Monday 5 March 2012

F1 2012 Season Preview: Sauber - More of the same?

Sauber are often characterised - perhaps unfairly - as archetypal midfield runners. They're always there, they make the best of the resources available to them and have a good record of giving young, promising drivers their chance. But on the flip side they never seem able, or willing, to reach for the stars.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
In addition to this, Sauber have a time-honoured tradition of, after producing a good car out of the box, gradually sliding down the competitive order as the season progresses, due to being out-developed by the teams around them (presumably due in turn to not having their money).

As with most assumptions in F1, there is only a certain level of truth in these. Coming in seventh in the 2011 constructors' table behind Force India, with excellent resources inherited from the BMW days, is indeed a rather underwhelming outcome. And Sauber did indeed slide down the order in 2011 in what looked like the classic style. But there were some peculiar circumstances behind all of this.

From their difficult, late post-BMW resurrection at the start of 2010, they made steady progress as that year went on, under the guidance of new technical director James Key. And they started 2011 in a similar vein, with at least one car finishing in the top ten in nine out of the first ten rounds (though a good points haul in Australia was taken away after a technical infringement).

Their subsequent slide can in some part be explained by the exhaust blown diffuser, which Key admitted was Sauber's 'nemesis'. They struggled to get the thing working from the outset of 2011, and then when Charlie Whiting announced the practice would be banned mid-season Sauber quickly abandoned their exhaust project. But, as we know, the ban lasted only a race, which left Sauber high and dry, weeks (or months) behind most of their rivals in what was the key development area of 2011. That their use of the Ferrari engine and gearbox dictated a rather conservatively designed rear end, as on the Ferrari, didn't help matters.

Sauber nevertheless start 2012 holding out some hope, even though Key left the team unexpectedly on the eve of pre-season testing. They've produced what looks like a tidy machine with interesting details, such as a slot on the rear face of the nosecone, like the Red Bull slot there presumably to reduce airflow separation, and an exhaust positioned to benefit from aerodynamic downwash directing the gases towards the diffuser.

And the car looks to have gone well on track. It's run reliably in testing and had good headline times, with both Kobayashi and Perez topping a practice session. Of course, lap times in testing, especially those of midfield runners, have to be taken with a barrow-load of salt (and it wouldn't be the first time that Sauber had produced quick pre-season times that evaporate mysteriously when it gets serious). But the team are making positive noises, and even Jenson Button singled out the Sauber's pace for praise.

The main problem is that they're part of a tight midfield, and all of the teams within it have reason for cautious optimism heading into the season. So, if everyone moves forward Sauber could end up back where they started.

As the season unfolds we'll find out if 2012 contains more of the same for Sauber, or something different.

Credit: Morio / CC
Kamui Kobayashi - Car #14
Kamui Kobayashi, in his short F1 career, has come to be widely and primarily associated with dare devil overtakes. This was especially so in 2010; in a race wherein passing was as rare as hen's teeth Kobayashi could be counted on to, one way or another, make his way past a few opponents and thus provide some entertainment.

This wasn't repeated in 2011, which led some to believe that Kobayashi had a poor season. This wasn't the case though. It was just different; un-Kobayahsi-like, if you will.

Sauber's race strategies, usually with fewer stops than those around them, tended to preclude attacking drives and overtaking. But Kobayashi adapted and started the season with a series of level-headed performances, displaying a necessary sympathetic touch with his Pirellis, and he finished in the top ten in each of the first seven rounds (only a disqualification in Australia, no fault of his, stopped him scoring points in all of them). At Monaco he came in fifth, and indeed was running fourth in the late stages, and in Canada he ran second for a time. This all left him with 25 points and only a single point behind the Mercedes drivers in the table after the Canadian round.

Things then tailed off for Kobayashi, in part reflecting Sauber's waning competitiveness. It can't be denied though that Kobayashi's drives became a bit scrappy for a time, especially in Hungary, Singapore and Korea. Nevertheless, he managed to get it all back together in the last two races, with a ninth and eighth place.

So where from here for Kobayashi? For starters, he could add more consistency and thus avoid his performance trough from 2011. But in a tightly-packed midfield and in an age wherein opportunities to join a front-running team don't come along very often it may be hard for Kobayashi to be noticed. What he really could do with is a return of the old fireworks.

Credit: Nic Redhead / CC
Sergio Perez - Car #15
Sergio Perez impressed many in his debut season in 2011. His season was characterised by a number of mature performances which scored him plenty of points, usually by stopping once fewer than those around him. Indeed, he announced himself to the F1 fraternity by pitting only once to finish eighth in his debut race at Melbourne (a result struck from the records by a technical disqualification that had nothing to do with him).

He followed this up with sensible drives rewarded with points in Spain, Silverstone, Singapore, India and Abu Dhabi. There was also nothing wrong with his raw pace, shown by him outqualifying the rapid Kobayashi by 11 to 7.

As might be expected from a rookie there were a few errors in there: he was penalised for a clash with Sutil in China, lost his front wing in Turkey, spun in Germany and got drive through penalties in Hungary and Spa (the former for passing under yellows, the latter for a clash with Buemi). His season was also set back a little by a big crash in Monaco qualifying (though it's worth noting that he performed brilliantly to get into the final qualifying session in the first place), which Perez subsequently admitted took four races for him to recover from. But it was a strong debut canvas all told.

It's no wonder that Ferrari are sniffing around for Perez to fill a race seat there from 2013. And for this reason 2012 is a pivotal year for him. At the age of 22, 2012 could shape his entire F1 career.

1 comment:

  1. Honestly I think Sauber is a real enigma. Two good drivers, pretty young both of them, but with great potential. I really like Kamui and Sergio as a lineup and their new car, OK, at least during pre-season tests the team was satisfied with their new challenger's performance, however, I wonder if they'll be able to keep the level and improve it. I really hope so, it'd be great to see Sauber struggling for victories.