Interview with BMW Sauber boss Dr Mario Theissen, The character of the Formula 1 boss is changing.
Interview with BMW Sauber boss Dr Mario Theissen,
The character of the Formula 1 boss is changing. The old guard were the products of the 1970s; grafters, boys-done-good, men who were passionate about racing, who pulled strokes and called in favours to keep their cars in the race. They pulled themselves up by their bootstraps from humble beginnings and then in the 1990s found themselves owning private jets once Bernie Ecclestone’s TV deals started to bring in serious money. This type of team owner, personified by McLaren’s Ron Dennis, the mechanic made good and Sir Frank Williams, the used car dealer has ruled the sport for decades.
But now the model is changing. Dennis and Williams increasingly find themselves surrounded at team principals’ meetings by professional managers, corporate men who are in Formula 1 because the manufacturers they represent feel that they have the talents required to put together the winning formula on the race track.
The embodiment of this new breed is Dr Mario Theissen, boss of the BMW Sauber team. Theissen is a very impressive operator. He combines the polish of a BMW trained professional with the steely determination of a Williams or a Dennis. He’s not a racing man, he’s a powertrain engineer, but he’s a racer nevertheless. He’s a winner, but can he take the next step in 2009 and become a champion?
So far his management of the BMW team has been an unqualified success. In 2005, Theissen persuaded the BMW board to split with Williams, where BMW was solely an engine supplier, in order to run its own team, based on the former Sauber outfit in Switzerland. For the past three seasons his team has achieved the targets it set. Few teams manage that in one year, let alone three consecutively; you are far more likely to fail than succeed in F1. But this year BMW has established itself as a top three team along with Ferrari and McLaren and won it’s first Grand Prix in Montreal, Canada with Robert Kubica.
Now comes the hardest part of all. He has to take his team ahead of McLaren and Ferrari and win the world championship.
“It’s rewarding,” he says of the team’s success. “You can put together all the right ingredients that are needed. You can get it wrong, but even if you get it right success is not guaranteed because you have to turn it into reality and you have to see what your competitors do. It’s rewarding to see that what we put in place in 2005 and built up until the end of 2007 bears fruit each year and gives us a significant step each time.”
Many teams have tried and failed to make the final step from best of the rest to front-runners. It’s a tough job to get the resources together to mount an assault and then there is the problem that what you are aiming at is a moving target. Teams’ relative competitiveness can change, a design fault can lose you time, a great driver might boost a rival team’s performance. Putting all the pieces together at the same time is immensely difficult and it is no surprise that only four teams have won a world championship in the past 25 years.
Next year the goal posts move again in a big way, with one of the biggest sets of rule changes for a generation. The cars will look quite different. All the technical DNA established over recent seasons will be thrown out and a whole new package will be required. The aerodynamics are different, slick tyres will replace the unloved grooved tyres. F1 is even adopting hybrid engine technology in the form of Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS). It is an opportunity for the established order to change, for some teams to get to the front and for others to fall backwards. It’s precisely the sort of challenge that F1 exists for,
“There are many question marks about next year,” says Theissen. “Because the regulations change in a big way and that can shake up the grid. The aerodynamics package will be entirely different, the KERS system is unknown territory for everybody. Some will get it right first time, others won’t and then the slick tyres make it a very different cocktail from what we see this year. And so I think there is a better chance to take the next step with new regulations than with stable regulations. You might expect McLaren and Ferrari to absorb changes better, but it doesn’t always work out like this.”
Theissen has been building up the staff and resources at the old Sauber factory in Hinwil, Switzerland and although he does not have as much of either as the top two teams, he believes he has enough.
“We are at full strength now in terms of personnel and facilities,” he says. “Now we have to prove that we can really challenge the top two teams, McLaren and Ferrari, with this capacity, because we are definitely smaller than these two teams. I’m confident that we are more efficient and we do not want to become one of the biggest teams on the grid. We have definitely benefited from the Sauber approach, which was always to punch above your weight, to achieve strong results with limited resources. “
Once BMW had achieved its stated aim of winning a Grand Prix in 2008 and secured third in the championship, many commentators, myself included, thought that BMW would throw all its efforts into developing the 2009 car. The thinking was that as Ferrari and McLaren are locked in a tight battle for the championship and would have to keep developing their cars right up to the last race, this would mean they would have to divert resources away from the development of the 2009 car. It represented BMW’s best chance of leapfrogging both teams, especially in light of the rule changes. BMW has clearly fallen back in pace from the top two since that win in June, indicating that development has reduced, but Theissen denies that he opted to go for gold in 2009 at the expense of 2008,
“No, because if you win a race you want to win another race,” he says simply. “Everyone is pushing hard to improve. At that time we were not just close to the pace of McLaren and Ferrari, we were sometimes leading. Since the first race we have been one of the three top teams, not the number three team. We are still pushing, but obviously we have started to develop next year’s car.”
Theissen has to tread carefully when on this topic as Kubica was leading the world championship after Montreal and wanted the full resources of BMW to be put behind his 2008 title campaign. Their fall away from the pace of the top two since, indicates that he didn’t get his way and his body language in a recent joint press conference with Theissen indicated that he is not happy with the way things have evolved this summer. Holding on to Kubica is critical to BMW’s chances of winning a title. He is a driver on the same level as Lewis Hamilton in terms of speed, skill and commitment. Ferrari are very interested in Kubica, but Theissen recently secured his services for at least another year. Did he do so by persuading Kubica that BMW represented his best chance of the world title in 2009?
“I have never had a problem with Robert in this respect,” he says. “We have given him the chance to enter Formula 1 and we always had very straightforward talks and have the same way of thinking.”
So does he see Kubica staying with BMW for a long time? “I wouldn’t rule it out.”
This is a classic Theissen answer. Vaguely indicative, whilst at the same time completely non-committal. He’s a skilled operator in the piranha-infested waters of the Formula 1 paddock. Next year he will attempt to become the biggest fish in the pond.
First published in Financial Times, September 2008
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