The grid's 'third power' finally arrives
Very rarely do you get what you wish for. But this season BMW Sauber have achieved just that, finishing third in the constructors championship and scoring their maiden pole and race win. Its a brilliant achievement for a relatively young team, who have finally taken the fight to Ferrari and McLaren and become real title contenders.
Over winter matters hadnt looked quite so upbeat, with murmurs that their aggressive pre-season development programme had backfired. Drivers Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica certainly looked as though they were struggling with the F1.08s handling, but the technical team, led by Willy Rampf, remained optimistic. And gradually the true pace of the radically-designed machine became apparent.
At its first race outing in Marchs Melbourne season opener, Kubica came within two-tenths of beating McLarens Lewis Hamilton to pole. He missed out again in Malaysia, although Heidfeld did take fastest lap at Sepang. Kubicas qualifying breakthrough finally came in Bahrain, where the Polish driver clinched a superb P1 grid slot, ahead of Felipe Massas Ferrari and Hamiltons McLaren. BMW Sauber had finally arrived.
The only snag was Heidfelds comparative lack of performance on Saturdays. The tyres and the F1.08 seemed to favour Kubicas belligerent driving style over Heidfelds fluidity, especially over a single lap. The German was thoroughly overshadowed by his less-experienced team mate. Indeed his best 2008 qualifying slot was fifth, which he scored on four occasions, while his worst was 16th. Kubica was fifth or higher at two-thirds of 2008s races.
And although Heidfeld consistently bounced back in races with some thrilling overtaking moves, it was Kubica who led the teams charge, scooping 32 points from the first six races. A win, however, remained elusive until Junes Canada race, when the Pole capitalised on Hamiltons pit-lane blunder to score his (and the teams) maiden victory. Montreal was a superb display of both Kubicas skill and the cars pace. And to complete BMW Saubers dream weekend Heidfeld made it a one-two, thrusting the team to within three points of the constructors championship lead.
Understandably, everyone wanted a slice of their performance and BMW-inspired design details, including their nosecone delta winglets, sprouted on cars up and down the pit lane. In addition, slowly but surely, Heidfeld managed so solve his qualifying woes and close the gap to his team mate. As he did so, however, the pace of the F1.08 itself seemed to slacken, the team apparently unable to match the late-season development pace of their rivals.
Following a luckless Hungarian Grand Prix, BMW Sauber first lost their second place in the standings, and as the end of season approached they gradually began to lose sight of Ferrari and McLaren. They continued to enjoy podiums, taking five after their Canada win, but generally their later revisions brought little gain to their cars performance.
Had the team thrown away their best chance to win a championship, in favour of greater glory in 2009? Should they have focused exclusively on maximising the F1.08s potential, rather than switching resources to its successor? Its hard to say. Kubica, who was still in contention for drivers title, was critical and became increasingly frustrated. He ended the year with a string of (relatively) disappointing results, which saw him miss out on third in the championship to Ferraris Kimi Raikkonen.
His fourth, however, was a personal best and the team (with Heidfelds growing help, of course) still netted a comfortable third in the constructors championship with an impressive 135 point haul. Plus, having started their 2009 programme so early, they are already looking strong for next season. They raised more than a few eyebrows at the recent Barcelona test, running the most complete looking 09 hybrid, and their devotion to KERS has been well documented. Indeed, BMW Sauber look well-placed to secure a more permanent footing at the front in 2009.