F1 2017 team review: Sauber

Sauber went through another tough season with a lack of performance, few points, a change of the team principal, and different plans on future engine partners...


(Photo credit: Artes Max)

2017 expectations vs reality

Although the 2015 season was quite promising with 36 points scored in the constructors’ championship, the following season went downhill again. Only Felipe Nasr’s ninth place in the wet race at Interlagos helped the Hinwil-based team to finish 2016 at least ahead of Manor in the standings. However, the Brazilian could not keep his drive, with his seat for 2017 going to Pascal Wehrlein, whose old team Manor went bankrupt after earning no prize money for dropping behind Sauber.

The expectations for this year weren’t really very high since the team elected to use 2016-spec Ferrari engines for 2017. The deal was announced quite early on and officially explained as a way to allow the team to divert more resources to the aerodynamic rule changes that came in this year.

This decision came from a time where Sauber were facing financial issues as they were also urgently looking for sponsors, so this likely had an influence on their engine choice, but then-team principal Monisha Kaltenborn denied this. As the team was sold to Longbow Finance last year, they hoped to improved their long-term situation and get back to where they were in years like 2010-2013.

Development record and constructors’ performance

Sauber ended this season clearly rooted to the foot of the championship, despite some points and also the odd Q2 appearance. McLaren-Honda faced lots of issues in the first half of the season, and Sauber were at least able to keep ahead of the Woking-based team in the constructors’ championship for a little while. Ultimately though, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne scored too many points as Honda improved, and were just too far ahead by the end of the season.

Although the year-old Ferrari engine was a huge disadvantage throughout the season, there were still areas in which the team as a constructor could do something to improve their situation.

At the beginning of the season the car had big overheating issues, which is why the 2016-spec Ferrari could not even be run at full power. The package that the team brought to Hungary in the summer not only helped in that regard, but additional aero updates were also added to the cars.

Later on after Mexico, Marcus Ericsson described that the team had made a “breakthrough” in terms of tyre performance, bringing the Pirellis into the right window to extract their maximum performance, something which they struggled to find the right way of doing before.

The car also lost seven kilograms since the Malaysian Grand Prix and Ferrari even squeezed the engine to at least get some more performance out the older design.

They left no stone unturned, but unfortunately all their efforts weren’t really visible from the outside, especially if you look into the results,  plus the other constructors were expectedly improving as well, and almost all with larger budgets.

Driver head to head

Even before the start of the season Sauber were confronted with an unexpected driver issue: Just a few days after his deal for 2017 was confirmed, Pascal Wehrlein crashed during the Race of Champions event in Miami and was injured after his car somersaulted, which strangely happened after the finish line.

Officially no clear information was given, just that he was holding up his training, but the reality was that the German suffered three fractured vertebra which forced him to rest and wear a brace for a while. He missed the official testing days, but was in Melbourne for the first race but decided to withdraw from the racing weekend after Friday to give Antonio Giovinazzi an unexpected race debut. The Italian drove well and finished in 12th position and was granted another chance at following grand prix in China, where he did not show his best side after crashing into the wall twice.

Comparison being fair or not, in terms of qualifying battles, Ericsson won both times against the young Italian. For the following race in Bahrain though Wehrlein returned to racing, finishing in a strong 11th position to immediately put pressure on his teammate.

On Saturdays, Wehrlein showed better qualifying pace, with a final result of 11:7 in the German’s favour, but Ericsson claims to have a ten kilogram disadvantage in terms of weight, which makes the picture look a little different. Still, Wehrlein scored points in two races (P8, P10) with Ericsson ending both races in P11, and the Swede ultimately ended the season point-less.

But generally the performance difference between both drivers has not been too big. If you look at the numbers they clearly speak for Wehrlein, but considering the fact that Wehrlein is a hyped Mercedes junior driver, Ericsson’s results don’t look too bad.

Ericsson did have more race-ending incidents than Wehrlein, such as his silly crash in Monaco behind the safety car, or the crashes in Singapore and Japan.

Best & worst weekends

The best weekend for Sauber this year was clearly the Spanish Grand Prix; at that race the strategy helped a lot since Wehrlein, unlike most of his opponents, managed a one stop strategy and even survived a five-second penalty for making his one stop at the wrong time under the Virtual Safety Car. By finishing eighth and scoring four championship points, Sauber got on the scoreboard before McLaren did. 

Unfortunately, only one more point would follow, a tenth place for Wehrlein at the chaotic race in Baku that came just days after Monisha Kaltenborn left the team over differing opinions with the shareholders.

Interestingly, it was Ericsson in the position for the points in Baku, but the team ordered him to let Wehrlein through as they were expecting Vandoorne in the McLaren to catch them from behind, and with the German having the better pace of the two, they wanted to give their faster driver the better opportunity for points.

Every year Monaco presents a chance for less competitive teams to make up positions through mistakes from others, as well as the tight confines of the circuit itself creating a more level playing field. However, this year both Saubers crashed out of the race…

For 57 of the 78 laps there was only one DNF, so it didn’t seem that either Wehrlein or Ericsson could end up in the points. Even worse, while fighting for 18th Jenson Button made an ambitious attempt in his (probable) final F1 race, trying to pass the German down the inside of Portier before getting into the tunnel. However, Wehrlein closed the door since he did not see that move coming, causing a collision with the Sauber flipping over and ending up standing on its side against the wall.

The following safety car period caused the next DNF for Sauber. Marcus Ericsson apparently misjudged the braking into turn one with cool brakes and tyres, and ended up in the barriers.

Looking to 2018

Despite all their problems this season things should get better next year for Sauber. Formula 2 champion Charles Leclerc is likely to join the team alongside Marcus Ericsson (or maybe Antonio Giovinazzi?) and the team is going to get the latest Ferrari engines from next year after signing a partnership deal with Ferrari negotiated by new team principal Frédéric Vasseur in July. 

Months before with Kaltenborn in charge they announced a deal with Honda after McLaren publically mentioned looking for alternate engine partners. In terms of money it would have been a great deal for the Swiss team, but in terms of performance, a big question mark.

This was a risk that new team principal Vasseur was not going to take, and therefore he made the deal with the Scuderia which also seems to include making space for their junior drivers.

Interestingly, there’s even more to come: The team confirmed this week that they have agreed a multi-year sponsorship deal with Alfa Romeo which will be added to the team name as ‘Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team’ and also strengthen the technical collaboration with Ferrari.

Therefore, we can only hope for them that next year’s results will show that all the efforts and deals came together to make Sauber regular points candidates again.

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