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No smiling in Switzerland - What is going wrong at Sauber F1?

Published by Ryan Gault

If there was ever a perfect summary to sum up a depressing year, Nico Hülkenberg’s remark over the radio during Free Practice 2 at Silverstone today was it: "Even with DRS, I cannot pass a Marussia.”

And while I write this, listening to Everybody Hurts, watching the end of Green Mile on repeat and staring down an empty bottle of whiskey, there is little hope that Sauber can salvage the remainder of the season.

Perhaps I’m one to overreact on these matters. Formula 1 isn’t the be all and end all at the end of the day (not for me at least, I can always turn to other sports to remind me that watching sport is a terrible way to find happiness). But this article isn’t about me, you don’t care that I’m miserable watching Formula 1 as Esteban Guitérrez plonders about in 13th while Paul di Resta and Daniel Ricciardo are fighting each other for some significant points. You have to take into consideration the fortunes of Sauber itself, from the drivers to their staff, and take into account how tough of a year it will have been for them.

No easy rider

Hülkenberg still seeking a podium
Hülkenberg still seeking a podiumCredit: Sauber Motorsport AG

From the drivers perspective, Nico Hülkenberg will have joined Sauber looking forward to competing for podiums and potentially wins, like they had done in 2012. Instead he can only look towards the rear-wings of Force India cars as they have their best season to date. Not much was expected of Esteban Gutiérrez on the other hand, yet his failure to deliver a single point is starting to raise certain questions.

As for Monisha Kaltenborn, her first season in charge has not been easy riding, in fact since she was confirmed as team principal the record has been, frankly, abysmal. Since Korea, when she replaced Peter Sauber, the team have scored 15 points in 12 races, which is a record worse than everyone bar Caterham and Marussia. These have been scored on four occasions, twice by Kobayashi in Abu Dhabi and Brazil, and twice by Hülkenberg in Malaysia and China.

Obviously the blame can’t be attributed to Kaltenborn. The form towards the backend of the 2012 season was hindered by upgrades not matching that of their rivals, as well as Sergio Pérez having more than one eye on his move to McLaren (failing to score a single point since he was confirmed, and crashing out by his own mistakes in Japan and India).

Changing faces

The form in 2013 is a mystery. The fairly revolutionary design on the C32 may be a factor, a similar failure that McLaren have found to their detriment this year. The narrow sidepods were seen as unique, but the narrowness has lost some of the tyre-saving abilities that previous Sauber cars had. The chief designer Matt Morris was designing the car on his own for the first time (having helped James Key with the C31), and has today moved on to pastures new at McLaren.

Morris has been in the role for less than a year, being promoted from head of mechanical design in July 2011 (after three months at the team), intending to be the long term replacement for the successful James Key. Yet he’s being replaced in another internal reshuffle by Eric Gandelin, Head of Concept design, who has been at the team for 11 years.

The team have never really replaced James Key, who left just before the C31 was unveiled (and is now working for midfield rivals Toro Rosso). His designs for the C30 and C31 helped the team after a poor return to independent running in 2010, and promising form with Pérez and Kobayashi at the wheel showed that the car could deliver. Four podiums in 2012 was the best return ever for an independent Sauber team, even if it did not replicate their best ever finish in the Constructors Championship (4th in 2001 for the fact fans, with two young drivers called Nick Heidfeld and Kimi Räikkönen).

The status quo

Esteban plondering about
Esteban plondering aboutCredit: Sauber Motorsport AG

It’s hard to blame the driver lineup for the misfortunes. Nico Hülkenberg was highly tipped to join a big team in 2013, and still remains a strong contender to replace Felipe Massa at Ferrari next year. This is a man with a pole position under his belt, and he could have very easily won the Brazilian Grand Prix had it not been for his collision with Lewis Hamilton.

Esteban Gutiérrez as well is somewhat unfortunate, although not as quick as his teammate, he hasn’t exactly embarrassed himself all that often (bar his poor qualifying form which has resulted in a number of Q1 exits), and his only major mistake came when he forgot to brake in China and destroyed Adrian Sutil’s rear end. He might not be the fastest, but has proven to be the most consistent of the rookies (Valterri Bottas similarly not being helped by being in an awful Williams car).

It would be unfair to replace either driver at this stage, even if the situation is similar to when De la Rosa was axed in 2010 (and I doubt Heidfeld fancies another return). The only probable replacement would be Robin Frijns, who is realistically no different to Gutiérrez in terms of experience. The young Dutchman has proven to be fast, but he is nowhere near ready. It perhaps highlights the feeling that Gutiérrez needed another year in GP2 to learn the craft, but the life of a small independent team often means money comes first.

So is there much point left to 2013 then? No, not really. It will realistically be very difficult to catch Force India when they are arguably at the same pace as Lotus are right now, and Toro Rosso are on similar form. Upgrades might help, but for Sauber 2013 might as well be a write off.

It’s all about the new rules, engines and craziness that will be 2014.