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The rapid rise of BMW Sauber

Nick Heidfeld in this season's BMW Sauber

By Sarah Holt

If good things come in threes, BMW Sauber boss Mario Theissen must think three is his magic number.

Three seasons in Formula One, three podiums in the first three races of 2008 and BMW have split the championship title race into a three-way battle.

Breaking Ferrari and McLaren's stranglehold, BMW lead the constructors' standings, ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix, for the first time in their short history.

The calm and collected Theissen allows himself a chuckle as he admits even he is a little taken aback by the team's lightning quick start to the season.

"Yes, it's certainly a bit of a surprise," Theissen told BBC Sport.

"We wanted to turn the battle of two into a battle of three; but it came about so quickly and now we are leading the championship without even winning a race.

BMW team principal Mario Theissen
It's too early to talk about the championship, but it will be a tough and tight battle

BMW team boss Mario Theissen

"That is a surprise - maybe we are a bit ahead of schedule."

When the giant car manufacturer decided to stop supplying Williams with engines in 2005 and strike out on its own, buying Peter Sauber's team, it looked like a gamble.

With the prestige of the BMW road car brand name to protect, expectations were high, despite a smaller budget than some rivals.

Few would have predicted that in just two seasons, Theissen would turn Sauber's perennial midfield finishers into a Formula One force to be reckoned with.

But, despite his gleeful surprise, Theissen probably knew better.

The German's buzz word appears to be "efficiency" and it is the team's serious and businesslike approach to F1 that is beginning to pay dividends.

"All the people are on board and all the tools are ready," said Theissen, who oversaw a 50% increase in staff from the Sauber days.

"It's been hard work but it's been very constructive and systematic, and there's a good team spirit."

Theissen believes BMW's difficulties during winter testing exemplify the team's cohesive approach to Formula One.

The car was off the pace and difficult to drive and, from the outside, it was difficult to gauge the team's competitiveness right up until they emerged for the season opener in Australia.

We want to be in a position to fight for the championship from next year onwards - and we are well on track

Mario Theissen
BMW F1 boss

"We took a risk with the new car only to find out at the launch it didn't work," explained Theissen.

"But we analysed and cured it bit by bit without a moment of panic. It was really good to see how strong the team is now and how they can turn things around quickly."

BMW finished fifth in their debut 2006 season, with rookie driver Robert Kubica racing to his first podium in Italy, before claiming the runners-up spot behind Ferrari in 2007, following McLaren's disqualification.

And this season, two podiums in Bahrain and Malaysia for Kubica, who also clinched the team's first pole, and one for Nick Heidfeld, who is second in the drivers' standings, have seen the German team push on again.

But can BMW maintain their momentum and continue to challenge Ferrari and McLaren over the 15 Grands Prix ahead?

"Ferrari still have an edge," Theissen conceded. "They are ahead of us by about three to five tenths of a second per lap, but we are certainly closer to McLaren.

"We know there is a gap but in the same way that we have closed it so far, we want to close it completely now.

"One target for this season was to win our first race and we are now one of the three teams who have the potential to win.

Sarah Holt - BBC Sport
"It's too early to talk about the championship, but it will be a tough and tight battle."

Heidfeld and Kubica are charged with taking the fight to their rivals on the track but their championship-winning potential remains unproven.

Monchengladbach-born Heidfeld is a good PR match for the German team and on the track he's reliable and consistent - a safe bet to get in the points.

Poland's Kubica, 23, has made an impressive start to his F1 career with BMW, showing glimpses of fearless pace, and is rated by Fernando Alonso and old karting rival Lewis Hamilton as a future world champion.

Lewis Hamilton and Robert Kubica
Hamilton and Kubica are on friendly terms after a not-so-friendly teenage go-karting rivalry

Nonetheless, rumours linked BMW with an approach for double world champion Alonso last season; and some believe the team need a proven world-class driver to match their ambitions.

But Theissen insisted: "I think we have two of them. I don't see any reason to look elsewhere.

"By the time Fernando decided to leave McLaren we were almost decided on the drivers we have."

For now, Theissen's attention is divided between challenging for 2008 honours and producing a new aerodynamic and tyre package for 2009.

The German described the effort of matching Ferrari and McLaren's development as "demanding and difficult," especially with just one wind tunnel at the team's Swiss base to hone aero improvements.

But with the team's track record of year-on-year progress, Theissen expects nothing less than further achievements in 2007 and beyond.

"I'm confident we can at least match the development speed of the two bigger teams," said Theissen. "And, well, we want to be at the top so we have to develop faster than them.

"We want to be in a position to fight for the championship from next year onwards - and we are well on track."

see also
Hamilton third as Kubica shines
05 Apr 08 |  Formula One
BMW head field in final practice
15 Mar 08 |  Formula One
BMW Sauber 'not ready to win yet'
13 Mar 08 |  Formula One
Klien becomes BMW back-up driver
02 Feb 08 |  Formula One
BMW plotting F1 title challenge
14 Jan 08 |  Formula One
Heidfield and Kubica stay at BMW
21 Aug 07 |  Formula One
BMW Sauber
04 Mar 08 |  Teams

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