Analysis: BMW's unfulfilled potential

Since returning to Formula 1 as an engine supplier in 2000, BMW has regularly flirted with success without quite managing to fulfil its title-winning potential. AUTOSPORT looks back over its last decade in F1, as well as its previous involvement in the sport, when it emerged as a world champion power supplier

Analysis: BMW's unfulfilled potential

The Brabham years

The BMW M12/M13 turbocharged inline 4 in the back of the Brabham BT53 at the 1984 British Grand Prix © LAT
BMW, which was first represented in the world championship through occasional appearances with its Formula 2 cars in 1952-1954 and 1967-1968, didn't make its first real foray into F1 until 1982 when its 1.5-litre turbo engine made its race debut in the back of a Brabham. In Canada,
Nelson Piquet took the potent unit's first victory, but it was to be the only win that year as BMW struggled to balance power and reliability.

In 1983 ATS joined Brabham in BMW's team portfolio. Piquet started off the season in perfect style with victory in Brazil. Reliability was much improved, and further wins at Monza and Brands Hatch were enough to claim the drivers' world championship.

The Brazilian's nine pole positions the following season yielded just two wins and a flurry of retirements, while McLaren, powered by Tag-badged engines built by Porsche, emerged as the dominant championship force. Arrows also joined the BMW fray in 1984, but was never a victory threat.

By 1985, pickings were slim for BMW, taking just one victory at Paul Ricard, where high temperatures and Pirelli tyres loaded the dice in Piquet's favour.

The Benetton years

With Brabham now in a slow decline - the lowline BT55 of 1986 proved to be a blind alley - it was increasingly the emerging Benetton team that led the charge for BMW.

The high point for the German manufacturer that year was Gerhard Berger's breakthrough win in Mexico. This, backed up by Teo Fabi's pole positions in Austria and Italy, reminded everyone that the BMW powerplant still had formidable peak power. But Benetton's haul of just 19 points was also proof that reliability was still bad and BMW pulled out at the end of the season.

Brabham continued to run with the old BMW engines in 1987, scoring just 10 points, before dropping out of F1 for the 1988 season. But BMW's engines also lived on as Megatron, with the Heini Mader-tuned units used by Ligier (1987) and Arrows (1987-1988).

The Williams years

BMW chose Williams as its engine partner for its next crack at F1. On paper, it was a match made in heaven. The British team had dominated the sport with Renault for much of the 1990s and the German manufacturer had the resources and the technical know-how to make a race-winning engine, not to mention a decent lead-time for the project, having given it the green light in 1997.

Initially under the direction of Gerhard Berger, Mario Theissen took joint charge of BMW's motorsport activities alongside the Austrian in 1999 as BMW built up to its return to the grid in 2000.

Jenson Button makes his Grand Prix debut in a BMW Williams FW22 at the 2000 Autralian Grand Prix © LAT
It combination started well. Ralf Schumacher finished on the podium in the partnership's first race in Melbourne, and further podiums at Spa and Monza proved that BMW had produced one of F1's most powerful engines straight out of the box.

Third in the constructors' championship, albeit a long way off Ferrari and McLaren was considered the perfect platform to contend for race wins in 2001, and Juan Pablo Montoya was well-placed to take a maiden win in Brazil until he was rear-ended by Jos Verstappen's Arrows, which he had just lapped.

But the wins did come that year. Schumacher triumphed in the San Marino, Canadian and German Grands Prix, with Montoya adding a fourth victory at Monza as Williams again finished third in the constructors' championship.

Now the stage was set for a title-push in 2002 and Schumacher duly won the second round of the championship in Malaysia, but the season turned out to be a crushing disappointment. Despite Montoya's six poles, Williams didn't win again as Ferrari triumphed in 15 out of the 17 races.

It was in 2003 that Williams-BMW came closest to glory. Montoya took its first win of the season at Monaco, with Schumacher catapulting himself into title contention with back-to-back wins at the Nurburgring and Magny-Cours. In the end, it was the Colombian who came closest, finishing third in the drivers' championship after a penalty for pitching Rubens Barrichello's Ferrari into a spin at Indianapolis effectively wrecked his title bid.

In 2004, cracks began to appear in the Williams-BMW partnership as Theissen became convinced that a full works team was the only way the marque could win the world
championship. On-track, it was a year of utter Ferrari dominance, and not even a Montoya victory in the season finale in Brazil could salvage a bad season. Increasingly, BMW held Williams responsible for the lack of success and a full factory team was becoming inevitable.

In 2005, BMW announced that it had bought the Sauber team. The Swiss-based operation had originally approached BMW about the possibility of a customer engine supply deal, but both Theissen (by now in sole charge after the departure of Berger) and Peter Sauber saw that a full takeover was the way to go. With BMW's attention focused on what would become known as BMW Sauber, Williams had an anonymous year, with Nick Heidfeld and Mark Webber taking just four podiums between them.

The BMW Sauber years

BMW opted to keep the team largely based at Hinwil in Switzerland, where the chassis development work was done, while its powertrain base remained at BMW's headquarters in Munich. It was a good move, because Peter Sauber had invested wisely to make the team an attractive investment for a manufacturer. This meant that it was a question of beefing up
the Sauber facility rather than building a new one from scratch.

With a 60% windtunnel on-site, expanded to operate 24 hours a day, and a prodigious investment in computational fluid dynamics capability, it didn't take long for the new BMW Sauber team to show promise.

Jacques Villeneuve tests the first BMW Sauber F1.06 during winter testing at Barcelona © LAT
The 2006 season was something of a stopgap year. Heidfeld joined from Williams alongside ther returning former world champion Jacques Villeneuve, and the target of regular points and a first podium was hit. Heidfeld was the first to get there, finishing third in the Hungarian Grand Prix, with rookie Robert Kubica, who had replaced Villeneuve after the German Grand Prix, repeating the result at Monza.

After a promising first year, the F1.07 was the first car that had the full weight of BMW's resources behind it. Again, the team hit its competitive targets by finishing third in the constructors' championship (second with McLaren's exclusion) after scoring points in
every race. Heidfeld was on the podium twice, and the tally of 101 points (including one contributed by Sebastian Vettel on his one-off appearance for the team at Indianapolis) represented a job well done.

It was a similar story, of targets hit, in 2008. Regular podiums and a first win was demanded by the BMW board, and Kubica's triumph in Canada - one year on from his massive accident at the approach to Montreal's hairpin - gave Theissen's team a real reputation for delivering on its

In the second half of the season, performances tailed-off even though Kubica's consistent scoring kept him in the championship hunt all the way to the Chinese Grand Prix. With development throttled back, everyone expected to fight for - and hopefully win - the title in 2009. And when BMW Sauber became the first team to run a full interim car to 2009 aerodynamic regulations in winter testing it seemed that a march had been stolen
on the rest.

Early tests of the F1.09 gave no reason for the team to doubt that a title push was possible. But soon it became clear that the car was lagging behind in aerodynamic terms - especially when the Brawn BGP 001 hit the track at Barcelona in March and raised the bar for what
could be achieved.

The F1.09 had no slot diffuser and its aero package was compromised by a cumbersome KERS system (the chunky sidepods were a giveaway) and despite Kubica only missing out on second place in Australia after a late-race clash with Sebastian Vettel, it was always going to be a tough season.

Heidfeld fluked a second place in the red-flagged Malaysian Grand Prix, and since then it has been downhill all the way. In 10 races so far, the team has just eight points, and has long since ditched its much-vaunted KERS system to allow it more freedom to develop the aero package. In Hungary, Theissen said that he believed the team has got to the bottom of its aero problems and that a major update for the Singapore Grand Prix should move it up the grid. If it does, it would have been good news for the 2010 season, a campaign that will now not happen.

It's hard to see BMW adding to its tally of 11 wins in its past decade of F1 - chances are it will leave the sport after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix without adding to its total of 20 victories. A story of targets mostly hit, but ultimately unfulfilled.

Gallery - a photographic history of BMW in Formula 1

Toyota moves to deny quit rumours

Previous article

Toyota moves to deny quit rumours

Next article

LG not to blame for timing blackout

LG not to blame for timing blackout
Load comments
The final throes of Brazil's fleetingly successful F1 team Plus

The final throes of Brazil's fleetingly successful F1 team

Emerson Fittipaldi is better remembered for his Formula 1 world championships and Indianapolis 500 successes than for the spell running his eponymous F1 team. Despite a hugely talented roll call of staff, it was a period of internal strife, limited funding and few results - as remembered by Autosport's technical consultant

Why McLaren's expanding agenda will benefit its F1 resurgence Plus

Why McLaren's expanding agenda will benefit its F1 resurgence

In the 1960s and 1970s, McLaren juggled works entries in F1, sportscars and the Indy 500 while building cars for F3 and F2. Now it’s returning to its roots, expanding 
into IndyCars and Extreme E while continuing its F1 renaissance. There’s talk of Formula E and WEC entries too. But is this all too much, too soon? STUART CODLING talks to the man in charge

Formula 1
Oct 17, 2021
How Tsunoda plans to achieve his F1 potential Plus

How Tsunoda plans to achieve his F1 potential

Yuki Tsunoda arrived in grand prix racing amid a whirlwind of hype, which only increased after his first race impressed the biggest wigs in Formula 1. His road since has been rocky and crash-filled, and OLEG KARPOV asks why Red Bull maintains faith in a driver who admits he isn’t really that big a fan of F1?

Formula 1
Oct 15, 2021
The danger of reading too much into F1's clickbait radio messages Plus

The danger of reading too much into F1's clickbait radio messages

OPINION: After Lewis Hamilton responded to reports labelling him 'furious' with Mercedes following his heated exchanges over team radio during the Russian Grand Prix, it provided a snapshot on how Formula 1 broadcasting radio snippets can both illuminate and misrepresent the true situation

Formula 1
Oct 14, 2021
Why F1’s approach to pole winners with grid penalties undermines drivers Plus

Why F1’s approach to pole winners with grid penalties undermines drivers

OPINION: Valtteri Bottas is credited with pole position for the 2021 Turkish Grand Prix, despite being beaten in qualifying. This is another example of Formula 1 and the FIA scoring an own goal by forgetting what makes motorsport magic, with the Istanbul race winner also a victim of this in the championship’s recent history

Formula 1
Oct 13, 2021
Turkish Grand Prix Driver Ratings Plus

Turkish Grand Prix Driver Ratings

On a day that the number two Mercedes enjoyed a rare day in the sun, the Turkish Grand Prix produced several standout drives - not least from a driver who has hit a purple patch of late

Formula 1
Oct 11, 2021
The hidden factors that thwarted Hamilton's bid for shock Turkish GP glory Plus

The hidden factors that thwarted Hamilton's bid for shock Turkish GP glory

Starting 11th after his engine change grid penalty, Lewis Hamilton faced a tough task to repeat his Turkish Grand Prix heroics of 2020 - despite making strong early progress in the wet. Instead, his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas broke through for a first win of the year to mitigate Max Verstappen re-taking the points lead

Formula 1
Oct 11, 2021
How pitstops evolved into an F1 art form Plus

How pitstops evolved into an F1 art form

A Formula 1 pitstop is a rapid-fire blend of high technology and human performance. PAT SYMONDS describes how the science of margin gains makes stops so quick

Formula 1
Oct 10, 2021