Saving Sauber (but at what cost?)

Sauber is not the first team to run a driver in exchange for sponsorship money (in this case, from three Russian firms to secure a 2014 race seat for 17-year-old Sergey Sirotkin).  Nor, in fact, is this a new ploy for the Swiss team (see: Diniz, Pedro; as well as current #2 driver, Esteban Gutiérrez, who, despite the skills he possesses, might still be the team’s reserve driver if not for the millions pumped into the team by Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim).

sauberPhoto credit: Alex Comerford via Flickr

But just because so-called pay drivers (those who bring money to a team – paying for their race seat, rather than getting paid substantial* amounts to drive) have always been a part of F1 does not necessarily make them a good idea for the sport.  As we know, F1 is not striving for parity and the smaller teams are often hanging on by a thread.  When faced with the choice of folding up shop or putting a pay driver behind the wheel, the decision is usually obvious.  Unfortunately, those drivers’ skills are often less so.

[* Fernando Alonso’s current salary of $25M is “substantial” to you and I the way a Big Mac is a substantial meal for an ant.]

The problem, in this case, is that Sauber should never have ended up in this situation.  From TPL‘s (admittedly outsider) perspective, we cannot understand why a team that finished sixth in the Constructors’ Championship last season has failed to attract a title sponsor (in fact, Sauber has not had one since BMW pulled out of F1 after the 2009 season).  Aside from the BMW deal, Sauber has lost two major sponsors in the past decade: Red Bull in 2005, when the drink company bought its own team, and Petronas in 2009, when it became the new Mercedes team’s title sponsor (not to mention losing Credit Suisse during the banking crisis).

Still, Switzerland is home to 14 Fortune Global 500 companies.  Only six countries have more.  Sure, some of those companies are banks who were hurt by the same crisis, but what better way for a Swiss bank to let the world know that it is still open for business than pasting its name on the side of the only Swiss F1 car?  Maybe, with Swiss banking practices under attack, the country’s banks are trying to focus more on domestic clients?  So there is also Nestlé.  Can we get some of that chocolate money flowing into F1?

peter sauberPeter Sauber, owner of the Sauber F1 Team.
Photo credit: World Economic Forum via Flickr

Apparently not.  And that is why Sauber is now handcuffed to Sirotkin, currently eighth place in Formula Renault 3.5 (not usually a springboard directly into an F1 race seat) – if the Russian does make his debut in Australia next season, he will be the youngest driver in F1 history.  Maybe he will turn out to be the next Kimi Räikkönen, famously plucked by Sauber from another Formula Renault series, but he could also turn into another Alex Yoong, who bought his way into F1 with a nice Malaysian sponsorship deal for Minardi in 2001, started 14 races (finishing only six) and failed to qualify for three others.

With Nico Hülkenberg looking like a one-and-done proposition for Sauber at this point, a pairing of Gutiérrez and Sirotkin looks likely for next year.  In that case, Sauber may have found a financial saviour, but the deal that keeps the team in F1 might also leave it battling with Marussia and Caterham, rather than Force India and Williams.

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