BMW has marched closer to the front of the F1 field in clear, measurable steps since it took over Sauber at the end of 2005.
They continued that progress in 2008 with their first pole position and first victory. But did they sacrifice performance – and potentially the championships – by prioritising their 2009 car earlier than McLaren or Ferrari did?
On paper, BMW slipped from second in the 2007 constructors’ championship to third in 2008. In reality, their position last year was partly thanks to McLaren’s expulsion. This year they were a solid third, frequently took points off Ferrari and McLaren, and were still in the hunt for the constructors’ championship with two rounds to go.
The year began with some uncertainty over their prospects. BMW’s F1.08 was one of the most aerodynamically complex cars ‘out of the box’, with innovative nose-mounted fins the team dubbed ‘Tomcats’. But it proved troublesome in testing, and it wasn’t until close to the season opener at Melbourne that they really got it dialled in.
Had Robert Kubica not twitched wide onto the dirt during his qualifying lap at Melbourne the team would have started the year with pole position. He started second and ran there for much of the race before being taken out by Kazuki Nakajima.
Two races later, in Bahrain, Kubica delivered the team’s (and his) first pole position. In the race he was overwhelmed by the Ferraris, but BMW had demonstrated its potential to seize any points dropped by the Big Two.
At Montreal an early safety car period played into their hands beautifully. The leading McLaren and Ferrari of Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen collided, and their team mates were out of the picture having had to queue up in the pits. On a track that became more treacherous with every lap, the BMW duo kept their cool and Kubica led Heidfeld to a one-two.
Though BMW’s drivers largely steered clear of the kind of headline-grabbing mistakes many of their rivals made, it became clear as the season progressed that Heidfeld’s qualifying performance was lagging. The team gave him an extra couple of test sessions to work on the problem, and by the end of the season he was even beating Kubica on Saturdays.
Did BMW at this point squander resources on Heidfeld which, had they been expended on Kubica, might have helped him win the drivers’ championship? Kubica’s exhortations after Montreal that the team needed to develop the car more quickly seemed to suggest this was the case.
BMW were also keen to switch focus early to its 2009 challenger. But given how close it came to the two championships this year, could more have been achieved with its 2008 car? This is an easy thing for an ‘armchair expert’ to say, without detailed knowledge of the F1.08’s development process. Plus, BMW could not have known in the middle part of the year that McLaren and Ferrari would throw away so many points at the end of the season.
The consistency of BMW’s progress in recent years has been extremely impressive. Yes, they have excellent resources at Hinwil and no shortage of cash, but you can say they same of the conspicuously less successful Honda and Toyota teams as well.
If they’ve done their sums right, BMW could be season-long title contenders in 2009.
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