Interview with BMWs Mario Theissen 22 Jun 2006
It was a year ago, on June 22, 2005, that BMW announced its acquisition of a majority stake in the Sauber Formula One team. BMW Motorsport Director and team principal Mario Theissen gives us a mid-term report on the new outfit's progress so far this season
Q: Hand on heart: how often have you wondered whether BMW's decision to form its own team was the right one?
Mario Theissen: I haven't doubted it for a second. It was really the only way to go. The decision to line up on the grid with a BMW-led team was based on various things we learnt in our time as an F1 engine supplier. One of these was that the role of the engine in a team's success is generally not as great as before. And, more than anything, we were and are in no doubt that success is only possible with structures in place which run throughout the team. The integration of the team's bases in Munich and Hinwil through jointly coordinated project management is now working well. I'm pleased that we've pursued this path towards overall responsibility. But that doesn't mean we're not constantly analysing how we're going about things. After all, we're still in a development phase.
Q: How do you rate the team's progress after eight races of the season?
MT: Very positive. We have collected points in six of the eight rounds of the championship so far and seen both cars finish in the points on two occasions. The British Grand Prix went particularly well for us and we were never out of the top four teams during the Silverstone weekend. Both our BMW Sauber F1.06 cars made it through comfortably to the top ten qualifying shootout, and in the race itself we finished seventh and eighth without benefiting from any retirements ahead of us. This represents a significant step forward from our starting point last year.
Q: Aside from the results themselves, are you happy with the advances the team has made?
MT: Getting a Formula One team off the ground is never an easy task, even with the resources of a car manufacturer and the existing infrastructure of an F1 team behind you. We are currently in the middle of a two-year development phase. I take my hat off to the whole team in Munich and Hinwil for what they have achieved over the past few months. They have worked virtually around the clock. Our first move was to link up the operations at the two locations, then we put in place a programme for the future and introduced the measures we needed to implement these plans. An interim car was built for winter testing, the drivers were signed up, agreements concluded with four major partners and a separate testing team assembled. We've already got almost 70 new team members on board, with more set to join us gradually in due course.
Q: Is the aerodynamics department now able to keep pace with the big teams?
MT: The wind tunnel in Hinwil is first-class - one of the best, if not the best of any team on the grid. However, previously there were only enough people to run the tunnel on a single-shift basis, whereas the top teams were already using their facilities around the clock, as is standard. We responded by introducing a second shift in January, and by the end of the year we should also be running the tunnel on a three-shift basis. Stepping up the pace of development has already borne fruit. We are committed to making improvements available for each Grand Prix in the form of tested and approved new parts. And we've managed to do that on almost every occasion. The correlation between our simulation work, wind tunnel testing and the introduction of improvements in race action is extremely encouraging.
Q: Is it true that you're looking to expand the Hinwil facility in terms of buildings as well as personnel?
MT: Yes, we've already secured planning permission for the expansion of the plant and the new buildings should be completed by the end of next year. These will include both offices and technical facilities. Of course, all these measures are running alongside the race and testing programme, so for the team this means an especially tough 2006 and 2007.
Q: What are the team's aims for the second half of 2006?
MT: For our first year on the grid, we set ourselves the goal of both halving the 1.5-second per lap deficit to the leading cars which the Sauber cars were running at in 2005 and improving on eighth place in the constructors' championship. Those remain our aims for 2006 and we're well on course to meet them.
Q: The team are currently lying fifth in the constructors' standings - is fourth place within your grasp?
MT: We shouldn't get carried away. Of course, you've always got your sights fixed on the teams immediately ahead of you rather than looking over your shoulder. But if we can keep hold of fifth position through to the end of the season, we will have met a first intermediate target.
Q: In the reliability rankings, only world champions Renault are ahead of BMW Sauber. How have you managed to achieve such success?
MT: When you've got to deal with all the challenges of building up a team and integrating its constituent parts, reliability becomes the absolute priority. Instead of having one eye on impressive one-off performances, you first have to get a handle on processes and negotiate race weekends with as few incidents and retirements as you can. That's what gets you the broadest base to build on. We too have had retirements and faults to contend with, but they have only highlighted another positive side to the team's development: we are now able to deal with problems at short notice. That was particularly important in Monaco, where we were plagued by an electronics problem for a number of days.
Q: How does the integration of the Munich and Hinwil locations work on a day-to-day basis?
MT: From day one it was clear that our ways of working and thinking were very much compatible. Maximising the potential of this joint operation has involved blending BMW's technological expertise with the efficiency and race track experience of the Sauber team. It's all about merging these previously separate activities into an integrated team. This basis then has to be built up to the point where you've got a top team on your hands. It's a long-term project, but we can't afford to take any short cuts if we want to achieve our aims. The most important thing on a day-to-day basis is effective communication, and this is made possible by both the manageable distances involved and the range of state-of-the-art communications technology available - such as data transfer and telephone and video conferencing.
Q: How often are you personally in Hinwil? How do you travel back and forth?
MT: I'm normally at my office in Hinwil one or two days a week. Meeting with people is an important element of my work between Grand Prix weekends as well. The journey takes just under three hours. It goes without saying that I travel by car between the two locations - and still enjoy the drive, as long as it's in a BMW. Hands-free systems allow me to make a few phone calls while I'm on the road under rather less time pressure. My main office is still in Munich, where I'm also responsible for the other BMW Motorsport projects. We're looking to defend our World Touring Car Championship title in 2006, as well as building further on the success of the four Formula BMW series in Germany, Asia, America and the UK.
Q: How do you personally deal with the two-pronged challenge created by your roles as BMW Motorsport Director and team boss?
MT: There have only ever been 24 hours in day - it's a question of how you prioritise and organise your work.
Q: How would you sum up the competition in Formula One racing as a whole this season?
MT: We are seeing a totally new situation. The teams and cars are incredibly well matched and there's very little to choose between them. This breadth of competitiveness has surprised me. Nobody on the grid can be sure of getting through to the final session of qualifying, and all the teams have to appreciate that the battle for the top ten will go right down to the wire. There's a lot of tension and excitement out there at the moment.
Q: How do you see the future of Formula One racing?
MT: On the commercial side of things, there's an understanding between the teams, manufacturers and rights holders which should form the basis for the formulation of a new Concorde Agreement over the next few weeks. At the same time, the FIA has presented its vision of the series' long-term development from both a technical and a sporting point of view. If the various interests within the sport can be brought together under one roof in this respect as well, Formula One has all the ingredients for an extremely successful future.
Q: How do you rate the performance of your three drivers?
MT: We are extremely happy with our driver line-up. Nick Heidfeld is every bit as good as we hoped. He's strong out on the track and is making the valuable contribution we expected he would to the development of the car. Jacques Villeneuve, meanwhile, is proving his critics wrong. He's highly motivated and right back in top form, which puts a smile on my face. Our test and stand-in driver Robert Kubica is a rough diamond. I accept that it was a risk to take on such a young and inexperienced guy as our third driver, but we have been highly satisfied with his work and his general development. We fully expect him to continue in this vein and I'm in no doubt that he has a future in Formula One. However, he's still very young and we need to give him time.
Q: Who will be driving for the BMW Sauber team in 2007?
MT: We will have an extremely strong team of drivers once again in 2007, but a final decision on the line-up won't be made until the end of the season.