There was a time when Sauber were the best of the rest. Times have certainly changed, and they are still trying to reclaim their lost glory. Ever since the team was rescued by Peter Sauber after the exit of BMW, the finances of the team wasn’t up to the mark. The Team recently announced the signing of three Russian Sponsors, although the initial dotted lines between the these sponsors have been signed, the deal is yet to materialise completely, due to various issues (Sergey Sirotkin’s licence being one of them). This delay will affect the team’s approach to the 2014 season, and will also affect their partnership with Ferrari in many ways. It has to be said that the Ferrari has missed an opportunity, as they should have extended their support to this team by one way or another for the numerous benefits that the team can offer to Ferrari.
Although the Sauber was founded way back in 1970, they made their debut in Formula 1 in 1993. Peter Sauber was the sole hero of this amazing team, started off by building Sports cars during the early 1970’s. The Team then competed in the World Sportscar Championship and 24 Hours Le Mans, among other racing series, before entering Formula 1 in 1993. The team’s partnership with Ferrari commenced in 1997 which lasted until the BMW’s takeover in 2006. Following the withdrawal of BMW in 2009, Peter Sauber made a conditional takeover of the team (depending on the entry to be awarded by the FIA), which he later admitted to be more of an emotional move, but insisted that the transition has been proper. However, much of the team’s comeback story could be seen in those empty livery with which they ran the first few races of the 2010 season.
The Ferrari Connection:
The start to the Ferrari deal was a bizarre one. Petronas became the title sponsor of Sauber during the 1995 season, the team then used the factory Supply Ford Zetec V8 Engines, which proved to be inferior to its rivals. In this particular season, the team gained significant sponsorship from Red Bull as Dietrich Mateschitz purchased the majority shares in the team. The team finished in a respectable 7th position in the Constructors Championship, its performance was largely limited by the underperforming Ford Engines. The following year, Ford introduced its new V10 units, but coupled with the poor performance of C15, the team barely managed to hold onto its position in the championship. This prompted the move to Ferrari where almost all the possible components were licensed under this partnership, but the whole idea behind this partnership was to introduce the Engines built by the new entity Sauber Petronas Engineering at some point of time. But unfortunately, the Engines never saw the light due to the recession in the emerging markets of Asia during the same period.
Sauber Petronas Engineering is an entity created by Sauber and Petronas with a 60-40% partnership. Due to the unfeasibility of its plans to create a brand new engine, this entity sourced the Ferrari Engines, and rebadged the same. Throughout the entire tenure of the Ferrari partnership, the engines were rebadged as Petronas. This entity also built the gearbox used by Sauber which was also on the similar lines to its engine deal. Unlike the recent customer cars controversy, as in the case of Toro Rosso and Super Aguri, not many complained of the striking similarities between the chassis used by Sauber and Ferrari. With no formal acquisition made, the deal flourished with each passing year, and during the 2001 season, the protests made by Red Bull to not to hire the rookie named Kimi Raikkonen was also overlooked. Red Bull eventually sold the majority of its shares, while Kimi Raikkonen proved to be a success story. Sauber finished the 2001 season at 4th in the constructors standings, their best result as the independent team. Following this successful season, the team’s performance slightly bottomed out as the team’s facilities weren’t up to the mark. In 2004, the team built a new high tech wind tunnel, and also spent a huge amount of money on its supercomputer to help the aerodynamics of its cars. The Sauber C24 used in the 2005 season was the first product using the new facilities, the team lost its sponsor Red Bull who fielded their own entity, and the relationship with Ferrari soured, and the team for the first time used the Michelin tyres against the tradition of following Ferrari’s approach. However, BMW infused the new life and the team flourished in its new guise.
Before the relationship with Ferrari turned sour, and at a time when Sauber decided to opt for Michelin tyres, Pierre Dupasquier who was the head of the competition department for Michelin in an interview to Atlas F1 stated that the French Company will support Sauber but not in terms of tyre development due to the ‘privileged relationship’ that Sauber has with Ferrari, which could possibly mean that information of the tyre development could reach Ferrari’s preferred supplier Bridgestone.
"But we have not yet defined the level of advanced technology we will provide Sauber. We will give them all our support on the tyres, of course, but as far as development goes, it depends. We're prepared to do anything that has to be done [to support Sauber], but at the same time...since they have a very privileged relationship with Ferrari - at least in 2005 - we will evaluate that situation carefully." - Pierre Dupasquier
One of the common talk on why the relationship with Ferrari turned sour was due to the lack of political voice that Ferrari wished to hear from its customers, Back in 2004 Peter Sauber raised his voice against the decision adopted by Ferrari to not to restrict the testing and this caused a ripple effect on the relationship between the two parties, as the decision had to be unanimous among the teams. It also has to be noted that Ferrari demanded a massive sum (money, among others) from its customers for the supply of Engines and other components, which didn’t go well with Sauber who wanted a resource restriction in place. There was a significant tension visible from the end of 2004 season, and many people constantly debated on the Sauber - Ferrari story. There was a particular debate that was happening at one end of the spectrum that if Sauber decides to switch over to a new supplier, Michelin would help Sauber from its side and the pace of the car could be up by 0.5 seconds. While some stated that the Sauber should stick with Ferrari as opting for a new supplier would eventually mean the end of the team’s momentum.
After the team’s overhaul in 2010, Sauber restored their partnership with Ferrari, Although the technical challenges ahead of this team were much larger as compared to the previous decade, the team’s best performance was in 2012 when they clinched the podium on more than one occasion. A much of it could be the design ideology adapted by James Key who ensured that the Sauber is easy on its tyres. After the exit of James Key and other personalities, Sauber’s story in 2013 is particularly not an easy one to accept. It has to be said that the deal with Nico Hulkenberg was a desperate attempt to satisfy Ferrari who were disappointed that the team has decided to part ways with Perez. Both Perez and Hulkenberg were said to be under the long term radar of Ferrari and Sauber went all out to secure the services of Hulkenberg.
Relevance of Sauber
With the shrinking presence of traditional teams, Sauber’s experience is crucial for the future of Formula 1. Despite being the traditional midfielders for over a decade, they have been quite relevant to the World of Formula 1 especially Ferrari and their performances are more or less consistent, and it’s important to not to lose another team in Formula 1. Despite the Ferrari’s attitude over Sauber then and even now, Ferrari could have considered extending more technology transfer similar to what most teams on the grid deploy to boost their performance. Although it has to be agreed that Ferrari are now easy with their approach on Sauber considering the lack of customers for their 2014 Engine unit, and how crucial the mileage will play on the development front, Ferrari could still have offered more support to this Swiss team.
Both Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa have their roots at Sauber, Ferrari doesn’t have a proper driver development system, and Sauber were contributing in one way or another. It could have been wise on Ferrari to infuse more support in a way to support the young drivers, which could have paved way for more track time as it would be the right way to groom the young drivers. Ferrari also has a certain bond with its Ex-drivers, and Sauber could have acted as a tool to continue the bonding. So one seat could have been ideally reserved to young drivers, while the other could have been handed over to those with experience.
In case of Felipe Massa, who according to many isn’t the same driver as before that accident, Sauber could have been an ideal platform for him to reacclimatise to his former self. Massa could have been given an year to forget the pressure of Ferrari while that Ferrari contract would have ensured his motivation right throughout the season. While Sauber is still being tipped as the likely homecoming for this Brazilian, it could have been far more different than what could happen in the near future, considering the chances of Massa returning to Ferrari doesn’t seem to be a possibility at all.
Luca Badoer is another example of a talent being wasted at Ferrari. Despite being a test and reserve driver for almost a decade, Badoer was struggling on his return to racing duties, as he wasn’t ready enough to compete in Formula 1. Badoer was the same man who was given a due credit for the Ferrari’s Championship victory in 2000. Badoer completed several thousand kilometers for Ferrari over the years, before the testing ban was implemented which significantly halted his contribution. In his comeback races in 2009, Badoer finished last of those drivers who finished the race, however his performance improved from being the ‘slowest of all the drivers to being faster than the Toro Rosso guys’. Badoer ultimately blamed the negative media for the Ferrari’s decision to replace him.
Marc Gene is another driver who was hired by Ferrari to assist them during their testing, Gene was hired by the end of 2004 and his contract was renewed in 2007. Gene’s last race was in 2004, and he was driving for Williams on more than one occasion. It was due to this reason that a wider audience was reported to have preferred Gene to drive as Massa’s replacement in 2009.
Another driver who wasn’t given his due farewell was Giancarlo Fisichella who was roped in as Badoer’s replacement for the rest of the 2009 season. Fisichella wasn’t able to score points in his five appearances for Ferrari, but for someone who drove for Force India until then, These 5 races should have been treated as a test to get acclimatize to Ferrari. Fisi has been driving for various sportscar events around the world ever since, but should have been given a proper farewell for his attempts in Formula 1.
All these experienced drivers deserved another attempt at the pinnacle of racing. It was such an irony that Ferrari decided to replace all three drivers with young Jules Bianchi, a future ‘Ferrari bound champion’ as predicted by one and all, could have been Massa’s replacement in 2009. Bianchi gained significant exposure while being the reserve for Force India in 2012. Bianchi’s performance at Marussia this year is hailed by Ferrari who are said to be looking for a seat higher up the grid. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a possibility unless Force India hires him back for the 2014 season.
A combination of Massa - Hulkenberg or Massa - Bianchi or even Bianchi - Hulkenberg at Sauber could have been mouth watering, Sauber has one seat left as Sergey Sirotkin’s would occupy the other. There is a little chance for Esteban to be dropped, due to his finances. It would be a heartbreak for Ferrari if none of its bonded drivers fails to get a seat at Sauber.
Things could have been so different if Ferrari hasn’t demanded more from Sauber in those years, or even now. Sauber could have offered both of its seats to Ferrari as they are known to groom talent, and a little favor from Ferrari could have helped the finances of this Swiss team. All the while, Ferrari has been demanding for the provision of fielding three cars per team, if only they supported Sauber, it would have been so different for one and all.