Is Sauber The Luckiest Mid-Field Team In F1?
The Sauber F1 Team is one lucky team on the grid. They have managed to attract Alfa Romeo back to Formula 1 as a title sponsor, despite finishing last in the Constructors’ Championship in 2017. Just to put this in perspective, take a look at their numbers — they managed to score only twice out of forty opportunities, that is twenty races for two of their drivers, ending the season with just five points. Sauber earned six times lesser points than the McLaren-Honda!
But this has always been Sauber’s story and there is something about the team’s DNA that has helped attract global brands. They have been the longest surviving mid-field team from the 90s and have had some fantastic brand partnerships along the way to keep them afloat and racing.
After a successful partnership with Mercedes in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, they debuted in Formula 1 in 1993 with the same partnership. Along the way, brands like Red Bull, Ford, Petronas and even BMW have partnered with Sauber as they establishing themselves further in the world of Formula 1. Despite such partnerships, Sauber’s best finish (as a standalone constructor) in the Constructors’ Championship has been fourth in 2001. Their best finish as BMW-Sauber F1 Team was second in 2007.
The Sauber F1 Team will start the 2018 Formula 1 Season as the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team after the team announced a multi-year title sponsor partnership that should run till the new regulations come into force.
For Sauber, such a sponsorship will boost their survival chances. They were on life-support while their original owners Peter Sauber and Monisha Kaltenborn ran a tight ship. Their first ray of hope was in mid-2016 when Longbow Finance bought out the team and put blocks in place to secure the future of the team. It was Longbow’s decision to not enter a partnership with Honda (for 2018) and stick to strengthening ties with Ferrari.
The Alfa Romeo-Sauber announcement is a win-win for everyone and here are our views on what’s in it for all parties:
Sauber F1 Team
The title sponsor deal is valued at approximately £10-12 million annually and this money will be a big boost for the team that will earn the least on the grid by virtue of finishing last in the Constructors’ Championship. This money will go into developing their car for the coming seasons and bring stability, which will help Sauber attract better quality talent (engineering and racing) to their stable.
However, for Sauber’s longer term survival, they need to work on a strategy to build stability in case Alfa Romeo leave Formula 1 in 2020/21. History has shown that Sauber’s biggest struggles have come after their manufacturer partners have left.
Sauber’s position isn’t just because of the lack of performances by the team but also down to the sport. In fact, a team like Force India could very much go the Sauber way if they suffer a couple of seasons of poor performances given the discrepancy in payments that the sport makes to the top and the mid-field teams. Survival is the keep operating criteria. It’s interesting that Alfa Romeo chose Sauber rather than Force India — this is probably due to the strong Mercedes connections that Force India enjoys and are unwilling to give up.
After Max Verstappen, Leclerc is definitely going to be the next young talent to look out for — he won the 2016 GP3 and 2017 F2 titles on debut and while a 2018 Formula 1 title would be a dream come true, it’s not going to come in a Sauber-Ferrari. That he’s got to move up the ladder to Formula 1 in his immediate year after F2 is a big and lucky step in itself.
Leclerc’s target next year is not going to be to gun for the championship; it would be to impress everyone in the paddock and prove that he’s the next best young talent without a doubt. This will ensure his stock rises and hopefully a promotion to a faster mid-field car would be in the offing in 2019 — could it be Haas, another Ferrari partner team. Or would Ferrari be bold enough to put Leclerc in the Ferrari (a la Red Bull Racing) in 2019 as Kimi Raikkonen’s replacement? Of course, this can only happen if the young driver blazes his way on track.
The ONLY driver to have not scored a single point in the 2017 Formula 1 season finds himself with a contract extension for 2018 with Sauber. Strange, but such are the ways of the business of Formula 1. Ericsson has good relations with the new owners of Sauber and they have decided to extend his services for a year, but will Ericsson drive the entire season next year?
Ferrari’s Sergio Marchionne said that they will find a spot for Antonio Giovinazzi in the press conference announcing the title sponsorship, and this means that Ericsson already has his work cut out for next season. As the only pay driver still on the grid (yes, maybe we can take Lance Stroll out of the equation) next season, there are chances that if Leclerc outshines Ericsson regularly in the first part of the season, Giovinazzi might be put in the car.
The Italian driver who got his lucky break in Formula 1 in 2017 thanks to Pascal Wehrlein’s pre-season injury, finds himself out of flavour at Sauber for 2018. But all’s not over for Giovinazzi as Ferrari will be pushing hard to get him in the seat whenever possible. There’s a good chance that Ericsson’s lack of performance might see Giovinazzi in the car earlier than 2018. In the fight for Ferrari’s favour and attention, Leclerc and Giovinazzi are a good combination, but Giovinazzi needs to make sure that he doesn’t go the Wehrlein way.
The Mercedes junior driver will be out of a seat for 2018, unless Williams sign him up, but it seems highly unlikely. Wehrlein, who scored Sauber’s only points for 2017, suddenly finds himself out of favour at Mercedes despite making a comeback from injury to prove himself.
Could a test driver role at Force India be in the offing? Maybe he could take up a Nico Hulkenberg-type role and make a return to full-time racing with Force India in 2019. There’s a growing chance that Esteban Ocon, the other Mercedes young driver, could make the jump to the works team in place of Valtteri Bottas.
Ferrari and Alfa Romeo
Marchionne had been hinting at Alfa Romeo’s return to Formula 1 since 2015 and the brand is finally back, albeit as a title sponsor rather than a works team. It is public news that Marchionne was keen to buy Sauber and field the team as Alfa Romeo in 2018, but a title sponsorship means that he will have the brand in the paddock at a much lesser cost. Also, with the additional technical partnership, Marchionne will run Sauber as Ferrari’s B-team and use the opportunity to run young talent and groom them as future Formula 1 drivers.
Sauber will run Ferrari engines rebranded as Alfa Romeo from next season and this would be the third team that Ferrari will supply engines to, the others being Haas F1 Team and their works team. This means that like Mercedes, Ferrari too would have the same number of teams that they would be supplying to, and maybe this is the balance that Ferrari wanted for political reasons.
The sport is working hard to attract more manufacturers and Alfa Romeo certainly boosts the numbers after Red Bull Racing managed to get Aston Martin a few months ago. The new regulations for 2020/21 are also indicative of their combined efforts and that Chase Carey, the chief executive of Formula One Management, and Jean Todt, the president of FIA, were present and addressed the media at the Alfa Romeo Sauber announcement, indicates how important this partnership is.
Sauber’s story strikes an emotional chord with Formula 1 fans, who will definitely be pleased to hear of their title sponsorship deal. Additionally, fans will have one more manufacturer to cheer for and follow next season onward. But the biggest win for the fans would be the addition of Leclerc on next year’s grid.
Sauber’s biggest contributions to Formula 1 have been handing talented drivers such as Raikkonen and Felipe Massa their debut drives back in the 90s. In the recent years, Sergio Perez would be the only driver that has emerged as a strong talent from the Sauber stables. Let’s hope Leclerc follows their footsteps!
This post was first published on Firstpost and was co-written with Mithila Mehta