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Sauber F1: Play The Game Anyway You Can

Ericsson in Malaysia.
Ericsson in Malaysia.

After Ferrari’s redemptive victory at the Malaysian Grand Prix last weekend, a team that seemed to be emerging from the shadows in 2015, Sauber F1, had a disheartening race. I used to associate Sauber F1 as one of those teams that had seen better days but still had hope.

I, more recently, have viewed them as a team headed towards bankruptcy, a lower end team, the kind you would see not having a future in Formula One despite having a history. Contract scandals, driver disputes and investor complications seemed to be their norm. However, fortunes can change, even in Formula One.

Sauber has had a rough journey over the years, one always feels for the privateer, the under dog and I don’t believe it’s too early to say they have seen a milestone of improvement already this season. They do have Ferrari power, which now means something.

Last year Sauber F1 was struggling in terms of financial investment, which is a normal condition give that it wasn’t a top tier team who could compete with the powerhouses like Mercedes or Williams. On the other hand, it never has been. It is a mid-pack team that at times has seen dramatic progress.

Sauber has had to travel down the road often driven by securing a long term investment with the Investment Corporation International Fund, the State Fund of Development of North-West Russian Federation and the National Institute of Aviation Technologies. Odd band of groups, but the team was able to cough up the money this season, in addition to having funding brought along by Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson.

Ericsson's mistake cost the team points. Nasr struggled with setup.
Ericsson’s mistake cost the team points. Nasr struggled with setup.

Let me be clear on this, just because a driver can bring funding to the table doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t deserve the ride. Niki Lauda did the same thing in order to be noticed, so it’s a legitimate path, but only if you really choose the team carefully and can deliver. Both Nasr and Ericsson seem to meet that criteria.

All of legal ramblings and rumors seemed to have been left behind the team when the team returned this year showing massive improvement in preseason testing. At Melbourne, even more redemption became when the team hit the jackpot, relatively speaking, having both Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson finish in the championship points. It was probably the most surprising result I witnessed from the season opener.

The results at Melbourne meant the team was already slotted third in the Championship points, those most predicted wouldn’t last long. True to form, the good fortune didn’t continue at last weekends Malaysian Grand Prix where team principal Monisha Kaltenborn claimed the team missed an opportunity to add more points to its tally. She has an uncanny grasp for the obvious.

Monisha Kaltenborn, Sauber F1 team principal.
Monisha Kaltenborn, Sauber F1 team principal.

It was easy to see what Monisha was rambling about if you paid attention to the actual Grand Prix. Looking back at practice and qualifying, I see quite a different view. Looking at times from the former GP2 driver Felipe Nasr, he was on pace with Daniel Ricciardo in practice two and was just behind Sebastian Vettel as well. Even in qualifying Marcus Ericsson was able to make it to Q3, though a torrential downpour made the task more equal. The result of the session showed for itself when the Swedish driver qualified 10th.

Unfortunately, the only thing that counts on a race weekend is the race. And that is where their luck fell short with Marcus spinning off on lap four, only putting his rear tires in the gravel, but beaching the car.

He was very aware of what he squandered as the emotion of slapping his hands on the steering wheel repeatedly clearly demonstrated. Felipe Nasr wasn’t having a banner day himself being involved in an incident early on in the race, which Monisha described as reducing his chances of a better result. Again, she’s uncanny with her observations. Nasr finished just outside the points in 12th position behind Romain Grosjean.

Marcus said “it was a frustrating end to a good weekend” , although he described how he felt comfortable in the car. His teammate Nasr, however, described the weekend as good up until the race, when it counts, and proclaiming that it was a difficult weekend as he was struggled to find a good setup for the car. They have the uneviable task of getting the cars right without the benefit od an experience Formula One driver on the team. But that’s the reality and they have to rise above.

Putting the past weekend’s woes aside, I think Sauber is on its way to what may be one of the best seasons they’ve had in many years. Starting out the season with 14 points is a good start but surely comes with no guarantees of future performance.

It’s hard, but try not look at the fact the team slumped over the weekend, look at how much the team has improved since this time last year. Having new drivers cut their teeth in a place like Malaysia that breaks down its drivers with heat exhaustion, it should be put behind the team, and I’m sure it will as China looms.

Nevertheless, I am confident in saying the Sauber F1 team is on track to having a successful, again relative, season with investors and drivers in place.

Hopefully they can have a straight up season that gives them room to improve.

 

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