Interview with Dr Mario Theissen, Director of BMW Motorsport

Interview with Dr Mario Theissen, Director of BMW Motorsport

As I approach the headquarters of BMW Motorsport in Munich it’s snowing and I am fortunate that the taxi driver knows which building we are seeking.  We are in BMW City, after all, amongst many similar buildings.

It is quiet, with little overt indication of what goes on within. Just a typical BMW sign outside, and a few road cars gathering a light dusting of snow in the parking area. You can tell quite a lot about an organization by its corporate headquarters, and also by its leaders.

Today I am meeting Dr. Mario Theissen, BMW Motorsport Director, as they head into 2010, with no Formula 1 programme for the first time in more than a decade.

Substance before Style

Once inside the building, the reception area is low-key, too, containing a small collection of recent racers – an E92-based M3GT, Augusto Farfus’ 2009 E90 3-series WTCC car, one of the infamous E46 M3GTRs and a Formula BMW open wheeler along with some motorsport engines. A handful of trophies sit on plinths, with 3 large illuminated cabinets containing a further – impressive – collection of silverware.

None of the bright lights, extravagant architecture and themed presentation of the nearby BMW World and BMW Museum here, however. When you consider how much of BMW’s coveted image is founded upon its sporting credentials and the relationship between its road cars and its racers, this first view of the heart of its Motorsport operation is curiously downbeat. But perhaps that is good news. Maybe the money gets spent on what is actually important, rather than what just looks good. That definitely used to be the rule with the M cars, anyway.

Formula 1 and the Strategy Shift

If you have watched F1 in the last few years, and been paying attention, you would have seen Mario Theissen. As high stress – if you are not winning – high visibility jobs go, being an F1 Team Principal is right up there with Premiership football managers. So I can’t help thinking that a part of Theissen might have been secretly pleased when the BMW board announced, last July, that the company was pulling out of this branch of the sport at the end of the 2009 season.

He is a tall, quite youthful 50 something, dressed in the typical ‘business casual’ style that you find so often in Germany. His office is a tidy person’s dream, with an almost complete lack of clutter or decoration. Just a few scale model cars here and there, to hint at the automotive world that surrounds us. His frameless glasses add a slightly scholarly air, backed up by a quiet and measured speaking style, in excellent English.

He explains the rationale behind the withdrawal.

MT: “There was a shift in overall corporate strategy. The board decided that Motorsport should be more clearly directed towards technologies which are relevant for future mobility, and although we will always be in motor sport, F1 did not comply with the mainstream of this new strategy. On the other hand F1 takes most of the resources in this area, and so this brought about the decision to stop F1 and focus on other areas of motor sport as well as other things that came about with the new strategy.”

The Green Agenda, then….


Changing Emphasis for BMW Motorsport

He seems pretty relaxed about it now – though clearly with some regrets – seeing the strategy as being very positive for BMW Motorsport as a whole, allowing much greater focus on GT and WTCC racing.

He is however thoroughly convinced of the benefits that F1 participation has delivered to BMW and its road cars, over the last 10 years justifying the original rationale for their investment – which has amounted to more than pocket money – by saying “One of the main reasons for our involvement was that we believed it would benefit our capabilities in vehicle electronics and so we took the decision to do all of this in-house.”

I ask him how much of the operation was dedicated to F1 and what sort of difference this will make for 2010.

MT: “F1 took 85 – 90% of BMW Motorsport’s resources, and that refers to personnel as well as to budget” says Theissen, “We will now be able to focus better on GT and WTCC racing.”

This seems to imply that they were almost the poor relations until now, and Theissen is a little guarded in his response when I put this to him.

MT: “Not really. Over the past 5 years the F1 budget itself has been cut by half, and we had enough money….enough funding for the other programmes, although they did not get enough attention. Now with the new situation we are fully focused on the other programmes, and GT racing especially will play a bigger role for BMW Motorsport than it used to do.”


GT Racing to take Centre Stage

So why does this freeing up of resources increase emphasis on GT racing, rather than touring cars, is it something to do with the competition in each series?

MT: “Traditionally, we have competed in the WTCC 2 litre class and this is still a very important field for us, because it is not just about WTCC. The strong position of WTCC means that most championships – the national championships that is – are run on the basis of Super 2000 regulations, production based tin-top cars with 2-litre engines and limited scope for development. That means that if we can develop one car for WTCC then it is automatically eligible for the other series as well, and it has always been our Motorsport policy that we develop cars not just for our own works efforts, but also for our big private base, the private teams who are able to buy the cars and then race them. It means that such a programme has a big spread and leverage for us, and it makes sense for us to spend the money on designing and developing such a car. It would make sense even if we were not in WTCC – we have to serve our customer base and we would therefore offer a car for S2000 regulations”

So why the stronger emphasis on GT racing – is this part of a wider marketing effort?

MT: “For the touring car side – we would love to have other premium manufacturers as competitors in the WTCC but this is not the most important part of the story..” he continues “..the brand focus of sportiness and dynamics is on the M3 and this why we have decided to concentrate on this car for future GT activities. Last year we brought the new M3 to the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). Originally it was a GT car designed for the GT2S rules, then before the series started they abandoned the GT2S class and offered us the possibility to compete in GT2.”


I suggest that this means a very different sort of competitive benchmark from WTCC.

MT: “The car is well balanced and it competes on a level with Porsches and Ferraris, and of course the Corvette. We saw great racing last year, so we decided to expand this programme and bring the car to racing in Europe as well.”

So, in effect you are going to compete in each of the key sales territories for the M3, making your motorsport programmes very closely integrated with marketing?

MT: “Yes – the plan is that we continue with the US programme, so racing with the BMW Rahal/Letterman team in ALMS, and compete in the major European endurance races with Schnitzer. We are working on this programme now. Nürburgring 24 hours is a definite, Le Mans 24 is a highly probable, and Spa 24 is still ‘in progress’.”

Dr Mario Theissen in his office at BMW Motorsport

All of these European races demand that preparatory races are also attended, for instance in the VLN Nürburgring endurance championship or in the LMS series. So this means a pretty busy season ahead for the organization and the teams.

When will the ‘highly probable’ turn into definite, as far as competing at Le Mans is concerned?

MT: With a wry smile Theissen responds “We have a mutual understanding that the car will race there, but we have to modify the car to adapt it to the GT2 rules. We are working on this now, but the car will not be completed before March and only then can we apply for homologation, which is the final step. But I expect the M3 to be on the grid.”

So with the M cars’ biggest markets over recent years being in the US and Germany, with the UK in 3rd position, the GT circuit activities for 2010 align quite well with these geographies.

MT: “Yes it is natural that if you have sporty sub brand like the M cars you would like this to be quite closely related to your racing activities and originally the GT programme was aimed at the US, as we have a big M3 customer base there. Also at the time we decided on the M3 GT2 programme, it was because we were not well represented in the US, in racing. As at that time we still had F1, and this has global coverage, everywhere outside of the US, this fitted well. Now we have ALMS in the States and various endurance races in Europe.”

Theissen agrees that this leaves the UK a little overlooked, at least in terms of TV coverage of the GT races, moving forward, and we share a small chuckle at the UK’s (in)ability to integrate in Europe.

MT: “But I see the UK as part of Europe… there is anyway a 24 hour race at Silverstone, but it is not as popular and high profile as the other three 24 hour races in Europe. And the 24 hour races at Le Mans and the Nürburgring Nordschleife are very popular with the hard-core British enthusiasts, for them it does not matter if the racing is on the continent and there is no TV, they go there anyway”

Aha, so there is some integration, then…


From Road to Race, or Race to Road

So what about the relationship between race and road, symbiotic, sometimes push, sometimes pull, or a continuous circle – how does he see this?

MT: “Well with F1 we already had a very close link, because in 1997, when we took the decision to enter the sport, one of the first things we decided to do was set up the race factory here, within sight of the corporate R&D centre – it is a separate unit but we are closely linked and we have gained a lot on the road car side from this programme. You asked about push or pull? Well we had push in both directions – the decision to design, develop and produce our own F1 electronics was taken by the board member in charge of R&D within BMW, in order to really strengthen our electronics competence. But then, once we were underway we were developing new generations of F1 electronics, almost on a yearly basis and a lot of components went back from this to the road car side. In a similar way, we decided to build a Formula 1 foundry and a parts machining plant. Both of these facilities were controlled not by Motorsport, but by the respective departments who do the road car parts. So the motorsport foundry facility is in Landshut within the BMW foundry there, with the machining plant right next door, and both are controlled by these people. We have developed new casting technologies there, aluminium castings with complex shapes and extremely thin walls, which now have high performance road car applications, in M cars and in high performance direct injection diesel engines…”

The F1 Payback

As he continues I get the feeling that this is a real source of pride, something which perhaps justifies the F1 investment, even though podium success – the most visible payback – was less apparent.

MT: “We have developed coating technologies, surface treatments which have gone over to the road car side, and then with the decision to stop F1, the entire plant has been taken over by the road car side, so the original F1 foundry has now become the group light alloy casting centre, and similarly with the machining plant”

So, the physical components within the road car range are already reaping the benefits of the F1 programme, and with the recent pullout, perhaps this will become more marked as BMW seek to leverage that investment.

MT: “Another even better one, and an example of ‘pull’, is the electronics department. Although 2 years ago we moved on to standard electronics, so removing the need to develop our own thing, at the same time the KERS project became mandatory for 2009, so in 2007 the entire department started to design and develop KERS (Kinetic Energy Regeneration System – which in BMW’s case is electronic, rather than the electro-mechanical system used by some other teams) From this we have come up with solutions for electric motor-generators, for battery systems, for power electronics, which have a power to weight ratio factor 4 to 5 times better than current road car technologies. When we stopped the F1 programme last year the entire department was pulled over to the road car side and they are developing hybrid powertrain solutions now for future road cars. That is a perfect example.”

Getting the Message Across

So there has been a significant technological benefit for BMW’s road cars – which most people do not fully appreciate – through Motorsport’s involvement in F1 over the years and also now, ironically, as a result of its withdrawal from the sport?

Theissen agrees, and has to live with a perception problem.

MT: “Yes this is true, as most people say ‘you cannot use any part of a Formula 1 car in a road car’, but you can transfer technologies.”

Technological Step Changes for the Road

So – what will we see of KERS in road cars?

MT: “Yes. We had on display at the Frankfurt Motor Show last September a future generation sports car prototype called Vision EfficientDynamics. The battery pack in this car was exactly the same as the Formula 1 Lithium-Ion battery pack. So, what we have learned from F1 has been taken over by the road car side, and meanwhile we are one or two steps beyond this. These technologies will appear step by step in our road cars over the coming years. The power electronics can be included in the next project. On the battery side, probably it has been an intermediate step in what we want to achieve in road cars so that could take a bit longer, but we will have Lithium-Ion battery packs in the very near future, and we have learned how to deal with them in F1.”

The Vision EfficientDynamics concept contains other technology elements, beyond the LI battery technology, are any of these imminent for the road cars?

MT: “Yes – the lightweight concept, which uses carbon fibre in the way that we have in F1, and the hybrid powertrain concept. These are the 2 main areas of technology transfer to road cars, happening now.”

BMW’s factory in Landshut, home of BMW’s motorsport foundry and source of carbon fibre for the M3 and M6

The Forerunners

These are fascinating changes. Not merely incremental, but step changes. Are we too close to the next generation of M3, for example, to expect to see them when it appears?

MT: “We have 2 cars already on the market using these powertrain technologies, the X6 and the 7 Series hybrids. Both powerful cars and fun to drive.”

When I put it to him that this sort of step change is not always an easy sell into a traditional, conservative market, he counters “It is certainly important to have opinion leaders driving those cars, and also to show that they can be powerful cars. And it is much easier to introduce these technologies top-down because you can afford it – the margins are much greater at this end – and the people who can afford these products, actually spend their money on something relevant for the future.”

Pushing the envelope without breaking the bank

What about step changes in other branches of motorsport, where a Catch 22 situation seems to exist – heavily rule-based formulas naturally suppress innovation.

MT: “Yes – they do in certain areas. And they need to do so in certain areas, because a technology race is very expensive. They have to be careful to define the rules in such a way that only in the relevant areas can technology be pushed forward. If you push the envelope in all directions there is a much higher probability that it is not relevant for future road cars. And we have seen how difficult it is in some areas – even in F1, KERS failed at the first attempt, although I am sure that it will be back, maybe as soon as next year, and then it will succeed. But this demonstrates that innovation does not come of its own accord. If you want to achieve a breakthrough in technology, whether it is for road cars or race cars, you have to invest – not just money, more importantly you have to invest resources. You have to research, you have to design, to develop new things and that requires an upfront investment. In the first instance that slows you down. And in racing no-one will accept this if it is not mandatory. And in my view, KERS failed because it was not mandatory. You cannot expect to benefit, straight away, at the first attempt. In racing you will only invest if you do expect to achieve that benefit, straight away. Or – unless it is mandatory. Once it is introduced you get quick gains. And this is what I expect from KERS – when it comes back.”

So, if everyone has to invest in a particular avenue of technology then they will, and then the strongest one wins.

MT: “Yes – and this is why it is so important to restrict the areas, to constrain what would otherwise be unlimited technology, necessitating unlimited investment, in order to make it commercially viable”

So a pragmatic balance has to be struck between allowing too much freedom to innovate – with a consequent unavoidable increase in costs – and too restrictive a set of rules, which suppress genuine innovation.

Hybrid racers

What is his view of the potential of hybrids in other types of racing?

MT: “I expect to see KERS, which is of course a form of hybrid, return to Formula 1, and also to see it in endurance racing – in the GT category and maybe prototypes…yes it is the future. Even if you are not keen to drive a hybrid as a road car, it is very important to develop electric power trains, because this is beneficial to any car. You to have to consider that any car has to have a battery, it has to have a generator of some description, and the progress that is now being made is huge compared to what has happened in the past.”

Coping with The Green Agenda

With the ‘Green Agenda’ being such a source of pressure currently, is motorsport itself under threat, as to some people and pressure groups it appears environmentally unsustainable?

MT: “I don’t support this view. If you look at Formula 1, and even any other motor sport, you have 20 or 30 cars on the track, racing for quite a short time. Looking at F1, you have perhaps 150,000 spectators on site through the weekend. They use much more energy to get to the track and home again, than the cars use on track. They take as much energy as the crowd watching a football game and, in comparison, the amount used by the cars on track is negligible. Then if you count the few hundred million people around the world, who stay at home to watch the race, then they consume no energy, apart from the TV, of course” he says, grinning “you see that the leverage is enormous. There are very few events that attract more spectators than a Formula 1 race. To fuel the cars is just nothing, compared with the savings that you have with so many spectators who are, as a result, not consuming anything, as they watch the race.”

An interesting perspective which no doubt will raise quite strong counter opinions amongst those who would deny us the chance to enjoy such activities. The question of air travel all around the world involving 100s of people and thousands of tons of equipment will, for sure, cause the green lobby to disagree with this perspective. But the CO2 story, as it unwinds (or unravels, perhaps) is not for today’s discussion.

MT: “But I really see the benefits being on the technology side, as future road car technology will benefit from the racing activities and developments. I think it is positive.“


Getting the message across

But do the public, and the green lobbyists, see it this way, is there a problem with their perception of the benefits?

Theissen agrees.

MT: “Yes public perception is certainly different from what goes in reality, and I think it is essential for motor sport to engage in future technologies and to open the regulations in areas such as KERS. In my view KERS would have been the best thing that had happened to F1 in quite a long time in terms of sustainability and future orientation. And this is why I think it will be back next year. People realize now what a benefit it could have provided. ”

KERS – the return?

So if KERS is beneficial to F1, and by implication also to road cars, does this mean that it will, or should, become a feature of other branches of motor sport?

MT: “I think it will come, although currently we don’t have a programme involving a hybrid powertrain, but I am pretty sure that it will come.”

Does he have any idea when this might be?

MT: “No. Under the current regulations we have no specific plans” comes the guarded response.

BMW Motorsport Priorities

Looking over the next 1 to 3 years, I ask him what is going to be important, for BMW Motorsport.

MT: “This year we are strengthening the M3 programme in GT racing and this is something we want to continue. We see this category as an important platform to foster the position of our M cars and to get the biggest benefit for the next generation, from racing. The touring car regulations are now quite attractive, giving us the opportunity to have 1 car racing all around the world, both through the works effort and in the hands of our customers. We would very much like to see the same scenario on the GT level. We know that there are discussions going on with the aim of homogenizing regulations in Europe, Asia and America. So, this would give us the opportunity, as with touring cars, to have one car racing all over the world. If that really materializes we would be very interested to participate. Apart from this we have the customer base and we offer not only the WTCC or S2000 cars, but we have a broad range of cars dedicated to customer racing, we even design and develop cars purely for customer teams, like the M3 GT4 last year, before that we had the Z4 Coupe, the 120d, and for this season we are preparing a Z4 GT3, with the V8 engine of the M3.”

A Tantalising Prospect

The V8-engined Z4 is a rather interesting project and will get M enthusiasts thinking of a road version, I suggest.

MT: “Yes…this is something that keeps us quite busy right now, because we are working to a very tight timescale – we only decided to go with the project in October and we want the car to be ready for customers in March.”

Maybe there is a hint of a possibility for a road version?

MT: “On our side there are no plans for a road version of this car…”


Investing in the Talents of the Future

He reminds me that BMW has another approach to investment in motorsport, the Formula BMW series.

MT: “This is very important for us, it is the 3rd pillar of our activities, after GT and touring car racing. In the last 10 years it has established itself as the Number 1 entry-level single-seater category for young drivers. 6 or 7 of this year’s F1 drivers have started their career in Formula BMW. Some others are approaching F1, in GP2, in GP3 and Formula 3 already. Almost every year we have 1 or 2 who make it up to F1. The concept is quite unique, it is not just about the racing, it is about education, about teaching young kids who come from kart racing about becoming a professional racing driver. We want to give them all the skills it takes, to enable them to go on, on their own. We don’t want to take them all the way through the ranks, but enable them to do this themselves.”

Theissen then goes on to explain how they actually do this.


MT: “There is a comprehensive education programme – how to drive the car, how to set it up, data analysis, physical fitness, mental coaching, nutrition, how to deal with sponsors and the media. The feedback that we get suggests that it is a very good programme. We are doing this now with two series, the European series and another in Asia. It is very rewarding to see how the young guys develop through this.”

Given that this suggests a fairly big investment by BMW, what is the payback?

MT: “It is a big investment, and you cannot make money by providing young drivers with a platform, a safe platform. This takes money, but it is our racing mentality and our attitude is not about payback here. We already have a lot of payback in motor racing and developing young drivers is a way that we give something back to motor racing.”

Is there any expectation of BMW having some involvement in the gap between Formula BMW and F1?

MT: “No, but we have a broad customer base, and if somebody wants to use a BMW engine in something, say a Formula car, we can provide that engine, but we will not become involved in another formula racing programme”


The integration opportunity

Thinking of direct use of engines and also components developed in the Motorsport division, I ask Theissen about the crossover to road cars, and also to the M Division’s Performance Parts programme, and potential integration opportunities.

MT: “Yes, you are correct, traditionally it has been quite separate. We have developed racing parts and we have sold them. From the M side they have developed performance parts for road cars and have sold them – cars, kits or parts – like us. There certainly is an opportunity to work more closely together and develop parts that can be used on the track and also on the road. With MINI, we are there, already, with the John Cooper Works programme. There are many parts developed for the MINI Challenge race programme, which are now sold as performance parts for road cars.”

Closer ties with the M Division

The new M3 GTS, released late last year, looks very much like a Motorsport product, whose car is it really?

MT: Theissen smiles as he responds “It is an M car, but with a close look at the M3 GT4. We help each other, we get the base car from M and turn it into a race car, and apparently there are some areas where they can benefit, such as with the GTS.”

This is interesting, as the GTS appears to be so much closer to the Motorsport ethos, than the current positioning of M cars, so perhaps Theissen is investing in a relationship here.

MT: “Yes, we want to foster those closer ties and to benefit more from them in the future”

I suggest that perhaps the existence of the GTS is good thing to keep M car fans happy and reduce perceptions of a divergence between motorsport activities, and the M Division

MT: “Yes, we have to keep our strength on the performance and racing side, as well”


The Future Face of BMW Motorsport

What will define success for Theissen over the next 1, 2, 3 years or so?

MT: “Well, wherever we are we want to win championships. We are in WTCC and American Le Mans and in the European races with the M3. Apparently after the F1 pullout we could not come up with an all-new programme within a few months, so we have based our programme on the cars available. For the future we will have a closer look at the GT scene hoping that there is an overall umbrella under which GT cars can race worldwide. If that happens, that could become the most important part of our overall racing programme in the coming years. GT racing is an important platform to foster the position of the M cars and get the best benefit for the next generation.”

Is there an opportunity to influence the road car products, for example a 1-series motorsport inspired car?

MT: “Definitely, definitely. With the works, professional cars but also even the cars that we develop for customers, maybe even more so, because they are closer to the original, base cars.”

I try to get Theissen to talk about the gap in the M car range, beneath the M3, which could be filled by a Motorsport inspired 1 series M car.

With a very straight face he says, “You could always expand your product line, yes. That would not be a gap, that would be an expansion to the small car segment, but that could be done on the M side without us doing a race car.”

Is it too late in the current generation of 1 Series to hope for this, or should we look to the next generation, there are plenty of rumours flying around on this topic?

MT: “Yes, certainly, it is too late, although you can always look forward to it… but I cannot talk about product plans for the future”, is Theissen’s careful response.

And this tends to sum up the man, the person.

Careful, quiet, considered, diplomatic. Not what you would initially expect of someone who has had to battle in one of the most politically-charged, pressurized and glitzy sporting environments on the planet.

Or maybe you would.