Sauber's season of despair

"The new engines have hurt us. In 2014, our engine was way off the pace and we also did not do the best job on the cars, but last year was better. This year we could not do a good job with the car due to commercial constraints," says Monisha Kaltenborn, the CEO and team principal of Sauber.

Marcus Ericsson of Sweden behind the wheel of Sauber C35 at the Singapore Grand Prix recently. Sauber has failed to score a point so far this season and looks like finishing 2016 with a blank sheet.   -  Getty Images

For the fourth oldest team on the grid, the last few years have been disappointing. Sauber, which has been languishing at the bottom of the table, has failed to score even a single point so far this year and could well end up with a blank sheet for the second time in three years. (Sauber had drawn a blank in 2014, but scored 36 points last season.)

Apart from failing to build a good car, Sauber’s poor performance has also been the result of unequal distribution of prize money. This, combined with the ever-escalating costs, has brought one of the respectable middle-level teams to its knees.

 

Sauber is renowned for kick-starting the careers of some top drivers like Felipe Massa, Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel, to name a few.

Since 2012, Indian-born Austrian, Monisha Kaltenborn, a lawyer by profession, has been heading Sauber. In fact, she is the first female team principal in Formula One. Earlier this year, the team, founded by Peter Sauber, was sold to Longbow Finance S.A., and Kaltenborn, who is also the CEO of Sauber, hopes the deal would help solve the team’s existential issues.

When asked if Sauber has left its financial issues behind, Kaltenborn said, “The daily question of whether we would survive or not has been put to rest. F1 is always a challenge, but we would rather look at improving our performance than worry about our future.”

After its success in sports car racing in the 1980s, during which Michael Schumacher drove for the team, Sauber made its Formula One debut in 1993, and it wasn’t until 2014 that the team finished a season without scoring a point.

Sauber finished sixth in the 2012 season, logging 126 points — the team’s best since it switched to the Ferrari power plant in 2010. The following year, the team came up with a good performance in the second half of the season to finish seventh (57 points). However, in 2014, the new engine regulations hit the Swiss team hard and the Ferrari engine that year was the slowest. Besides, the high cost of the engine made things worse for Sauber.

“The new engines have hurt us. In 2014, our engine was way off the pace and we also did not do the best job on the cars, but last year was better. This year we could not do a good job with the car due to commercial constraints,” said Kaltenborn. Last year, Sauber along with Force India lodged a complaint with the European Union regarding the unequal prize money distribution, calling it unfair and unlawful.

“The mid-field teams are the backbone of the sport. This is our core competence. We evolve technology and apply it in third-party business, but motorsport is our focus.

“We have been here during the good times, when the sport was growing, and the bad times, so to reduce us to just two bad years is unfair. Without teams like us, Williams and the independent teams, the sport would not be what it is today. We have been here since 1993, so we cannot be reduced to just two bad years,” said the 45-year-old Sauber team principal.

Recently the world body that governs the sport, FIA, came up with a plan to reduce the cost of the power unit, which is priced at Euro 20 million (approx). It also planned to standardise some parts in order to reduce the difference in performance of the engines provided by the four power unit suppliers. However, Kaltenborn was sceptical about its effectiveness.

“The independent teams wanted a 10 million Euro rate for the power units, but we have just reduced it by one. That too, next year we will have fewer power units, so I don’t see a real reduction. Standardisation might help, but personally, I don’t believe it will make much of a difference. It is also difficult to ask a manufacturer to give up his advantage, so we have to find the right compromise,” Kaltenborn said.

Since the arrival of new owners, the team has started hiring again following a spate of exits over the last couple of years. At a time when most teams sign up drivers who can bring in money, Sauber’s recovery will closely watched.