Following the team's abject showing in the Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir just under a fortnight ago – finishing last and last-but one in the desert kingdom – Nick Heidfeld ordered BMW-Sauber to 'get its act together now'. On the basis of his and team-mate Robert Kubica's opinions on practice in Barcelona, it has done.
Aside from Heidfeld's opportunistic if largely fortuitous second place finish in the rain-shortened Malaysian Grand Prix in Sepang, and Kubica's challenge for the runner-up laurels in the 2009 curtain-raiser in Australia – a challenge that would ultimately end in tears – there have been slim pickings indeed for the Bavarian outfit thus far this year in Formula 1.
Having expected – and been expected by others – to battle it out for title glory in this, its fourth season in the top flight as a manufacturer in its own right, it has been a crushingly disappointing start to proceedings for BMW, and one that left Heidfeld musing after Bahrain that he 'would wonder very much if people were smiling' within the squad as the team failed to introduce any aerodynamic updates at all to its underperforming F1.09 over the opening four 'flyaway' races.
There are, however, significant modifications for the Spanish Grand Prix this weekend – the beginning of the long European leg of the campaign – with a completely new front nose section, sidepods and rear wing, as well as changes to the front wing, engine cover and diffuser.
Though Kubica and Heidfeld wound up respectively just ninth and 14th-quickest at the close of the opening day around the Circuit de Catalunya, both were adamant that the timesheets masked the true improvements that have been made – and third and fourth in the morning running was certainly a welcome shot in the arm.
“It was a special Friday,” affirmed Kubica, “because we have a lot of new aerodynamic parts on the car. We spent quite some time working on the set-up and tried different things. We have to analyse the data so we can exploit the potential of the car to its maximum. In addition, as usual on the Friday, we compared the two tyre compounds, but it was very soon obvious that the 'option' specification gives better performance.”
“Unfortunately I lost some time in the morning when we had a couple of problems during the first free practice session,” rued Heidfeld. “Only at the end was I able to work properly on the programme. That was a shame because with such a new package and, for me, driving the car for the first time without KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems), track time is especially important. Considering the small amount of mileage from the morning, we made quite good progress when preparing the car for the second session, and I think there is room for more improvement.”
With chief rivals McLaren-Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault all showing signs of taking a leap up the pecking order, the urgency in the situation for BMW to do likewise cannot be underestimated – but the Munich and Hinwil-based concern's head of engineering Willy Rampf is optimistic that a real 'step forward' has indeed been made.
“We have come to Barcelona with a comprehensive aerodynamic package,” the German explained. “To find a basic set-up was Friday's main task. A first evaluation of the aero data shows we made a step forward. Now we are curious about the first real comparison in Saturday's qualifying to see where we really stand in relation to the competitors. Because of a brake problem Nick completed less laps in the morning than planned. As usual we concentrated on race preparation.”