Sauber have been successful in recent years despite a “pay driver” making up half of their driver line-up since 2011. Although there is no correlation between a driver that brings massive sponsors on board and agonizingly bad performances, it gets to a point where it has to stop…
There is no reason for a driver that brings big sponsors to lack genuine driver talent, but surely Sauber want to find themselves in the eventual position of not having to rely on a pay driver, given that this scenario would offer more freedom to choose who is driving for their team.
In 2012, Sauber finished 6th in the constructor standings and had arguably one of the most exciting line-ups on the grid. Sergio Perez brought big finances into the team, but had the talent to go beyond the bank balance implications, securing three podiums for the midfielders. Kamui Kobayashi didn’t bring big bucks, but his overtaking prowess saw an impressive 3rd place at his home Grand Prix at Suzuka. Perez finished 6-points ahead of Kobayashi in the standings, evidence that a driver with big sponsors isn’t necessarily in the sport just because they bring in lots of money.
Finishing 6th in the constructors brings a nice financial parachute to the team for next season too, but 2013 saw a big shake-up and Sauber opted for big sponsorship again. Perez took his services and Telmex money to McLaren, looking for bigger things. His replacement, the talented Nico Hulkenberg, who was poised for a ‘big team’ move (and still is), was the standout driver at Sauber. The interesting thing here is that Hulkenberg and Perez are comparable as team-mates now, and Perez edges Hulkenberg at the moment. When you realize that Kamui Kobayashi was closer to matching Perez than Hulkenberg currently is at Force India, you scratch your head in befuddlement at the decision to drop the Japanese driver.
Sauber didn’t admit at the time that Kobayashi was dropped because he didn’t bring enough money, but that’s pretty much the reason. He was so missed in 2013 that F1 fans raised over £1m for the driver to race next season. Sauber went for Esteban Gutierrez instead, who had a woeful campaign. Where Perez proved that pay drivers can deliver, Gutierrez proved the opposite. The team finished 7th in the constructors. Hulkenberg picked up the lion’s share of results and accrued 51 points over the campaign. Gutierrez managed 6 points.
In 2014, Hulkenberg decided to go back to Force India and met Sergio Perez there too after the Mexican suffered a McLaren masterclass in scapegoating. Sauber retained Gutierrez for no reason beyond finances and Adrian Sutil was brought in to be an actual driver. Kamui Kobayashi returned, this time with Caterham and his team-mate was a well-backed Swedish rookie called Marcus Ericsson. Engine woes and financial instability meant that both Caterham’s crossed the finish line on only seven occasions. Of those seven occasions, Kobayashi finished ahead of Ericsson five times. A driver that looks to be Sauber’s future was outclassed by a driver the team dropped because he didn’t have enough money.
Despite having the prize money from finishing 7th in 2013, the Sauber drivers looked flaccid and lethargic in 2014. Sauber scored no points, and still haven’t recovered. What went wrong? Simply dropping Kobayashi for Gutierrez was the biggest mistake in hindsight. How a team can publicly complain about a lack of funding after throwing away two seasons of midfield prize-money is beyond belief, especially when they’re getting an influx of pay driver sponsorship money. How do Manor keep going? And don’t even get us started on the Enstone team…
Sauber haven’t learnt their lessons for the future either. New backers Longbow finance are heavily affiliated with Marcus Ericsson’s current backers. They are inadvertently tied to the Swedish driver. It isn’t that Ericsson is a bad driver. Maybe he’ll improve? But he’s not exactly a Perez, is he? Felipe Nasr also brings big Brazilian sponsors, so the team have opted for a financial balance rather than a balance of drivers.
Ericsson will, without a doubt, stay at Sauber for the foreseeable future and I really hope the upgrades come and the team can be an exciting Formula One team again, instead of just a self-deprecating corporate misery-vessel . I hope that the new investors and/or Ericsson’s sponsors afford the team to pick a second-driver based entirely on merit. If they fail, they only have themselves to blame in that they’ve let too many drivers go in recent times for the wrong reasons. 2017 will hopefully bring conversations about performance and on-track excitement back to Sauber as another year of fiscal planning and private equity orgasms is something that racing fans couldn’t care less about.