With Mercedes AMG Petronas having dominated Formula 1 for the past 7 years, excluding 2022 of course, the question has to be brought up, where is their competition? While the Red Bull F1 team has been able to challenge Mercedes' reign, there is a big German name that is missing from the F1 roster. With BMW and Mercedes battling for dominance in the luxury production car market, it would seem like BMW would want a slice of the F1 pie. So where is BMW in Formula 1?
BMW has been involved in motorsports for nearly as long as they have been around as a company. Looking back to the very beginning, BMW scored their first success on four wheels in 1929, winning the International Alpine Rally with a BMW 3/15PS. Fast forward a decade and BMW would take their first success at the Nurburgring in 1936 with the dominant BMW 328. Between the 1930 and early 1970s, BMW would enjoy success in both the Isle of Man TT and the European Touring Car Championship which would cement the racing bug within the higher-ups in Bavaria.
BMW would eventually ease their way into the world of Formula 1, first as an engine supplier, then as a partner, then as a constructor. Throughout their F1 saga, BMW had quite a range of highs and lows. While BMW never won a Formula 1 World Championship as a constructor, they came close on multiple occasions and did provide a winning engine for the 1983 Brabham BT52.
BMW F1 Engine Supplier
BMW entered the big leagues in 1982, but with a caveat. The Brabham Formula 1 team was owned by marketing maestro and eventual Formula 1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During that period, Brabham had swapped engine suppliers multiple times during the decade, finding little success with both Cosworth DFV and Alfa Romeo engines in the Brabham BT44 and Brabham BT48. As a result, they began looking for a new engine supplier for the 1982 Formula 1 season.
Prior to the beginning of the season, Brabham had reached an agreement with BMW to test their new BT50 car with a turbocharged BMW 4-cylinder in the rear. Since Renault had ushered in the turbocharged era of Formula 1 in 1977, it became increasingly clear that turbocharged engines were the future of the sport. Having experimented with turbochargers in production cars, first introduced by the BMW M121 engine in the 1969 BMW 2002 Turbo, BMW had a leg up in understanding turbocharger technology.
BMW F1 - M12 Engine
BMW’s first engine in Formula 1 was the M12 turbocharged 4-cylinder. The M12 had a few very interesting and notable characteristics that made it the best engine on the grid at the time. The BMW M12 engine was heavily based on the BMW M10 engine found most prominently in E21 and E30 chassis 3-Series. A performance version of the M10, called the M12/7, was initially produced by BMW for Formula 2 with 2.0L of displacement as a naturally aspirated 4-cylinder.
BMW would eventually recruit the McLaren Formula 1 team to help them adapt the M12 engine for a turbocharger so that they could compete with Porsche and Ferrari in the US IMSA series. That version would eventually become the fire-breathing 4-cylinder used in Formula 1.
Despite knowing more about turbocharger technology than quite a few of their competitors, reliability would be an issue in BMW’s first years in Formula 1. The Brabham BT50 was, however, one of the fastest cars on the grid in the 1982 season. As BMW eventually got the M12 to a more reliable state, power also steadily increased in the years to follow.
In 1983, only BMW’s second year in Formula 1, Nelson Piquet won the Formula 1 World Championship piloting the BMW-powered Brabham BT52. It was the first time that a turbocharged car had ever won the championship. At that point, the BMW M12 engine was producing 850 bhp in qualifying trim and 650 bhp in race trim. Keep in mind, the M12’s design was based on the M10 4-cylinder, an engine that produced a maximum of 123 horsepower in production trim.
Between 1984 and 1986, the M12’s horsepower figures were getting ridiculous, quite frankly. Despite increasingly strict fuel regulations, the newly refreshed BMW M12/13 engine was producing the most horsepower that it ever had. In qualifying trim, the M12/13 engine was producing upwards of 1,400 horsepower; which makes it the most powerful engine ever used in Formula 1. The BMW M12/13 would be used by multiple manufacturers throughout its time in Formula 1 including Benetton, Brabham, and Arrows.
After their withdrawal from Formula 1 in 1986, it wouldn’t be until 14 years later that BMW would give the most prestigious and cutthroat racing series another go. BWM was reluctant to go at it alone. After all, it never seems to work out when a big-name manufacturer has jumped into the sport without a solid foundational understanding of all aspects of Formula 1, looking at you Toyota. So, BMW did the logical thing and teamed up with an existing team.
From the onset, the BMW/Williams partnership looked promising. After all, it was one of the most distinguished engine manufacturers in the world partnering with one of the most successful Formula 1 teams of all time. And, while not a failure, the partnership didn’t live up to many people’s expectations.
BMW F1 - 2000-2002
The BMW/Williams 2000 Formula 1 campaign was pretty successful for a new partnership and BMW’s first year back in the F1 engine production game. While the FW22 was a decent chassis, it was clear that the BMW engine was doing some heavy lifting. The BMW E41 engine was a naturally aspirated 3.0L V10 engine that produced 810 horsepower. Despite being in their debut season, BMW/Williams finished 3rd in the Constructors' Championship which was nothing to scoff at.
For the 2001 season, BMW introduced the new, more aggressive, P80 engine in the FW23. The improvements to the engine were significant. While the E41 was reserved in an effort to preserve reliability, the P80 was more performance-focused. As a result, it saw a 100bhp increase from the outgoing E41 engine. It was also significantly lighter.
Pumping out 880bhp, the P80 was undoubtedly the best engine on the F1 grid, with 30 more horsepower than the competition. Despite being the most powerful engine on the grid, the BMW P80 engine was severely handicapped by the design of the FW23 itself. The primary issue with the FW23 was its lack of downforce which was significantly less than their competitors, McLaren and Ferrari.
Ultimately, the FW23 scored four victories and finished third in the Constructors' Championship despite its shortcoming. However, the lack of a championship-winning chassis led to heightened tensions between BMW and Williams, as BMW felt that they were delivering on their end of the promise and that Williams wasn’t living up to expectations.
2002 was a turbulent year for the BMW/Williams F1 team. As per usual, the BMW P82 engine showed a lot of promise, producing a whopping 900bhp. Initially, it appeared that the FW24 was finally going to deliver the initial vision. They scored a 1-2 finish at the Malaysian Grand Prix near the beginning of the season, inspiring confidence in the team.
That would be short-lived, however, as Ferrari was about to unveil one of the most dominant Formula 1 cars of all time, the Ferrari F2002. The F2002 launched a five-year period of Ferrari dominance in Formula 1, which essentially nullified BMW’s efforts to end up at the top of the heap between 2000 and 2004.
That said, BMW/Williams was the runner-up in the Constructors’ Championship which should have been seen as a serious feat considering their competitors. However, the FW24 clearly wasn’t performing to its fullest, proven by the fact that despite Juan Pablo Montoya securing seven pole positions during the course of the season, he wasn’t able to win a single race.
2003 was perhaps the best year that the BMW/Williams partnership had in terms of performance and reliability. The FW25 solved the one problem that BMW/Williams had been struggling with for years, aerodynamic design. After the previous Head of Aerodynamics was fired at the end of 2002, Antonia Terzi, a respected ex-Ferrari designer, took his place. There was a large turnaround in terms of pace.
While the first half of the 2003 season wasn’t anything special for the BMW/Williams outfit, however, the car really came alive in the second part of the season with the introduction of new, wider, Michelin front tires. BMW/Williams went on a tear following the change in tire design, winning three 1-2 finishes in a row at the European Grand Prix, the Nurburgring, and the French Grand Prix.
BMW/Williams’ dominant form in the latter part of the season kept Juan Pablo Montoya in the championship hunt until the penultimate race, ultimately losing out to Michael Schumacher. The 2003 season was the peak of the BMW/Williams era in terms of performance, but also a low point for the BMW/Williams partnership.
The brush with victory in the 2003 Driver’s World Championship wasn’t enough to fully convince BMW that they had a solid partner in Williams. In fact, it did quite the opposite, with BMW largely resigning their trust in Williams for the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
The FW26 used in the 2004 Formula 1 season introduced a strange front-end design choice by Antonia Terzi. Terzi thought that a more open frontal area on the front wing would increase aerodynamic efficiency, leading to a strange “walrus”-like appearance. Ultimately, the front wing ended up being a failure in both the looks and performance departments. Only when the team switched the nose for a more conventional-looking setup did the FW26 win its only race in Brazil.
2005 was the last year of the BMW/Williams partnership due to the declining relationship between BMW and Williams. The FW27 was not a competitive car. With the lack of success in the previous years, BMW decided to end their relationship with Williams with ambitions of either purchasing Williams outright or acquiring a team elsewhere. Frank Williams ultimately refuses to sell the team, leaving BMW to find other options. They eventually acquired the Sauber Formula 1 team which led to the next chapter in BMW’s Formula 1 story.
BMW/Williams F1 Split
While the BMW/Williams split likely has reasons that are only known to higher-ups behind closed doors, the beginning of tensions between them can be traced back to the design of BMW’s first F1 engine. The initial design of the E41 erred on the side of caution, as BMW preferred a more methodical approach to engine development. BMW worked in an opposite fashion to many other teams, developing the E41 with reliability in mind first, adding performance later. This would eventually prove to be a very effective strategy, but one that the Williams F1 team did not agree with.
Williams is a team known for their apprehension to thorough planning and forethought. Instead, Williams tends to prefer an adapt-on-the-spot approach. While neither approach is necessarily better than the other, the disparity in viewpoints would start to drive a wedge between BMW and Williams. This was compounded by a change in BMW’s higher-management team, which was caused by slumping sales in the 1990s. The leadership change also got rid of some of the employees with the closest ties to the Williams F1 team.
Beyond that, BMW felt that the chassis development side of the partnership, handled by Williams was the weakest link in their team. That led BMW to seek different options for the future, where they had more control over all aspects of development.
Prior to BMW’s official entrance into Formula 1 as a factory team, the Sauber F1 team had already been in operation for 13 years. Sauber remained a solid entry in the midfield for years, eventually partnering with Red Bull for 1995 and 1996 and later with Petronas from 1997-2005. By the end of Sauber’s independent stint, BMW’s tensions with Williams had reached a breaking point, eventually announcing their plan to purchase the Sauber outfit on January 1, 2006. The acquisition was reportedly worth 100 million dollars, with BMW purchasing an 80% stake in the company, leaving the remaining 20% to Peter Sauber.
BMW F1 - 2006-2007
Following a massive regulations change for 2006, V10 engines were replaced with V8 engines, forcing BMW and the rest of the grid to develop a new V8 powerplant. The P82 V10 engine was ultimately replaced with a new 2.4L V8, receiving the P86 designation. The BMW F1.06 was BMW’s first true F1 car as a constructor, responsible for both the engine and the chassis.
Somewhat surprisingly, the F1.06 was an immediate mid-field runner, often occupying the “best of the rest” spot behind Renault and McLaren. BMW fought for points in most of the races throughout the season, scoring a decent amount in their first year. With that being said, the F1.06 wasn’t a true contender for race wins at any point.
2007 was an improved season for BMW Sauber, as the F1.07 was a slightly more competitive car from the get-go. The car performed well in pre-season testing, which ultimately translated to the BMW F1.07 being the third fastest car behind the McLaren MP4-22 and Ferrari F2007. BMW would also secure 2nd place in the Constructors Championship in 2007.
Overall, it was a competitive season for BMW F1, with Nick Heidfeld scoring multiple podiums during the season. It seemed as if BMW was truly hitting their stride early in their time as a Formula 1 constructor.
BMW F1 - 2007-2009
With the relative success of BMW’s first two seasons as a constructor in Formula 1, they were very optimistic for the 2008 season. And, as a whole, their optimism was largely validated. The first few rounds of the season were very good for the team, with Heidfeld finishing second in the opening round in Melbourne and Kubica finishing second in the Malaysian Grand Prix a round later. The BMW F1.08 was a strong car from both an aerodynamic and engine performance perspective, which would continue to pay off through the majority of the season.
BMW’s 2008 season reached its pinnacle at the Canadian Grand Prix where Robert Kubica led teammate Nick Heidfeld home to BMW Sauber’s first Formula 1 win and a 1-2 to boot. At that point, Robert Kubica took the lead of the Driver’s Championship. Some argue that BMW threw away their chance at the 2008 World Championship, as they decided to dedicate the rest of the season to develop the following year’s car. Ultimately, BMW finished 3rd in the Constructors Championship in 2008.
Despite BMW’s early development of the 2009 BMW F1.09 car, the season was ultimately a disaster for the team. While some of BMW’s issues could be boiled down to lagging technical progress on crucial elements such as their double diffuser and KERS designs, two components that would set winning teams apart from the rest, ultimately, the BMW F1.09 just wasn’t that great of a car.
During the 2009 season, BMW F1 Sauber scored a measly 36 points and finished 6th in the Constructors Championship. The result was extremely disappointing considering their stellar 2008 season. Ultimately, BMW’s poor 2009 campaign sealed the fate of the team, with BMW withdrawing from Formula 1 at the end of the year.
Why Did BMW Leave Formula 1?
It came as a surprise to many people when BMW F1 announced their departure from Formula 1 in 2009. After all, BMW had only been in the sport for three years as an independent constructor, with two of those years being remarkably successful for a rookie constructor. So, what was the straw that broke the camel’s back for BMW in Formula 1? Well, there were a few reasons which ultimately led to BMW’s F1 departure.
Obviously, one of the most glaring reasons was their uncompetitiveness in the 2009 championship. While 6th in the Constructors’ Championship isn’t that poor of a result, there is a massive discrepancy in terms of payout between the top three teams and the lower-scoring teams. As a result, BMW received far less funding following the 2009 season than they did in the previous two years.
Since Formula 1 is such an expensive sport in every aspect, funding is a massive consideration for most teams, BMW F1 included. That sentiment was even more crucial in 2009, with the world in a massive economic recession that started the year prior. Formula 1 and economic recessions don’t bode well for teams that aren’t continuously winning races, so that was another massive factor for the team.
Despite their lack of funding, Formula 1’s technical requirements to remain competitive were becoming increasingly more complex. From electrical systems like KERS and ERS later on to aerodynamic loopholes, the top teams were running away with technical advancements that midfield teams didn’t have the resources to develop.
Even if BMW could match the technical innovations of their competitors, they felt that there was little use in spending such massive sums to develop technology that ultimately wouldn’t benefit their road cars. All of these factors added up to more cons than pros when it came to the BMW F1 program, eventually leading them to scrap the project. BMW hasn’t returned to F1 in any capacity since then.
Will BMW Ever Come Back To Formula 1?
The introduction of a new era of Formula 1 cars in 2022 has sparked the interest of many manufacturers who either haven’t ever been interested in Formula 1 or have been in Formula 1 in the past and are looking to get back into the game. It actually isn’t the cars themselves that have teams interested, but the engine regulation changes that are set to take place in 2026. For 2026, Formula 1 is expected to change their engines to run on fully synthetic fuel. That change has enticed both Audi and Porsche to consider involvement with F1, ultimately challenging BMW to step up to the plate to compete.
While that seems like reason enough for BMW to get involved, it seems like BMW has little interest in taking the bait. While it was initially rumored that BMW and McLaren might be teaming up as an engine supplier/manufacturer conglomerate, higher-ups at BMW have now repeatedly said that they have very little interest in pursuing a venture in Formula 1 again.
BMW is already heavily involved in other motorsports series, including Formula E and LMDh. BMW is focused on pushing the electrified agenda as fast as possible and since Formula 1 is still trying to find its place among the electrified racing series, BMW claims they truly aren’t currently interested. That’s a shame for most of us who would love to see the return of our favorite German marque to the most prestigious racing series in the world.