Written by By Dan Knutson Photos By: LAT Photographic .
BMW Sauber’s Efforts to Fix a Frustrating Season Continue
Things are not going to plan for BMW Sauber. Right now the German-Swiss F1 team is supposed to be fighting for the Drivers’ and Constructors’ World Championships. Instead it has been scrounging a point or two. So what’s the mood like in the team?
“The atmosphere is okay,” BMW’s Motorsport Director Dr. Mario Theissen tells Performance Racing News. “There is a good fighting spirit because we want to turn it around and get back to where we think we deserve to be, and where we know where we can be from past experience.” At this time a year ago Robert Kubica was on a roll and racking up more points than any other driver in the field. In the first six races he was on the podium three times (with two seconds and a third), and he twice finished fourth. Then, in round seven in Canada, he topped it off with the first grand prix victory for both himself and BMW Sauber.
The Polish driver left Montreal a year ago leading the World Championship with 42 points followed by Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa with 38 points each. Kubica’s teammate Nick Heidfeld, who finished second in Canada, ranked fifth in the standings with 28 points.
That was then. And now? Kubica failed to score a single point in the first six races of the 2009 season. In round seven he finally picked up two points for finishing seventh. Heidfeld fared little better. True he was classed second in the rain-shortened Malaysian Grand Prix, but there was a lottery factor involved because of the flooding track. His only other points race was seventh in Spain.
With Canada off the schedule this year, the Turkish Grand Prix took the slot for the seventh race of the season. With its new double-deck rear diffuser making its debut along with other upgrades to the car in Turkey, BMW Sauber hoped that it would finally be able to start clawing its way back to the front.
Mathematically, of course, it still possible for Kubica or Heidfeld to win the championship this year, but the reality is something different.
A year ago, when Kubica had a real shot at the title, BMW Sauber decided to concentrate on the developing the 2009 car rather than trying to win the 2008 crown. As PRN reported last fall, that led to friction between driver and team, and although they talked things out, Kubica still rues missing what might have been a rare chance to become champion.
“In some way, inside your brain you are prepared that one day you will not have the car to win,” he reflects. “Last year, when I was pushing to convince the team I could push for the championship, it was because a second chance might not be there again. It might come one year later, five years, 10 years...”
There was indeed a chance for Kubica and BMW Sauber last year, but was the team really ready to take on McLaren Mercedes and Ferrari and slog it out for the championship in the second half of the season? Perhaps not. It was a titanic battle, and Ferrari and McLaren put so much resource into it that their 2009 car development programs suffered and they are now paying the price for it.
If BMW had waged war in 2008 (and probably lost) it might have been even worse off than it is right now.
Until this year everything had gone perfectly to plan for BMW after it bought Sauber at the end of 2005 and merged its engine operation in Munich, Germany, with Sauber’s chassis factory in Hinwil, Switzerland. The plan was: points in the first year, podiums in the second, a win in the third, and in the fourth season, 2009, going for the championship.
“This is the first setback after three years of success,” Theissen admits, “and it was unexpected, so it is tough. But then engineers are able to turn this into motivation.”
Despite starting its 2009 program early, BMW Sauber got its sums wrong when it came to interpreting the sweeping regulation changes.
“Already during the preseason we had information that we might not be as strong as we were thinking and hoping to be,” Kubica says now. “With the new regulations it was like a new F1. The room for improvement was much bigger, and that’s what happened. Some teams that were in difficulty last year made a big step forward.
“In a season like this, when the pack is extremely competitive, we fell much further behind than we expected. I might say I’m surprised, but in F1, especially when you have so many new regulations and changes, it can happen. And unfortunately it happened to us.”
So why has the BMW Sauber F1.09 been off the pace? It’s mainly due to a lack of grip, (and a lot of that is due to insufficient aerodynamic downforce), which is the same reason every driver who is not in a Brawn or a Red Bull cites for why they are not getting on the podium.
“Normally when you are slow you are lacking grip,” Kubica says. “Then when the grip is coming, if it’s mechanical, aerodynamically or some other part of the car, it’s too difficult to explain. It’s a complex problem. It’s not something that’s easy to fix in one minute or five minutes.”
The team hit an all-time low in the Monaco Grand Prix when Heidfeld and Kubica qualified 17th and 18th. The drivers simply could not get sufficient temperatures into their tires which were running a whopping 20 to 30 degrees Centigrade cooler than the optimum operating window. The slow nature of the Monaco street circuit caused the problem.
Things improved at the Turkish Grand Prix when the team fitted its updated aero package.
“Overall, from what we saw in Turkey, we are now closer to the top teams,” Kubica tells PRN. “But it is still not enough. We have come back to more of the normal situation we were in before Monaco. P10 in Qualifying 3 is better than P18, but the relief will be when we are back in the front two rows of the grid.”
The BMW Sauber designers did not opt for a double-deck rear diffuser in the original design of the F1.09 because they were certain it was illegal. So, like the other teams that did not have the device, BMW has been hard at work developing it and having to re-optimize the car’s entire aerodynamic package.
“Since the F1.09 concept was not designed for this double diffuser, we had to make a number of aerodynamic adjustments,” head of engineering Willy Rampf explains. “There are modifications to the front wings, side bargeboards, rim shields and the rear part of the engine cover. We expect this to take us a step forward, although we know that our rivals are not standing still.”
Unlike many teams that brought incremental upgrades for their cars in each of the first four races of the season, BMW Sauber waited until round five in Spain to introduce a major new package.
“In the first three races our performance got a little worse, step by step. I guess because some of the other teams brought updates which we didn’t have.”
- Nick Heidfeld
Big steps are possible. Look at how Ferrari has improved in recent races. Kubica takes some comfort in the possibility that BMW Sauber could leapfrog past several teams.
“We had one package in Barcelona which put us closer to the top,” he says, “but if you compare it to February, or even the last test before Australia, McLaren was miles away, not even the same pace, they were much, much slower than us.”
But between preseason testing and now McLaren has sliced over a second off its lap times.
“It shows that it’s possible, if you are struggling, to come back with a strong package,” Kubica says, “and we have to try and do that.”
As for the struggles so far this season, Kubica is his usual matter-of-fact self: “It’s the reality. Why should I be frustrated?”
However, a source close to Kubica tells PRN that some factions within the team are growing weary of his griping.
Things certainly have not gone to plan this year for BMW Sauber, but there are still many races to go.
“The season is still not over,” Kubica says. “In the end we will judge our season in a later phase of the year. But we have to stay realistic: it will be very difficult to repeat what we achieved last year. But everything is possible. We have to keep working, and then we’ll see.”
The new aero package has paid dividends for Kubica. He earned his first points of 2009 in the recent Turkish Grand Prix.