March 1st, 2013 (F1plus/Graham Keilloh).- Time was when you knew what to expect from Sauber. Its cars would be a firm midfield presence: good for a few points, excellent at introducing young drivers to the sport and developing them (e.g. Raikkonen, Massa), but not where you'd look for excitement, technically or otherwise, or for surprise results. A monolith within ever-changing F1. There was something rather reassuring about it all.
The year 2012 took that orthodoxy, scrunched it all up and discarded it in the nearest waste paper basket. When the Sauber C31 was launched before the season start there once again didn't seem a great deal ground-breaking about it, at face-level anyway. But in round two, in Malaysia, the thing flew and should have won. The team picked up three more podium finishes before the season was out, and on occasion looked plain the quickest thing out there, on race day at least. It was Sauber, but not as we know it.
There were lots of reasons for this, but the overarching one was that the C31, either by luck or by judgement, often had a magic touch on the fragile Pirelli tyres. Frequently the Sauber drivers would push while others had to rein back, carry on while others pitted. The car also from the get-go had Coanda exhausts, which would rapidly be honoured by imitation by almost the entire grid as the season progressed, as well as neat packaging around the rear.
It all added up to Sauber's most competitive season by far (not including its BMW days), as well as to sixth place in the constructors' standings, tantalisingly close to Mercedes ahead. Yet, for the team there was a tinge of regret at the end of it all. The feeling lingered that perhaps it could have had more. And apparently the team, rightly or wrongly, pointed the finger of blame mainly at its drivers, believing that the C31 was a better car than either Sergio Perez or Kamui Kobayashi tended to make it look.
But if drivers were the problem then the team can almost certainly be said to have fixed it for this season. Nico Hulkenberg joins the Hinwil squad, in a surprise move that can very much be filed under 'coup'. Hulkenberg towards the end of 2012 underlined that he appears absolutely to be made of The Right Stuff; it's not for nothing that he was and is touted for Ferrari and McLaren drives. And the new spirit of adventure at Sauber has carried forward into the C32 design for this year. It features by far the most outlandish piece of innovation of any 2013 car launched, with narrow sidepods designed to reduce drag and promote more airflow to the diffuser. Its braking system is all-new, and even a passive DRS is in development.
The most obvious problem resultant of the new sidepods would be marginal cooling, but it hasn't been so in the (admittedly cool temperatures of) testing thus far. Indeed, the Sauber completed more mileage than anything else in Jerez, and the third most in the first test in Barcelona. More generally though the car hasn't always appeared to observers to handle that well, is not looking quite as supple as many of its rivals, as well as perhaps not as planted at the rear. The lap times have a nothing special quality about them too. At the broader level Sauber this year has to contend without the highly-rated James Key, who left as Technical Director just before the 2012 season start. Also, F1 teams have a tendency to copy what it is that makes other teams quick - will any of Sauber's rivals be able successfully ape its touch on the Pirellis, thus depriving Sauber of its trump card?
Most pointedly, Sauber needs to demonstrate that last year was the turning of a new leaf, rather than an exception. Still, there is an unmistakable sense of purpose and ambition both from Hulkenberg and the team. It could be that boring, boring Sauber is a thing of the past.
Nico Hulkenberg - Car #11
Nico Hulkenberg seems to have adjusted to Sauber pretty well.
Is it at all possible that Sauber could have done better than sign Nico Hulkenberg to its driving staff? If we work on the assumption that Vettel, Alonso, Hamilton, Raikkonen and Button are out of the team's reach, at least for now, then the answer is probably no.
Hulkenberg's F1 career has been a slow burner, both at the aggregate level and within each season. Despite entering the sport's top level with a glittering CV from the lower formulae at Williams in his debut year he struggled initially, and squeezed rather a lot of crashes into his early efforts (though the effect of the testing restrictions on debutant drivers shouldn't be underestimated - I heard once that Hulk didn't match the mileage in an F1 car that Lewis Hamilton had before his race debut until the Hungarian GP of 2010, which also is when he started to do well, perhaps not coincidentally). He came on strong in the latter part of the year, culminating in blitzing Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso et al to take pole by a distance in damp yet drying Interlagos. However, finance meant he was shown the door at the year's end, consigning him to a year, absurdly, as a test driver at Force India in 2011.
In 2012 Nico got a race gig there, and once again he had a relatively low key start followed by him being devastating later. Early in the year he shadow boxed with his team mate Paul Di Resta, many indeed thought Di Resta was performing marginally the better of the two. But the summer break was the watershed, with the Hulk's performances after that putting Di Resta, and many others, firmly into their place. His drives were very quick as well as consistently so, and he showed no deference to reputation by running with the leaders like he absolutely belonged there, seen in Spa, Suzuka and elsewhere, going wheel to wheel willingly and overtaking decisively (which was demonstrated most notably in his double-pass of Hamilton and Grosjean in Korea). And once again his efforts in Interlagos were the crowning glory, as he led the race for 30 laps just like someone who does so habitually and looked pacy and confident especially at the points when rain fell and he, unlike most others, remained on slicks. That the drive was impeded by a later error when seeking to pass Hamilton for first place didn't take much of the gloss off. Indeed, that he was willing to grasp at the opportunity to lead, rather than sit behind and cruise to points, is exactly what we want to see.
And, following all of this, when looking at who'll be the next to join F1's elite group of regular front-runners and race winners Nico Hulkenberg genuinely looks the favourite to be it. Without disrespect to Sauber, it seems impossible that it will be the last stop-off of the Hulk's career.
Esteban Gutiérrez - Car #12
Esteban Gutierrez has had a good winter so far.
There are rather a lot of drivers like Esteban Gutiérrez on the F1 grid in 2013. Young drivers making their debut in F1, certainly not incompetent (going by the evidence of their junior CVs) but would struggle to get into the top 22 on talent alone. And, oh yeah, bringing a load of cash with them.
The links between Gutiérrez's accession, Sauber's Telmex sponsorship and the world's richest man Carlos Slim are lost on nobody. But can he cut the mustard as a driver? As mentioned, he's not an idiot, but his record in junior formulae is more patchwork quilt than magnificent canvas. It features GP3 and European Formula BMW championships won in some style and in his first year in each category. But between times there was an unspectacular F3 season, and last year his GP2 campaign was also patchy. He won three races and finished third in the final drivers' table, but there were also a few accidents in there, and frequently his team mate James Calado was the quicker. The feeling persists somewhat that the Sauber F1 opening has come a year or two earlier than ideal.
But Gutiérrez couldn't ask for a better environment for his debut F1 campaign: Sauber's record in nurturing young talent is a good one, and with most of the focus from outside on Hulkenberg he'll have some time and space to learn the ropes. Gutiérrez sounds ambitious and focussed in interviews, and to repeat a point that I labour, we just don't know how well a driver will do in F1 until they're actually doing it, the junior record is an inexact guide (indeed, he only needs to look at his compatriot Sergio Perez for evidence of this). And Gutiérrez has been impressing his team in testing so far with his speed and rate of learning.
Solid progress, some points and not too many accidents would constitute a satisfactory debut year for him.