The 2009 Formula One season was proof that fairytales are possible in Grand Prix racing. When the Honda Motor Company withdrew from the sport, Ross Brawn and his talented staff seemed likely to follow.
Twelve months on, BrawnGP are the reigning Formula One World champions.
This year Peter Sauber will be hoping for a similarly special story. The Swiss team has lost the support of BMW, title sponsor Petronas, as well as the driving skill of Robert Kubica. They have also lost over a hundred staff in a frantic effort to reduce costs.
A few months ago Sauber didn’t even have an entry for the 2010 season so have been fighting hard simply to make the grid. The team’s chances of being competitive and securing significant sponsorship this year are slim at best.
However, if initial preseason testing is to be believed, the team’s engineers headed by Willy Rampf appear to have built a decent car.
Like Brawn’s title winning machine, the Sauber C29 has spent a lot of time in the design and development stage. BMW started working on their 2010 car as soon as it became clear their 2009 World Championship bid was a lost cause. This means Sauber have been able put more work into their current design than some their rivals, although the same can be said of Ferrari and McLaren.
The C29 features a highly developed front wing with angled mountings that direct air under the car. The top of the nosecone is noticeably flat, something that BMW experimented with last year, and the front suspension has been adjusted to further straighten the airflow. Further to this, the rear of the car is tightly sculpted to maximise the efficiency of the fully integrated double decker diffuser.
In testing last week the Sauber was second fastest behind Ferrari’s F10 and the car’s laptimes were very consistent. Although they were likely running less fuel than Ferrari, Sauber can be confident they haven’t come up with a complete lemon. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the C29 and it appears to be quick out-of-the-box.
Reportedly the car’s biggest strength is that it responds very well to changes. This makes the performance predictable and easy to manage for the engineers. Pedro De la Rosa said â€œI’m happy about the fact that the car is easy to drive and stable through the corners. There is nothing upsetting the car balance. It was pretty stable, the car had a good base.â€
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Sauber will be maintaining their car’s level of performance all year long. Prior to BMW’s arrival, the team would usually start each season strongly before fading when others developed their machinery. BMW’s resources and funding turned that trend around but now it will be hard to consistently race at that level without the Bavarian’s support.
Peter Sauber has said â€œthe season is financially secureâ€ but that simply means his team will survive. It certainly does not mean they will thrive.
A key point for Sauber is the FOTA resource restriction agreement that will help immensely. It effectively brings some of the other teams down to their level and will contain the rampant level of development that hurt the team in the pre-BMW days.
If Sauber have created a good car, the pressure will be on their drivers to deliver, and that could end up being the team’s weakness.
Kamui Kobayashi exploded onto the scene at the end of last year but is still an unknown quantity. He was arguably the most impressive rookie in 2009 and performed well above expectations, but he will need to prove that his great drive at Abu Dhabi was not a flash in the pan. He will be hoping to break from the mould of Japanese drivers that fail to deliver on their enormous potential.
There are also some doubts around Pedro De Le Rosa. He hasn’t raced since 2006 and Luca Badoer proved how difficult the transition from testing to racing can be in modern F1 cars. Although Pedro should perform much better than Badoer, he has the added pressure of being team leader.
De La Rosa’s career form has been patchy. He raced solidly with Arrows and earned a reputation for punching above his weight in 2000 when he mixed it with the front-runners in a number of Grands Prix. However, Pedro’s giant killing performances were the result of light fuel loads and that meant he usually started races strongly but ultimately ended up outside of the points. De La Rosa was outpaced by Jos Verstappen most of the time.
Pedro was dropped by Arrows in favour of Enrique Bernoldi in 2001, and he moved to Jaguar when Luciano Burti was sacked. Unfortunately, De La Rosa was comprehensively beaten by Eddie Irvine in the team and despite a few solid drives, he was replaced after two years.
Without anywhere to race, De La Rosa became McLaren’s second test driver alongside Alexander Wurz.
As test driver for McLaren, Pedro got to drive in nine Grands Prix in place of Juan Pablo Montoya. He scored a fastest lap and a podium during his brief time in the spotlight, proving he is a capable F1 driver, but was still a fair way behind Kimi Raikkionen.
Kobayashi is one teammate that De La Rosa will need to beat.
Sauber’s driver paring could go either way. They could have a fast and experienced pilot alongside an exciting new talent, or they could have a patchy veteran and a youngster out of his depth.
Historically, Peter Sauber is very good at picking consistent drivers and getting the best out of them, so you would expect Kobayashi and De La Rosa to deliver the goods.
Interestingly, the team is still called BMW Sauber at the moment (which means the car is amusingly labelled the ‘BMW Sauber C29 Ferrari’). The reason for this is that all teams must agree to any name change, so Peter Sauber is leaving it until the last minute in the hope of securing a title sponsor. He doesn’t want to go through the process of changing the team name to Sauber now, and then changing it again to Team Castrol Sauber or something like that in a few weeks.
Peter Sauber will have his work cut out for him this year flying the F1 flag for Switzerland. His team will be struggling to score decent points but will find it even harder to maintain a competitive challenge throughout the season. If Sauber doesn’t find a major sponsor the task is going to become even trickier in 2011.
Then again, we said the same thing about Brawn twelve months ago.