Peter Sauber, owner of the eponymous Formula 1 team, has been reflecting on an interesting year for the Hinwil-based outfit, and looks ahead to next season.
Just over a year ago, Sauber, 67, brought the team he founded back from BMW. But was it a decision he regretted at any point?
“No, never,” he insisted. “And I never will, although I knew that keeping the team alive would be a very difficult task. But if I hadn't taken the plunge, every day I'd have been asking myself why. We've cleared one obstacle after another from our path; when I compare the situation a year ago to where we are today, everybody in the team can be proud of what we've achieved.”
It certainly looked like a questionable decision when the white cars turned up in Bahrain bereft of sponsors logos, and then fell victim to a number of reliability problems and accidents in the opening round, taking until Round 7 in Turkey to collect their first point of 2010.
“That was tough, no question,” said Sauber, looking back at the early races. “The car was not only too slow, it was also unreliable, which is extremely unusual for this team. And then, as so often happens in sport, we also had a fair amount of bad luck. That wasn't just annoying, it also made negotiations with potential sponsors pretty much a non-starter.”
However, despite the tricky start, the team’s fortunes improved. The European Grand Prix in Valencia. saw Kamui Kobayashi claim seventh place, and he finished one place higher a fortnight later at Silverstone. Sauber is clear what the catalyst for this improvement was.
“In April James Key took over as Technical Director and achieved a great deal in a short period of time,” he said. “[Key] and his team identified the weaknesses of the C29 and laid down a clear roadmap for improvements. These ideas were quickly put into practice and had a positive effect.
“After collecting just a single World Championship point in the first eight races of the season, we added another 36 over the next eight GPs – plus seven in the final three races. Added to which, James also implemented a series of organisational changes.
“Our success in finding a way out of such a difficult situation over the course of the season represents a fine advertisement for the quality and spirit within the team.”
Sauber also explained why he replaced Pedro de la Rosa with Nick Heidfeld for the final five races of the season, insisting that, with added benefit of hindsight, he would make the same decision again.
“We were [before the race in Singapore] in a situation where we didn't know how far we had come in terms of performance,” he reasoned. “Both drivers [Kobayashi and de la Rosa] were new to the team, we didn't know them very well and we didn't know how good the car was. What we were missing was a reliable benchmark. We know Nick well after working with him for many years, and that allowed us to gauge the progress of various elements.”
As well as the praise he has for Heidfeld, Sauber also holds Kamui Kobayashi in high regard. The Japanese driver won over a lot of critics after his exciting drive, packed with overtaking manoeuvres, at his home grand prix in October.
“Kamui inspires us all within the team,” said Sauber. “His refreshing, attacking style really puts a smile on your face. You can tell from reactions in the stands that the Formula One fans love him too; his overtaking moves are always great to watch.
“However, it would be doing him an injustice to only focus on this aspect of his driving. Kamui is also a very clever driver and understands how to put a pre-defined strategy into action. He's progressed wonderfully well this year and I'm certain that there's more to come from him in the future.
“When I signed him a year ago, I had to put up with critical comments from some experts. But my gut feeling told me that Kamui was something special. And today I'm just delighted to have him in the team.”
Next year Kobayashi will be partnered by Mexican rookie Sergio Perez, leading some to question the risk of having two relatively inexperienced drivers within the team. However, Sauber points out that he has a good record of introducing rookie drivers to the sport, and getting the most out of them.
“I'm confident that we're going into next year in good shape from a driver point of view,” he said. “Kamui has also made big steps forward this year on the technical side of things, and I have no doubt that he will continue to grow with his new responsibility.
“Sergio is brimming with talent. For him, it's a question of learning quickly. Here, he can pick things up from Kamui in the same way that Kamui did from Pedro and Nick.
“Plus, it's worth remembering that 2001 was one of the most successful years to date for Sauber – and that season we had a rookie by the name of Kimi RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen alongside Nick, who was in only his second year in F1, as our drivers.”
And what of the car that the two drivers will be competing in next season? Peter Sauber says that everything is running to schedule:
“The development of the Sauber C30-Ferrari is running according to plan. We're setting our sights high, and things are looking good so far. James Key has proved in the past that he knows how to build fast cars. All the changes to the technical regulations – including the ban on double diffusers, the introduction of Pirelli tyres, adjustable rear wings and the option of using KERS – make this a particularly exacting challenge this year.”
There have been discussion in the paddock as to how long Sauber will continue in the sport. After all, he has already retired once. However, Sauber insist his first priority is securing the teams’ future, and only then will he think about hanging up his pit wall headphones.
“I own 100 percent of the team and there are at present no plans to sell the team or any part of it,” he insists. “Our partnership with Telmex (the Mexican telecommunication company), which will come into force on 1st January 2011, does not include any kind of stakeholding and is purely a sponsoring agreement.
“A year ago I said that I didn't want to remain on the pit wall when I turned 70. That's still the case, and I'm now 67. The critical thing for me is to ensure that we bring even greater stability to the team and that we have a financial basis on which to move forward from a sporting point of view. When that is in place, the time will have come for me to take a step back.”