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Sauber’s preparations for new season rocked as technical director quits
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Posted By: James Allen  |  04 Feb 2012   |  4:58 pm GMT  |  47 comments

Sauber has lost its technical director, James Key, just weeks before the start of the new F1 season. The Englishman made a similar unexpected move before, announcing in late February 2010 that he was leaving Force India to take up the position at Sauber.

When he started work there, after a short gardening leave, he helped to stabilise the Swiss team after a start to the season riddled with reliability and performance problems. Sauber was struggling to adjust from being a manufacturer backed team under BMW to being a privateer again.

In both the last two seasons Sauber scored 44 points, which put them eighth in 2010 and seventh last season. Key, like his mentor Mike Gascoyne, is good at getting plenty of “bang for a buck”, as the saying goes, getting good results on modest resources in other words.


“I’ve enjoyed the past two years working at the Sauber F1 Team,” said Key in a statement. “It has been a very intense and interesting time, in which we had to manage the transition from a much larger team to a smaller one, and everybody handled that very well.

“I think the team is now well set for the future and I wish it the very best. I have been offered a new role back in the UK, which I decided to accept.”

Team boss Peter Sauber said that Key had played an important role in the restructuring of the team. But one of the drivers Sergio Perez, showed his true feelings, lamenting the departure a few days before the new car is unveiled and testing begins.

The Mexican posted on Twitter: “James Key’s exit from the team comes at the worst moment, but we have a great team and we will push forward. There’s a great year ahead.”

Sauber will now move to a new structure where the heads of the aerodynamics, design, performance and operations divisions will take responsibility for managing the technical development of the new Sauber car.

Key speaks of a “new role” and it’s interesting that several technical directors have moved teams recently, taking up other roles within organisations: Aldo Costa left Ferrari to report to the technical director of Mercedes; Sam Michael quit Williams to become Sporting Director of McLaren.

Key’s destination is not clear at present but there are several contenders in the UK: Mercedes are taking a wider view and there may be a role there; he worked with Gascoyne at Jordan/Force India and Caterham has been hiring some big names lately, while Marussia Virgin has moved to new premises in Banbury and is building up its capabilities as a constructor, after the failed outsourcing experiment with Wirth Research. Williams is also restructuring its technical department with many new names coming in.

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47 Comments
  1. anooj says:

    Rumour has it he may be targeting an LMP1 team in the US.

    1. KGBVD says:

      Funny, the article says that his new role is in the UK… How many American LMP1 teams are there in the UK?

      Force India made some big noises the other day about expanding its capacity to rival the big 4. I’d put money he’s heading back.

      1. anooj says:

        whoops! I meant in the UK not the US.

  2. james H says:

    with all the people moving from team to team in F1.They will soon have transfer windows like football.- LOL

  3. Kevin Green says:

    My money is on a switch to Marussia for big bucks or possibly even to strengthen up a very clearly ambitious Caterham.

  4. K says:

    Bad news for Sauber =(

  5. Chris C says:

    I read somewhere that he goes back to the UK. My bet is on Williams, they need someone to sort them out after the mess done all the past years by Sam Michael. Good luck to him and to Sauber

  6. Brent McMaster says:

    James do you think the way he dropped Sauber at such a crucial time will affect his future market value?

    1. James Allen says:

      Depends on what happens next

    2. db4tim says:

      I would hope so!!!

    3. Kevin Green says:

      That seems quite a silly comment, because if he does a good job at his next destination he is going to be attractive to other teams regardless. If you sit and think about it for 2 seconds his value can only go up if he is delivering regardless of when or where he moves to otherwise he would stay where he was!

      1. Brent McMaster says:

        It might seem silly if you have never needed to hire team players to accomplish your goals. I don’t think you thought about your second sentence at all; maybe he moved to be back in England to live at home, maybe it had nothing to do with his market worth.

      2. Kevin Green says:

        I would imagine it is more likely about either the Money or the Challenge (if deemed by him realistically achievable) different people different lures! Fair enough every team need team players whether long or short term BUT every team needs KEY team players i think that is more so where key fits in looking at his past.

      3. Brent McMaster says:

        Today it sounds like he just didn’t get along with Sauber (the organization)rather then being lured away by challenge or money.

      4. Kevin Green says:

        Not quite so sure lets see where he ends up yet and the Impact he makes :)

      5. Brent McMaster says:

        I’ll pass on the waiting; I’ll just go with Saubers statement, that “it wasn’t working out”. The only impact Key has made so far showed when he left Force India and they steadily improved.

      6. Kevin Green says:

        Yeah and there biggest step forward was with the car he was technical director in development of for that season in 2010 if anything since that season the progression has slowed slightly but for arguably better drivers. On that basis despite prev thinking it was likely to be Marrusia (challenge/cash) or Caterham (Ambitious team) Just wonder if he may be heading back to Force India. I note the reliability got poor towards the end of 2010.

    4. Quercus says:

      How many times do you have to jump ship before you acquire a reputation for being disloyal?

    5. Brisbane Bill says:

      Actually, the timing might be highly appropriate. The major design work on the 2012 car will be complete and the immediate future is about refining and upgrading to chase tenths of seconds. Sauber might simply not have the budget to do much of that this year, so James’s role would be a largely over until the development of next year’s car.

      Moving at this time of the year means that the team he moves to will also pretty much have their design work done for the year and the roadmap for the developments also pretty much sorted, so it gives James the best part of a season’s racing to acclimatise to the new team and get ready for developing the 2013 car.

  7. Rick says:

    Terrible timing for Sauber and a real shame! I hope they are able to adapt… I wonder if part of the reason for Key leaving isn’t being homesick for the UK, and feeling a bit isolated in Switzerland. The UK is the heart of F1 and that’s where the action is.

  8. Shame to lose a key member of the team. They might be locked out of the points without him! ;-)

    Puns aside, might be a tough year for them… though I hope not! I definitely do like Sauber.

    Key will be a great addition to whichever team he ends up at.

    1. A key member of the team – love the pun Malcolm.

    2. Chris Chong says:

      That was a very clever double pun :)

    3. Andy C says:

      Taxi for strachan?

  9. DS says:

    Key switch to Lotus F1 Team

  10. rvd says:

    These folks don’t have contracts??

    1. Michael Cassie says:

      Yes I’m sure they do but what can you do if someone wishes to work elsewhere. For what ever reason, be it money or being back in the UK. Keys doesn’t want to work at Sauber anymore.
      So the sensible thing is to let him go, stop paying him his salary and crack on with sorting out the 2012 car. If he’s done his job well, he’ll have the correct people in the correct positions and they can carry on doing their jobs. Maybe even they will want to try and get the empty position eventually, so it could be a winning situation for all.
      No one is indispensible. No matter what their ego thinks.

    2. Rich C says:

      No, not in professional ‘sports’ in general, and certainly not in F1 because it is the Pinnacle.

  11. Dan Orsino says:

    this is supposed to be the quiet season. James, now that Coughlan is back, with Williams, and Symonds with Virgin, can we expect to see Mr Stepney back in F1 as well?

    1. SpencerB says:

      And Flav. Where is Flavio??

  12. Davexxx says:

    James perhaps you could add a musical Audio File to such reports… since it’s F1 Musical Chairs time again ;-)

  13. Andrew Kirk says:

    Clearly there is no good time to move teams but is it better to leave a team before the season begins James? or at the end or the middle?

  14. Koby Fan says:

    Wonder if this was just formally announcing something already in the works at the end of last year – Had been wondering why James Key was absent from Sauber race quotes from the Korean GP onwards last year.

    I thought Ferrari with all their aero problems last year would have headhunted him.

    Hopefully it was an amicable split and he set the team on a good design direction this year before packing up. There were some painful errors last year with Melbourne GP points loss and no blown diffuser.

    Can’t see how any team can function for very long without a technical director – somebody with a technical background ultimately needs to makes the tough technical decisions to set direction.

    Fingers crossed that with new regs, the pecking order this season will resemble Silverstone in 2011.

    1. James Allen says:

      That’s the odd thing, they aren’t replacing him

      1. Brisbane Bill says:

        Tight on funds, maybe? Amicable split, given his role would be constrained by lack of funds to develop the 2012 car through the year. Peter Sauber to step in and run the show again (despite his desire to step away and enjoy the quiet life of retirement). Remaining technical staff to manage as a committee. Sauber to drift back into the lower ranks of the sport. Not what I want to see but what I fear will be the case.

      2. Kevin Green says:

        Absolutely agree as said in another post, Sauber clearly must find a major sponsor or decent funded buyer soon or its curtains that’s 3-4 complete years without a Golden owner or major title sponsor. That CANT last forever. unless they get the funding one way or another they will slip back and that’s the way i see them going throughout this season. Would imagine he would be looking for something similair to the tie in he had with BMW.

  15. Shaq says:

    “like his mentor Mike Gascoyne, is good at getting plenty of “bang for a buck”, as the saying goes, getting good results on modest resources in other words”.

    What exactly has Gascoyne achieved?. Zero points while at Force India and ZERO points after two seasons at Lotus. That’s a lot a air for the buck, cheap talk before the season starts only to fizzle out…. Too much hype for no output.

    1. James Allen says:

      If you look at what he achieved at Jordan and Renault

      1. Conor says:

        Very true James. If I recall correctly, wasn’t the pitbull heading the design of that fabulous launch control Renault used that made them fairly invincible in the early to mid 00′s. Gasgoyne gets results, there’s no doubt about that.

    2. Kevin Green says:

      Got to remember Shaq Force India have been on pretty much a constant upwards spiral since he was there and behond until now (got a feeling this season will be good too) and also Lotus/Caterham they pretty much instantly were and have continued to marginally be the best of the new 3.
      I feel that this season the margin between Caterham and the other new 2 is going to be more noticeable than ever, dont be surprised if we see them “caterham” knocking on the door of sauber Williams and Force India this season.

  16. Rich C says:

    So every couple of years he just up and bails on whoever? Not really a very good reputation to acquire.

    1. James Allen says:

      Not really, he was at Jordan/Spyker/Force India for 12 years. That’s a long time, also the longest I’ve ever stayed with one company (ITV)

  17. Ram says:

    sauber may take a further hit and may actually slide back behind Torro Rosso and Williams … they could be in danger zone of being over hauled by the Team caterham …. then they may be in some seroius trouble ..

  18. thomas says:

    “ZERO points after two seasons at Lotus”..!!!!

    With only months before their first season began, what did they have? Two employees, an empty building and a dream of Fernandes.

    Sometimes points are not the measure. They have moved forward, they appear to be a solid team and have SENSIBLE goals. Seems to me JA’a statement is more than accurate.

    1. Brisbane Bill says:

      Agreed. I think he has found his niche in developing teams to be competitive. Not sure he has the killer instinct to be a front runner though. Despite that, from what I see and read, I really like and rate him as a man.

  19. Charalampos says:

    Well if I remember Peter Sauber’s comments it looks like he believes that Key’s contribution to the team was mostly in the transitional period of the team from a manufacturing team to a private team. He could probably be right. There are cases where people are necessary at the beginning somewhere and after their initial contributions things can move on their own from then and on.

    I have no idea if this is indeed the case with key. Certainly it did look like his presence helped a lot Sauber at that period. Only time will tell.

  20. DC says:

    Strange that nobody here is seriously considering the option that he simply realized he can’t live abroad. An Englishman in a small Swiss town – not easy. Also, Swiss employment contracts usually demand a three month notice – the fact that this has been just announced doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t hand his resignation in long time ago.

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