A winner from McLaren and Ferrari respectively in the first two races of the 2008 season was not a big surprise; after all, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen are the firm favourites to fight for the title. But behind the silver and red cars BMW Sauber has made an assertive start and it's not impossible that this season the Swiss-German outfit can get in front and claim its maiden victory.
After only two events it's too soon to make any real judgements but BMW's two second places so far indicate that the doubts during winter testing have been put to rest. Nick Heidfeld said after Melbourne that the team had been in "deep trouble" with the new car in the first test but BMW made a big -- and apparently successful -- effort to sort things out. But how realistic is it to expect that first win to materialise?
The Australian Grand Prix was a mad race: cars that didn't even take the chequered flag scoring points is not exactly an every day event. It was a chaotic afternoon but through all the confusion Heidfeld kept his cool and his second place was convincingly achieved. The German was just five and a half seconds behind Hamilton at the line, so BMW was not far off the pace of one of the leading teams.
In Malaysia Robert Kubica was just under 20 seconds off winner Raikkonen but even so it was Heidfeld who set the fastest lap of the race. However, both Ferraris out of Melbourne and the various safety car intrusions didn't do Heidfeld any harm, while the McLaren drivers being demoted five places each on the grid at Sepang -- and consequently behind the BMWs -- no doubt aided Kubica.
Evidently BMW has the power to hold pace near the front but holding station is not enough. McLaren and Ferrari's woes of Melbourne and Malaysia muddied the waters a little but they still have the advantage over the rest. "We are lacking a few tenths per lap and this brings the final twenty seconds in the race of sixty laps," Kubica said of the deficit to Raikkonen in Malaysia.
So can BMW find those few tenths and beat Ferrari and McLaren to the finish line? Not yet, one would imagine, but further into the season it's not unfeasible. Last year BMW's development was on a par with the leaders -- it was not enough to catch up but neither did the team fall behind. Given the rapidity with which BMW defeated its winter testing issues and the performance of the first two races, it seems that its current progress is strong.
"We still have to work to get on a par with the two top teams but the way we have opted for is the right one," said BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen after Malaysia. "We have not yet tapped our car's full potential, therefore I'm confident that we will be able to achieve the goal we've set ourselves for the 2008 season: to close the gap to the top teams and to secure our maiden Grand Prix win."
Of course, Ferrari and McLaren will be developing as well so even with steps forward it's going to be a tough job for BMW to make the breakthrough. But, looking at the events of Melbourne and Sepang, there's always a chance of an unexpected opportunity and if the front runners make mistakes BMW could easily have the top step of the podium within its sights.
Both Heidfeld and Kubica made the most of their opportunities to gain their second places and either one of them could be in the right place at the right time to find clear air in front of them all the way to chequered flag. We all know it's harder to get past another car than it is to stay in front of one, so if BMW can gain the lead in the latter stages of a race there's a good chance it can stay there.
It's early days yet and things can quickly change, but Ferrari has already acknowledged that BMW could present a problem in the championship fight. The team is currently not a threat to Ferrari's title aspirations the same way McLaren is, but taking valuable points from both the Scuderia and McLaren will certainly make BMW a thorn in their sides. And you'd have to think that sooner or later BMW will take the maximum points and get that maiden win.