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Theissen on Small Teams

Mario Theissen has returned to the theme of “small is beautiful”, repeating his intention that the BMW team will not grow into a huge operation, as so many of the successful teams do. Historically in F1, this is the way to go, smaller teams being more flexible and able to react to change faster than the big ones.

Theissen

Mario Theissen

This may be at the heart of the problems confronting teams like Honda and Toyota, their overabundance of funding meaning that they can invest in so many facilities that confusion rather than focused development is the result. There is also that old theme of mine to be considered: passion. It is easier to inspire a few people with a single vision than a big operation with many departments and localities.

BMW seem to be getting everything right at the moment. Even though they remain very realistic, as is clear from Nick Heidfeld’s recent interview, they are clearly the team with the best chance of competing with the front runners, Ferrari and McLaren. If anyone is capable of beating those two this year, it must be BMW.

It has to be said that the reason for the effectiveness of the BMW team is Theissen himself. He is a model of the successful F1 team manager, being able to direct his personnel in a common direction, provide vision without straying into fantasy and dealing with the press without drama. Compare the turmoil and personnel changes in a crisis of Nick Fry’s Honda team with the steady, unflappable improvement at BMW Sauber. Any team becomes a reflection of its leader and the Honda management should make Ross Brawn an offer he can’t refuse if they want to get their team moving forward.

It’s a philosophy that all the manufacturers should consider. The corporate direction of an F1 team just doesn’t work, as has been demonstrated so often. Mercedes have had it right, although I detect a move towards greater involvement of management in McLaren’s affairs, and FIAT have had the sense to let Ferrari get on with it, until recently, at least. If Toyota and Honda finally get the idea, watch out!

This year has seen some big changes in the teams, with established stars departing and new faces appearing in many places. Looking further ahead, we may actually be witnessing one of those changes of era that come along perhaps once a decade. If BMW continue their drive to the front and McLaren and Ferrari suffer a decline caused by greater interference from their attached manufacturers, the whole shape of the grid could alter over the next few years. Is it possible that the battles of the “two thousand and something teens” will be between BMW and Williams-Toyota? And McLaren seriously embarrassed by the greater success of their B team, Prodrive; perhaps Ferrari in another period of chaos and internal conflict?

There is one thing for sure: change will always happen – it’s the only thing you can depend upon.

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BMW Sauber and the Nordschliefe

There is some irony in the fact that Sauber arrived in F1 after having achieved success in sportscar racing with Mercedes yet now are BMW’s effort in the sport. From the first, the team looked effective and produced some pretty good cars over the years; in BMW’s hands, however, they begin to look like winners.

Nick

Nick Heidfeld in Bahrain

The progress made last year was excellent and it has continued this season with Nick Heidfeld surely ready to bring them their first victory soon. Robert Kubica has had some bad luck so far but will be in there punching with Nick before long. At the very least, BMW should achieve third in the constructor’s championship this year.

I have not had a favorite team since the sad demise of Brabham several years ago, but I think BMW can claim that spot now. Everything about the team is so darn impressive. Progress has been steady and unrelenting, without drama or fanfare, the cars are beautifully finished and perform beyond expectations, the drivers excel, with quick Nick proving me completely wrong in thinking his motivation lacking. What more could one ask for?

Yet there is more; have a look at the team’s website – it is as slick, professional and effective as their cars. And you will see that, on April 28, Nick Heidfeld will be driving the BMW F1.07 around the Nordschliefe at Nurburgring – the first time an F1 car has lapped the circuit in 31 years.

That alone is enough to make an F1 fan grateful to BMW, surely. Yes, it’s an exercise in public relations but what an effective one! To see how a modern F1 car handles the greatest of all circuits is the stuff of dreams.

Everything looks good at BMW now – they are almost certain to join Ferrari and McLaren as the leaders in 2007 and, if the champion does not emerge from one of those two teams, he will be driving a BMW. Here’s hoping that the team exceed Mario Theissen’s careful expectations and win many more than one GP this year.

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Pat Symonds on Customer Cars

Renault’s engineering director, Pat Symonds, has added his voice to those expressing doubts about the idea of customer cars in F1. Like Mario Theissen of BMW, he feels that the legalizing of customer cars in 2008 will create a situation where there are only six manufacturers running two teams each and that the championship could be manipulated as a result.

Pat

Pat Symonds

But just a cotton-picking minute there – that’s two representatives of the manufacturers who fear that their companies will exploit the new rule to favor one driver, thereby winning the championship. Apart from the fact that this is unlikely since, if one manufacturer does it, they all will and that will cancel out any advantage they might have gained, why is it the potential manipulators who are suggesting such a scenario? I hear no complaints from the small teams who apparently face such a dismal future as the pawns of the big guys.

It seems to me that there is more going on here than meets the eye. The potential for devious tactics is not the real reason for the manufacturers’ doubts – that is just an excuse to justify their objection to the rule change. We must look elsewhere to find the motivation of the manufacturers, methinks.

Is it possible that they have looked at the history of F1 and fear the inventiveness, speed of reaction and dedication of small teams? To supply a chassis and engine to a customer team and then find that their customer has devised a tweak that makes their version of the car quicker would be unbearably embarrassing for a manufacturer. It is not beyond possibility.

So let us say that the big boss takes a walk down the pitlane and instructs his customers that, from now on, they must let the supplier’s lead driver win or the supply of chassis and engines will dry up. Well, we all know how leaky F1 teams are – it would not be long before the news made its way to the press and the resulting row would be far more embarrassing to the manufacturer than losing an occasional race to its own products. The Norberto Fontana revelation of last year may have been squashed very quickly by Peter Sauber but doubts linger in many minds, I’m sure.

The argument doesn’t float. In reality, the manufacturers don’t want their task of winning to be made even more difficult by the addition of small teams with competitive cars. It is hard enough already to beat the other manufacturers without having to consider the challenge of customer teams as well.

The suggested collusion by manufacturers raises another possibility that has not been mentioned. If they are prepared to stoop to such underhand dealing, what is to prevent them getting together and deciding to share out the championship between them? It would ensure that no manufacturer enjoys a long period of domination and hogs all the publicity as a result; if they take it in turns to win and get the marketing benefits, everyone is happy and avoids the possibility of never winning, something that they must all dread.

The fact is that the presence of small teams in F1 actually makes the possibilities for collusion much less. They would not be a part of any share-out of the spoils and will ruin any such attempt merely by competing to the best of their ability. And the customer car rule is the one remaining lifeline to such teams – without it they will be consigned to a Minardi-like existence, scrimping and scraping to get enough money together to continue for one more season.

So I’m sorry, Pat, but I just don’t believe you. You have one thing right, however:

“If you say that in 2008 you can do it (run customer cars), then does it really matter about things being pushed forward a year,” he said. “Many other rules have been pushed forward a year, is it really a big deal?

“On that basis, you would say it is a storm in a teacup. But it is easy for me to say that from a Renault perspective. If I was Spyker, I would not be at all happy about it. Rules are rules.”

Spyker may be complaining about the Toro Rosso and Super Aguri cars for the coming season but I haven’t heard that Colin Kolles objects to the 2008 rule change. Maybe that’s because he knows that Spyker haven’t the resources to compete with the really big manufacturers and might have to buy in a customer chassis themselves in future. They are already buying engines, after all.

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Small Teams and Innovation

Good old Mario Theissen is keeping me going with press releases, it seems. Today he is outlining BMW’s approach to F1, insisting that they will take the radical route, in similar fashion to Honda’s.

Kubica

Robert Kubica in the BMW Sauber

That was what I liked about BMW Sauber in 2006 – they were always experimenting (I’m still trying to work out what those vertical wings were supposed to achieve) and unafraid of controversy (as with the flexi-wing saga). In fact, Theissen seems to have discovered the secret of success in F1 – to remain a small team even though owned by a manufacturer.

It’s only an impression but one gets the feeling with McLaren, for instance, that Mercedes looms ever larger over them. The German giant must be getting very impatient for success and I can see the rumors of a takeover proving correct in the future. Toyota and, to a lesser extent, Honda have their company management looking over their shoulders and even Ferrari is becoming more a division of FIAT.

BMW seem to be following the example of Renault; although the French board of directors is happy when their team wins, they do not appear to interfere and the team looks more like Briatore’s than Renault’s. Back-to-back championships show that this is the way to go, allowing the team to make decisions and react to changing situations as quickly as only small teams can.

The odd one out in all this is Red Bull, of course. It seems a strange combination of small team and huge company, involved in F1 for the prestige and marketing value, yet with an investment so massive that one wonders how it can possibly profit from the operation. I suspect that the real reason behind Red Bull’s ownership of two teams is that the boss, Dietrich Mateschitz, loves motor sport. And, when you have as much money as he does, who cares if millions get spent on winning a few races?

Mateschitz isn’t the first to spend a fortune on his passion – Lord Hesketh nearly bankrupted himself in the seventies doing exactly that. And Benetton had a fling before selling out to Renault and going back to knitting sweaters. Running two teams seems a little over the top, however, and I wonder how long such a venture can continue. It remains to be seen whether Adrian Newey can design a car that justifies all that expense.

Returning to BMW, it does seem that they are getting things right. Theissen’s caution in setting goals is the one fly in the ointment, however. Consider this statement:

“The problem is as soon as you achieve something, expectations raise quicker than you can follow,” he said. “And, to be realistic, we have always said that we want to achieve podiums out of our own strength in 2007 – and that hasn’t changed.

“We had one podium out of our own strength in 2006, which was Monza due to a superb job of the aerodynamicists. And this year we need to do that more often. That is our target.

“And then if some cars in front of us fail, then we have to be there and maybe get something more. But it would not be realistic to win a race out of our own strength.”

Realism is a fine thing and there is little enough of that in most teams’ hopes for the future. But it wouldn’t hurt to have a go at winning. BMW had a couple of podium finishes last year – why not try for the top step this time round?

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