It’s looking like a very competitive F1 season ahead, certainly as far as the midfield race is concerned, if the latest new car launches are anything to go by.
Sauber, which revealed its car on Tuesday morning, has been in the doldrums since BMW pulled out in 2010, although for a while at least they had teams like Caterham and Manor propping up the table behind them.
Last year was a real struggle and then came the cavalry in the form of a partnership with Ferrari for technical and commercial support, new Ferrari V6 engines and Alfa Romeo branding and cash.
The car revealed today looks a lot more purposeful and evolved than recent years, but one senses it’s a case of ‘more to come’ from this team, as the deals were done relatively late.
The car is a new concept, which means that there will be plenty of headroom for development.
But the time available after the deals were done, with meaningful resources being thrown at the aerodynamics in particular, was limited. It will be in the second half of 2018 and then into 2019 that you’ll see this team moving up.
The main difference between the cars at the front of the grid and the back – given that they have the same engine – is downforce. And not just barn door downforce, but efficient downforce which means maximum load in corners but without excessive drag on the straights.
That comes at a hefty price – the additional $90m or so per year that top teams can spent on R&D compared to the minnows, principally in the aerodynamics area.
In Charles Leclerc (above right) they have the most exciting driver to graduate from GP2/F2 since Lewis Hamilton in 2007, so the car should have opportunities to score some points.
Last year it was very close in midfield but with rules stability likely to close the gaps, that midfield does look incredibly tight this year and there will be a premium on the best drivers getting the results.
It’s early days and testing starts next week, but one would expect behind the top three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, a gap back to a tight group led by McLaren, Renault, Force India, Williams, then Sauber and Haas pretty close with Toro Rosso. It could be that a couple of tenths of a second separates 7th on the grid from 15th this year.
Commercially Sauber has added not only the Alfa Romeo branding, which looks great on the rear of the car, but also the tie up with Ferrari has brought new deals from Kappa, Carrera and Richard Mille, who backs Leclerc.
There’s no clarity on this yet, but one suspects that the lowest budget in the field is now Haas in the sub $100m range, with Force India not far ahead.
This team has been steadily ramping back up after buying back their operation in Enstone from Gerard Lopez’ Lotus concern.
There has been a lot of investment in infrastructure and hiring of personnel – albeit not on Mercedes or Ferrari levels – and the car and engine package should be a lot more competitive this season, with two strong drivers in Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz.
The German referred in the launch notes to “the news from Viry (Renault’s engine base, near Paris) about the development of the power unit… everything looks and sounds good,” which gives him an optimistic outlook for the season.
“The workforce has already increased by more than 35%,” added Renault Sport F1 president Jerome Stoll. “Our investment has so far been successfully translated to the track as we rose from ninth to sixth in the Constructors’ Championship in 2017 and ended the year with the fourth fastest car.”
Commercially Renault has pulled in new deals with insurance firm MAPFRE and Alibaba.
Jack Aitken comes in as third driver and reserve, which duties he will carry out alongside his challenge for the FIA F2 championship. Artem Markelov, an F2 front runner from last season, takes on a role as development driver.
What do you think of the midfield challenge? Leave your comments in the section below