In early 2018, during the launch of the Sauber C37 – the first of the Swiss team’s cars to race under the Alfa Romeo serpent – I asked Peter Sauber whether he felt a pang of regret that the family name would no longer be represented on the Formula 1 grid.
“No,” he responded immediately. “That is not new. Sauber has in the past built and raced cars for manufacturers. We did it with Mercedes, we did it for BMW. This is just another step along the same process,” he explained in reference to the world championship sports car project with Mercedes and a BMW M1 group five project respectively, plus, of course, the joint F1 venture which produced a victory in the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix for Robert Kubica.
The team and entrant name remained as Sauber Motorsport; however, from the following year the name was changed to Alfa Romeo Racing, with Kubica-linked team sponsor Orlen from 2020 given secondary naming rights, a convention that continues this year. Lest there are, though, any doubts about the culture of the team, it is very much Sauber – as the ‘C’ nomenclature, after Sauber’s wife Christiane, attests,
All this means that the only full-on Swiss team in F1 history bears the weighty responsibility of officially representing one of the world’s most hallowed and emotional automotive brands on the most visible global of sporting platforms, a tribe who proudly refer to themselves as “Alfisti”. No other automotive brand has that honour, not even Ferrari fans, whose most rabid fans are known as “the tifosi”.
The Alfa Romeo deal had originally been massaged by Sergio Marchionne, the late FiatChrysler and Ferrari boss who arguably saved the former company and took the latter public, who positioned Alfa Romeo as (junior) sister brand to Ferrari, and hence the adoption of complete Ferrari powertrains by Sauber and the placement of Ferrari academy drivers Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi with the red/white team.
There had been fears that the partnership would falter after Marchionne’s untimely passing following surgery in July 2018 and again after the recent merger between FCA and Peugeot Group to form Stellantis, but the renaming went ahead in 2019 and the deal extended in July this year a for a projected three years – as per reasons outlined during our exclusive interview with Alfa Romeo’s (ex-Peugeot) CEO Jean-Phillipe Imparato.
At the time we had already revealed that multiple grand prix winner Valtteri Bottas was heading to Alfa Romeo for 2022 – official confirmation took two months – so it was clear that the team has big ambitions for Formula 1’s ‘new era’, which brings with it not only tighter regulation’s but the first cars to be designed under F1’s $145m budget cap, which clearly favours the mid-grid rather than the front-runners.
Still, this season has been a major disappointment – despite closing the lap time gap to the front runners the team has slipped back in the order. Williams took solid points hauls over the last five races, while Alfa Romeo scored only twice via Kimi Raikkonen.
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It is against this background that I chat to team principal and long-time junior series team boss Frederic Vasseur in his office in Hinwil – an industrial town with a population of 12,000 situated 30 kilometres south-east of Zürich – after a full tour of the factory.
I’d visited thrice before and each time viewed it as on par with the best outside of the top three. And little wonder: BMW invested heavily before pulling out at the end of 2009 and new owner Longbow Finance – to wit Tetra Pak heir Finn Rausing – extensively upgraded the facilities since acquiring the team from Peter Sauber, who regained control after BMW’s 2016 exit. The team founder does, however, remain on good terms with Longbow.
Next year Vasseur will be reunited with Bottas, who he took to the GP3 (now Formula 3) championship in 2011. He points to the 32-year-old’s record as being consistently one of the top three drivers in the series over the past four years, and a close match for Lewis Hamilton in the same car, as the rationale for signing him.
“I think he has good momentum in his career and he was looking for a project where he could be the leader,” says Vasseur. “We are looking for a leader for the next couple of years, and we can build up a project around him.
“If you have look at the last 25 years, in F1 all the good projects have been built around a driver, always. You have Renault with Alonso, Red Bull with Vettel, Ferrari with Schumacher, Mercedes with Lewis. We need to build our project around someone, and I’m convinced that Valtteri is this one.
Vasseur’s words imply a long-term mutual commitment, which he does not deny: “It was part of the discussion because both sides are looking for something similar, while Valtteri was also looking for stability. It’s not a matter of a ‘comfort zone’, it’s just to be able to have long term commitment.
“We were looking for the same thing because we know that the next [set of regulations] is a huge opportunity for us. We took a bet on 2022 very, very early and we have to put everything together for next year.”
The word “project”, though implies some big picture thinking. Does he believe Alfa Romeo, a team that in the past came close but never quite delivered, will be able to match the top teams during the ‘new era’?
“We made a decent step forward in the last 24 months. It’s not always obvious in term of results. We managed to close the gap on the front-runners in terms of percentages, which to me is important because it’s a validation of the performance of the team.
“We moved from [a headcount of] 250 to a bit more than 500 over the last two or three years. Now it’s [no longer] a matter of numbers, it’s a matter of small adjustments that we will pay attention to during the next 12 months, finetuning the system and perhaps changing one or two positions.”
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Successful F1 teams operate to the ‘four M’ principle: management, manpower, machinery and – last but not least – money. Does Sauber have all the building blocks in place to mount a sustained (and sustainable) challenge?
“In F1 the thing that you have to avoid is saying that you are at the right level,” says Vasseur. “We have to improve in every single area of the company. It’s not just a matter of drivers, so when I have these kinds of discussion with the guys in the company, I convince them that all 520 employees are crucial to the results, it doesn’t matter whether you are in marketing to find a news sponsor, in finance to find the best usage of the cost cap.
“On the on the four pillars you mentioned, I think we did a decent step over the last two or three years, but it’s never enough. This is the DNA of competition because everybody else is trying to improve and I don’t think one day I will say, ‘Ok, I am relaxed about this level’.”
During the (2006-9) BMW era the folk in Hinwil harboured high hopes of titles, but where does the team stand now in terms of expectations, what is a realistic level for what is still an independent team, albeit one bearing the illustrious Alfa Romeo warpaint.
“We have to dream, but we have to be realistic. The final target of this kind of challenge must be that we have to win at least a race,” Vasseur says, adding a reference to Alpine’s unexpected victory in Hungary. “This is good for the company, they showed that it is possible.”
“In the short term, to imagine to win a championship is a bit unrealistic because the technology [of the big teams] is different. Even if you develop the car under the same cost cap and with the same restrictions, they are one step ahead in terms of technology, and we’ll have to compensate for that.
“But I think that the new regulations could be an opportunity because we are used to developing the car with this kind of budget, when the big teams are not. They will have to impose a lot of restrictions [on themselves]. This could lead to frustration whereas we are more in a comfort zone because we always knew how to apply the best usage of money.
“This will change the DNA of Formula 1 because previously the target was to find enough sponsors to develop the car with your resources, with your manpower. Now this not case anymore, [now] have to do the best usage of your budget, which means the championship is completely different and we are probably in the right window.”
Vasseur believes the facilities advantages enjoyed by the major teams will come to an end within two to three years because that is the use-by-date of most technologies they use, and that restrictions on capital expenditure projects will further level the playing field. “I’m quite confident,” he smiles.
Sauber is, of course, a race team that builds its own chassis but buys in items such as powertrains. Is it possible to build a world championship-winning project while being reliant upon another team for crucial hardware?
“Red Bull proved it is possible, McLaren were in front of Renault,” he says without hesitation, citing two examples of customers beating their supplier teams, the former winning four double titles in the process.
Which raises the question: How committed is Sauber to Ferrari (and vice versa), particularly given that after Marchionne’s death and the Stellantis merger Alfa Romeo is no longer a ‘sister’ but effectively a ‘cousin’? There is talk that the need to run a Ferrari driver could be dropped, that Giovinazzi’s place in the team is not assured.
“We are fully, fully, fully committed to Ferrari,” he stresses, adding, “We have a multi-year deal that [runs] in line with the regulations.”
That takes the deal through to the end of 2025 and possibly a year longer should the engine working group decide to extend the current timeframe. “To change the engine during the [current regulatory period] is in any event unrealistic because you would have to spend a fortune to adapt the car, the chassis to the engine or the engine to the chassis and all the usage of the budget for this you can’t use for development.
“It means that from my point of view, except in the case of force majeure, it’s quite unrealistic to imagine that someone will change engine suppliers during the course of the [current] regulations.”
A perennially thorny topic of is whether the team is for sale. The latest rumours link the Andretti family to a purchase.
Vasseur gives me a clear “I do not think so”, then adds hastily – lest it be misinterpreted – that he has not met with Michael Andretti to discuss a stake or sale. Indeed, given the shareholders’ reliance on him for racing matters I for one doubt whether any talks would have taken place without Vasseur having at least been involved.
“I have not met with any Andrettis,” he says when pushed, then winking as he says, “This business is full of rumours.”
That goes for another topic occupying his mind at the moment: The identity of Bottas’ team mate for 2022. “Last week there were rumours that Bottas had signed for Williams and that we had signed [Formula E champion Nyck] de Vries…”
De Vries – Mercedes junior plus champion in Formula E and Formula 2 – is among those tipped for the drive. So are Chinese F2 racer Guanyu Zhou, who is being pushed hard by F1 bosses desperate for more diversity at the top level, and French F2 hotshot Theo Pourchaire. Giovinazzi’s chances of retaining his seat are not lost, but every hopeful around is linked to final space on the grid for the 2022 F1 season.
“I’m not in a rush to take a decision,” says Vasseur. “If you ever look on the global picture, I want to be focused on what we are doing to give them time to show what they can do. All of them.”
He says that signing de Vries due to his Mercedes contract and connection is “difficult” – with the case of Red Bull-backed Alexander Albon who was released to take up a drive with Mercedes-powered Williams providing an example – but admits that Giovinazzi’s Ferrari links “make it a much easier matter to deal with.”
Thus Vasseur has the luxury of time, secure in the knowledge that none of the drivers on his list – whom he will not name to prevent speculation and avoid disappointment – are not going anywhere else anytime soon.
With that he is off to a meeting – one called to discuss the emerging Sauber Technologies division, which monetises F1 tech, and has found increasing traction not only in Switzerland but in the global automotive industry. Peter Sauber can be proud of the company he founded, even if it is in other hands and racing under Italian colours. It clearly has a solid future on and off track.