Team: Sauber Ferrari (6th in 2012 constructor’s championship)
2012 Pilotos Corredor: Sergio Perez (66pts, 10th place in 2012 driver’s championship, now with McLaren), Kamui Kobayashi (60pts, 12th in championship, now auditioning for Japan TV Corp’s ‘Strictly Sideways’)
2013 Pilotos Corredor: Niko Hulkenberg (Car Number 11) and Esteban Gutiérrez (12)
New Car: The Sauber-Ferrari C32, a bold evolution with tiny little side pods, that may or may not be a very clever idea. Sauber will be hoping it will go as easy on its tyres as the pit-dodging C31; tactics were key to the team’s success in 2013.
What Sauber says about its 2012 season: “Did you see Checo? Did you see him? Did you? In Malaysia? In Monza? What a guy!”
What we say about 2012: Sauber won a lot of attention in 2012 but lost just about everything else; James Key, technical director for the probably-even-better-than-it-seemed C31 chassis, left at the start of the season; both its drivers Sergio ‘Checo’ Perez and Kamui Kobayashi (to McLaren and to charmless, heartless ‘best’ business practice respectively) at the end.
The Marilyn Monroe of F1 (don’t forget Sauber was once married to Mercedes-Benz and then later, BMW) also it saw its ‘private’ relationship with bit-on-the-side Ferrari go sour in 2012 over Perez who, even if Ferrari weren’t certain about, might still have liked time to find out before losing him to McLaren. So, new team boss Monisha Kaltenborn (yup, Peter Sauber himself retired in 2012) moved quickly to sign alternative Ferrari incubation case Hulkenberg and kept the Mexican supply line to Carlos Slim open with the promotion of Esteban Gutiérrez.
So who is the new boy then? Gutiérrez is the new Perez. He really is. He’s done enough in his short career to justify the comparison whether you are a fan of Checo or not. He is of course, insanely young at 21, barely having had time to win the GP3 series in 2010 before a 13th and a 3rd in the 2011 and 2012 GP2 series. Last year’s GP2 championship was very close and Gutiérrez is one of three drivers to graduate, Britain’s Max Chilton and Dutchman Giedo van de Garde the others. Neither the series winner nor the runner-up however have a race seat in F1 this year.
Make of that what you will. Gutiérrez can be fast and can be clever and gentle with his machinery (remind you of anyone?), winning two feature and one sprint race in 2012, but can also get it wrong (remind you of anyone else?) He’ll impress, but we also fear he’ll do nothing to improve the credibility of the rookies in the eyes of the ‘mature’ drivers.
What Sauber has to do to impress us this year: It’s 20 years since the team first raced in F1 as a quasi-works Mercedes team. 20 years and just one win, as the then official BMW team. And yet somehow last year was its best. So good that many reckon it could-have-should-have won more than once, suggesting losing Perez and dropping Kamui was not as crazy as it seems. Holding on to sixth in the constructor’s championship, keeping Force India and Williams behind them, would nonetheless be quite an achievement, but signing future star Hulkenberg will help. Finding a title sponsor an even greater one. The C32 is pretty, but it when it comes to sponsors, it’s vacant too.
If you pay any attention to testing… Hulkenberg sixth and Gutiérrez 13th in the last Barcelona test.
Who are Sauber really racing this year? Williams and Force India. Lotus if they’re lucky.