Exclusive Q&A - BMW Sauber's Mario Theissen 24 Jan 2007
BMW Saubers low-profile approach to 2006 will be almost impossible to repeat this season, with most expecting the F1.07 - the first machine to combine the design skills of the teams Hinwil and Munich bases - to challenge for podiums. Team principal and BMW Motorsport Director Mario Theissen reflects on those expectations - and discusses his stance on customer teams and the new Friday driver regulations
Q: The launch of the first genuine BMW Sauber earlier this month was a success. Nick Heidfeld claimed he would be able to tell if the car were a candidate for the front of the grid after completing the roll-out in Valencia. What did he report back?
Mario Theissen: It is not true that this first impression is of high significance. But yes, we all eagerly awaited those first laps and were relieved about Nicks comments about the BMW Sauber F1.07. The new car was faster at first go than the simultaneously tested F1.06.
Q: While other teams have set up new wind tunnels, BMW Sauber is pursuing a different agenda for simulation testing, based around a new supercomputer, Albert 2. What advantages do you see in this? And do you think this is the future of car design?
MT: The implementing of Albert 2 means a substantial strengthening of our Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) capacity. We do not see it as an either-or situation, but instead will use simulation as an ideal addendum to the wind tunnel. The wind tunnel is still faster, but delivers only results, whereas the CFD simulation is based on the evaluation of physical processes and delivers, alongside the results, an understanding of the flow effects. Based on that information the next steps in development can be decided with a tighter focus. Simulation and experimental aerodynamics cross-stimulate each other. BMW is also using that combination in the development of its road cars.
Q: With the BMW engine remaining the same, where do you think youll be able to close the gap to the top teams?
MT: Aerodynamics will be the most important single factor. Based on that belief, the upgrading of our aero department in Hinwil was our highest priority. We have increased the wind tunnel shifts from one to three, have increased our headcount, and, with Albert 2, have raised our calculating capacities to the top level. But do-or-die factors will also be on the mechanical side with the optimization of the use of the Bridgestone Potenza tyres. With the homologation in place our focus has clearly shifted to gearbox and electronics.
Q: After scoring good results in the second half of last season, the expectations for this year are naturally quite high. Do you think the team will be a good bet for 2007? MT: It is the bane of success that expectations fly high, so it is important that we keep our feet on the ground. We have calculated two years to bring the team forward and that is the time that we need. Our target for 2007 is podium finishes, our first win should happen in 2008.
Q: You were one of the first to express concerns about customer teams, fearing that in a worst-case scenario, six manufacturers could control 24 cars. Does that mean BMW will not have its own customer team?
MT: The chassis liberalization was introduced to ease the hurdle for independent teams to come into Formula One. As an initial aid it has my support. But I see the problem looming that this well-intentioned help will undermine the autonomy of those teams. When they wont pursue their own goals but comply with the needs of the chassis supplier and become de facto tactical partners. I have my doubts whether viewers would want to follow a sport that is predominated by that sort of strategic calculations. I still think that the majority of Formula One fans want to see 24 drivers and 12 teams fighting for their own glory. I am in favour of a strict regulation on a commercial basis: the supply of chassis for adequate payment.
Q: What about BMW becoming an engine supplier? Who could be a possible recipient?
MT: It is conceivable that BMW will supply engines in the future, but there have been no concrete talks with potential partners to date.
Q: Last year you were recruiting a lot more staff. Has that process finished? What is the current head count? And what were the departments with the biggest increase?
MT: We are still in the recruiting process. 125 new staff members are already added to our Hinwil work force - 30 more will follow, with the biggest increase in the aerodynamic department. At the end of 2006 our Hinwil base had a headcount of 430, who all have to be integrated and cross-linked. Not an easy task, but so far everything has gone according to plan. By the end of 2007, our new complex of buildings will be finished with not only test plants, labs and development departments, but also offices. By then we will have reached our full clout.
Q: Your decision to allow third driver Sebastian Vettel to drive on Fridays during race weekends was not welcomed by your two racers. True, it will give Vettel more experience, but could it also be seen as a warning to Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica that you wouldnt hesitate to again ditch an under-performing driver mid-season?
MT: Nicks and Roberts ambition to run for the whole of Fridays is understandable. But I do think their fears are unfounded. Under the new regulation Fridays are part of the test programme, which gives us a full 90 minutes with free engines and additional tyres. So both will be able to do more laps than under the old Friday rule. Sebastian is our test and reserve driver who must be ready to take over a cockpit on a race weekend in case of emergency. We want to groom him for such a possibility.