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AUGUST 29, 2001

Mario Thiessen: Ready to rumble


Dr. Mario Theissen
© The Cahier Archive

Less than two years ago BMW's first F1 V10 engine was barely making it out of the garage door before consuming itself inelegantly amid a cloud of oil smoke. What the Bavarians achieved last year, in making it a reliable race engine by the first Grand Prix of the season, in Melbourne, was impressive enough. But the subsequent development that has made its successor F1's most powerful motor is little short of amazing when you consider the timescales involved and the threats posed by Ferrari, Cosworth and Mercedes-Benz. Next year BMW's latest wares will help Williams to challenge strongly for its first world title since 1997.

Dr. Mario Theissen smiles toothily if you ask him whether BMW still regards Mercedes-Benz as a genuine enemy, given the relatively poor performances of Stuttgart's motor in 2001. And if you push him to comment on whether BMW believes that it has a superior product and has its cross-country rival beaten, he resorts to diplomacy.

"Those are leading questions! I would say that it's not just the engine that counts, it's four factors: the engine, the car, the tires and the driver, and only if you get everything right do you have a chance to win. For me there are three teams at the moment who can win here in F1, and I'm happy to see that our team is one of these three."

But some people, especially in Germany, are voicing the opinion that Mercedes-Benz is no longer the best, that BMW is the king of engines.

"For sure we have a very good power unit. And I think you can say that it is the most powerful engine this season, but these things are always changing because development never stops in Formula One. And whenever you think you are the best, you are moving on to very dangerous ground."

So Thiessen still believes that Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari are strong competition.

"Naturally. The facts prove it. We have great respect for both manufacturers, just as we have great confidence in our own ability to make engines that are competitive with their products."

In Hockenheim, on its home ground, BMW's confidence was greater than ever, and with fast circuits coming up to complete the 2001 World Championship, BMW Williams will use the remaining four races to develop its 2002 contender.

"Obviously the track suits us very well," Thiessen admits of Hockenheim, "although through the Motordrom, the infield, is quite different from the straights in the forest. But I hope that we find the right combination to be quick not just in qualifying but also in the race. We knew that we should be in a good position here."

The German track is a real tester of power units and a demanding nightmare for any engine manufacturer. Its prolonged high speeds seek out the slightest weakness. But while BMW lost one engine as Montoya's blew up shortly after overheating during a delayed pit stop, Ralf Schumacher's was sufficiently strong and reliable to propel him to a memorable - and highly satisfying - triumph. "Only Monza is similar to Hockenheim, but Hockenheim is the most demanding track by far," Thiessen says. "That is the reason for us to take the Hockenheim circuit as the reference for endurance testing on the dyno in Munich. It's the most demanding because we have the long forest straights where the engine has to be higher revving in top gear for quite a long period - not just as in Indy but overall the engine spends a longer time in top gear at higher revs, full throttle, and this is the most demanding thing the engine has to do."

So how long does the engine run at full throttle at a track such as Hockenheim?

"The first straight is about 16 seconds, the other three are between 10 and 15. So overall it comes close to 50 seconds at full throttle and quite a part of it in top gear and at high revs. I would say it comes between 60 and 70 percent of the lap in the dry."

Can he put that into perspective a little. What sort of revs are we talking about? 18,000 rpm?

"Oh yes. And that's about 300 rpm per second, over the race distance. The engine has a fantastic amount of work to do."

All this naturally has an effect on fuel consumption, which suggests that Hockenheim is also the most demanding circuit in that respect. "It's not necessarily the highest fuel consumption circuit but I don't know where we have the highest fuel consumption per kilometer because normally we count fuel consumption per lap," Thiessen ruminates. "We have longer laps here, but probably it is the highest."

BMW's speed trap figures have been consistently the fastest this season, regardless of the type of circuit. Sometimes the BMW Williams FW23s have been more than 8 kph quicker than Mercedes and Ferrari. This is a huge margin by F1 standards. But while the 2001 unit is clearly a lot better than its 2000 sibling, Thiessen is reluctant to commit himself too much publicly.

"We certainly have a competitive unit, but you cannot say how much better or worse an engine is. As I said earlier, you have to take other factors such as chassis, tires, driver and electronics into account. Last year we were deliberately conservative with the P41 engine. It was our first season in Formula One since 1987. The engine was 20 kg overweight, though powerful, and the main thing is that it gave our engineers the experience they needed to allow them to operate at the cutting edge of the sport once more."

The P80 engine of 2001 is significantly different. By the end of 2000 the P41 was beginning to draw level with established rival's engines, at least as far as horsepower was concerned. That power unit was the legendary Paul Rosche's last design for BMW, and had a vee angle of 72 degrees. During the winter Rosche's successors, Dr. Werner Laurenz and Heinz Paschen, developed the completely new P80, a 90 degree unit that is markedly lighter than its predecessor.

Laurenz and Paschen both came to BMW from other companies, where they had demonstrated considerable skill. Thiessen is adamant that the, despite its proud image, BMW has no problem with 'importing' design talent.

"Of course not!" He chuckles. "That is the nature of any business. You hire the best people and let them grow in your own culture. Dr. Laurenz had a fine pedigree at Audi, and his work on Audi's V8 DTM engine was simply outstanding. Paschen came from Toyota, where he turned their engine into a very competitive package in ChampCar racing, where it became a winner. Formula One is an arena in which only the best prosper, so of course we are always interested in hiring the best. And our philosophy is always to be looking further into the future."

BMW has made some strong advertising points by making it very clear that it makes its own engine, while suggesting equally strongly that Mercedes-Benz has had to buy in its technology from the English company, Ilmor Engineering. That's like scoring success over Mercedes-Benz on some sort of moral, grown-at-home level.

Thiessen smiles again, and says: "I'm not responsible for our advertising department's copywriting! But what they say is true. We do take pride in the fact that we came back into Formula One with our own engine, developed in Munich by our own engineers, rather than buying the technology from anyone else. From my point of view I think that is an important distinction for a car manufacturer to make. It enhances further the image of BMW, which is why we are competing in Formula One in the first place."

Sources suggest that the BMW has a little over 850 bhp in qualifying guise and can race reliably with 840. That puts it 10 bhp higher than Ferrari and possibly as much as 25 bhp ahead of McLaren. Cosworth is thought to slot in between Ferrari and McLaren at 825. Thiessen listens politely when such figures are bandied about, but resolutely refuses to be drawn into the discussion. He's no different in that respect than any of his rival manufacturers, for horsepower is another of F1's closest-guarded secrets.

At the Belgian GP Williams debuted a revised FW23B with a rear end ready to take next year's heavily modified BMW powerplant. The fact that it will test before the winter break must be a source of serious concern to rivals who have taken on board the progress that BMW Williams has made all season. There seems little doubt that next year the alliance of the Grove team and Bavarian Motor Works will be in a position to challenge very strongly for the World Championship.

Small wonder smiles come so readily to Dr. Thiessen's face.