BMW’s win vindicates split from Williams

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What must Frank Williams have thought when Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld gave BMW its first win and first one-two at the Canadian Grand Prix three weeks ago?

Since BMW left Williams in 2005 the Munich marque has grown in strength while progress at Williams has been painfully slow by comparison.

How did the two fall out?

BMW returned to F1 in 2000 as engine suppliers to Williams. They previously tasted championship glory in 1983, providing the turbo engine that powered Brabham’s Nelson Piquet to the 1983 drivers’ championship.

Their new partnership with Williams began well. Ralf Schumacher got the car on the podium in its first race at Melbourne, and ended the season fifth in the championship with Jenson Button eighth. The first wins came the next year: three for Schumacher, one for new team mate Juan Pablo Montoya.

But the team failed to deliver on its promise over the following years for several reasons. BMW’s engines were reputed to be the fastest but Williams’ cars proved either too conventional aerodynamically (2002) or too radical (2004).

Michelin’s tyres usually struggled to keep pace with Bridgestone’s and when they did, in 2003, they were abruptly and controversially forced to change their design. That arguably robbed Juan Pablo Montoya of Williams’ best chance of winning a championship with BMW power.

A wholesale change to the driver line-up in 2005, bringing in Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld, brought no further wins. BMW left at the end of the season, and took Heidfeld with them for good measure.

But it wasn’t just the lack of success that frustrated BMW. The manufacturer wanted a deeper technological input than Williams were prepared to allow. When the opportunity arose to ourchase the Sauber team, complete with state-of-the-art wind tunnel, Mario Theissen pounced.

Williams stagnate, then recuperate

Williams were forced to use customer engines in 2006 for the first time since 1988. The V8 Cosworth proved poewrful but reliability from the car-engine package was dreadful and by the end of the season it had dropped off the pace as well.

Nico Rosberg shone at Bahrain but then seemed to go AWOL for the rest of the season. Webber looked competitive at Australia and Monaco but both those runs were thwarted by unreliability. The Australian left at the end of the year, ruing going against manager Flavio Briatore’s advice when he joined the Grove team.

A fresh start with Toyota in 2007 brought the team a substantial improvement in reliability in exchange for sharing its gearbox technology with the Japanese team.

Williams made far better use of the Toyota engines than the factory team did in 2007, beating them by 33 points to 13. But so far this year they have shown only flashes of promise since their impressive form in testing and are eight points behind Toyota after the French Grand Prix.

BMW go from strength to strength

Having taken over Sauber, BMW began an expransion programme by ramping up staff numbers and installing a behemoth supercomputer named Albert 2.

It is this beast that runs BMW’s Computational Fuid Dynamics research for development of aerodynamic components – and has produced some dramatic results. Its infamous ‘tower wings’ of 2006 were swiftly banned but the F1.08 has other ideas that rival teams are yet to replicate – like the ‘horns’ mounted on its front wing.

Theissen also turned his new broom on the driver line-up and brushed Jacques Villeneuve aside before the end of 2006, installing Kubica in his place.

Though it looked like a risky gamble on an unproven rookie at first the results have been impressive. Kubica was on the podium by his third race and was leading the championship before the French round.

BMW’s faith they could achieve more without Williams has certainly been vindicated. But can Williams now get back on terms with their former engine suppliers?

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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22 comments on “BMW’s win vindicates split from Williams”

  1. In one word: No.

    In insight, there are only two ways in that Williams could match BMW:

    1 – Get full support of a manufacturer, like for instance, Toyota dropping it’s fruitless project and get totally behind Williams with it’s engines and let Williams do the rest. Which could not be such a great idea since Williams are not known for extracting the most of their package (I believe this year car real performance is yet to be seen). Also, Williams can’t match the developping pace of other midfielders, never mind the front runners (which, as Renault proved in 2005 and 2006, can be done without large sums of cash).

    2 – Get a fresh new idea that puts their cars miles ahead of everyone, just like in the years that they won the championship. Which with these current set of rules, alergic to new ideas, ain’t gonna happen.

  2. I’ve always wondered if these new regulations that we’ll get in 2009 will actually help Williams to improve as it’s going a bit back towards the old days with the aero restrictions and slick tyres.

  3. Yes , BMW are on the up , but the same cannot be said of Williams , who seem to do well in winter tests therefore start the season off well , but then slowly fade during the year , as they seem to be doing now – or is it that the better funded teams just develop quicker during the year ?

  4. Hopefully with next years regulations we’ll see more teams challanging the top two.

    It’d be nice if Williams could be one of them.

  5. I started disliking Williams when they started blocking customer cars only when they would be a chance that they could beat Williams.

    As for people saying it’s a lack of funding. They weren’t exactly lighting the world on fire with BMW. It’s just a convenient excuse.

  6. Robert McKay
    26th June 2008, 23:10

    There’s an interesting moral dilemma in there: how much control of your team do you cede for success?

    Compare Frank Williams and Peter Sauber. Sauber realised that the only way to take on the big guns at their own game was to give them free reign. He could have stuck it out with semi-manufacturer status with Ferrari’s help, fight it out in the midfield without ever being a real threat, but at least you’re doing it your way.

    Frank tried the same, for a bit, and clearly reached the level of manufacturer influence that he felt comfortable with, and allowed no more. But that wasn’t enough to really move them to the front: all the elements from the two separate “arms”, if you like, never came togther at the right time.

    Of course, the one major difference is that Frank had already tasted success, and lots of it, on his own, so probably wasn’t missing anything if he didn’t get any more and could thus afford to keep doing things hs way. Sauber of course, hadn’t, and that was his one shot of getting it.

  7. @Robert

    That makes Frank Williams a really selfish guy doesn’t it? Him preventing his young drivers from possible wins just because he has tasted success in the past and wants everything his way.

  8. I wonder how much Patrick Head had to do with the dysfunctional relationship with BMW? Alex Zanardi painted an un-flattering picture of him in his book. How much technical input does Patrick Head still have?

  9. Internet,
    Frank Williams and Patrick Head are not in F1 to make young drivers happy. They have always been pure racers, and won their last back to back championships in ’96 and ’97. To suggest that they are selfish for not giving up their independence is to suggest that F1 should be a manufacturers only sport, so that drivers will have a better chance. It’s not just about the drivers, and the day that the state of this sport forces the Williams team to sell out is the day I will have to take a good hard look at whether or not I want to keep watching.

    Having said that, I am not criticizing Sauber for selling the team. But he never had a championship team and knew that he couldn’t do it, while Williams had, and continue to strive to get into the top 3. The problem is, and has been for a while, money. More race wins means more sponsorship, and watch the talent go back to Frank and Patrick.

  10. Well, I just think they’re incompatible. Frank, Patrick, and Mario are all strong-willed people who are born to lead. I think Frank doesn’t want a repeat of his scenario with Walter Wolf in the 70s. He sold his team to Wolf, and Wolf became a huge success for a while, but Frank realized it wasn’t the right thing to do. For him, it was like getting success but only by selling your soul. And he doesn’t want any of that anymore.

  11. I don’t see a big difference between a manufacturer run team or a private one , provided the team structure , usually influenced by the team principal , has the knowledge and passion for F1 , which Sir Frank no doubt has. Then comes the funding aspect , which in modern F1 is essential to have a suffciently large budget to maintain pace with development and technology.BMW are having reasonable success this year , and appear still on the up , while Renault have been great for 2 years , but have slumped back in the last 2 years. Toyota have struggled , especially considering the funding of that team , while Honda have been a disaster in F1 terms. Nick Fry , with all due respects to him , I believe knew less about F1 than average “Joe Soap” in the street , and maybe has even less passion for it , but he is catching on now (appointment of Ross Brawn) . Perhaps he should give up his job to Sir Frank in favour of a permanent return to the Honda Board Rooms , and Williams Honda could be born.

  12. Robert Mckay
    27th June 2008, 8:31

    Oh I certainly don’t think it’s selfish of Frank and my post wasn’t intended to be a criticism of either Frank or Peter’s approach. What I was really trying to say was that the middle ground Williams tried to operate with with BMW is the hardest and the least likely to work. Either continue to go it alone or accept full buyout. Trying to juggle your team with a separate team, both of whom resents the level of control/influence the other has on the team fortunes, is not a recipe for long term goodwill. I’m not saying it can’t be made to work, but it’s very hard to.

  13. By the way here is nick fry CV… doesnt look too bad
    Descending order (taken frm honda f1 site)

    2007: Chief Executive Officer, Honda GP Ltd
    2006: Chief Executive Officer, Honda GP Ltd
    2005: Chief Executive Officer, B.A.R Honda
    2002: Managing Director, B.A.R in addition to Prodrive responsibilities
    2001: Managing Director, Prodrive Automotive Technology, leading to position of Group Managing Director, overseeing the company’s engineering and racing operations
    1999: Product Planning and Business Director, Ford Europe based in Cologne, Germany
    1998: Brand Manager for Large Cars, Ford Europe
    1996: Service Director, Ford Europe
    1993: Managing Director, Aston Martin – overseeing the development of the DB7 which has since become the best-selling model in the company’s history
    1992: Director of Operations, Aston Martin – following Ford’s acquisition of 50% of Aston Martin Lagonda Limited
    1979: Moved to Product Development as a Product Planner and developed a variety of models over the next 12 years including several performance models – Escort Cosworth, RS2000 and others
    1978: Joined Ford Motor Company working in Sales and then Market Research
    1977: Graduated from University of Wales

  14. Hang on a sec… Nick Fry came from Prodrive? So how come he ended up being the guy who replaced David Richards? It’s like Honda got someone from right under Richards’ nose!

  15. sChUmAcHeRtHeGrEaTeStEvEr
    27th June 2008, 13:26

    “That arguably robbed Juan Pablo Montoya of Williams’ best chance of winning an engine with BMW power.”

    dont you mean championship?? lol

    i dont see private teams having anymore success to be honest, the only way to win now is to have major backing financially. its true with other sports, take footabll and the english premiership for example, the “BIG FOUR” as theyre called, Man utd, chelsea, liverrpool, arsenal are all owned/backed by billionaires, theres such a huge gulf between them and the other teams.

    its a similar story in formula 1 now.

  16. I agree with Robert McKay. But I would add that we don’t know the whole story between Williams and BMW. What we DO know is that technology was shared between the two and it reached a crisis point as stated earlier. Williams got the benefit of ultra-powerful BMW engines for a few years, while Patrick Head has already said something along the lines of “BMW took our gearbox and naffed off”, which suggests that this may have been Dr. Mario’s plan all along – join forces with an experienced (and recently successful) team, get the jist of the game, then go and start your own team with existing structure. Smart move, and probably perfect timing. Certainly a wiser move than anything associated with the current Toyota and (in particular) Nick Fry led Honda outfits. BMW have thus far made all the right moves (including both drivers imo).

    On a cautionary note however, lets just remind ourselves for a second that BMW have only achieved their first win after 3 seasons (I’m pretty sure a feat bettered by Williams GPE themselves)- not a Championship. With new regs next year, a Championship in either form is by no means guaranteed – see Honda (B.A.R) circa 2004.

    Frank and Pat, hold your heads high and go down with the ship if you have to. I’m sick of trying to remember who Red Bull, Honda, Renault, Force India and Toro Rosso used to be.

  17. Toby, it IS a shame that we’ve lost Stewart, Tyrrell, Benetton, Jordan, and Minardi. But I think these teams still provide good competition (albeit inconsistently), and that can’t be a bad thing.

    As for BMW, I think they’ll cope well with 2009. Although they’ve had a reorg lately, it seems to be well-planned and well-executed. And their methodical methods will continue paying off. I’m sure Dr. Mario saw 2009 coming a long time ago, and planned for it accordingly.

  18. Of course, when I say these teams, I mean the current reincarnations of the teams I just mentioned.

  19. Toby, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Let’s not forget that when BMW joined Williams, they were winning in 1 year, not 3. And arguably, their drivers were less than stellar, with mediocre Ralf and nut job Montoya. In 2001(not sure) JPM was disqualified (or something) in a wet race in Indy, for a crash w/ Barrichello that effectively put the WDC in MS’s hands. So, BMW still has a long, long way to go, while Williams could, indeed, bounce to the top very fast.

    On another note, Robert mentioned that the middle way is the hardest way to go when it comes to manufacturer/team partnerships. Well, I don’t know. McLaren has managed that with Mercedes, and they were the very first team on this kind of trend, back in 1995. My point of view is that all that’s important is success. No matter how bad the relations between Theissen and Head/Williams were, had they been champions, I guess they would’ve stuck toghether…

  20. F1 freak , thanks for the detailed insight on Nick Fry’s CV – which supports what I’ve thought all along , that he is fairly highly educated , has served time in and excelled in some big corporate structures and basically done everything right , but it still does not make him a racer at heart , like Frank Williams. And the Honda teams poor results in the past few years compared to the vast funding , reflect just that.

  21. May I say how good it is to read a blog full of informed, literate comments about F1 and without ill-tempered nationalistic abuse of Lewis Hamilton?

  22. Jean – I feel the same about Fry. His CV is indeed impressive, but he is a career manager who has worked in marketing and sales. His CV doesn’t appear to have any involvement in a racing organisation at all until 1999 if I am reading it correctly. There is the reason why Honda have failed to prosper under his reign. There is the reason why Honda have pinned their hopes on Ross Brawn – it leaves Fry free to concentrate on what he is best at and brings a proper, engineering and racing brain into the every day running of the team.

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