BMW's best-kept secret

BMW's best-kept secret

I have to thank Tony Brunskill for the title of this piece, as he really did hit the nail on the head with that comment. Formula BMW is what we were talking about and when he said that it was BMW's best-kept secret, I had to agree. How many of...

I have to thank Tony Brunskill for the title of this piece, as he really did hit the nail on the head with that comment. Formula BMW is what we were talking about and when he said that it was BMW's best-kept secret, I had to agree. How many of you have watched, or even heard of Formula BMW?

The cars on the grid at the start of the race.
Photo by BMW AG.

Not that BMW is actually trying to keep it secret, but it's not well known. I only got introduced to it in June this year, when I was invited by BMW to visit the F1 team base in Hinwil, Switzerland. Also visiting were some of the lads from the Formula BMW USA series and I have to say, they were a lot more fun than interviewing F1 drivers!

I have written about Formula BMW before but I'll briefly remind you. It's not just a racing series, it's an educational and development programme for young drivers between the ages of 15 and 21. It operates in Germany, the UK, USA and Asia and the four branches converge at the end of the season for the World Final.

This year I was at the World Final, held in Valencia, Spain, and what a brilliant weekend it was. The track action is great to watch and there are some really talented youngsters out there. Not only are they talented, they're fun and enthusiastic -- it almost seems a shame that they might go on to be cynical old racing drivers.

Two of the lads I met in Hinwil had caught my attention and I had followed their progress for the rest of the season. My interest was not unfounded as 17-year-old Robert Wickens went on to be the overall USA champion and 16-year-old Daniel Morad was the rookie champion.

Daniel Morad and Euan Hankey.
Photo by BMW AG.

They were both present at Valencia and it was good to meet up with them again. Miffed that I, as a Brit, was supporting two Canadians, an English colleague demanded I find at least one Brit to cheer for. I duly did so, in the form of Euan Hankey, and also adopted an Australian, Daniel Ricciardo. But it was hard to pick with such a field of talent.

Christian Vietoris, the 17-year-old German champ, went on to win the Final and he never put a foot wrong all weekend. The object during the heats is to not score any points -- a victory scores zero, second place two points, three for third and so on. The driver with the least points is on pole for the Final and Vietoris didn't score a single point all weekend.

Valencia wasn't without its controversies. In the pit lane on Sunday morning I heard it said more than once that Vietoris was amazingly, if not rather suspiciously, faster than everyone else and then Hankey was in trouble when a scrutineer was insistent that the rear wing of his car was too flexible. Gosh, it was just like being at an F1 race!

The heats through Saturday had been endlessly entertaining and the feature race on Sunday was exciting. Vietoris led from pole to flag and he was a deserving winner. His teammate Josef Kral was second but was later disqualified due to a technical infringement. I felt sorry for Kral but drivers have to learn to handle the disappointments as well.

Christian Vietoris, Josef Kral and Mika Maki.
Photo by BMW AG.
Morad finished fifth, not bad at all for a rookie, and he was then promoted to fourth when Kral was disqualified. Ricciardo was also upped a place to fifth but unfortunately Wickens' car had failed him during qualifying and he had been dropped to 12th on the grid. He moved up a couple of places to finish ninth and Hankey was one behind in 10th.

Formula BMW does get drivers noticed. Vietoris' prize is a test with the BMW Sauber F1 team, which will do him no harm at all. For his efforts Ricciardo has now tested for Formula Renault and will do so again shortly, while Brit Oliver Turvey just received the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award for young driver of the year.

Wickens had already been noticed at the 2005 World Final in Bahrain and was snapped up by Red Bull. As rookie champ, Morad will return to the USA series next year with a scholarship as a BMW Junior. So this is not just playing around here, it really can be a significant step in a young driver's career.

I have to admit I was a little concerned about Wickens being picked up by Red Bull. It's not a bad thing but I feel that Red Bull is impatient with its drivers -- one day you're the "next big thing" and then you're being dropped in favour of the next "next big thing". A driver can also find himself tied up in contracts and be shunted off in directions he may not want to take.

Sebastian Vettel.
Photo by Nikki Reynolds.
However, that's just my personal opinion. BMW takes these boys until 21 and then they're free to do whatever they want. Many of them only do two years in Formula BMW, hopefully rookie champ in their branch, then overall champ and then on to the next series. Of course, if they impress the right people there's always the chance they could end up as a BMW driver.

Sebastian Vettel is one such case. The 19-year-old German is a graduate of Formula BMW and now not only is he under Red Bull's wing, he's BMW Sauber's official test and reserve driver for the 2007 F1 season. I don't quite know how the Red Bull/BMW scenario is going to work out but Vettel is confident he will be racing in F1 come 2008.

In fact, Vettel seems totally unimpressed by the German media's determination to make him the next Michael Schumacher. Already in the F1 spotlight, he is very self-contained. The only thing I hope about Formula BMW is that it doesn't become a racing driver production line and school all the personality out of them.

I've promised myself that I will try and get to some of the Formula BMW UK races next year and if there are any branches racing wherever you are I suggest you do the same. Get out there and talent spot! BMW is putting a lot of effort into these young drivers and they, and the series, deserve some support.

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Series GENERAL , FBMW