Sauber will have to go some to match its 2012 exploits in 2013, but if the evidence of the team’s launch at the end of January was any guide the Swiss team is very much up for the challenge. Finishing higher than last year’s sixth place in the championship will mean beating one of the sport’s marquee names but team principal Monisha Kaltenborn, whose calm attitude washes over the team, is too astute to make public her specific targets for the season ahead. “We’re not saying we want to finish in this or that position in the standings,” she said at the end of January, “as ultimately other factors will also come into play that are outside our control. What we can be clear about, however, is that we want to continue on our upward curve.
“We’re well prepared, we’ve got the new car finished in good time and we’ve met the performance targets we set ourselves internally. That puts us in a confident frame of mind.”
Sauber has bounced back from BMW’s withdrawal at the end of the 2009 season quicker and more effectively than many predicted. A solidly run business, with founder Peter Sauber initially returned to the helm before he handed the keys to Kaltenborn last year, combined with a much-needed financial boost from a crop of Mexican sponsors and a good technical structure, has made the potentially troublesome switch from fully backed manufacturer team to independent challenger a relatively smooth one.
“What we’ve achieved in those three years is remarkable, taking into account the economic situation,” said marketing director Alex Sauber in an interview with SportsPro late last year, although he added that the rehabilitation process has not been completed just yet. “What we’ve achieved is really great but we’re still suffering a bit. We went down to zero and now we’re still building back up. The podiums for us certainly helped to achieve more awareness, particularly as we are one of those middle-ranged teams; as soon as you get to a podium the awareness you generate in media is just a lot bigger and you can do a lot more out of it. I would say it’s a door-opener to approach brands, but it’s not a guaranteed thing that a deal happens. It starts conversations rather than finishes them.”
Despite the departure of Sergio Perez, the team has retained its Mexican support for 2013, with Carlos Slim’s Telmex continuing to provide the bulk of sponsorship income. The promotion of Gutiérrez to a race seat cannot fail to have helped in that regard but there is also a sense that Sauber has become something of a challenger brand in Formula One – still an almost family run operation, it also evokes memories of what the sport once was. Mexican money aside, the team has a small crop of long-term partners: watchmaker Certina renewed for a ninth season in January. Smaller deals have also been put in place with racing equipment manufacturer OMP and automotive inspection company Dekra, the latter an extension of the firm’s personal deal with Nico Hülkenberg.
In line with the trend across Formula One, the Sauber C32 is an evolution of the C31 chassis that proved so effective last year. No team is keen to make wholesale changes for 2013 given that major technical reforms are on the horizon for 2014. Sauber’s cloth must be cut accordingly, with some resources held back to prepare effectively for next season. In the meantime, the technical team at the Hinwil headquarters in Switzerland has focused on developing a car that was good enough for four podiums in 2012. “The C31 was an extremely competitive car with many strengths,” said Sauber’s chief designer Matt Morris. “Our aim was to further improve these strengths and eliminate its few weaknesses.
“Our car looked after its tyres very well during races last year. However, we had problems now and again when it came to getting the maximum out of them in qualifying. We’ve looked at this phenomenon closely and made the required adjustments.”
Morris added: “We have set ourselves lofty goals with the Sauber C32- Ferrari, and I’m confident that we’ll be able to meet them. The C31 gave us a very good basis, to which we’ve made further improvements. Our aim is to line up for 2013 with a car that is competitive from the first race, but which also offers extensive potential for further development.”
The team’s ace in the pack this season may turn out to be Nico Hülkenberg, recruited from Force India. The 25-year-old German will only be competing in his third full season in the sport – he took a year out in 2011 as Force India’s reserve driver having debuted for Williams in 2010 – but he already looks like a polished Grand Prix driver: meticulous, intelligent and quick. The team will be looking to him to lead development on the car and move it forward and all the signs are he will do just that. His reward at the end of 2013 may well be a drive at Ferrari, whose close association with Sauber extends well beyond a supply of engines.
Hülkenberg’s new teammate, Gutiérrez, has spent plenty of time being groomed for a race seat as a reserve driver for the team. Sauber has high hopes for the 21-year-old Mexican, who won the 2010 GP3 championship and has since spent two years in GP2, finishing 13th in 2011 and third last season. He has tested for Sauber at the end of every season since 2009, but a sustained period of winter testing will be vital to his performance in the early races of the year. “He has always stayed in close contact with our engineers, which has allowed him to learn a lot about Formula One,” said Kaltenborn. “I’m in no doubt he is now ready to take the final step and put his outstanding talent on display.”
Sauber has a history of promoting new talent over the years, including Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa, Robert Kubica and Perez, and already there is another youngster waiting in the wings. Highly rated 21-year-old Dutchman Robin Frijns replaces Gutiérrez as the team’s reserve driver this season.