Sauber heads to Spain with new versions of the as-yet unsuccessful C33, the team having reportedly shaved 15 kgs from the car and produced “a significant aerodynamic update”, including a new engine cover and an upgraded front wing. The team says it will also have better software to enable the drivers to get more power out of the engine and it’s many and varied auxiliary units. Sauber hopes that this will get it back into the midfield fight, and snapping at the heels of the big guys. We shall see. All the teams learned a lot in the early races and so those who can develop fastest will be moving up the ladder and everyone is heading to Spain with new stuff.
Sauber needs a boost. Since BMW (rudely) dropped the team in the dirt in 2009, life has not been easy for Hinwil. Peter Sauber did the right thing and stepped in to save his people but he has since stepped back and let Monisha Kaltenborn run things. Given the state of the world economy since then the team has had to rely on sponsors that came with its drivers, notably the Mexican backing for Sergio Perez and more recently Esteban Gutierrez. As usual corporate Switzerland has been slow to help and things have been tight for the last couple of years, although the team has made sure that it has a number of irons glowing quietly in the fire.
Giedo Van der Garde is lurking in the wings with cash to buy tests and Friday drives and (maybe) plans for the future. The Dutchman is fortunate in that he is married to the daughter of a billionaire and his father-in-law not only likes racing but can also justify spending money in it to promote his businesses. Getting other money out of racing-mad Holland is not easy and Giedo needs to look over his shoulder because Jos Verstappen’s son Max is winning international F3 races already (despite being only 16) and will soon be knocking on the F1 door, aiming to show that genetic engineering of racing drivers is entirely possible (his mother being the highly-talented racer Sophie Kumpen). Giedo is a lovely bloke and a decent racer but is this enough to move Sauber forwards?
Elsewhere Sauber has been trying very hard for more than a year to nail down a major partnership with Russia. A deal was announced but that seems to have fallen by the wayside and talks have shifted to another government-linked Russian firm. All the signs are that this is the conglomerate Rostec, a group of more than 600 companies involved in technology, arms and automobiles. It is owned by the Russian government and run by Sergei Chemezov, one of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies. Rostec is looking ahead to spinning off various divisions and has been building its profile with some sponsorships. It is supporting Sergey Sirotkin. A year ago this all sounded pretty sensible, with a Russian GP on the cards, but the Olympics got in the way of deal-making and then almost immediately the country ran into the Ukraine Crisis and now Sauber is walking a tightrope, hoping that it can unlock Russian millions but risking the fall-out if the timing is not right. It does not help that Chemezov is on the list of those sanctioned by the West as a result of the Ukraine situation.
In a perfect world, it might be wise for Sauber to walk away because the Russian deals could impact on other possible arrangements. This was a lesson that Williams learned in its dealings with the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The PDVSA money helped (and still does) but the connection did not make it easy to attract other sponsorship as a lot of companies baulked at being associated with that particular government.
Sauber’s third iron in the fire is probably the most exciting as Simona de Silvestro’s star is rising. She has the makings of a money-printing mega-star. All she needs to prove is that she is as good as a Gutierrez or a Sutil. Not easy, but there are good reports filtering out from simulators and tests. She may not yet have the sponsors to cover the Sauber from top to toe but it is likely to happen if she is given the chance to show her pace in the public domain. On paper you could not really ask for a better package right now: she has a history of clean energy sponsorships, was a relatively big name in the USA and, of course, she is a she. One only needs to look at the comparative publicity of her Fiorano test and Sirotkin’s test in Bahrain (remember that?) to see the potential. It is hard to argue against the fact that F1 will probably be better off with a woman racing, clean energy sponsorships and an American angle than it will be with a deal from Russia.
What is not clear is whether the various strategies can run concurrently or whether Sirotkin’s people will scare De Silvestro’s backers to move to another team. It also rather depends on what happens with the Ukraine situation. The West believes (rightly or wrongly) that Russian agents are directing the uprising in Ukraine – where only 17 percent of the population are actually Russian – and that Moscow is stirring up trouble by trying to convince Ukrainians that the government is “fascist”. It is anachronistic thinking but a lot of people in the old Soviet Union yearn for the feeling of security that The State used to offer. The fact that the whole thing was unsustainable seems to get forgotten.
Who knows where this will end? But Sauber is stuck in the middle for now. The problem is that F1 teams cannot live on promises alone and it is time for the Russians to come up with the dough or get out of the bakery…
There is also fuss being made in the Swiss media at the moment about GP2 champion Fabio Leimer having been turned down by Sauber, despite having $14 million in sponsorship. It is an odd story, but in keeping with a recent trend in the newspaper concerned to be negative about all things Sauber. This same newspaper used to be cheerleader number one for the team for many years and the only logical conclusion is that the publication has a problem with the current management of the team and is being negative in the hope that this will change. The problem is that taking potshots at the only team in the country is not likely to sell more newspapers. People want to support their home team and consistently negative articles hurt everyone.
However, I don’t doubt the story and one can understand it if, for example, there is not much enthusiasm for Fabio Leimer at Sauber. It took him four seasons of GP2 to become champion and he won fewer races than rival Sam Bird. Neither has made it to F1.
What is really odd is that Leimer did not find a home for his cash elsewhere because several teams would have bitten his arm off last winter for that kind of cash…