BMW’s win vindicates split from Williams

Mark Webber, Spa-Francorchamps, Williams-BMW, 2005, 470150

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

Nico Rosberg, Williams-Cosworth, Bahrain, 2006, 470313

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

Robert Kubica, BMW, Magny-Cours, 2006, 470313

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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22 comments on BMW’s win vindicates split from Williams

  1. Toby said on 27th June 2008, 13:39

    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.

  2. Journeyer said on 27th June 2008, 14:18

    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.

  3. Journeyer said on 27th June 2008, 14:19

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

  4. Diacho said on 27th June 2008, 14:29

    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…

  5. Jean said on 27th June 2008, 15:00

    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.

  6. gremlin said on 28th June 2008, 11:59

    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?

  7. George said on 30th June 2008, 16:45

    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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