When Esteban Gutierrez clipped the barrier on the inside of Rascasse and spun out of last weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix, no one would been surprised if the entire garage at the Swiss team let out a long howl of frustration.
The Mexican was in eighth place and heading for his team’s first poinst of 2014. He had started 17th, driven solidly, profited from errors and failures around him and had steadily dragged his C33 to the cusp of what, currently, would seem like a major result.
Instead, he ended up facing the wrong way at the pit lane entrance, from where he had a perfect view of Jules Bianchi rounding Rascasse to slot into a position that would eventually net the points that have moved the improving Marussia ahead of the Swiss team, which slid back into the forbidding territory occupied by similarly troubled Caterham. If the start of 2014 has been a dispiriting ride for the team, this was the moment the wheels came off.
The wider issues surrounding Sauber’s slump (from podium finishers in 2012 to pointless midway through 2014) are obviously deeply linked to shrinking finances, restricted resources and the steady trickle of talent away from Hinwil but while others in similar straits (Marussia, Lotus) have found ways around the strictures, Sauber appear mired.
Chief among the performance-related causes is of course weight. At the start of the season much was made of the C33’s weight issues, in large part blamed on its portly, Ferrari engine. Marussia, however, uses the same engine and has not been plagued by the issue to the same extent. Variously Sauber was reported to need to shed between 10 and 15kg of excess baggage and with 10kg representing 0.36s per lap the deficit to less hamstrung competitors was clear.
The team made substantial progress with a comprehensive update in Spain, with Adrian Sutil insisting that the Barcelona-spec C33 was “more than 10 kilos [lighter], which means you are three to four tenths (of a second) quicker depending on the circuit.”
It didn’t go the whole way to solving the problem, at least not for Sutil. As one of the grid’s tallest and heaviest drivers, Sutil’s car was still unable to make the minimum weight and the inability to play with ballast was lamented by the German.
“Obviously the lighter you are the better because then you can place some of the weight where you need it [on the car],” he said. “We are talking about a few more kilos, but I don’t want to say a definite number. It’s still quite a bit we have to find.
“The best situation is having another five to 10 kilos to play with and then you can really place it where you need it. Then you are in a good area. So we need to wait a little longer and reduce the weight quite a lot.”
While the weight saved in Barcelona undoubtedly helped the team at least keep pace with the gains made by rivals the aero upgrade that accompanied it, including a modified front wing, a new engine cover, new side-pod fins and deflectors, as well as software upgrades aimed at better performance for the sluggish Ferrari engine, failed, at least according to Sutil.
“The update in Spain didn’t really work. The only thing that really worked was the weight reduction,” Sutil to Autosport in Monaco “The biggest problem, and why we are not performing well, is the drivability of the car and the strange driving you experience with it.
“You can’t control it in certain races. In Barcelona, you went from tricky-to-drive to undriveable and tyres locking up, front, rear, oversteer, understeer, you have everything. And this is the worst thing you can have, you don’t know how to solve a problem; you just change it from one end to another. Then it’s just multiplying all the problems.”
The German also expanded on the braking issues that have plagued the car since its launch.
“It’s still a bit strange,” he said, “but I also think it comes from the loss of grip when we enter a corner.
“It might be somewhere else where we have to look first. Maybe the brake system is doing the right thing but we just haven’t got enough grip.”
The German added that the mood in the camp is pessimistic. “That’s where we are at the moment and we have to improve, we have to try to make it better. But it’s one of the most difficult starts [to a season]. It’s very, very hard to get out of it at the moment.”
With performance increases proving elusive, with the team potentially facing its worst season since it made its 1993 debut, with technical staff continuing to abandon ship (aerodynamicist Tony Salter is joining McLaren) and with senior figures still desperately clinging to the faded dream of a cost cap, the question is what does the future hold?
According to former privateer team owner Eddie Jordan the best option is to sell up. In 2005, crippled by sponsor pullouts or no shows, technical deficiencies and debilitating court actions, Jordan walked away from the team he brought to F1 in 1991 and last week suggested that Sauber should do the same.
“Sauber are in the biggest crisis they’ve ever been in,” he said. “It’s obvious that they’ve reached the point where it can’t go on like this. Before the damage is even greater, the best solution would be to stop and sell the team. I don’t say this lightly, but Sauber can no longer compensate for their disadvantages on the financial side, and also on the engine side as well.”
The situation at Hinwil may not be quite that drastic yet, and team boss Monisha Kaltenborn sounded a positive note saying “I am confident that whatever races are going to come now, with the updates we have and the understanding we have from the car, we will improve.”
There’s precedent for that. After all the team turned around a calamitous first half of 2013 (it had just seven points by round nine in Germany) to eventually score 57 points and finish a respectable seventh in the Constructors’ Championship. This year, though, is technically a very different animal and it may just get worse before it gets any better.