Background: What Alfa Romeo Sauber means

Background: What Alfa Romeo Sauber means

4 December 2017 – Alfa Romeo Sauber launched its Formula 1 programme during a glitzy launch at its museum on the weekend. GPUpdate.net analyses the collaboration and takes a look at the involved parties. 

Ferrari Chairman Sergio Marchionne, Sauber Chairman Pascal Picci, FIA President Jean Todt and Formula 1 CEO Chase Carey all took to the stage to deliver speeches and predictable platitudes – in Italian and English – at Alfa Romeo's Museo Storico in Arese, signifying the importance of the marque's return to Formula 1 after a 30-year absence. Alfa Romeo, part of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, has been pushed in recent years by CEO Marchionne, with the brand's Formula 1 comeback mooted for several months. It marries an iconic company with one of Formula 1's longest-serving teams, providing machinations on both a sporting and political level.

Sauber

Sauber benefited from its partnership with BMW in the late 2000s but the global financial downturn and lack of title-challenging success prompted the manufacturer to withdraw. Sauber regressed to the midfield, took podiums in 2012, but the new-for-2014 regulations proved disastrous, as a woeful chassis was fitted with Ferrari's underperforming power unit, while ongoing financial issues were accentuated. The negative spiral almost led the team to cease competing early in 2016, before new owners Longbow Finance came onboard, with founder Peter Sauber retiring. Team Principal Monisha Kaltenborn instigated a collaboration with Honda from 2018 but disagreements over the operation's direction triggered her departure, with Frédéric Vasseur installed in her place to steady the ship. Vasseur cancelled the Honda partnership and renewed with Ferrari, returning to current-year power units, as he also set about structural changes in order to guide Sauber out of its malaise. The deal with Alfa Romeo enables Sauber multi-year commercial and technical opportunities – giving it the boost it requires to extract the maximum from its facilities in Hinwil. It is the best possible situation Vasseur could have hoped for when he assumed control of a listing team in June – it, not Haas, is now Ferrari's B-team. Sauber has a long way to go to catch the midfield – it finished 25 points behind McLaren in 2017 – but the building blocks are now in place.

Drivers

For several months, runaway Formula 2 champion Charles Leclerc has been a shoe-in for one seat, such was his dominance of the feeder series. Leclerc stole the narrative at each round, displayed stunning pace, and demonstrated maturity and character to triumph amid adversity – none more so than in Baku, just days after his father's passing. Leclerc thus rose to the top of Ferrari's pecking order. It left the second seat up for grabs, between Marcus Ericsson and Antonio Giovinazzi, with Mercedes protégé Pascal Wehrlein out of the equation. Ericsson's affiliation with Longbow Finance proved advantageous and he was given the nod over Giovinazzi, thus indicating that Ferrari was either not willing, or not able to provide enough of a cash injection. Ericsson was frequently a match for Wehrlein in 2017 and will provide Leclerc with a stable benchmark, while Giovinazzi at least remains in the fray. Giovinazzi, after an impressive Australia showing, overstepped the mark in China and often during Haas practice runs, but a reserve deal with Sauber – including six FP1 runs – is positive, even if two years out of a full-time race seat is not. Nonetheless, he is well positioned for 2019 if Ferrari deems Leclerc strong enough for the senior team, or Ericsson departs.

Alfa Romeo

Under Marchionne's stewardship, Alfa Romeo has been pushed in recent years in order to drive the brand towards a younger audience. Marchionne repeatedly spoke of his desire to bring Alfa Romeo back to the sport and he has now done so with Sauber. Alfa Romeo competed in Formula 1 from the outset, taking titles with Nino Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio, but exited after 1951. It competed as a constructor from 1979 to 1985, taking a pole and a handful of podiums, though never reached higher than sixth in the standings. Its engine supply to Brabham yielded wins in 1978 but a further partnership with Osella resulted in just two points in five years, and Alfa bowed out after 1987. Alfa's presence in motorsport since has been more associated with touring cars, but next year provides the marque with an opportunity for global exposure once again. Alfa's logos will feature prominently, it has title sponsorship, plus Sauber's 2018 package will be painted largely in its colours. While Sauber remains the constructor, no doubt many will refer to Alfa's presence – and it is substantially cheaper for Alfa – FCA – than acquiring the team.

Ferrari

Having been in danger of losing Sauber to Honda for 2018, Ferrari now has a strengthened partnership with the operation – representing a well-executed turnaround. Haas has not been clamouring to form a stronger reliance with Ferrari, instead burrowing ahead with its own ambitions. "Time will tell," said Marchionne with a wry smile on whether the Haas/Ferrari relationship could change, suggesting that it will be status quo for a long while yet. While the Sauber/Alfa deal can be interpreted in FCA ramping up its involvement in Formula 1, it also gives it greater leverage when it comes to the much-anticipated discussions with fellow manufacturers, Liberty Media and the FIA over the sport's future. Marchionne has already issued the expected Ferrari quit threat, and its presence at Sauber means it now has its fingers in another pot. A diplomatic Carey outlined Liberty's desire, and Ferrari/Alfa's iconic status, during the press conference, and there are several chapters of discussions to take place across the coming months and years. Very few believe Ferrari will ever carry through its quit threat – and there are multiple board members and more influential figures above Marchionne in the hierarchy, meaning he will not have his finger above a big red button – but at the very least one pawn has been moved in Alfa's alliance with Sauber.

Written by: Phillip Horton

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