Curtain Call - 2009 BMW Sauber F1.09
As one of Germany's premier sporting brands, the Bayerische Motoren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works) had always been closely associated with motorsport. However, it would not be until 1967 that the brand would be connected to single seater Grand Prix racing.
In a partnership with British chassis builder Lola, BMW entered Formula Two, a category which was still allowed to start in official Formula One Grands Prix on occasion. BMW's contribution to the project was the unusual radial-valve M10 "Apfelbeck" engine
The strange-looking 16-valve 1.6L hemi four cylinder placed half of its intake and exhaust valves on either side of the engine in an effort to spread the heat along its combustion chambers more evenly than a traditional engine.
The concept made the little engine look like weird cross between a V8 and a straight four, but ultimately proved unsuccessful. A switch to the more conventional M12 saw more positive results, as a 2.0L version helped Jean Pierre Jarier (FRA) secure the European F2 title in 1973.
BMW remained active until its cancellation in 1984, but also made the switch to the big leagues in 1982. A potent 550 horsepower 1.5L turbocharged version of the M12 engine was created for the Brabham team, which promptly took the title in 1983 with Nelson Piquet (BRA). BMW remained as an official engine supplier to Brabham, Arrows, Benetton and ATS until 1986, when it officially left the sport in the wake of the announced ban on turbo engines.
That season saw the Benetton B186 reach power figures in excess of 1300 horspower in qualifying trim, making the M12/13 the most powerful F1-engine to date. Under the Megatron name, the manic motor would survive until the end of the 1988 season in the back of Arrows and Ligier chassis.
After the successful turbo adventure, BMW remained absent from Formula One for 14 years, until an intimate partnership with 9-time constructors champions Williams Grand Prix Engineering was announced for the 2000 season. The series of 3.0L V10 engines resulting from the bond between the two firms would become the most powerful on the grid, approaching 1000 horsepower.
However, a lack of reliability and consistency were a recurring problem, preventing BMW Williams from breaking Ferrari's vice-like grip on the sport in the early part of the 21st century. With the V10-era drawing to a close at the end of the 2005 season, BMW decided it was time for a change of scenery.
BMW had been frustrated at the perceived lack of performance shown by Williams' chassis, and believed their engines could do better. As Frank Williams vehemently opposed a buyout, the Germans instead eloped with Swiss team owner Peter Sauber, who was more than willing to give his struggling team a healthy cash injection.
In an effort to limit the extreme power figures seen at the peak of V10 development, the FIA mandated smaller 2.4L V8 engines for 2006. In response, BMW constructed the 90-degree, 32-valve P86, producing 760 horsepower to 2005's 925 horsepower P84/5 V10.
The team started out with experienced hands carried over from 2005, as Nick Heidfeld (GER) and 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve (CAN) took the wheel of the BMW Sauber F1.06. However, the Canadian appeared demotivated, and eventually lost his seat to sensational rookie Robert Kubica (POL), who deputized for Villeneuve at the Hungaroring after the former champ had sustained injuries in a crash at Hockenheim.
Kubica went on to take his first podium at only his third event during the Italian Grand Prix, and quickly established himself as the leading man within the team. BMW's decision to abandon Williams appeared to have been the right call, as their former partners slumped with Cosworth and Toyota power, while the BMW Sauber squad became more competitive each season.
Their breakout season came in 2008, with Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica taking a combined 11 podiums. The Pole even managed to score the outfit's first Grand Prix win, as he took top honors at Montreal, with Heidfeld making it a perfect 1-2.
Kubica took the lead in the title standings as well after the Canadian round, but was unable to retain his form in the latter half of the season. Despite this, he took a strong 4th in the driver's championship, while the team took 3rd in the constructors.
For 2009 though, the entire sport was once again put on its head. After the big engine change in 2006, F1 was once again looking to introduce a massive paradigm shift. In recent years, the cars had sprouted winglets, flaps and diving planes on virtually every surface.
This created substantial amounts of downforce, making the cars incredibly quick, but had the added downside of making it incredibly difficult to follow another car closely.
The turbulence created by the car ahead would disrupt the clean airflow needed to allow the various aerofoils to function properly. As a result, the following car would understeer wide into corners, slowing it down and making it virtually impossible to catch and pass a competitor. Over the years the FIA had tried a myriad of changes to slow the cars down overall, such as a narrower track and grooved tires, but the phenomenon of "dirty air" had never really been addressed.
As overtakes had become disturbingly rare, the sport's governing bodies finally intervened. For 2009, aerodynamic appendages attached to the bodywork were banned outright. At the same time, both the front and rear wing were significantly redesigned.
As opposed to the seventeen-thousand element front wings seen in 2008, the new model was allowed just three elements. The unit was also much wider than before, and mounted lower down. The new front wing was conceived to work in conjunction with a similarly simplified, narrower, raised rear wing to decrease the "dirty air" effect.
The higher rear wing was supposed to cause the turbulent air to flow over the car behind, while the lower and wider front wing would in theory draw clean air from under the wake of the car it was chasing, thereby avoiding the overtake-killing understeer.
As a further security, the FIA allowed the fitment of a movable aerodynamic device for the first time in history. In an unprecedented move, drivers were permitted to use an automatic front wing adjustment system twice each lap. A set of flaps with 6 degrees of movement were installed, allowing the driver to employ more wing while following a rival to further eliminate understeer.
A further measure to limit the cars' reliance on aerodynamic grip came in the form of new tires. Since 1998, Formula One had the peculiar distinction of running on grooved tires, another knee-jerk reaction to increasing speeds.
Eleven years later, slick tires were finally back, supplied to all ten teams by Japanese firm Bridgestone. With a bigger contact patch than had been possible in the groovy years, the FIA hoped mechanical grip would play a bigger part than it had before.
As if these drastic alterations weren't enough, the FIA also introduced the Kinetic Energy Recovery System. This technology would capture the energy normally wasted as heat during braking, storing it in a supercapacitor, battery, or flywheel, and then releasing it as an extra 80 horsepower at the discretion of the driver.
Due to the unproven nature of the system, the high cost and the associated extra weight, only four teams would opt to equip their cars with KERS: McLaren, Renault, Ferrari and BMW Sauber. With test driver Christian Klien (AUT) at the wheel, BMW tested its KERS system for the first time at Jerez de la Fontera on 22 July 2008. The test was not without incident, as a mechanic suffered a heft electric shock when touching the modified F1.08.
The 2009 design brief saw BMW Sauber come up with the F1.09, a decidedly awkward looking machine compared to its forebears. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, cost cutting measures were introduced by the FIA to keep the sport viable.
With a proposed budget cap being rejected by the Formula One Teams Association, the FIA imposed a total ban on in-season testing instead, and also forced teams to make their cars more reliable. Gearboxes had to last four races, with a five-place grid penalty waiting for those who changed boxes before their term was up. Similarly, just eight engines were allowed, with a ten-place penalty being awarded to drivers for each unscheduled change.
With this in mind, the F1.09 was tuned for reliability as well as outright speed. A development of the original P86 V8 was used, with a lowered rev limit of 18.000 rpm to ensure reliability. The seven-speed sequential gearbox was also revised to be more durable, and the entire package was adapted to accept the KERS-system, despite the incident at Jerez.
With KERS enabled, the car was capable of 830 horsepower, and weighed in at slightly over the 605 kg (1334 lbs) weight limit. Unlike the Brawn BGP001, Toyota TF109 and Williams FW31, the F1.09 did not sport the controversial "double diffuser" which had been declared legal after a protest from the non-double diffuser teams.
After very encouraging results during the pre-season test at Valencia, BMW Sauber went into the season in good spirits. However, already during those tests, the team had encountered an unexpected enemy: the salvaged Honda team, now known as Brawn Grand Prix.
At the first round of the season at Albert Park, Melbourne, Brawn promptly asserted their dominance by locking out the front row in qualifying. Robert Kubica qualified 4th, .712 of a second behind the pole-sitting Brawn BGP001 of Jenson Button. Nick Heidfeld meanwhile was knocked out in Q2, qualifying 11th.
In a chaotic start, Heidfeld was hit by Red Bull's Mark Webber (AUS), who had in turn been pitched into a half spin by the very slow starting Brawn of Rubens Barrichello (BRA). The German had to pit to assess and repair the damage caused, putting him on the back foot for the race.
In a twist of fate, Kubica had a run in with the other Red Bull driver, Sebastian Vettel. While jostling for second, the pair collided at Turn 3 after Kubica attempted to capitalize on a mistake made by Vettel in turn 1. Both cars continued, but had lost their front wings.
Seemingly unaware, Robert Kubica slammed into the wall at Turn 4 due to an acute lack of downforce. Vettel suffered a similar fate not much later. With Kubica out, Nick Heidfeld was left to defend the teams honor with his damaged car. He limped home in 10th, 7.085 seconds behind race winner Jenson Button, as the race finished under safety car due to the Vettel/Kubica incident.
The second round of the season took place at Sepang, Malaysia, a track infamous for its changeable weather conditions. Robert Kubica was unable to replicate his qualifying performance in Australia, as he had to settle for 8th on the grid, .925 of a second behind Button. Nick Heidfeld on the other hand did replicate Melbourne, as he was again knocked out in Q2, placing 11th.
Unfortunately, Kubica's race would be over in minutes, as his engine exploded in a cloud of smoke after just two laps. Heidfeld soldiered on, and was able to make a lot of ground as Sepang delivered on its promise, and rain started falling on lap 19.
Eventually, the rain turned into a torrential downpour, and the race was red-flagged due to bad visibility and flooded sections of track on lap 33. On count back, Nick Heidfeld was classified as second, 22.722 seconds behind Jenson Button. This gave BMW Sauber its first podium of 2009.
Shanghai became an event to forget. Trouble with the KERS system saw Kubica having it removed for qualifying, but to no avail. For the first time that season, Heidfeld led the charge from 11th ahead of his teammate in a low 18th. Race day was equally colorless, as Heidfeld finished 12th ahead of Kubica, who recovered to 13th in spite of a crash with Toyota's Jarno Trulli (ITA).
The lifeless desert track of Sakhir in Bahrain saw the team's unexpected slump continue, as Robert Kubica was stuck in 13th place with Heidfeld right behind in 14th. The race was an outright disaster.
Following a coming together involving the Ferrari of Felipe Massa (BRA) and Williams' Kazuki Nakajima (JAP) on the opening lap, both BMW's had to pit with front wing damage. The damage proved to be detrimental to their performance, as Kubica wandered home 18th ahead of Heidfeld in 19th, both a lap down on race winner Jenson Button.
KERS was abandoned for the Spanish Grand Prix, but this didn't really make a difference. Robert Kubica barely scraped into the top 10, being the slowest man in Q3. Nick Heidfeld on the other hand also failed to impress, being forced to make peace with 13th.
A glimmer of hope would appear on Sunday however, as Heidfeld stayed out of trouble and scraped two points together by taking 7th place. However, Kubica was not so lucky, dropping a lap to the victorious Jenson Button and finishing 11th.
The tight and twisty streets of Monaco, were the decor for another dismal showing for the F1.09. Embarrassingly, both cars were knocked out in Q1, with Heidfeld starting 17th ahead of Kubica in 18th. This placed the team on the second to last row of the grid, just ahead of both Toyotas.
It would be an other scoreless race for BMW Sauber, as Robert Kubica suffered brake failure on lap 17, and was forced to retire. Heidfeld kept his car on the black stuff, and was able to recover to 11th. Sadly, this was still three places short of a points-scoring position.
The F1 circus moved to Istanbul Park for the seventh round of the season, and it was business as usual for BMW. Robert Kubica was the only one managed to reach Q3, but his pace was only good enough for 10th. Nick Heidfeld followed close behind in 11th.
During the race the Pole would be able to recover to a points-paying 7th position, while his teammate remained stagnant. With a further two points scored, the team prepared for Silverstone.
Twelfth and fifteenth was all Kubica and Heidfeld could manage in qualifying for the British Grand Prix. Once again, both BMW Saubers were out in Q2. Little changed on race day, as Robert Kubica dropped back to 13th, while Heidfeld stayed put on P15.
The abject misery of 2009 did not let up at the Nurburgring GP-Strecke, as Robert Kubica was knocked out in Q1. With 16th place all he could manage, all hope rested on Nick Heidfeld. The German did what he knew best, and got knocked out in Q2, settling into P11. The weekend would yield no points for the plagued team, as Heidfeld headed the charge in 10th place, while Kubica climbed up to 14th.
The team's qualifying performance slumped even further at the compact Hungaroring, as both cars were stranded in Q1. Their failure was overshadowed by the fate of Ferrari's Felipe Massa however, as he was struck on the helmet by a spring which had come loose from Rubens Barrichello's Brawn while traveling at over 160 mph (257 kph). The race itself offered little in the way of solace, as the pair crossed the line 11th (Heidfeld) and 13th (Kubica).
The European Grand Prix on the harbor circuit of Valencia saw the team enjoy a slightly more positive weekend. Qualifying was stale as usual, with Robert Kubica 10th and Nick Heidfeld 11th, despite a controversial clash with Fernando Alonso during Friday practice.
However, Kubica was able to clinch his second points-scoring finish of the season by grabbing 8th place. Heidfeld was unable to add to his single point, as he placed 11th. The result was encouraging however, as it was a sign the aero updates were taking effect.
In an uncharacteristic moment, Fernando Alonso torpedoed Nick Heidfeld in Friday practice, Valencia 2009.
The long slog mid-season was finally broken at Spa Francorchamps. Nick Heidfeld demonstrated the improved performance of the finned, updated F1.09 by qualifying a strong 3rd, .192 of a second behind surprise polesitter Giancarlo Fisichella in his Force India. Robert Kubica wasn't far behind in 5th, with the BMWs being split by Rubens Barrichello.
Kubica had the better of his teammate in the race proper however, as he finished a fine 4th ahead of Heidfeld in 5th. The giant, unsightly fin fitted tot the car seemed to be worth its weight in gold, as it lifted the team from the quagmire of mediocrity.
Or at least, so it seemed. Back at Monza, the Temple of Speed, BMW Sauber was found to be staffed by heretics. Undoubtedly hampered by the lack of KERS, the cars both qualified outside the top 10 again.
With Robert Kubica 13th and Nick Heidfeld 15th, the team was right back to square one. The race provided a shimmer of hope though with Heidfeld's 7th place, but Kubica went out early with an oil leak on lap 15.
An encouraging 8-9 in qualifying on the streets of Singapore was stifled by a disqualification for Heidfeld, as his car was found to be underweight on the weigh bridge. In the end it didn't really matter, as he had already incurred grid penalties for both an engine and a gearbox change. As a result, he started from the pit lane.
Robert Kubica was moved up to 7th as a result, but dropped to 8th in the race. Nick Heidfeld was robbed of the change to fight back through the field, as he had a close encounter with Force India's Adrian Sutil, which saw them both retire.
With just three races left to go, things were looking pretty bleak for the BMW Sauber squad. At Suzuka, Nick Heidfeld managed to lift spirits slightly once again by qualifying 6th, while Kubica was stuck in 13th. Heidfeld retained his position on race day, securing three points, while his teammate climbed to 9th.
The tables were turned at the penultimate round of the season, the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos. Robert Kubica qualified 8th for the event, while Nick Heidfeld was stranded in Q1 on a terribly disappointing P19.
A storming drive from the Polish super talent saw him surge to a surprise 2nd place finish, 7.626 seconds behind race winner Mark Webber. In stark contrast, Heidfeld failed to finish, as a malfunctioning fuel rig saw him sent out on track without the intended amount of go-juice. As a result he stalled on lap 21.
Finally, it was time for the last race of the 2009 season, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina. Incidentally, it would also be the last for BMW Sauber, as the German manufacturer had announced its withdrawal from the sport already in July.
As the global financial crisis plunged to world into an economic abyss, and the teams' results were really nothing to write home about, BMW took what chairman Norbert Reithofer called a "strategic decision"
Their drivers do their best to give the team a good farewell performance. Robert Kubica qualified a serviceable 7th, with Nick Heidfeld close behind in 8th place. A third podium was not on the cards however, as Heidfeld recorded the team's best result with 5th place. Kubica finished on a decidedly lower note, trundling home in 10th.
And with that, BMW's third adventure in the mad world of Formula One had come to an end. With just 36 points in the Constructor's Championship, BMW Sauber placed a distant 6th in the standings. Similarly disappointing, Nick Heidfeld placed 13th with 19 points, two points ahead of his teammate, who was 14th.
As BMW prepared to wind down its operations, an investment group by the name of Qadbak Investments Limited displayed interest in purchasing the team. However, Qadbak turned out to be a smokescreen, as it was a shell company with no assets or funds behind it.
With no other suitors, BMW elected to sell the team back to Peter Sauber, who agreed to the transaction as long as he would be guaranteed entry in the 2010 season. The FIA accommodated his wish, but the BMW Sauber name had to be retained for strange bureaucratic reasons, despite the car running a Ferrari engine.
The two drivers were forced to leave following the change of ownership, with Nick Heidfeld becoming a reserve and test driver for the new Mercedes Grand Prix team created from the purchase of Brawn. Robert Kubica on the other hand went on to join Renault, starting what would turn out to be his last season of his first career.