I read a story today suggesting that Manor driver Pascal Wehrlein has emerged as the leading candidate for Sauber’s second Formula 1 seat in 2017. Maybe I’m off the pace, but this is not the story I am picking up.
Yes, Wehrlein is in the frame, but it will require Mercedes to stump up cash at a level that they are unlikely to agree to. Sauber is not interested in engine deals and just wants finance. The logic of this may elude Mercedes, but it is part of a three-year recovery plan that the Swiss team has formulated. The 2017 season is all about getting points early on through reliability, hence the engine choice of a 2016 Ferrari, while others struggle to get newer 2017 engines right, and then as solid a financial year as possible, whilst preparing for something better in 2018, recruiting new staff, investing in facilities and so on. What that something is remains to be seen, but clearly there is long-term thinking going on that looks beyond the survival mode in 2017. The story also suggested that all is well between the team and Felipe Nasr and that the problem comes because of his sponsors, but again that is not what I am seeing. I see a relationship which is anything but happy, which is a shame because it would be best for both sides if they could stay together. Maybe they will sort it out. Felipe’s performance in Brazil was very good for everyone and pethaps it will help to build bridges, but as of now I don’t see anything being fixed. Nasr is pretty short of choices but for the relationship to continue Sauber needs to believe more.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff and Sauber’s Monisha Kaltenborn did meet to discuss Wehrlein in Brazil, but by all accounts it was not a very productive meeting. Obviously, Wehrlein would like to move into a more stable environment than Manor (which is now out of the top 10 and thus worth less than before in any sale), but he doesn’t seem to have many choices. Mercedes will help the team on power unit costs, but it is not going to get into any junior team scenario, although this has been discussed. Mercedes does not need to do this, but still wants to find Wehrlein a berth, as it still believes, despite the recent Force India setback, that he is potentially a top driver. The value of junior teams is that they provide top teams with cheap talent, but this only works if the development process doesn’t cost too much. Thus if Mercedes wants Wehrlein to continue to develop, it must either pay what Sauber wants, or it must find someone to buy Manor and guarantee its stability. Investing in an F1 team is still a gamble but it is one that super-rich people can, perhaps, see value in. The problem is not the purchase price but rather the running costs and as sponsorship is difficult thesr days, it is B2B strategies, pay-drivers and junior team money that keep these operations afloat. The most likely scenario is a deal with Esteban Gutierrez, who has money to spend but has already been at Sauber and is not in demand there. Thus a Gutierrez and Wehrlein pairing makes sense at Manor, with Jordan King perhaps supported by his sponsors as third driver, going to all the F1 races and getting immersed in the sport, in preparation for 2018. if this doesn’t happen, Wehrlein could end up as Mercedes third driver and sit out the year. The bad news is that with Mercedes cutting back to six cars in DTM there are no spaces there, and indeed several drivers are going to lose out there as there are not enough cars to go around and Edoardo Mortara has already been signed to join the party. there has slso been talk of Antonio Giovinazzi being signed by Mercedes, but there really is no room for him, unless there is some bloodletting at HWA. I expect Giovanazzi to turn up somewhere in F1 next year, in a third driver role.
So who goes to Sauber? The man who seems most likely at the moment is Rio Haryanto, but he must come up with cash, rather than promises. He did a surprisingly good job against Wehrlein at Manor earlier this year, but dropped out as the Ocon Express passed through on the main line. This is Haryanto’s last chance because if he fails to deliver money twice the F1 world will shutter up for him in the future. The Indonesians have been through an educational process in the last 12 months and must now either put up, or shut up. Haryanto is a nice prospect for the country and so they should jump on his bandwagon. Right now, it is a seller’s market in terms of F1 seats, so there is no great need to hurry and so we shouldn’t expect any rapid announcements, unless people hit the financial targets being requested.