Exclusive interview - BMW Saubers Christian Klien 09 Jan 2009
Judging from the final tests of 2008, BMW Sauber could be well ahead of their competitors in terms of 09 on-track development, after trialing not just KERS but also new-style front and rear wings. As a result of the progress made, test and reserve driver Christian Klien is cautiously optimistic that they can make a big impression in Melbourne. For Klien himself, the recent in-season testing ban may have reduced his role, but with age and experience on his side, the Austrian is ever hopeful of return to a Formula One race seat
Q: Christian, its a little over a week away from the launch of BMW Saubers 09 racer. Is there anything you can say about the new car?
Christian Klien: I can certainly assure you that the 2009 car will be in blue, white and red livery. Furthermore, it will have a front and a rear wing, supported by four wheels, each of which will hold one black tyre (laughs). As you will understand, it is way too early to judge how competitive we will be, but my feeling tells me, that we have a very solid basis for 2009. Obviously, the biggest change will be driving on slick tyres. At Barcelona you gain about two seconds a lap over the grooves. However, you lose about two seconds from the new aerodynamics. As always, winter testing in Spain was pretty cold, so any judgment would be premature.
Q: Over the winter it appeared that BMW Sauber were ahead of the other teams in terms of using 09-spec developments. In the times, however, the team tended to be at the back end. Why was that?
CK: Yes, we were the first to run the 09-spec aerodynamics, which slows you down massively. As always, the winter testing lap times do not mean a great deal. Teams were using all sorts of different aero packages. Everyone was doing individual programs. Some were testing potential candidates for 2009, in 2008 spec cars. And KERS development has really only just begun. The important thing is to follow your own program and exchange as much data as possible between the three drivers. When it comes to this, it has definitely been a few good weeks of testing. Again, we will only know where we stand in comparison to our competitors at the start of the race season.
Q: You, Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld have already had a thorough taste of KERS, and a lot of other drivers have consulted you about the effect of this new technology. How does it feel and have you noticed any downsides?
CK: Honestly, we have still got a long way to go, but we are on track. One of the changes is that I have an extra boost button on the steering wheel now, but with all those buttons it does not really make much of a difference. I can boost the engine power by 60 kilowatts for a little over six seconds from the cockpit. You must press the boost button as early into the corner as possible to have an advantage on the straight. I feel that you will probably have to start the procedure when you are, for example, in third gear in the middle of the corner. That is when those 60 kilowatts come in immediately, so it does require a little extra attention from the driver. And KERS certainly harms your weight distribution. You have less weight to play with, so set-up work becomes a little trickier.
Q: It seems as though some teams will start the season without KERS. BMW Sauber, meanwhile, are well advanced in the use of the technology. Do you believe the team will use it at the opening races?
CK: It is impossible to judge at this point in time. We will really have to test KERS in the new car first before we have a clearer picture. As it is not mandatory, every team will weigh the options very carefully. How much do you gain from it? How much can you lose by reliability issues?
Q: KERS seems to be a handicap for the taller and heavier drivers on the grid. Should KERS become obligatory, will we see those drivers being ruled out of Formula One racing?
CK: There is a small advantage for lighter drivers. 10 kilos less of body weight gives you 10 kilos more to play with your weight balance. But it does not have a dramatic effect. As much as I myself would love to have an edge over bigger drivers, I doubt KERS will be the end of the story for them. The difference is quite marginal.
Q: Lets have a look at the new front wing. You called it ugly, while your team colleague Nick Heidfeld predicted a lot of accidents because you can hardly see it from the cockpit. With those downsides, what are the designs upsides?
CK: Let me get one thing straight first. Although it was widely spread in the media, I never called our car ugly. I was sitting down with some international journalists in Barcelona at the first test and was asked about the new look of F1. I didnt beat around the bush and said: It is not the nicest car I have ever seen. Somebody translated this into freestyle German and made a massive headline out of it. And soon everyone started copying from one another. Its funny how you can make headlines with something you never said. To answer the question, it looks like the new aero regulations will bring more overtaking. We have noticed that you can follow a car more closely. This is mainly down to the larger front wing we have now which brings a lot of stability to the front axle. In addition to that, the smaller rear wing should significantly reduce the dirty air when you follow another car. One of the downsides, however, is the start of the race. With these massive shovels on the noses, we may well see a few clipped front wings in the first corners.
Q: You are heading into your third season as a test and reserve driver. People seem to forget that you are still quite young, but you come with a load of experience. Is a Formula One race seat still on your priority list? And should that fail, what then?
CK: How could it not be? F1 is my place and I have settled in really well in a fantastic environment. I am well aware that a second chance is often much harder to get than a first one, but I have something to offer that makes me confident that I can reach this goal. At 25, I have three years of F1 racing experience and I am now my third year of testing with a manufacturer F1 team. And the BMW Sauber F1 Team is really professional on all levels. They clearly see the benefit in a reserve driver actually going racing once in a while. Thats why Mario Theissen was kind enough to let me race at Le Mans and Petit Le Mans/USA, to stay in shape and not lose focus. As for the other question - failure is not an option
Q: Following the announcement of the in-season testing ban, the profession of test and reserve driver was effectively been downgraded to a winter job. How will you handle that situation - and how will you continue to get enough driving experience? Has the team indicated to you that you will be given the chance to drive over the race weekends?
CK: Well, the downgrade came along with a massive upgrade in responsibility in winter testing. I got to drive a lot over the winter and the duties were pretty evenly split between Robert, Nick and me. If you compare this to other teams regimes, I cannot complain at all. I take that as a sign of faith. And once the season is underway, my job does not end. I will still be fully involved, and mentally and physically fit to jump into the race seat whenever needed.