F Features

Out of Obscurity

The BMW Sauber Rise to Contention

Around the midpoint of the 2008 Formula One season, just after the Canadian Grand Prix, three teams were fighting for the championship. It wasn’t a resurgent Renault challenging powerhouses McLaren Mercedes and Ferrari but instead the ever improving BMW Sauber.

08Spain_H0Y3525_opt“I said at the beginning of the season that I was expecting McLaren first and BMW second as our main competitors,” Ferrari’s team principal Stefano Domenicali said after the Canadian race. “They are there; they are strong.”

It was in Montreal that Robert Kubica scored his fairytale win one year after his horrifying crash at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. It was the first F1 victory for the rising Polish star and the first for the BMW Sauber squad. To top off the perfect day, Nick Heidfeld brought the other BMW Sauber home second.

After seven of 18 races, Kubica led the Drivers’ World Championship by four points over Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa who were tied in second place.

In the Constructors’ World Championship, BMW Sauber was three points behind Ferrari and 17 ahead of McLaren. BMW Sauber was a contender.

“I think when you are leading the [Drivers’] World Championship after seven races you have a car that can win races and can fight for top positions,” Kubica said. “So if a team can build a top car, it’s a top team.”

The trend through the first half of the season was that neither Ferrari nor McLaren could consistently mount a top level performance. So as Massa08Canada_26Y5882_opt or Kimi Raikkonen would stumble at Ferrari, or Hamilton at McLaren, the BMW drivers were ready to pounce. The latter duo was further helped by Heikki Kovalainen taking time to settle in at McLaren.

“We’ve seen that they’ve been fast all year, more or less there all the time,” Raikkonen said of BMW Sauber.

Flash forward to the Italian Grand Prix, round 14, and the picture had changed somewhat.

Hamilton now led the title chase with 78 points followed by Massa with 77 and Kubica with 64. McLaren was now second in the Constructors’ Championship with 129 points while Ferrari had 134 and BMW Sauber 117.

“I think we didn’t improve the car as much as Ferrari and McLaren,” Kubica said. “In the first three races we were on a very similar level to them, but afterwards when we got to Europe the gap became bigger.”

“In the fourth race Ferrari were much stronger than us and this gap stays quite [unchanged]. Even in Monaco, or Canada where I won, the gap to the fastest car was pretty big. It was just circumstances that allowed us to win the race.”

_26Y4082_optKubica, however, has not given up on trying to win this year’s championship. Yet he broadly hints that perhaps his team is not fully supporting his efforts, and that BMW Sauber is concentrating more on the Constructors’ Championship.

“I am a racing driver and I am fighting for my best,” he said. “And as I am doing my best I am doing it for myself and for the team. It is clear that if I score eight points they go to the team and to my account, but maybe the priority of late for the team was a bit different from myself.”

“That is why you get this feeling, and to be honest I get a bit this feeling, that maybe I am the only stupid one or crazy one who is thinking about fighting for the championship this season. Until there is no chance I have to do it – and
I hope the team is doing the same, and I believe they are trying.”

Team insiders tell PRN that Kubica is upset because he feels that BMW Sauber should have put more effort behind his championship bid as he has a more realistic chance of winning the title than teammate Heidfeld.

BMW Sauber certainly put in a lot of work and resources helping Heidfeld solve his poor qualifying performances. Does Kubica feel that perhaps that hampered the overall progress of the car?

“I don’t know,” he replied. “There is no secret that the team helps Nick [Heidfeld] quite a lot. Even he has mentioned it on more than one occasion that he gets very good support from the team. I think in the team vision and view it is right to do it, but in some ways I don’t know if I will have an opportunity to fight for the championship in the future.”

BMW Motorsports Director Mario Theissen says that BMW Sauber has not eased off on developing the 2008 car so that it can concentrate on the 2009 car.

“We are certainly pushing more because we don’t want to be seen as number three but as one of the top three teams,” he explained. “We want to_F6E1816_opt keep the gap as small as we can. We want to see the gap behind us, not in front of us.”

“It is clear that the other two cars [Ferrari and McLaren] are quicker than ours,” Theissen added, “and I don’t expect that to change in the remaining races. We will try and stay as close as possible, and then wait and see what the race brings. Anything is possible.”

BMW Sauber’s goals were to finish on the podium in 2007, win a race in 2008 and fight for the championship in 2009.

“I am definitely [already] satisfied with the year,” Theissen said. “If we can stay close to the other two teams then we have a very good foundation for next season.”

In 2007, BMW Sauber was in a very safe third place far behind Ferrari and McLaren and comfortably ahead of the other teams.

In 2008, BMW Sauber has proved to be far ahead of the other teams and capable of being one of the top three teams rather than
a distant third.

And in 2009? If the trend continues, BMW Sauber will be a title contender. But the drastic technical rule changes are going to shake up the rankings. Teams such as Renault and Williams could or should bounce back, and teams like Red Bull, Toyota, Honda and even the dark horse [dark bull?] Toro Rosso may be in the mix as well.

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