Williams has no engine deal for '06
HOCKENHEIM, Germany -- BMW won't actually take over the Sauber team until after the 2005 Formula One season comes to an end, but there is plenty of work to be done in the meantime by the German auto manufacturer.
The first thing BMW needs to do is to try to improve the performance of the current Williams BMW package, which has been disappointing so far this year.
Williams BMW driver Juan Pablo Montoya won the 2003 German Grand Prix. In 2004, the team had a trio of podium finishes but no wins, and it's highly unlikely that a Williams BMW will win the German Grand Prix on Sunday.
"From the BMW side we have a very clear agenda this year," said BMW Motorsport Director Mario Theissen. "We are with Williams, and we want to be successful. I hope we will be in a position to win a few races in the second half of the season. We don't talk to Sauber about the current season. They run their program as planned. We only talk about next year's car and how to ramp up the operation for next year."
The deal, which was announced recently, will involve BMW acquiring an 80 percent share of the Swiss-based Sauber team while team founder Peter Sauber will retain 20 percent but have no role other than as a consultant.
This season has not been a happy one on or off the track for the Williams BMW partnership. But there have been successes since BMW returned to F1 in 2000.
There was no defining moment when the relationship finally failed.
"It was not one particular day," Theissen said. "We have been ahead of expectations for the last four years in our partnership. In 2003, we were fighting for the championship until the final race. In 2004, we did not achieve the results both of us expected, so discussions started after the end of the 2004 season. But it took half a year before all options were discussed and evaluated and the board was ready to make a decision."
Team owner Frank Williams admits his squad let BMW down.
"F1 is totally results driven," he said, "and if you don't deliver, you are eventually going to pay the penalty, and we have disappointed BMW. It is entirely their decision, and they are entitled to it. We knew what was coming, or what might come. We had plenty of time to persuade otherwise, and we failed."
Williams has won multiple World Championships (but not since 1997) and races. Why does BMW think owning Sauber will give it a better chance at winning than it had with Williams?
"We are in F1 to demonstrate the core competency of the brand," Theissen said. "Two or three years ago, the engine could make the decisive factor to win a race. Today, all the manufacturers are at a fairly high level in terms of engine technology and the differences are not as big anymore.
"There are other factors that make a much bigger difference in terms of performance: chassis, aerodynamics, tires and the driver. So that was one issue. The other one is that F1 is at such a high level today that only if the complete package is perfect in every respect can you win a race and championships. So investing such a big amount of money, it was clear that it was the logical decision to take responsibility for the decisive factors."
At next year's German Grand Prix, and the rest of the F1 races, there will be a BMW team in the lineup. But will there be an entry from Williams BMW?
BMW has offered to supply engines to Williams in 2006, but they will, of course, no longer be free. Williams does not have an engine deal for next year, and the team has been talking to Cosworth, BMW and Toyota.
If Williams does use BMWs, there is a very good chance the customer team would be quicker than the factory team.
"I would see that as an opportunity rather than a risk," Theissen said. "It is clear that with a new team it is a fresh start, and we cannot expect immediate success. I clearly expect Williams to be strong next year, probably stronger than the new team, and if they are strong with our engines, it would be better than with a competitor's engine."
If his team does run BMW engines, Williams is convinced they will be of the same caliber as the ones BMW will use.
"It is just too complicated to make a best engine for your team and downgrade it for the other," he said.
Theissen said that BMW and Williams would get the same specification engines -- although, of course, BMW would get the updates first.
Williams also believes that his team can be successful even though it will no longer have the technical and financial backing of a major engine manufacturer.
"We believe that we have enough resources of our own that we would be able to match the other teams technically," he said. "We assume we will have the same parity of horsepower with BMW or whomever."
As for BMW, it plans to build up the former Sauber team with people from inside BMW. The preferred option is to take people from other departments in BMW and to groom people inside the team.
"It is not our approach to buy competence from the outside," Theissen said. "Certainly, if you ramp up a team, there will be people who come in from the outside, but mainly we have recruited from the inside or young people from the university. I don't know how many people from BMW's corporate R&D center will apply for F1 on the chassis side."
Theissen said BMW would not headhunt people from the Williams team.
As for drivers, BMW has not even begun to consider whom it will run in 2006. It won't have to look very far either, as drivers already have been knocking on the door.
BMW is now committed to F1 for the long haul, but Theissen knows it's going to be a tough road ahead.
"We will aim at becoming a top team," he said. "Everyone knows that we will not be a top team from the outset. It will be a big job to get there, but we are committed to this."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.