An Uphill Struggle: Can BMW Follow the Brawn Model?

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An Uphill Struggle: Can BMW Follow the Brawn Model?
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

As BMW Sauber's workforce reel in their parent company's shock withdrawal from Formula One, questions have inevitably been asked about whether the team can undergo the same transition that came upon Brawn GP after Honda pulled out of the sport.

Unencumbered by the controlling, unwelcome interference in Honda's F1 team from a Japanese boardroom—filled with suited businessmen with no experience or expertise in the top level of motorsport—Ross Brawn was able to transform his team from struggling backmarkers into dominant title hopefuls.

Throughout their short tenure in F1 Honda clearly had potential—building on the groundwork laid by British American Racing, they produced a race-winning car in their first season—but all too often that was squandered.

Their 2007 and 2008 efforts epitomised the proverbial committee-designed horse, a shining example of corporate mismanagement overshadowing the efforts of talented people, producing the inevitable woeful results.

But with the suits gone and the team free to go about its business, the leap in performance was instantaneous, the potential immediately fulfilled.

Such could be said to be the case with BMW Sauber. For years and years, Peter Sauber's team were midfield contenders, excellent facilities and a strong team hindered by a lack of budget and their seeming inability to produce a decent chassis.

When Williams refused BMW's help in designing their cars, the Bavarian manufacturer jumped ship, and found a willing collaborator in Sauber.

BMW's corporate attitude to Formula One was worlds away from that of Honda. While Honda's head office constantly intervened in the team's affairs, replacing key technical staff seemingly at the drop of the hat, BMW left their team very much to its own devices, in the capable hands of the long-time chief of their F1 programme, Mario Theissen.

Yet still the corporate overtones of BMW's effort shone through, with their emphasis on performance targets and clean-cut image, based on typical Swiss-German efficiency. From 2006 to 2008, they duly met all their targets, Robert Kubica delivering the team's maiden victory in the last Canadian Grand Prix.

Then, in 2009, a poor approach to the new regulations hit the team hard. An ineffective KERS unit, combined with a sudden lack of aerodynamic efficiency, saw the team plunge down the championship tables.

Kubica came within an ace of a podium in Melbourne and Nick Heidfeld delivered a somewhat fortuitous second place at Sepang, but the team has hardly troubled the scorers since. So, for performance reasons alone, the decision by the German company to quit F1 is not entirely surprising.

However, the prospects of BMW donating its lavish facilities and a generous stipend to some enterprising buyer, in the manner of Brawn GP, are slim.

Peter Sauber is the most obvious choice to take control of the team—he retains a small shareholding—but he has already said that he has no interest in taking on the job of team principal again.

In fact, perhaps the only reason Sauber still has a stake in the outfit is because of complex Swiss laws regarding the operation of foreign businesses on their turf, and it is because of this that he will likely hold onto his shares regardless of who buys the team.

Aside from Sauber, it has been suggested that one of the failed applicants to the 2010 F1 championship could buy out the team instead. However, with the priority of BMW—as it was for Honda during their face-saving operation of early 2009—being to save jobs at the team's Hinwil base, they are unlikely to consider any offer that comes from a team with an established HQ outside of Switzerland.

Furthermore, any replacement for BMW would be subject to the same entry criteria as any other potential entrant for 2010. This is due to a World Motor Sport Council ruling of 2002, after the "Phoenix F1" team rose, aptly, from the ashes of Prost's terminated operation and attempted to enter the Malaysian Grand Prix.

At that time, the council ruled that F1 entries cannot be bought and sold. Therefore it seems unlikely that entrants such as Prodrive, who were rejected an F1 berth the last time they applied, would be allowed to buy out BMW and race without the FIA re-considering their application, probably with the same outcome as the previous occasion.

On the face of it, therefore, the prospects for BMW Sauber look fairly bleak. But FOTA, who have committed themselves to saving the team, will not let it disappear without a fight.

Just as they lobbied various parties to buy Honda after the Japanese manufacturer cut and ran in 2008, they will be central to securing a deal for the future of this team as well.

Whatever happens to BMW, they will most likely start next season without their star driver. Robert Kubica has reportedly had a number of offers for 2010 seats, but will have one eye on Ferrari in the unlikely event that Felipe Massa is unable to return there.

In any case, he is unlikely to be willing to extend his contract with his current team—he will feel that last year's decision to switch their development focus to 2009 midseason potentially cost him the world championship.

The survival of BMW Sauber will depend on a number of things, including finding a buyer for the team and producing the funds necessary for them to keep racing. But even if they do keep going, it's unlikely to be the same fairy story as it was for Brawn.

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