2014: The Sorry Saga of Sauber

Peter Sauber’s eponymous racing team became synonymous with midfield competency during their years in Formula One, notwithstanding a brief BMW-assisted detour to the front of the grid in the late 2000s. After Bavaria withdrew its factory support in 2009 as a result of the global economic downturn, however, Peter once again took the helm of Sauber, aiming to stabilise the outfit before returning to his retirement. Monisha Kaltenborn was chosen as Mr Sauber’s successor, eventually assuming full control of the team in late 2012. 

That season represented the high water mark of Sauber’s independent years, as the team designed a car that treated the Pirelli tyres like royalty. Spurred on by a hungry, youthful driving pairing, Sauber sprung several surprises as Sergio Perez nearly won two races, while long-term fan favourite Kamui Kobayashi scored an emotional podium in front of his home fans at Suzuka. All in all the team very nearly pipped the works Mercedes squad in the constructors championship.

The Sauber C31 was a rocketship...quite literally in this instance! Monaco 2012

The Sauber C31 was a rocketship…quite literally in this instance! Monaco 2012

Regrettably the package could not stay together for 2013. Perez was snapped up by McLaren to replace Lewis Hamilton, while Kobayashi was unable to keep his sponsorship package together. Nico Hulkenberg jumped over from Force India to spearhead Sauber’s challenge, fresh off a run of headline-making performances in late 2012. After a slow start the German became the form driver of the midfield by season’s end, dragging in points by the sackload, but 2013 could not hold a candle to Sauber’s heroics the previous year.

Meanwhile Esteban Gutierrez graduated from GP2 to take the second seat, bringing his distinctive eyebrows to the F1 paddock while depositing a nice slice of Claro cash in Sauber’s bank account. He repaid the team with a solitary seventh at Suzuka, his only top ten finish all season. All too often the Mexican could be found plumbing the depths of the lower midfield or the nearest gravel trap, making it rather difficult for bystanders to judge the true potential of the Sauber C32 given Hulkenberg’s heroics in the sister car. Replacing the ultra-popular Kobayashi did not exactly endear Gutierrez with the F1 fanbase, either.

But hidden behind the headlines Hulkenberg had generated on track was a story of discontent. Rumours swirled around that the team was fast running out of cash. A rather dodgy Russian sponsor appeared to offer salvation, albeit with the caveat that 18 year old Sergey Sirotkin would be given a race seat for 2014. While these rumours eventually fizzled out, it was then revealed that Hulkenberg had effectively been driving for free all season, such was the extent of Sauber’s cash flow issues.

Nico Hulkenberg driving like he's stolen it, in an attempt to get paid by Sauber. Korea 2013.

Nico Hulkenberg driving like he’s stolen it. Korea 2013.

With seemingly no prospect of his wages being paid at all, Hulkenberg jumped back to Force India the moment he could for 2014. In what effectively became a straight swap, fellow countryman Adrian Sutil left Force India to ink a two year deal with Hinwil. Living up to his tag of being the world’s stingiest billionaire, Carlos Slim reduced the size of Gutierrez’s sponsorship package for the coming season, but there was still plenty enough in the kitty for the Mexican to retain his seat. Compared to their midfield rivals, Sauber’s new driving line-up for 2014 was hardly making hearts flutter with anticipation. Sutil was seen as a midfield journeyman at best, and, at worst, viewed as nothing more than an inferior facsimile of the departing Hulkenberg. Esteban, meanwhile, had his work cut out to prove he belonged in F1.

The Sauber C33, Hinwil’s first design of the new turbo era, was officially unveiled on January 26th. The launch revealed a rather basic, simplistic chassis complete with the obligatory extended nose cone, and retaining the battleship grey livery adopted in 2013. The consensus amongst the F1 fraternity was that the C33 represented a staid, conservative approach, and that the team would find themselves propping up the midfield in 2014. Good for a couple of points finishes surely, but they’d be outclassed by the new Williams and Force India packages.

Outclassed is perhaps too mild a term to describe Sauber’s 2014…

While pre-season headlines were dominated by the litany of failures plaguing those with Renault lumps in the back, the new Sauber quietly clocked up significant mileage on track, the team seemingly birthing a reliable platform utilising the Ferrari turbo hybrid . To the casual observer Hinwil appeared in reasonable shape compared to the horror show concurrently taking place at Lotus and Red Bull, but the Renault fiasco had provided a smokescreen which hid the C33’s shortcomings from the rest of the paddock. Working through a variety of aero setups, the team quickly realised the new car was fundamentally flawed. Bloated, overweight, and deeply underwhelming in race trim, Sauber were inexorably set for an uphill struggle.

Uninspired mediocrity, the C33 certainly wasn't a looker.

Plain, bland, mediocre, insipid, the C33 spanned all of these adjectives. Jerez 2014.

Fast forward a few weeks later to Melbourne, and Hinwil managed to achieve the unthinkable during the most highly-anticipated F1 season opener in years: be almost totally invisible. While every other team generated headlines for a variety of reasons, Sauber remained in the background, the insipid graphite shade of its livery becoming an effective metaphor for the team itself. But no matter, with heavy unreliability predicted around Albert Park the mood was optimistic in the Swiss pits.

Come race day and with both cars buried deep in the midfield after qualifying, Sauber opted for a conservative approach. This worked initially as Sutil was able to graze the points-scoring positions for a short time before dropping back. His teammate, meanwhile, had picked off where he left 2013 by spinning into Sergio Perez on the first lap before trundling around for the rest of the afternoon. Eventually, both C33s ran in tandem to the chequered flag achieving the dizzying heights of 11th and 12th , but already alarm bells were going off at Hinwil. Despite showing up at Melbourne with the automotive equivalent of a bad hangover, not only were Lotus able to clock significant mileage during the race, they were able to run faster than Sutil and Gutierrez, until both E23s inevitably spluttered to a halt. 

A fortnight later in Malaysia, Sauber’s worst fears were confirmed; the C33 was a pup. A double DNF illustrated that the impression of reliability the team had shown in testing was all a mirage, most likely achieved by running a severely detuned car. To make matters worse, Romain Grosjean hustled his recalcitrant Lotus to the chequered flag in 11th,  already showing more promise than Sauber despite their testing travails.

We have lift off for the Space Shuttle Gutierrez.

We have lift off for the Space Shuttle Gutierrez. Bahrain 2014

The European season had not even begun and yet Hinwil already found itself resorting to desperation tactics. Sutil had allegedly starved himself for two days to become more competitive, sparking a debate as to how far F1 drivers should go in the pursuit of competitiveness. But it would be his team mate who would be writing the headlines post-race. Battling with Pastor Maldonado for 13th, the Venezuelan made a rash overtaking manoeuvre into the first corner and tipped the Mexican onto his lid in a spectacular collision. Although not intentionally, Gutierrez quite literally earned the team more air time than they had in the previous three races combined. Unsurprisingly, the Mexican’s impression of a Space Shuttle didn’t earn the team any points, while Sutil’s starvation tactics culminated in a dire qualifying session and a daft, race-ending clash with Jean-Eric Vergne. 

Despite its sordid start to the season, the team could be forgiven for looking forward to F1’s annual trip to Monaco. If any track could level the competition it would be the unforgiving streets of Monte Carlo; indeed, Sutil was in his element on Sunday, pulling off a series of increasingly riskier passes around the tight streets. But the Principality doesn’t tolerate being disrespected, and on lap 23 the track would have its revenge, a vicious bump outside the tunnel spitting Sutil into a one-way trip along the armco and escape road. The German’s day was done.

That won't buff out easily Adrian. (Photo: WRi2)

The net result when you treat Monaco with disrespect. (Photo: WRi2)

His team mate was also having a decent afternoon, quietly hauling himself into eighth. Esteban then decided to undo all his good work with an embarrassing shunt at Rascasse on lap 59 where he seemingly forgot how tight the corner was. To make matters worse, this unforced error promoted Jules Bianchi’s Marussia into the top 10. None of the “new teams” had scored points before, and now Gutierrez had handed a golden opportunity for the Anglo-Russian squad to leapfrog Hinwil in the constructors.

However, word filtered in that Bianchi was being served with a ten second time penalty for lining up in the wrong grid box at the start. This was a direct result of, wait for it, Gutierrez doing the same thing further up the field! Ironically, it was looking like this mistake by the Mexican had actually saved Sauber the indignity of being outscored by a “new team”. While the F1 fan base erupted in anger, the Swiss pit crew crossed their fingers and hoped Bianchi would run out of laps to mitigate his penalty. With both C33s looking fit for the scrapyard their destiny was out of their control.

On lap 74 those hopes were dashed to the delight of millions. Kimi Raikkonen made a clumsy attempt to pass Kevin Magnussen at Loews, leaving both drivers unable to make the hairpin. The resulting delay ensured that Bianchi would finish in the points regardless of his time penalty. Indeed, Sauber could count themselves lucky that Caterham’s Marcus Ericsson was too far behind to take advantage of the Raikkonen/Magnussen contretemps, as the Swede finished in an agonising eleventh. The Swiss squad had been spared from being left rock bottom statistically, though no doubt the mood within the team was already there. Meanwhile Grosjean snaffled another handful of points for the beleaguered Lotus squad, showing Hinwil the correct way to take advantage of attrition.

After being embarrassed around the Principality,  Sauber responded with another string of nondescript, anonymous races. It was becoming fairly apparent that no update packages or trick setups could render the C33 competitive. An ignominious stat was clocked up after Canada – Sauber had never gone this deep into a season without scoring points. Sutil finished thirteenth on the road in Canada, despite only eleven cars actually making the chequered flag…

Mid-race burnouts are never a good sign. Germany 2014.

Sutil summing up Sauber’s season rather succinctly. Germany 2014.

The rumour mill kicked up a notch as apparently Sutil’s sponsors had not paid up and that he would be replaced during the summer break in favour of reserve driver Giedo van der Garde. With the help of a large bag of McGregor money, the Dutchman had allegedly put pen to paper for a race seat in 2015. Remember this fact, as we’ll be returning to it later. Sutil’s case for staying in his seat was not helped by a rather embarrassing retirement at Hockenheim where he lazily spun and stalled on the pit straight in front of his home fans.

Nonetheless Sutil remained in the car for Hungary, where he became the butt of an unintentionally hilarious exchange. Having been dumped out of Q1,a fuming  Romain Grosjean was caught on air shouting “so we couldn’t even beat Sutil!?” at his race engineer over the radio; a telling sign of just how far Sauber’s already modest stock had fallen. Race day dawned wet and miserable, conditions where miracles can happen. But no miracles were forthcoming for the battleship-grey machines, as Sutil splashed home in 11th. One second and one place was all that separated Sutil from one point, one point which might have saved Hinwil’s blushes. By now it was becoming clear that the team were destined for a dreaded pointless season. 

How the fortunes of these two teams changed in just 12 short months. Belgium 2014.

Belgium  2014; perhaps the only time Sauber raced a Williams for position all year.

The summer break came and went with seemingly no solutions to Sauber’s predicament. Indeed the team picked up where they left off with more uninspiring performances at Spa and Monza. However, Gutierrez looked genuinely competitive around the streets of Singapore, running in eighth on merit for a while. Unfortunately, the humid conditions and unforgiving Singapore bumps ruined the electrical system on his C33 consigning him to an early bath. The understandably frustrated Mexican was then caught on camera having a temper tantrum in the pit garage, endearing himself to absolutely no-one.

Meanwhile his team mate was having a torrid afternoon, somehow managing the impressive feat of performing an undercut on fresh air during the first round of pit stops. Having illustrated how poor his race pace was, the German then decided to showcase his racecraft by pushing Sergio Perez into a wall , bringing out a safety car and earning himself a penalty. His C33 then mercifully broke down before Sutil could cause any further chaos.

The wet and wild conditions that Typhoon Phanfone brought to Suzuka handed Sauber another chance to score those elusive points. However, an unusually low-attrition race  meant neither driver could progress up the field, hampered by the C33’s awful aerodynamic package. With conditions deteriorating rapidly in the final third of the race it was only a matter of time before someone went off, and Sutil became that driver by aquaplaning into the gravel trap at the Dunlop Curve.  The German could then do nothing but watch in horror as Formula One’s first fatal accident since 1994 unfolded in front of him. Jules Bianchi lost control at the exact same place a lap later and ploughed into the recovery vehicle removing the stricken Sauber at unabated speed. A photographer at the scene captured Sutil’s grief-stricken reactions all too clearly.

The shellshocked F1 circus arrived at Sochi barely a week later. Sutil bravely agreed to race, with many observers expressing concern about his frame of mind given the traumatic events he had witnessed. Continuing the stream of bad news plaguing the sport, the eye-watering costs of F1 had finally proved too much for the “new teams”, as first Caterham, and then Marussia, entered administration shortly after the Russian GP. With neither team likely to return to the track, Sauber were handed a lifeline in their battle to avoid the dreaded “nul points”.

As the paddock arrived in Texas for the US GP the mood in the Swiss pits had become somewhat optimistic. Sutil demonstrated this by stringing together a stellar set of laps in qualifying, eventually doing well enough for ninth on the grid. This returned Sauber to Q3 for the first time in almost a year, and with only 18 cars racing at COTA, the field had been thinned considerably. Adrian carried the hopes of everyone at Hinwil with him as he lined up for the race start the next day.

By the end of the first lap however, those hopes had been snuffed out thanks to the efforts of Sergio Perez, who made a clumsy move on the German and ended up breaking the Sauber’s front suspension. However, knowing the C33’s diabolical race pace, it would have been a stretch for Sutil to stay in the points against the Toro Rosso and Lotus drivers. Gutierrez kindly illustrated this by finishing plumb dead last.

Sutil's great weekend in Texas came to a crunching halt on raceday.

Watch out Sergio, Sutil’s coming to glass you! Texas 2014

Abu Dhabi marked the conclusion of the Formula One season, and the end of an era for Sauber. A twenty-one season streak of scoring points came to an insipid end as Esteban and Adrian trundled home in 15th and 16th, neither even able to challenge Nico Rosberg’s malfunctioning Mercedes. Indeed, the only driver finishing behind the Saubers was Will Stevens in a Caterham, peddling a car which had spent most of the previous month gathering dust in a warehouse near Leafield.

Tenth overall in the Constructors meant the team were facing a huge cut in the amount of TV rights money for the next couple of seasons. Drastic action was required from Monisha Kaltenborn to keep the team solvent. Marcus Ericsson’s treasure trove of Swedish sponsors enabled him to bail from the dying husk of Caterham and secure a race seat at Sauber, while Kaltenborn negotiated a deal with GP2 runner-up Felipe Nasr, bringing upwards of £20 million from Banco do Brasil. This also enabled the team to banish the battleship grey livery for a vibrant blue and yellow identity for 2015. Having burnt every bridge within the vicinity of Hinwil, Esteban Gutierrez was cut loose. It certainly said something that Sauber would rather lose Carlos Slim’s sponsorship than keep the Mexican in a race seat for 2015…

However, earlier in this article we mentioned that Giedo van der Garde had signed a deal for a race seat in 2015. Indeed, Adrian Sutil had signed for two years at Sauber. Insiders within the paddock started wondering how four drivers could occupy two seats. Barring some form of quantum physics being applied, it was only a matter of time before the proverbial hit the fan. While Sutil’s contract was quietly bought out, an incensed van der Garde took the legal route, eventually having his contract recognised as legally binding by an Australian court a few days before the Australian GP. This led to a rather ugly standoff on the Friday where the Dutchman was initially barred from the paddock, and once granted access started trying on Ericsson’s overalls for size. Eventually van der Garde accepted a buyout offer but Sauber and Monisha Kaltenborn looked like rank amateurs, a complete laughing stock.

Giedo Ericsson (photo: GrandPrix247)

A truly rejectful moment for Hinwil, Giedo van der Garde wearing Ericsson’s overalls in the Melbourne paddock. (photo: GrandPrix247)

This sorry saga was overshadowed by a long-overdue return to the points on Sunday thanks to Felipe Nasr, finally capping the lid on a tumultuous 18 months where Sauber were seemingly treading down the same path to oblivion that Brabham, Team Lotus and Arrows had followed. But 2014 had inflicted untold damage to the team’s standing. Not only had the team’s competitiveness fallen off a building the size of The Shard,  Hinwil’s reputation for competence had also been shredded through Kaltenborn’s pick-n-mix approach to driver contracts. The net result was that, with the demise of the new teams, Sauber had now become F1’s only true backmarker squad (barring the brief revival of Manor/Marussia). It is only now in 2018, thanks to increased involvement from Ferrari that the team look capable of moving back into the midfield.

Sources: Autosport, Motorsport.com, F1Technical, Motorsport Magazine, GrandPrix247