Perhaps the most eagerly awaited launch this January was the BMW Sauber team’s new car. This is because the team has been making a steady march towards the front of the grid in the last three seasons and now it needs to make the last and most difficult step of all, to champion status.
A few teams have come along in the last twenty years or so and threatened the McLaren/Williams/Ferrari elite, including Jordan, which won a few races. But really only Benetton/Renault has been able to elbow the big boys aside and make a permanent space for itself at top table.
BMW quickly got into the winning groove as an engine builder with Williams, but broke up with them in 2005 because the progress stopped and they had in mind to do their own thing anyway, based on the old Sauber team. After three years of delivering on their goals, they now have to fight for the championship. Anything less would be a disappointment. You could argue that they fought for the championship this season, after all Robert Kubica led the points table after Montreal and was still in the title race at the penultimate round.
But I think BMW know that they have to be right in there from the first race and at every race, fighting for pole, the win and the podium. And not only that, they have to match the development rate of Ferrari and McLaren across the whole season. In many ways this is the toughest aspect of the challenge. With new rules, its possible that anyone might have lucked into the right aerodynamic package and start with a strong position, but you know that as the races grind on, Ferrari and McLaren will be developing faster than most and it will take a special effort for a BMW or even a Renault to stay in front.
Having watched the Ferraris and McLarens steadily driving away from him in the second half of 2008, Kubica realises this better than anyone and it was interesting that at the launch he highlighted failed developments last season, ones which did not deliver the expected performance gain. The message is clear – ‘Don’t do that again’. He’s keeping the team honest, keeping the pressure on. You’ve got to love his hunger and his honesty. He’s already shown he has what it takes to race Hamilton, Massa, Raikkonen and Alonso and he will be strong in Melbourne as he always is. HIs potential downside is his size. He lost some weight last year, but he’s still a big guy and the boffins are all saying that’s a penalty this year with the extra weight of KERS making weight and weight balance critical.
The first test day went well for them, over 70 laps of Valencia on day one is quite impressive and now they get down to some serious work. It looks like the weather has been kinder to them than to Ferrari over in Italy and McLaren and the rest in Portugal.