It’s safe to say that Alfa Romeo‘s return to Formula 1 as a big-name player has been a steady success, although there is no certainty about its long-term future.
A deal struck last year saw current-spec Ferrari engines, Alfa sponsorship, a new colour scheme and Scuderia Ferrari‘s prized protégé, Charles Leclerc, arrive in the well-educated, picturesque and tranquil Swiss municipality of Hinwil for 2018. Formula 1’s tail-enders in 2017 have enjoyed the boost an extended Ferrari link has brought them, akin to the link-up between Peter Sauber‘s eponymous team and the Scuderia in the early to mid-2000s, the peak being fourth place in 2001.
For now, there is no chance of a top four standing in the Constructors’ Championship come Abu Dhabi this year or, one would expect, the next. But after a restructuring of its senior management, led by former ART Grand Prix and Renault Sport Formula 1 Team boss Frédéric Vasseur, the near future looks promising.
The tragic passing of Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne last month has placed Alfa’s link with F1 back into doubt, he was a key figure in bringing them back as a title sponsor due to a long-standing vision.
The early months of the season saw one ex-Audi Sport man join and another leave. Head of aerodynamics Jan Monchaux was the first big signing of the year, his past with Toyota, Ferrari and the aforementioned Audi may prove pivotal in Sauber’s hopes to rise back up the grid. Weeks later, Jörg Zander left the team for a second time – this time from his role as technical director, as opposed to his days as chief designer under BMW’s ownership of the team – after comments he made about the privateer’s “competencies and resources” to Autosport went down like a collision between two team-mates on track.
The positives from 2018 are overwhelming in comparison to a dismal 2016 and ’17. Two points finishes in the first four races – ninth place for Marcus Ericsson in Bahrain and a brilliant sixth for Leclerc in Azerbaijan – saw them double ’17’s points tally in a fifth of the time. A further five points finishes – including a ninth and tenth finish in Austria, the team’s first double-points haul since the 2015 Chinese Grand Prix – see them sit ninth in the Constructors’ Championship, 14 points ahead of the struggling Williams Martini Racing and 10 behind Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda.
The pleasing start has seen Vasseur and co. feel comfortable to freeze development on the C37 in favour of attacking 2019 on full blast from the start; a real statement of intent.
Additionally, usually in Leclerc, they have a somewhat regular berth in the final part of qualifying. How different it could have been had the engine deal with Honda, reportedly signed in April last year, been carried through.
9 | Marcus Ericsson | Points: 5 | Position: 17th | Best Result: 9th (x2)
Despite the attentions of Pascal Wehrlein – the Swede’s 2017 team-mate – and Leclerc’s fellow Ferrari reserve Antonio Giovinazzi, Ericsson kept his seat in Formula 1 for a fifth season – his fourth with Sauber.
The Bahrain Grand Prix proved to be a point of relief for Ericsson, a composed drive to ninth place marked his first points finish since the 2015 Italian Grand Prix, 49 grands prix prior. Since then, the 27-year-old has found the top ten in two more races – in Austria and the tricky German Grand Prix – to leave him sitting on five points after twelve races. If he can find a way to double that haul, he’ll surpass his highest tally over the course of a Formula 1 season.
Ericsson’s experience was invaluable for Sauber in the early stages of the campaign as FIA Formula 2 champion and graduate Leclerc struggled to find his feet for the first three races. In fact, the Monégasque’s mistakes and Ericsson’s assured drives even triggered some into doubting the 20-year-old’s credentials – most likely exacerbated by the former’s reputation as a (shhh, whisper it…) pay-driver.
As the season has progressed, the inevitable Leclerc takeover has happened but, on occasions, Ericsson has proved to be capable of keeping up. Four appearances in Qualifying 2 in 2018, including three in the last five races, is proof of that.
Although, as ever, Ericsson’s future beyond 2018 is unknown. Giovinazzi’s impressive post-Hungarian Grand Prix test performance and link to Alfa Romeo means that he is the most likely suitor for a Sauber seat next year. The struggling Stoffel Vandoorne is also a name that has been mentioned in the past month. However, with Leclerc scheduled to vacate the team, Ericsson is not out of the sport just yet. His healthy Swedish backing and five seasons of knowledge are excellent selling points.
16 | Charles Leclerc | Points: 13 | Position: 15th | Best Result: 6th
You have to be a very special talent to be regarded as a shoe-in for a Ferrari seat just four races into your Formula 1 career. It seems that each weekend, Leclerc makes further improvements and impressions in and on the sport. 13 points, five top ten finishes, three appearances in Qualifying 3 and numerous hard-fought battles with double-world champion Fernando Alonso are the highlights of his fledgling career. An impressive C.V. for a rookie in a team that looked to be on the brink of extinction before Ferrari’s December move last year.
The Ferrari seat looks unlikely to come in 2019, with new Ferrari president Louis Camilleri understandably unwilling to make a very bold move just weeks into his tenure. A promotion to the Haas F1 Team, in place of former Ferrari hopeful Romain Grosjean, is a more feasible option. A blessing? Maybe. Although throughout his time in karting, Formula Renault 2.0, the GP3 Series and Formula 2, Leclerc has shown that he is not one to shirk away from a challenge.
In fact, he has already had to show mental fortitude in F1. A quiet, but respectable, debut at the Australian Grand Prix was succeeded by a spin at a crucial point in Qualifying in Bahrain, leaving him nineteenth on the grid and issuing a shaky-voiced apology over the radio in the immediate aftermath. China proved to be little better and included another spin, this time at the almost perpetual Turn 1, in the race. He carried on, but those little errors – even for a rookie – can tot up and work against the offender very quickly.
His arrival was marked with a mature drive to sixth in another chaos-ridden race in the Azeri capital. Nearly two seconds faster than Ericsson in qualifying and impressive pace in his first stint ensured that he was the first in the queue to profit from those in front losing their heads. In Spain and Canada, he tussled with Alonso on his way to two more points finishes. Sandwiched in between was a low point, brake failure ended his home race in Monaco late on in spectacular fashion.
The return of the French Grand Prix saw the 20-year-old score his best grid position to date, with an ultra-impressive eighth at Circuit Paul Ricard, and add to his points total. In Austria, he turned seventeenth into ninth – albeit helped by an unusually high mechanical attrition rate.
That has been the last of his points scoring escapades. A promising British Grand Prix was ended by a botched pitstop and the dry/wet German Grand Prix saw him spin twice in tricky conditions. Evidently, there are areas to improve. Even Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have those. Brilliant speed in a car that is still lacking compared to the rest of the midfield, adaptability and a quiet confidence in his abilities will hold Leclerc in good stead in his – hopefully inevitable – rise up the grid.