NOVEMBER 11, 2000

Has Sauber lost his marbles?

HAVE you ever heard of James Matthews? Or Jean-Pierre Hoursourigaray? Ludovic Faure? Or Jean-Claude Perrin? No? Well, they all have one thing in common: they were all strong forces in Formula Renault at some point in the history of the sport.

HAVE you ever heard of James Matthews? Or Jean-Pierre Hoursourigaray? Ludovic Faure? Or Jean-Claude Perrin? No? Well, they all have one thing in common: they were all strong forces in Formula Renault at some point in the history of the sport. And none of them made it beyond that.

There were in the right teams and the right cars. And yet they did not have what it took to make it in Formula 3, let alone in Formula 1. Perhaps they had the talent but not the motivation. Perhaps they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It matters not a great deal because the fact remains that they all failed to break into the big time and that begs the question: why is Peter Sauber signing up Kimi Raikkonen to drive in F1 next year. The Finn has had just one season of competition in Formula Renault. His record of success was impressive but he was driving for Manor Motorsport, which knows how to prepare a good car. Before that Raikkonen was a better than average kart driver but his record was nothing to compare to a rising star like Giorgio Pantano (a man who Formula 1 teams seem blind to at the moment) despite the fact that he has proved himself by winning the German Formula 3 title at his first attempt - in his first season in motor racing.

So what is Sauber doing? And, more importantly, why is doing it?

The whole business needs to be put into context. Formula 1 team bosses are all smarting that they did not get their hands on Jenson Button before Frank Williams did. There is a feeling that the current crop in Formula 3000 are nothing special and that there must be other Buttons out there. This is a dangerous view but it is in vogue. Experience seems no longer to matter. The magic youngsters will make things happen and will be as mature as Button has been. This view should not be rejected entirely because there is no doubt that the professionalization of the sport has meant that young drivers are much more focussed and mature than they used to be. They are better packages. But are they quicker?

Raikkonen has the good fortune to be managed by a man called Steven Robertson. He is a former Formula 3 driver who was knocking around the British series when Mika Hakkinen and Mika Salo were winning races and then stayed on to be beaten by David Coulthard and Rubens Barrichello. Robertson was good enough to win British Formula 3 races (in the plural) but his career petered out later in America. His big advantage these days (aside from being very wealthy) is that his father is David Robertson, Jenson Button's manager. And in that situation it is easy to see how a management team could sell Raikkonen.

"If you think Button is good..." they could easily say, " should see the new kid."

Such things can open doors. But the driver has to deliver when he goes testing and it seems that Raikkonen did that. Or at least he impressed the members of the Sauber team. One of Raikkonen's biggest fans within the team is Belgian engineer Jacky Eeckelaert, who is head of development at Hinwil. He is a former racer up to F3 level and one of the few motor and chassis engineers in F1. He knows what he is talking about. He is convinced that Raikkonen is special. Jost Capito, another Sauber man, used to be head of Porsche Motorsport so he should have an idea about drivers.

If these two men are convinced Raikkonen must be pretty good. But then one might argue that his pace can only be judged against the men who drove for Sauber this year and neither Pedro Diniz nor Mika Salo are known for their outright pace. The cars were not great this year and so their motivation may not have been as high as it should have been, so a youngster might be able to make quite an impression.

The odd thing about Sauber signing up Raikkonen is that it is completely out of character for Peter Sauber, who is famously conservative in his approach to everything. So why the extraordinary move with Raikkonen? It is a good question. In previous Sauber would not have looked twice at a driver in Formula Renault but perhaps he has changed. One must remember that at the end of 1999 Peter split with his partner Fritz Kaiser because Peter would not take as many risks as Kaiser wanted to do. Could it be that now Sauber is over-reacting and becoming absurdly unconventional? It is not that he is under pressure from his sponsor. Petronas has signed up with the team for another seven years and there is no sign that the Malaysians make any demands about drivers. Red Bull could be different. Red Bull owns the team but does not control it. The Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz is selling Red Bull to youngsters all over the world. His advertising is based on danger and excitement. Extreme sports. Perhaps Diniz and Salo are simply not young and exciting enough. Mateschitz wants a Villeneuve. Perhaps Sauber is hoping that by getting younger drivers he can convince Matschitz to put more money into the team. Nick Heidfeld has joined the team from Prost and, without being unkind, he did not exactly impress with the French team in 2000. In fact he seemed to be rather out of his depth.

Whatever the explanation and the psychology behind the decision-making process, it seems that Sauber is intent on running Raikkonen in F1 in 2001. It is a risk but Sauber and his team seem to think it is one worth taking.

The Formula 1 world will be watching with interest.