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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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All Eyes on BMW

With Nick Heidfeld going fastest on the second day of testing in Bahrain, BMW continues to look the most likely team to upset the status quo of previous years. Consistently quick and now seemingly reliable, the F1.07 is obviously very good and team manager, Mario Theissen is having to work hard to keep the hype at a reasonable level, insisting that they are not yet in a position to challenge for the championship.

It is a sensible approach to the season; far better to exceed expectations in the actual races than to underperform after having set your sights too high. If the car races as well as it has tested, the results will do the talking for the team.

The big question mark must be over BMW’s choice of drivers. Heidfeld is certainly quick on occasion but can he maintain the speed throughout a full season? I cast doubt about Nick’s motivation in an earlier post and it remains to be seen whether he can prove me wrong.

And Robert Kubica is still an unknown quantity, raising hopes with his few race performances last year but not quite as quick as his teammate in testing. He’s an ugly blighter too but that never seemed to hold back Michael Schumacher.

In fact, a part of his looks that he shares with Michael and some other supreme sportsmen is that his eyes are too close together. Don’t laugh – this trait appears again and again in top athletes and might be a very visible sign of potential sporting prowess. Think of Bjorn Borg’s near-squint and Jochen Rindt.

Faces

Well, okay, I mention this very tongue-in-cheek but it might be an interesting area for scientists to investigate – probably a more useful field of endeavor than chasing polar bears around the Arctic. And it does remind me that, in the sixties, there was a scientific study of F1 drivers to see whether they had anything in common that was different from the normal run of humanity.

They measured and tested and experimented but, in the end, could come up with only one difference: blink rate. It seems that you and I and most of humanity blink about four times a minute – but F1 drivers blink only about once every two minutes. Which may have something to do with levels of concentration but also shows that it’s all in the eyes.

With further investigation of this phenomenon, they might even be able to devise a test to see whether a driver will make it into the big time. That could put a stop to the usual ladder of karts, Formula Renault, F3, GP2 and so on, meaning that F1 could get them even younger.

Hmmm, on second thoughts, forget I ever said this…

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Spyker Takes Sutil

Colin Kolles has announced the signing of young German driver, Adrian Sutil, to be Spyker teammate to Christijan Albers in 2007. This is slightly surprising, since most had expected that Tiago Monteiro would continue as Spyker’s second driver.

Spyker

Tiago Monteiro in the Spyker

But it does tie in with the sudden fashion for giving rookie drivers a chance. With Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, Robert Kubica at BMW, Heikki Kovalainen at Renault, Anthony Davidson at Super Aguri, and now Sutil at Spyker, F1 is filled with fresh new faces. I cannot recall a previous season in which so many first-time F1 racers entered the sport.

There are two reasons for this, I think. Clearly, the instant success of Robert Kubica at BMW made team managers realize that there were discoveries to be made within the ranks of hopefuls graduating from F3 and GP2. As the GP2 Champion of 2006, Hamilton was an obvious pick but there were others who seemed just as talented. Two who made it into test driver seats are Sebastian Vettel and Gary Paffett, both of whom look to be just as quick as any of the new drivers.

And then there came the retirement of Michael Schumacher. Somehow his disappearance has created a lot of space in F1 and allowed teams to be more adventurous in their choice of drivers. It may well be that memories of Michael’s debut at Spa in 1991 were stirred and the hunt for the next Schumacher has started. The weight of expectation falls heavily on the shoulders of Hamilton and Kubica but the others too will be watched closely for signs of greatness.

Every year we hope for a really good season to come but the changes and shake-ups of 2006 point to a fascinating 2007. So many imponderables have been thrown into the mix that there are bound to be surprises in the forthcoming races. Out with the old, in with the new!

So how good is Adrian Sutil? He finished second to Hamilton in Formula 3 Euroseries in 2005 but otherwise his reputation rests on the potential he showed in his few tests for MF1/Spyker this year. Colin Kolles has made it clear that he was impressed by Sutil’s performance and that is why he was given the nod over Monteiro.

Personally, I applaud Spyker’s decision. Monteiro is a known quantity and the team have nothing to lose and everything to gain by letting Sutil have a go. Albers is competent enough to ensure that the Spyker car will at least achieve its potential and Sutil offers the possibility that it might do even more.

It all adds up to a great season to come. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait.

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Theissen on Drivers

Mario Theissen, BMW’s Motorsport Director, has been talking of his decision to swap Villeneuve for Kubica earlier this year. He is unrepentant, saying that his job is to ensure the success of the team and, if he has the chance to put a faster driver into one of his cars, it only makes sense to do so.

Jacques

Jacques Villeneuve in the BMW Sauber

Which is true but overlooks the matters of contracts. As it happens, Villeneuve did not sue for the contractual violation involved, presumably because Theissen asked him only to step down from a few races so they could try out Kubica – Villeneuve was not prepared to do that so it could be said that his departure was a mutual decision.

Which is fine as long as the team boss can come up with a request that his contracted driver cannot or will not accede to. It might be interesting to find out what happens when a driver is prepared to do anything to hang on to his seat; does the boss sack him anyway and take the financial consequences? And how good is it for the team to be paying out money in legal fees and damages, money that would be better employed in development of the car?

I suppose it does not matter too much when you have millions to throw around. But not that I am criticizing Theissen – I think his attitude is correct from a team perspective. I’m just pondering on what effect this might have on team and driver morale.

Also amongst Mario’s statements was the news that Heidfeld was asked to let Kubica through when the Pole came up behind him in the Japanese GP but the German driver refused to do so, in exactly similar manner to the Trulli/Schumacher situation in the same race. As I pointed out in my article on the Toyota incident, this cannot be good for the functioning of the team. Once a driver has denied a request intended to help the team, there is always a suspicion that he will do the same again.

It’s a difficult area. Naturally, you want drivers who are determined to experience success and who will drive to the best of their ability. No driver is going to enjoy letting his teammate through – the reflection on their respective talents is obvious, whether fair or not. But, when that personal ambition gets in the way of the team’s success, it becomes counter-productive.

Probably the best way to go about it is to soothe the injured pride of the driver being passed by making it clear that he has a problem with the car. Worn or blistered tires are an understandable reason for being slow, after all. And no-one gets hurt in the process.

Although I think Mario Theissen does an excellent job, this nagging doubt about the handling of his drivers is yet another reason why I favor Honda for the championship next year, rather than BMW. The Japanese manufacturer also has two drivers who are competing fiercely with each other but we hear no rumors of squabbles or disagreements emanating from that camp. And that makes them seem more focused on the job in hand.

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