainder of 2008, and Heidfeld finished second twice more. But both racers fell outside of the top eight in several races—as the team’s relative indifference toward the current campaign began to take a toll on the drivers’ performance. In spite of this drop-off, BMW-Sauber still finished the year third in the team rankings, and Kubica came in fourth in the driver standings.
The 2009 season
With an individual win now under its belt, BMW-Sauber set its sights on a team title in 2009. But in the opening race in Australia, Kubica tried to move into second place when he crashed—and had to withdraw. While Heidfeld had a second-place finish in the second race in Malaysia, that’s as close as the team would get to the podium all season long. BMW-Sauber had a combined three top-eight finishes through 10 races, and the team languished near the bottom of the team standings. The team had invested nearly every resource into the KERS system but had to abandon the new technology before the season’s midway point. The lack of development on any other part of the car became apparent. Once KERS was tossed, there was nothing else to fall back upon.
Promised upgrades to the drivers’ cars didn’t come through, and Heidfeld or Kubica struggled through the remainder of the campaign. A rift between the team’s two European facilities also began to surface during the season, with both the German and Swiss facilities pushing for more control over the on-track product. Kubica did end the season on a high night, posting a second-place finish in the year’s penultimate race in Brazil, but BMW-Sauber ended the year in a disappointing sixth place in the team standings.
The final lap
BMW didn’t even wait until the end of the 2009 season to announce that it was pulling out of the sport. Moving forward, BMW officials said the company’s top priority would be “sustainability and environmental compatibility” of its commercial vehicles. BMW wanted to ensure its place near the top of the premium automobile sales charts, so the German automaker devalued the Formula One wing of its operation. Money, time and resources needed to be shifted. In addition, BMW acknowledged 2009’s poor showing played a role in its decision to withdraw from the sport.
BMW had secured a buyer of the team by September. But that buyer, Qadbak Investments Limited, turned out to be a shell corporation. Finally, Sauber himself stepped up two months later to reacquire full rights to the team he founded. Formula 1 granted him a special exemption to remain on the circuit in 2010, and his team remains a part of Formula 1 to this day. Using Ferrari engines, though, Sauber has failed to match the same success as when BMW and Sauber were one.
Sauber was left to awkwardly flounder during the 2010 season. The late notice about the sale forced the Sauber team to maintain the BMW name—even though the car had no BMW components. Most sponsors avoided the team entirely—considering the absence of a big-name backer and the uncertainty that resulted over the team’s viability. The lack of money forced the team to cut its staff by nearly half. No Sauber driver finished higher than sixth in any race that year, and the team finished a disappointing eighth. Midway through that year, Sauber justified his decision to buy the team in spite of its relatively poor showing:
“When I decided to take over, I had to make the decision in a short period of time,” Sauber said. “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 [the Sauber manufacturing facility in] Hinwil would have been closed down.”
Sauber has failed to finish better than sixth in any season since going solo. No Sauber driver has won a race since the merger dissolved.
BMW did return to racing in some capacity in 2012, fielding three teams in the German Touring Car Masters. But the company has otherwise remained true to its word and avoided the highest level of racing in favor of improving the technology on its mass-produced automobile lines.
Ultimately, though, BMW’s failure to produce a winning Formula One team remains one of the great disappointments in racing. BMW-Sauber set high expectations as an “outsider” on the circuit and came close to meeting them. They were the one of the best teams in Formula 1 for a season and a half, with only a change in priorities preventing them from becoming truly great.
Professional sports are full of “what could have been” stories. In the world of auto racing, there is perhaps no greater such story than that of BMW-Sauber, a team that somehow exceeded expectations while failing to meet them at the same time.