BMW – Bizarre Manufacturer Withdrawal

The other big news of yesterday was the sudden withdrawal of BMW from Formula 1. This season will be their last.

It can’t be called a complete shock. It had become very fashionable in F1 circles to say something like, “I am sure one or two or all of BMW, Renault and Toyota will pull out of F1 this season.” But the rumours were particularly centred on Renault and Toyota, and BMW were probably widely considered to be the team out of those three with the most stable future.

That made BMW’s exit a shock. In a way, though, it is not a surprise. It was well known that when BMW bought the Sauber team back in 2005, they set themselves very ambitious targets that were to be met within a matter of a few years. This was the basis for the team’s famously methodical (although too-clinical-for-some) gradual, targets-based approach.

So while it may seem a bit of an over-reaction for BMW to pull out so suddenly, it’s worth remembering that this was the year when they were supposed to be fighting for the championship (or regular wins, as the target appeared to become more recently). Instead they have one of the slowest cars in the field. Worse still, unlike with Honda in 2008, BMW fully expected to be fighting for the championship. They thought they had a great car.

Instead, 2009 has been a complete disaster for them. They put too much faith in their kers, a device which they thought would give them an advantage but proved to be anything but. Over the winter they were the only team favouring kers, but it turns out that Mercedes have a much better one while BMW’s is so useless that they will never use it again.

Now it seems as though the teams have agreed among themselves not to use kers for next season. Such technologies appeared to be a major motivation for BMW’s involvement in Formula 1. It was certainly an aspect they played up in their marketing.

Unfortunately, the way the FIA introduced kers to Formula 1 was a complete botch-job. Kers has been left with a seriously bad reputation, even though McLaren-Mercedes have now managed to make it work for them. Whatever happens to kers in the short term, it will be around for the long term. That was certainly the view of Williams Technical Director Sam Michael when he spoke to bloggers last week.

Perhaps as a result of focusing on kers, BMW’s F1.09 car is not up to the job. It must count as one of the biggest disappointments of the season. Even though Ferrari and McLaren also started the season poorly, those teams have fought their way back to the front. Meanwhile, BMW only seem to have fallen further away from the front as the season has progressed.

During the Hungarian GP weekend, Mario Theissen claimed that BMW had found the cause of the problems that had struck their car and that they would soon see an improvement in performance. The BBC’s commentators, Jonathan Legard and Martin Brundle, were both sceptical as they commented on BMW during the race. Legard said that if they think they’ve got a handle on the problem, they’ve got the wrong handle. Meanwhile, Brundle said that BMW’s statements about their performance sounded like PR-speak.

It is highly unlike BMW, and especially Mario Theissen, to make positive statements if they cannot back it up with evidence. Yet that was what they appeared to do when they said they knew what their problems were, while still qualifying 16th and 19th in a grid of twenty cars.

It wasn’t the only uncharacteristic behaviour from BMW over the weekend. Robert Kubica’s team radio transmissions on Friday have become famous for exhibiting the Pole’s grumpy and fussy attitude. He constantly complains about his car, even when it is setting fast times. Yet during practice in Hungary he actually sounded happy about his car. It was very unusual indeed.

Could it be that the BMW Sauber F1 team knew what was coming? Perhaps their statements about how good their car was becoming were a last-ditch attempt to convince the bosses that an improvement in fortunes was imminent. Obviously it convinced no-one.

Nevertheless, the BMW board deny that their exit from F1 is a kneejerk reaction to this season’s poor performances, with Klaus Draeger saying it was nothing to do with “our current performance or the general economic situation.” But it was obviously on his mind, as he saw fit to mention that, “It only took us three years to establish ourselves as a top team with the BMW Sauber F1 Team. Unfortunately, we were unable to meet expectations in the current season.”

It would be odd, however, for BMW to pull out on the basis of one disappointing season. BMW’s first season on 2006 was a solid start, and with the first car to be fully developed under BMW’s management they firmly established themselves as “best of the rest” behind Ferrari and McLaren. They remained so in 2008, bagging an impressive win in Canada along the way. Before the BMW partnership, Sauber were never so competitive.

Obviously, the fact that the FIA is asking all teams to commit to Formula 1 until 2012 by signing the Concorde Agreement imminently was a crunch moment. We have all seen how a year, or even a few months, is a very long time in the volatile worlds of both F1 politics and the car manufacturing industry. It should be no surprise that, without a crystal ball, a company should be unwilling to make promises it is unsure it will be able to make. You almost sense that this was a deliberate ploy by the FIA to get a high-profile scalp, a theory made all the more likely by the FIA’s highly undignified “I-told-you-so” press release.

As has been widely noted, BMW’s press release is itself written largely in corporate jargon that seeks to hide the real reasons for BMW’s exit. My reading is that they would rather focus on motor sports where they can develop technology, particularly technology which is more road relevant. The political issues surrounding kers will therefore have not helped persuade BMW to stay.

It is not as though BMW wants to distance itself from the FIA either. It has pledged to stay in WTCC, which is an even worse example of FIA mismanagement.

But clearly talk of cost cutting or budget capping or resource restriction, whatever it’s called these days, is not the vision of F1 BMW had for the future. It was prepared to negotiate until the end. But come crunch time, with the Concorde Agreement sitting on the table waiting for the signature, BMW obviously found that the settlement was not what they wanted.

6 comments

  1. > it wasn’t the only uncharacteristic
    > behaviour from BMW over the weekend.
    > Robert Kubica’s team radio
    > transmissions on Friday

    Hadn’t noticed… Good catch! (It felt weird at the time, but not weird enough to stay in memory until Wednesday, “Quittin’ Day”

  2. I don’t think the team knew what was coming – they put new adverts in for a race engineer and an aero engineer in Autosport this week for example. A team that knows it’s about to announce it’s quitting the sport doesn’t advertise for new senior staff, surely?

  3. smboyce, thanks for the comment.

    I imagine like in most workplaces, BMW Sauber had a “business as usual” approach until the very last minute. BMW (the manufacturer)’s decision seems sudden, but my guess is that the BMW Sauber team was only aware of something distant before this week, but were issued with an ultimatum of sorts for the Hungarian GP? It’s possible. I just think in the light of recent events, some of what BMW did at Hungary seems to make more sense. Of course, I could always be reading too much into it! 😀

  4. Do not you thing that the withdrawal is really bizzare as they not only stay in WTCC but also in Formula BMW which isone of the “schools” for F1 drivers – will they train talented youngsters for other teams? Also, in my opinion as long as I understand that the requirement to sign the Concorde Agreement may be did not help BMW stay on the grid it is hard to believe that the BMW board does not understand that these kind of busines plans are made for longer period that one year… The decision sound to me completely unreasonable unless they expected their involvement in F1 would be constant success without any “hiccough” as Dr Theissen said on Wednesday and the rose without the thorns…but this would mean somebody does not understand the basis….

  5. Many thanks for your comment, Agnieszka.

    I don’t think the fact that Formula BMW is continuing is particularly strange. BMW is still involved in other forms of motorsport, and besides Formula Renault and Formula Ford have both stuck around for the long run, whether Renault and Ford were in F1 or not.

    I agree, though, that their decision to pull out seems irrational, based on short-term assumptions rather than long-term planning.