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?