Off the pot

Few sports can deliver such interest and excitement outside their arena of competition as Formula 1 does. Last week, the possibility of BMW quitting the sport or Michael Schumacher racing again would have seemed about as likely as… well, about as likely as McLaren taking a dominant race victory. But all of those things – and, shockingly, F1’s most serious accident for a long time, perhaps since 1995 – have taken place since them.

Today’s developments have made my last F1 blog post hopelessly outdated. Schumacher is putting his life and his reputation at risk… but neither very seriously, probably. It’s great news for Hamilton, Vettel and other new drivers from 2007 onwards, who now have a chance they must never have expected to race against Schumacher; less good for Raikkonen, who will surely be toast in F1 if Schumacher can jump into the car with no testing and beat him. Less good for Nelson Piquet, too: with the possibility of Alonso moving to Ferrari gone, he can surely expect to be sacked.

But the BMW news is in some ways more interesting, as it’s less easy to understand. The need to sign a new Concorde Agreement probably put BMW’s board in an impossible situation: should they commit to F1 for another few years, with their momentum lost and a total lack of results, plus apparent political instability and arguably an image problem after the Mosley spanking scandal, or should they chuck away their investment? Neither option can have seemed very attractive, but the new Concorde Agreement effectively obliged them to go or get off the pot.

BMW’s F1 operation has always had a slightly funny character about it, ever since the Williams tie-up. Everyone today has been talking about their targets-driven philosophy: when Williams failed to meet targets the partnership was dissolved. This was in spite of circumstances: two of the three the years when the partnership should have started producing big results – 2002, 2003 and 2004 – were years of Ferrari red-wash; in the other, Williams had a genuine tilt at the title. Mercedes stuck with McLaren for the long-term, despite the latter struggling apparently even more than Williams in 2003 and 2004 with the chassis side. But BMW bailed.

Targets were order of the day in their new team too. They were met up until last year, when Mario Theissen opted to switch the focus to 2009 despite being in with a shout at the 2008 title. If the team could maintain its progress, it would be a clear front-runner by 2009, rather than a close third-place car as in 2008. But it was a colossal “if”: a new set or regulations was bound to make things unpredictable; and even leaving that aside, there is no guarantee that a new car will be fast just because last year’s was – BMW’s slump this year is not unlike Honda’s in 2007, after a strong 2006.

Yet Theissen ignored the tendency of motor racing not to run to script, and gambled it all on heavy development of the 2009 car and the new KERS system – retained only at his insistence against the other teams’ doubts – and lost everything. Theissen’s problem is that he almost certainly didn’t realise he was gambling at all. Nor did he probably realise quite how F1 historians will judge a man who had a chance at a world title and did not pursue it – despite his neat and logical demeanour, in motor racing that decision marks him out as a raving eccentric.

So, will the team survive? It seems quite likely. Peter Sauber might take it over again, though he is not a young man; it’s quite possible that BMW will do a Honda and provide the finance to keep it going for a year. Failing that, one of the failed entrants for the new grid slots, such as Lola or Prodrive, might be interested in some sort of hook-up.

But will it hang on to its drivers? My comment that the driver market looks rather big may be about to be proved wrong: if Renault walk away too (and it’s noteworthy that they have not joined Mercedes and Toyota in reaffirming their commitment), will all the old teams really be kept on the grid as well as all the new ones? We are a long way away from knowing what teams will be racing in 2010.

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