In the world of motorcycling, no manufacturer is as enigmatic as BMW. Since its inception in 1923, the brand has enjoyed a strangely autonomous existence, building unique two-wheeled machines that tended to attract a different, older type of enthusiast. BMW Motorrad enjoys an unequalled dependability record, boasting that a significant number of the bikes they’ve built are still on the road today. However, the brand (despite Reg Pridmore winning the inaugural 1976 AMA Superbike Championship aboard an R90S) has suffered under the pens of performance-oriented journalists who laughed off Bavarian loyalists with literary defamations in the vein of the“pipe and slippers brigade.” Well, no one’s laughing anymore.
In the early part of this century, in-house research revealed that BMW’s established customer base was aging itself out of the marketplace. If it wanted to survive as a motorcycle company, BMW needed to attract a younger buyer. Thus, the company decided to transform itself into a performance brand, boldly taking on the established manufacturers head-to-head with a production superbike, which they would campaign in the World Superbike Championship.
It was a sizable corporate gamble. Reflecting on the weight of the decision, former BMW Motorrad USA Vice President, Pieter de Waal, stated, “This is a very important motorcycle for BMW. If it fails to have performance that is at least directly comparable to the Japanese, BMW’s reputation as a motorcycle manufacturer will be tarnished.”
After a lot of speculation and rumor BMW unveiled its S 1000 RR in 2009. The bike showed promise in its first season in WSBK, earning several top-ten finishes. However, it was obvious a lot of work still needed to be done; BMW had its future riding on the success of its new superbike, and although the race results weren’t critical in its first year, the company knew they couldn’t afford to allow the bike to circulate on track as a midpack WSBK racer for long without it impacting sales — and, perhaps more importantly, brand reputation.
Granted, the production S 1000 RR’s performance helped the public overlook the racing effort’s struggles. Its performance astounded the motorcycle press and public, with serious power, good handling, and introducing a whole new world of electronic rider aids. BMW’s new sportbike collectively set the motorcycling world on its ear.
With the fanfare of the S 1000 RR’s release fading, BMW settled into the business at hand: racing. The 2010 season started with gusto, the team announcing Davide Tardozzi — the man largely responsible for Ducati’s dominance in WSBK — had been retained as team manager. Things looked promising when Troy Corser scored the 1000 RR’s first podium (a third) in race 2 at Monza. He followed that up with the coveted first pole at Misano, going on to score the company’s second podium with a third in race 1.
After a hot start to the season though, the results soured. Rumors were stirring about conflicts of management style within the team. Then Tardozzi was unexpectedly fired one race before the end of the season. Shortly thereafter it was announced that Bertie Hauser, who had been instrumental in launching the racing effort, was also going to be replaced. It was apparent BMW, most likely due the company’s desire — and perhaps need — to win was experiencing some severe teething pains. Meanwhile, as speculation flew in the media over the factory effort, Ayrton Badovini, racing an S 1000 RR in the FIM Superstock 1000 series, kept corporate spirits up by handily taking the title after winning all but one race.
For 2011 Ruben Xaus was replaced by British rider Leon Haslam, while Rainer Baumel was brought in to replace Tardozzi as Head of Race Operations. The slot vacated by Hauser was filled by Bernard Gobmeier, who would operate under the title BMW Motorsport Director. The season started well with Haslam scoring several podiums. Unfortunately this wasn’t a precursor of things to come. Despite all the team restructuring, results weren’t forthcoming, and in fact, got worse. There was one glimmer of light at the penultimate round however, where Haslam put the BMW on the box in third.
BMW Motorrad Motorsport Director...
BMW Motorrad Motorsport Director Bernhard Gobmeier (left) and BMW Motorrad team manager Andrea Dosoli (right) have helped make the factory BMW squad a cohesive unit that has finally become a solid contender for wins and the championship.
By now, BMW had been in the WSBK paddock for three full seasons, and wanted to win. With Corser deciding to retire, former MotoGP star Marco Melandri was hired for 2012 from the now-defunct Yamaha WSBK squad. Andrea Dosoli (also from the Yamaha team) was brought in to replace Baumel as team manager. The decision to bring in Dosoli was strictly Gobmeier’s; the move quashed any notions people had about the company trying to keep the BMW garage German-blooded. With regard to all race decisions, Gobmeier is unflinching; “Dosoli is the boss here on the track, solely. He makes the shots, he makes the decisions here totally.”
Dosoli already had a relationship with Melandri on the Yamaha team, which made the transition to BMW much smoother for both of them. “Marco came with his crew,” Dosoli says, “and so Leon got his old crew chief, data guy, application guy. In the racing what is important is create the right environment around the rider. We gave to the rider the right environment, and then the people around the rider could understand properly what the rider needs, and only in this way we can design properly the bike.”
At this stage it was apparent the 1000 RR was a highly capable platform. The riders went as far as saying they weren’t looking for more performance, but rather how to manage it. Taming the irascible temperament of modern superbikes has ushered in an era of increasing dependency on the tricky art of electronics. This seemed to be the arena where BMW was suffering the most. Melandri points out, “The power delivery was like very aggressive, the torque was like very, how do you say, was working a lot on the revs but not as much on the throttle opening. So we try to relate it better, the throttle to the engine and the revs, so you have little bit more torque and the power in your hand.”
A lot of outsiders wondered why BMW was intent on continuing to develop its own electronic system as opposed to simply implementing the gold standard Magneti Marelli. After all, Marelli has countless laps of data already on tap. The decision reflects BMW’s mindset with regard to proprietary design, preferring to find its own way and remain wholly autonomous. This is the way the company has always operated.
However, compounding the electronics development, it appeared that BMW was attempting to take what had been learned in car racing and apply it to the bikes. This is reflected in Melandri’s statements about developing the system. “For me it’s been good to bring some people that they know me exactly, so they can transfer my feeling to the bike, to improve the power delivery and exactly what I need and try to explain to BMW engineers that the motorcycle sport is different than car racing, so you need to follow a lot rider feeling. Because the rider has a big way that he can move on the bike, different riding style, on the cars maybe you rely so much more on data, not on driver feeling.”
Although BMW team reps wouldn’t...
Although BMW team reps wouldn’t tell us what the box is for, we’re guessing that it’s a controller/datalogger for the BMW superbike’s engine management system as the motorcycle is warmed up.
Leon Haslam is quick to defend BMW’s strategy. “What a lot of people misunderstand with electronics is that you get an empty box, an empty computer, even from Marelli, and it’s up to the team and the people that you have in your team to put strategies inside that empty box, and that’s what we’re doing at BMW.” Haslam goes on to point out how the logistics of using the Marelli system would have impeded BMW’s ability to make the kind of rapid progress they needed to become more competitive. “If you want to change something that the box doesn’t do, you have to send it back to Marelli and wait for them to send it back to you.”
Supporting this approach, Gobmeier offers, “We did some bench work between our system, the Bosch system, and the Magneti Marelli system. Basically what it came down to, which we know sort of ahead, is a black box is a black box. At the end it comes down to what functions, what software functions you are putting into those black boxes. Neither Bosch or Magneti Marelli can give us the holy secret formula.” Reinforcing the advantages to create a proprietary system, Gobmeier continues, “We know it inside and out, and the big, big advantage is the following: On our system we can change things like this (snaps fingers) without writing a request form and a purchase order, and then it goes into the pipeline of the supplier, and you wait for three months and maybe we (they) start with it. They need another two months in order to fix it and then you get something back and after five months you’re having maybe the result back what you requested. Internally, this whole thing (the process) costs me two weeks.” Haslam appears to be content with the direction. “I think the BMW system can pretty much do anything we want and now we’ve got the guys with a lot more bike experience programming it to what we’re feeling (the riders) rather than, you know, to what they think we need.”
Melandri’s victory in the...
Melandri’s victory in the first race at Donington Park (with Haslam coming in second) was a well-earned achievement for the whole team after three hard years.
Right after the Donington...
Right after the Donington maiden victory, Melandri took advantage of a mistake by Carlos Checa in race 2 at Miller Motorsports Park to grab BMW’s second win in World Superbike.
Melandri wasted no time getting going in the 2012 season. He put the BMW on the box in second place in the series’ opener in Phillip Island. It was evident there was a new chemistry that was gelling at the BMW camp. At the Imola round, Haslam scored a pair of third-place podium finishes. Gobmeier explains, “For Imola what we have done, we have put new internal parts in the engine, which help to reduce the friction. Also, we have first time reduced the inertia of our crankshaft, because with the new rules we were allowed to do that.” Gobmeier smiles, “It worked out pretty good.”
As the WSBK circus moved on to Donington, the smell of victory was lingering about the BMW camp. Everyone on the team felt it. And so it was, on May 13, Marco Melandri went out and won the first race. It will simply go down in the WSBK record books as a win; in the annals of BMW racing history, it will go down as the day this major project, perhaps some ten years in the making — and a great deal of R&D dollars — paid off. Melandri was followed to the line by teammate Haslam for an amazing BMW one-two on the box. Race 2 was a carbon copy of the first, with the two factory BMW’s out front, this time with Haslam leading and Melandri in second. It looked like another BMW one-two for the day…until the last corner; Melandri made a last-ditch effort to pass his teammate, the aftermath of which ended up putting both BMWs on the pavement.
Melandri debriefs with his...
Melandri debriefs with his crew chief Silvano Galbusera (with glasses) after a practice session. Galbusera was Melandri’s crew chief in the now-defunct Yamaha World Superbike team.
Former team manager Bertie...
Former team manager Bertie Hauser (left) and two-time World Superbike champion Troy Corser (right) were instrumental in the early development of the S 1000 RR superbike; Corser retired last year, and Hauser was replaced at the end of the 2010 season.
Melandri would follow up BMW’s first win with another victory at the U.S. round at Miller Motorsports Park in race 2. With the proverbial monkey off their back of that elusive first win, the momentum appears to be building, but of course the racing mindset is to never be content — once you get a win, you want another. But the fact is BMW is now one of the contenders in WSBK, the German manufacturer effectively reshaping its image and attracting an entirely new audience to the brand as a result.
When asked about the process that has gotten them here, Gobmeier responds, “Everything has to be in harmony, everything has to come together on the engine side, on the friction side of the engine combustion chamber, the electronics, riding dynamics, control functions, aerodynamics, ergonomics, weight distribution, kinematics, chassis, parts themselves, suspension parts, tires, (and) make it more in harmony with the tire life and with the rider.” The excitement of the wins is cherished but the team knows everyone needs to stay focused. “The development work never stops,” Gobmeier sighs, “because as soon as you stop, you know, the other guys also continue working. If you just think it’s good enough, then the other guys are taking over and run away.” When asked what’s next for the S 1000 RR, he smiles, “Let’s say all evolutionary stuff, nothing revolutionary.”
Leon Haslam (son of former...
Leon Haslam (son of former 500 Grand Prix rider Ron Haslam), joined the team in 2011, and scored numerous podium finishes. The year was a difficult one though, as the BMW squad struggled to get its in-house electronics dialed in.
When questioned about BMW’s biggest strength, Leon Haslam takes a moment before answering, “The biggest strength of BMW right now is the drive to win. I’ve never felt the same desire (in a manufacturer) to win as myself.”
Of that historical first win for the BMW team and the S 1000 RR, Marco Melandri gets philosophical. “At the beginning, for me, was just another win. I was very happy about that. But after some day by days I understand, I realize, was the first win of a huge manufacturer like BMW, so I have been part of the history of this. So I am proud, and I have been dreaming, in 100 years maybe, when some people would study the BMW history, my name will be the first to give them a win. I am very happy about that, but now I would like to keep going.”
Certainly BMW shares the sentiment.