2016 Season Review: Sauber F1 Team – Finances hinder track progress

Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson raced for Sauber in 2016 - Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

#9 – Marcus Ericsson – Sweden – 21 Starts, 0 Points, Best Finish: 11th (Mexico), Championship Position: 22nd

#12 – Felipe Nasr – Brazil – 21 Starts, 2 Points, Best Finish: 9th (Brazil), Championship Position: 17th

For much of 2016, it looked as though the Sauber F1 Team would have their second pointless season in three years, but a lucky break in the penultimate round of the year saw them break their duck and jump the Manor Racing MRT squad for tenth place in the Constructors’ Championship standings.

The team suffered for the vast majority of the season with an undeveloped car and extreme financial difficulty, and it was only until an investment came in the form of Longbow Finance did the performance improve, but it still required extreme wet conditions and a race of unpredictability to score points.

For the drivers it was a year that required a lot of patience, and it would have been understandable had the motivation of both Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr had wavered after race after race towards the rear of the field, but both persevered until the end.

The signs that it would be a difficult season were apparent early when Ericsson and Nasr qualified sixteenth and seventeenth for the season opener in Australia, and a year after finishing an amazing fifth on his Formula 1 debut, Nasr was the only finisher for the team down in fifteenth, while Ericsson retired late on with a transmission failure.

If qualifying in Australia was deemed to be bad, it was even worse in the second round of the season in Bahrain, with Ericsson seventeenth and Nasr twenty-second and last, and although they climbed to twelfth and fourteenth in the race, this was mainly due to the misfortune of others rather than an improved pace.

Both Ericsson and Nasr made it through to Q2 in China but could not better fifteenth and sixteenth on the grid. Nasr was involved in an incident at the start that left Lewis Hamilton with a broken front wing, and he struggled throughout to finish twentieth at the chequered flag, while Ericsson was sixteenth despite also finding himself being tagged on the opening lap, this time by Romain Grosjean.

Nasr qualified nineteenth for the Russian Grand Prix but this was still better than Ericsson, who started the race from the very back of the grid, although the Swede had the better afternoon on race day, finishing fourteenth to the Brazilian’s sixteenth, but it was a hard afternoon for both drivers at the Sochi Autodrom.

The Spanish Grand Prix once again saw the team struggle, with Ericsson and Nasr locking out the penultimate row of the grid, ahead only of Manor duo Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto, and they finished twelfth and fifteenth, either side of the two Renault Sport Formula 1 Team drivers Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen, despite almost colliding heading into turn one on lap forty-four when the Swede locked up and almost collected the Brazilian.

Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson collided in Monaco – Credit: Sauber Motorsport AG

If the team had endured five tough races already, the Monaco Grand Prix at the end of May was probably the lowest point of their season. Qualifying started badly for Nasr when his engine expired before he was able to post a time, while Ericsson also found himself eliminated at the first hurdle in seventeenth. However if qualifying was bad, the race was a horror show.

Ericsson was showing better pace than his team-mate but was stuck on his tail, and the team handed some instructions to Nasr to allow the Swede through, only to for the Brazilian to reject the request. This made Ericsson take things into his own hands, attempting an optimistic overtake heading into La Rascasse on lap fifty, only to collide with Nasr and force both drivers out of the race, much to the disgust and humiliation of Team Principal Monisha Kaltenborn, who laid the blame on both drivers. The stewards took a slightly different view and handed Ericsson a three-place grid penalty for the Canadian Grand Prix for causing a collision.

Qualifying for the race at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve saw another double elimination in Q1, with Nasr starting eighteenth and Ericsson twenty-first following his penalty. Both had quiet races, but unfortunately Ericsson’s fifteenth place was the best the team could achieve, with Nasr down in eighteenth.

Formula 1’s first visit to Azerbaijan for the European Grand Prix did not change the team’s fortunes, although Nasr did make it through to Q2 to start sixteenth, with Ericsson down in twentieth. Nasr took his best result of the season to date in twelfth with Ericsson sixteenth, although both were never anywhere near the points scoring positions all afternoon long.

Ericsson and Nasr were the slowest in qualifying for the Austrian Grand Prix, although grid penalties for others promoted the Swede to eighteenth on the grid and the Brazilian to twenty-first. Nasr ran as high as seventh during the race before the pit stops played out, and he finished down in thirteenth, with Ericsson two places further back in fifteenth. With Wehrlein scoring a point for Manor, this saw Sauber drop to the bottom of the Constructors’ Championship standings.

Ericsson crashed in final practice for the British Grand Prix after hitting a wet patch on the exit of Stowe corner and ended up missing qualifying, while Nasr once again ended slowest of everyone, four-tenths behind Manor’s Wehrlein. The Swede’s race ended after just eleven laps with an engine issue, while Nasr soldiered on until the end but could only finish fifteenth.

The team secured their future in Formula 1 after the race at Silverstone when they announced that Longbow Finance had invested in the team. Kaltenborn was confirmed to remain as Team Principal and CEO as part of the deal, but team founder Peter Sauber would step down from the board.

Ericsson also crashed during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, which was held in tricky wet conditions, with the Swede setting the twentieth fastest time despite ending his session in the turn ten barriers, while Nasr made it through to Q2, but again couldn’t better sixteenth on the grid. It was another terrible race day for the team as well, with Nasr dropping a place to seventeenth at the chequered flag, with Ericsson twentieth.

The German Grand Prix, the final race before the summer break, saw the team once again end at the back of the pack, with Nasr ahead of Ericsson, but only the Swede saw the chequered flag down in eighteenth after Nasr was forced to retire with ten laps to go with a mechanical issue that saw him stop at the entry of the pit lane.

Marcus Ericsson failed to score in 2016 but will remain at Sauber in 2017 – Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

The first race after the mid-season break at Spa-Francorchamps saw Ericsson taking a ten-place grid penalty for an unscheduled engine change but it meant no difference to his grid slot, with both Hamilton and Fernando Alonso both taking multiple penalties of their own, meaning a twentieth place starting position, while Nasr again was up in sixteenth, but it was another race of disappointment for the team, with another engine issue ending Ericsson’s race early while Nasr was the final classified finisher, finding himself behind Manor’s Esteban Ocon after taking a five second penalty during his final pit stop for track limit offences.

Eighteenth and nineteenth on the grid is all the team could muster for the Italian Grand Prix, with Nasr ahead of Ericsson, but the Brazilian’s race was brief after an early clash with Palmer that damaged his car. The stewards deemed Nasr responsible and handed him a time penalty, but Sauber cheekily sent him back out on track to serve the penalty before retiring him for good to prevent a possible grid penalty for the next race. Ericsson had a much quieter afternoon, but he ended his afternoon sixteenth.

It was Ericsson’s turn to advance to Q2 for the Singapore Grand Prix, qualifying sixteenth, which would become fourteenth thanks to penalties to Sergio Perez and Grosjean, while the same penalties promoted Nasr to that sixteenth! Nasr had the better race to finish thirteenth, with Ericsson down in seventeenth.

It was back to both cars being eliminated from qualifying in Q1 in Malaysia, with Ericsson ahead of Nasr in seventeenth and eighteenth, with the Swede equalling his best finish of the season so far in twelfth on race day, and although Nasr was forced to retire, he was not anywhere near his team-mate’s pace throughout the race. The team locked out the penultimate row of the grid for the Japanese Grand Prix, ahead of just the two Manor drivers, and it was not much better on race day, with Ericsson fifteenth and Nasr nineteenth.

For the United States Grand Prix, Ericsson started sixteenth and Nasr twenty-first, and the Swede ran as high as eleventh and on the verge of the points on an attacking one-stop strategy, but dropped to fourteenth by the chequered flag as others capitalised on his struggling tyres, just ahead of Nasr in fifteenth.

Ericsson was able to qualify fifteenth for the Mexican Grand Prix but drove one of his strongest races of the year despite finding himself facing the wrong way at turn three on the opening lap with a broken front wing. He found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time on the outside of both Wehrlein and Esteban Gutierrez, but made one set of tyres last from the beginning of lap two until the chequered flag to finish eleventh. Nasr went the other way on strategy, making his one and only stop on lap forty-nine but could do no better than fifteenth.

The Brazilian Grand Prix looked as though it was going to be another struggle for the team, with Ericsson and Nasr again on the back row of the grid following another unhappy qualifying session, but the weather would play into the team’s hands come race day. Ericsson may have been a casualty in the heavy rain as he crashed on the run down towards the start/finish line, his car coming to rest on pit entry, but Nasr drove a storming drive, staying on the full wet tyres when others ahead of him gambled on Intermediates. The Brazilian moved into the points paying positions early on, and despite a few quicker drivers finding their way ahead, he was able to hold onto ninth place at the chequered flag, scoring two points and moving them back ahead of Manor in the standings.

Sauber went into the season finale in Abu Dhabi hoping that Manor would not score points again, but when Ocon and Wehrlein could only finish thirteenth and fourteenth, their position in the championship was secured, despite Ericsson and Nasr finishing the year down in fifteenth and sixteenth.

Felipe Nasr scored two points in the wet Brazilian Grand Prix – Credit: Sauber Motorsport AG

Tenth place in the championship is not what the Sauber team would have been hoping for at the beginning of the season, but the result in Brazil prevented a pointless season. The financial struggles the team had prevented any developmental progress, but as soon as the investment came from Longbow Finance, updates were added to the car, and results did improve.

Ericsson drove well all season and was rightfully handed a new contract for 2017 despite failing to break into the points, although Nasr showed more frustrations and was more outspoken about the performance of the car. He remains in with a chance of staying with the team for a third season, but rumours are around that Mercedes are looking to place Wehrlein with the team.

There should be some improvement, at least with the chassis in 2017 due to the financial situation being less critical, but the choice to use the 2016 Ferrari engine might just come back and haunt them. What can be guaranteed is that the team will not settle for another season like in 2016, they are much better than that.