We might only be at the midpoint of this season but Sauber in 2018 is already shaping up to be one of the more interesting stories to keep an eye on. At a glance, the casual racing fan could look at Sauber and be excused for thinking the team was the quintessential backmarker. Financial trouble, low race results, no significant recent success; all this would point that direction. However, any seasoned F1 aficionado should be roundly criticized for speaking that way; even a modest memory could recall the heights they once sailed.
Success would not be unfamiliar territory for the team out if Hinwil, Switzerland. Though none of it recent – and, it could be said, the team is in the midst of likely the worst stretch of their history from a racing standpoint, – there was a time when Sauber were a force on the F1 circuit, routinely fighting in the midfield and even challenging the top. So far in 2017, the groundwork has been done for an attempt to return to that status.
2017 expectations versus reality
This season began with some enthusiasm, tempered by low expectations. A terrible 2016 campaign, highlighted only by the announcement of a strong financial partner coming on board during the British GP weekend and a grace-saving ninth place in Brazil, meant this year the team would be starting off the back foot. Late to develop the car due to financial struggles of the previous season and running year-old spec Ferrari engines, there was never any realistic chance they would rise above bottom feeders. The departure of Manor Racing at the end of 2016 basically assured this.
However, securing long term financial backing in Longbow Finance was a critical development and one that meant there was capacity for change. An altered driver lineup has added one area of interest, though, curiously, the team chose to replace the talented Filipe Nasr and not Marcus Ericsson, he of minimal F1 points. A better example of the importance of pay drivers with deep pockets winning out over those with the skills could hardly have been found.
Whatever the case may have been, and some leeway has to be given to a team that was struggling financially, the addition of Pascal Wehrlein has to be seen as a positive step. He is a genuine talent brought into the series by the front-running Mercedes team and, thus far, the difference between scoring occasional points and not. But he is not supreme enough to haul the least capable car in F1 up the grid any further.
Prospects for the remainder of 2017
Until such time as their development catches up to, at least, the midfield teams, Sauber will continue fighting to get off the bottom. There is no time left to develop a current serious machine and development on their 2018 car has likely been started already. Realistically, on track, they have little chance of showing what their re-tooled team is capable of while this year’s offering continues to be the low mark on the circuit. But here is also where the Sauber story gets interesting. The two biggest changes to the team have not been mentioned yet, and they are significant.
Long-time team boss and major shareholder Monisha Kaltenborn left her post before the Azerbaijan GP, officially by “mutual consent.” Apparently, she and the rest of the management team had very divergent views on how the team was to proceed forward that may have included how each driver was used or favoured. In any case, she is out and Frederic Vasseur is in as team principal. He has a relatively brief but successful racing backstory, one that propelled him to the Renault team boss position for the start of the 2016 season. Ironically he left that position on the eve of this season for the very same reason Kaltenborn left Sauber. Perhaps he and the Swiss outfit are the matches each was really looking for all along.
The other major development was on the engine front. Just when it seemed the team had decided to take a multi-year (big) chance on the dark horse in the engine development race, Honda, it was suddenly over. A few days later it was announced the team had inked a multi-year current-spec engine deal for the far-superior Ferrari power unit. While it doesn’t come into effect immediately, it does almost instantly bump Sauber into the midfield moving forward. Should they get their aerodynamic and chassis development right, the team could again become a serious F1 contender. There are hints of more details to come in this development but at present time those will have to wait for a more concrete status, likely by the end of the season.
The driver battle
This contest is a whitewash: Pascal Wehrlein is quite handily showing Marcus Ericsson up at every available opportunity. He leads the Swede in every important racing category and has far less race experience than his teammate. Race retirements (three for Ericsson and one for Wehrlein) and even injury (Wehrlein missed the first two races of the year while medically excluded because of fractured vertebrae) have played a minor role in the team’s fortunes during the first half of the season but not so much they obscure a clear picture of where the talent lies. In detail:
Qualifying: Wehrlein 7 – 2 Ericsson
Best finish: Wehrlein 8th, Ericsson 11th
Points: Wehrlein, 5, Ericsson, 0
To add ignominy to the embarrassing collection of stats from this year, Ericsson was also out-qualified by late substitution Paul di Resta in Hungary two weeks ago. Di Resta was driving the 2017 Williams car for the very first time; no practice, no warm up, and he still made his way past the “Swedish Flash” on the timesheets.
Driver performance: Pascal Wehrlein
If it wasn’t obvious before now, Wehrlein, from a driver perspective, is carrying this team. After sustaining several fractured vertebrae in a heavy crash during the Race of Champions this offseason, he started the year on the sidelines. But given his chance, he scored points in just his third race behind the wheel of the C36 with a sparkling 8th in Spain. Using excellent tire management and sharp defensive driving to keep his place when it mattered, Wehrlein was able to employ a one-stop strategy that pushed him up into the points with a 7th. He dropped a place for a time penalty added at the end of his race.
Two races later he again found himself in the paying positions, after a damaged Ericsson ceded his place to his faster teammate midrace. Simply to survive the chaotic Azerbijian GP with his car in one piece was an accomplishment as many drivers were unable to but to score points there also took solid racecraft.
While the status of the car around him has consigned the talented German to some unremarkable races he has consistently made an impression on those watching the races and deserves his reputation as a driver to watch going forward.
Driver performance: Marcus Ericsson
The fortunes of the two Sauber drivers could not be more contrasting. Where Wehrlein has the eye of the paddock and fans, Ericsson quietly draws their ire. He has not finished a race in the points in nearly two years and routinely looks plain behind the wheel. His highlight reel is not empty, however; while passing the safety car to un-lap himself in Monaco he crashed, alone, into the wall and killed his car.
In searching for a high point to his season – and, believe me, I had to search for this one – his efforts and team play in the aforementioned Azerbaijan GP have to be mentioned. He fought hard in an attempt to get into the points and put aside his pride to let his teammate, who was undamaged and faster, though. It must have stung that Wehrlein finished in the points and he did not but he publically played the team game.
2017 may not have provided much joy in the Sauber paddock but there has to be a larger feeling of confidence moving forward after the many positive steps taken in the first half of this year.
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