Interview with BMW Saubers Mario Theissen 20 Nov 2007
BMW Saubers unexpectedly strong progress in 2007 saw the team score 101 world championship points and end the season second in the constructors standings. For BMW Motorsport director Mario Theissen, however, there is still a lot of work to do before the team is ready to challenge Ferrari and McLaren for race wins.
Here Theissen reviews the teams highlights, evaluates the performances of drivers Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld and looks ahead to 2008
Q: How would you rate the teams second season?
Mario Theissen: It was a strong season at the end of which we even managed to crack the 100 points barrier. We went into the season having finished fifth in the world championship on 36 points in our debut year. We set ourselves the goal of fourth place and a much bigger points total this year, so third was a great bonus. The powers that be then promoted us even further, but it is a pretty empty second place in our eyes. After all, were well aware that four cars have been faster than us, and we want to beat them on the track, not in the corridors of power. It was surprising that we were the third-best team from the outset and were able to reinforce this position in practically every race. On occasions, we were even able to break into the territory of the two leading teams, meaning that we recorded the podium positions we were aiming for on merit. To sum up, we can be proud of what we have achieved - both as far as our development work over the winter is concerned and in terms of our pace of development during the course of the season. We have managed to meet our targets in both of our development years so far, so the engineers can see that our ideas are working. That breeds confidence in our strategy, and as a result, they can see that we are heading in the right direction.
Q: What were the highlights of 2007 for you?
MT: For me the highlight of the season was Montreal. Nicks second place gave the team its best result so far. And the fact that Robert was able to emerge from his crash practically unhurt was a great advert for the strength and outstanding construction of the car. When you look at it this way, the weekend felt like a victory on two fronts for the team.
Q: Were there also some low points?
MT: Yes, there were a few of those as well - most significantly the shock that went through us all when Robert had that accident in Montreal. We had an agonising few minutes before we received the welcome news that he was practically uninjured. Other, less dramatic, low points were the retirements due to technical problems. You can never rule out these kinds of issues entirely, but it hurts the whole team when one of the drivers takes nothing away from a race on Sunday, because they have received no reward for all their hard work. Having said that, we finished in the points in every race this season, which meant we didnt go away from any of the 17 race weekends empty-handed.
Q: Where have you seen the greatest progress since 2006?
MT: In 2006 we still had a weakness on low-speed circuits, but that was no longer the case in 2007.
Q: Were you happy with the performances of your drivers?
MT: Yes, Nick and Robert were very impressive on and off the track and we will, therefore, be sticking with both drivers for next year. That is something we were agreed on very early in the season. We extended Roberts contract with the team after his serious accident in Canada - even before he had got back into a car. We had also reached agreement with Nick at an early stage, and that allowed us to sort out the contractual formalities calmly during the course of the season.
Q: In what areas does the team have most work to do in order to bridge the gap to the leading teams?
MT: Improvements can always be made across the board, but the greatest scope for progress clearly lies in aerodynamics. Its not a question of eliminating a specific weakness for 2008, but of finding the extra three to five per cent in all areas which can bring us up to the level of the top teams. Its really a matter of fine-tuning - evolution rather than revolution.
Q: Is the teams development phase now completed?
MT: That will be the case at the turn of the year, as planned. We now have 420 employees on board in Hinwil, while the workforce in Munich remains unchanged at just under 300. The move into the extension at Hinwil is in full swing.
Q: Did the further enlargement of the team make life difficult during the season?
MT: There were 275 people employed in Hinwil when we acquired the majority stake in Sauber. It was a great feat to integrate the new people into the team during the course of the season and with the development of next years car already underway. Added to which, it is more pleasant for everybody to be working in a permanent office rather than a temporary portacabin.
Q: To what extent are you still directly involved in technical development?
MT: I keep myself regularly informed on all development processes. We have regular meetings and I also talk with the engineers on the shop floor, so to speak. The decision on which direction to take with our development work is made by Willy Rampf and Markus Duesmann. If we are not sure which way to go on a particular issue, then I will be involved in the decision-making process as well. I see myself primarily as a coach, setting targets, making sure the necessary elements are in place and giving direction.
Q: When did the technicians begin work on the 2008 car?
MT: The design process got underway in May 2007. We had secured our third place in the constructors championship as early as midway through the season. Catching the two teams ahead of us in the points was unrealistic by that point, and we had a comfortable cushion to those below us in the standings. This meant we could shift the focus of development to 2008 at an early stage. We completed the further development of the F1.07 at the Jerez test in mid-September and subsequently switched our attentions to 2008.
Q: BMW is a leader in the area of electronics. What do you think of the introduction of a standard ECU?
MT: We voiced various objections to the introduction of standard electronics. The process of converting cars, engines, gearboxes and, indeed, test rigs has generated considerable extra costs. And there is an even more important argument against the standard ECU going forward. Nowadays not just the car as a whole, but every single technical system is equipped with complex control electronics tailored specifically to the function of that particular system. The electronics represent the nerve centre, without which the system would only be capable of limited functionality or would not be able to function at all. Our aim is to make Formula One a pioneer in drive technology for the series-produced road cars of the future. Looking further ahead, a system is under development which regenerates energy under braking, stores that energy and, when the driver accelerates, puts it back on tap alongside the power from the combustion engine. Highly sensitive control electronics are required to coordinate these processes efficiently and ensure driving safety under all circumstances. So tailored electronics are essential if we really want to develop the potential of this system, for example.
Q: The success the team enjoyed in 2007 has increased the weight of expectation for the 2008 season - how do you deal with that?
MT: It is natural that expectations increase the more successful you become. That brings pressure from the outside, of course, but also raises the standards we set ourselves. The end of this season has seen us wrapping up the development phase of the BMW Sauber F1 Team. This phase has run according to plan and has seen us make it into the top three in a short space of time. Next year we will be looking to record our first win. We know that this will not happen automatically. The great progress we have made this year, in particular, has shown that we have got the direction of our development work and our working processes spot on. Motivation within the team is extremely high as a result.
Q: Next year there will be 18 races on the calendar, one more than this season. In the future that number may rise to as many as 20 Grands Prix. What do you think of these plans?
MT: Twenty races is a lot and will place a heavy burden on the whole team, especially those who travel to the races and tests, and are therefore often away from home. However, this is something we can live with. At the end of the day, we put a huge amount of resources into racing in Formula One. And if we do end up with another two races on the programme, it will mean that these resources are actually being used more efficiently. Having said that, we do need to think about how we organise such a packed season and, from a logistics point of view, how the travelling schedule can be structured as efficiently as possible.
Q: How would you like to see the Formula One calendar shape up in the future?
MT: There should be a mixture of tradition and the future. The fact is that Formula One still needs a European core, with historical race tracks like Monza, Silverstone, Spa and the Nurburgring. And that has not been seriously called into question. However, you also have to ask yourself where the greatest opportunities lie for Formula One. The answer is in the rapidly developing new markets, primarily Asia of course. There is a vast amount of potential waiting to be unlocked in these countries, and if Formula One can put down roots there it will secure its status as the blue-riband category of motor racing into the future.
Q: Who is going to be your test driver for 2008?
MT: We will shortly be giving some young drivers the chance to test for us and then we will decide. Timo Glock, at any rate, will not be driving for the BMW Sauber F1 Team next year. We invited him to be our test driver, but he has been offered a race seat by another team. We wish Timo every success for his career in Formula One. He is one of the highly promising drivers to have come out of Formula BMW with good future prospects and we are confident that he will establish himself in Formula One. I dont want to exclude the possibility that we might be working together again some time in the future.