DECEMBER 22, 2003
Review of the Year: 6th - Sauber Petronas
Fourth in 2001, fifth in 2002, sixth in 2003 the trend at Sauber in recent years has not been what Peter Sauber would like to see but given the resources of the team and the fact that it does not have manufacturer engines, the Swiss are doing remarkably well, particularly when one considers that the team gets only 2500 hours of wind tunnel work each year while the big teams are getting up to 8000. The team concluded several years ago that the big weakness was in aerodynamics as the Schweizerische Flugzeugwerke wind tunnel in Emmen was just not up to the job and so embarked on a plan to build the best wind tunnel in the business. In the interim the team rented time at the Lola wind tunnel in Huntingdon, a former British Aerospace facility. The construction of the $55m wind tunnel at Hinwil was completed too late to have any input in the 2004 car but as soon as the facility is commissioned it will be used for development work.
In the circumstances it was not really surprising that the C22, which began running in January, was soon whispered to have aerodynamic problems. It was a completely new car, with no carry-over from C21 but the increasingly complex world of F1 aerodynamics caught out a number of teams which did not have the latest sophisticated wind tunnel equipment. It should be added that the team's performances was not helped by the fact that the Michelin tires were generally rather better than the Bridgestones.
Early in the season this was not yet obvious and in Melbourne Heinz Harald Frentzen was able to take fourth place on the grid and run a strong race to finish sixth. There were further points scored by Nick Heidfeld in Malaysia and Frentzen in Brazil and after three races Sauber was one of only three teams to have scored points in each race (along with McLaren and Renault). However a fifth, a sixth and an eighth place was not quite as competitive as Sauber had been hoping for and even then the team was searching to solve the aerodynamic problem.
And then in the midseason the team suffered a plague of mysterious engine failures, which put paid to any chance of results and worried the team because for most of the long relationship between Sauber and Ferrari the engines have been trouble-free. Given the amount of money being paid for the engines such failures were not acceptable and Ferrari quickly got on top of the problem, although the damage was done. By the middle of the year we had forgotten that Sauber had been a serious threat for points. The team looked like also-rans and everyone was confused and depressed. Sauber began to look for a new combination of drivers for 2004, reckoning that the two Germans had not achieved as much as they should have done. For the drivers it had not been easy but there were mistakes, which did result in lost opportunities. But at the same time when the right opportunity presented itself, Frentzen and Heidfeld both rose to the challenge and at Indianapolis took advantage of Bridgestone's good wet tires to finish third and fifth. The result vaulted Sauber back up to sixth, having previously been a solid ninth in the point standings.
In the course of the year the team did some more soul-searching about the future but concluded once again that its relationship with Ferrari was the best way forward and there were rumors in the months that followed that the relationship will be strengthened still further in 2004 with Ferrari to include not only engine technology but also chassis know-how as well. This would give Ferrari an extra ally in the battles with McLaren and Williams and could help to improve the tire development work that is done with Bridgestone. The explanation for the lack of Bridgestone performance was that there was not enough tire data coming in from different teams and a closer relationship with Sauber would thus help Ferrari and Bridgestone. We will have to see how similar the new Sauber is to the old Ferrari before we can judge how close the new relationship has become.
Clearly the relationship is getting closer as Sauber has recently confirmed that Ferrari can use both of its 2004 driver for testing purposes if the Italian team chooses to do so. Felipe Massa is to continue as a regular Ferrari test driver come what may and it is possible that Giancarlo Fisichella will be called in as well.
At Hinwil now there is much excitement that the new wind tunnel will give the team enough to break through into the front ranks again but as competition is tough, Sauber may have to be satisfied waiting until the manufacturers get bored with F1 and leave the sport. When that happens the team will be in a very strong position as it will have much better facilities than many of its rivals.
Peter Sauber continues to enjoy a fine reputation as a team owner, which is why new sponsors always look to the team while other teams are treated with a little more caution. This explains Peter Sauber's impressive sponsorship portfolio which includes Russian telecom firm MTS Systems, which is partly owned by Deutsche Telekom, Petronas, Credit Suisse and Red Bull.
There is a message in there somewhere for other team bosses but most never seem to learn that being honest and transparent is a good way to attract big corporations.
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