- Monisha Kaltenborn exclusive interview
Swiss efficiencyLaurence Edmondson September 21, 2012
Sauber has arguably been Formula One's biggest success story of 2012. This time last year the team had 35 points and (excluding its time under BMW ownership) had not scored a podium since 2003. This year the team has scored 100 points and has three podiums from the last 13 races. The numbers speak for themselves, but with a limited budget and the threat of rising costs over the next two years has the team hit its peak?
The Swiss outfit's 2012 season is a case study of how a team can punch above its financial weight in modern Formula One. Moreover, such success stories are good for the sport and work to highlight the talent within the team, whether it's found behind the wheel or behind a desk in the design office. Several drivers and engineers in top teams have commented on just how "tidy" the C31 looks and its performance has been evident since the start of the year.
"We knew that the basis of the 2011 car was not bad and we knew its weaknesses," CEO Monisha Kaltenborn explained to ESPNF1 at Monza. "We focused on the weaknesses and I think the engineers have done a fantastic job to really overcome them. We are going to do a similar thing with this year's car for 2013; it's a better basis and we will continue to work on it so the new car will not be a revolution it will be an evolution of this year's car."
That's all well and good, but the current car was developed under ex-technical director James Key before he left the team around the time of the launch. He's now at Toro Rosso and Sauber is operating without a technical director in place. Instead, a triumvirate of tech bosses dictate the direction of the team with Matt Morris as chief designer, Willem Toet as head of aerodynamics and Pierre Wache leading vehicle performance.
"I think we have a strong history at Sauber of having people at that level - heads of department - and they have always been the backbone of the team," Kaltenborn said. "It is not very different at many other teams because Formula One has become so complex that you look at key areas, your aerodynamics, design and the vehicle performance, and you need specialists leading those.
"Any person above them would rely on them anyway, and I think they are strong, they have very strong teams underneath them. So it's not just about individuals, it's about the whole team and each department really being set up very well. With that structure I think it's working well, they are sensible and we are always discussing issues if one is not straightaway in agreement."
And if there is a disagreement, Kaltenborn, a former lawyer and one of the most powerful women in F1, is there to step in.
"Eventually it comes down to me because I am above these three people. But again, I must say that because we discuss so many things among the management we are all pretty aligned there. We see how things are going, we understand why they are going there and we are all there with enough experience of what to do."
It might not be the conventional F1 management set-up but you can't argue with its success this season. Even after Key's departure, Sauber's focus on identifying the downsides of its current car and evolving the strong points has allowed it to compete with teams with significantly more resources. Kaltenborn is hoping that success will not just manifest itself in points but also new sponsors.
"At the end of the day it is always about performance and that is what attracts any partner. If we are successful we know that we get more attractive, but unfortunately it's not so easy that you score a podium and the next day you have ten people knocking on your door and asking 'where can I sign the contract?' But it helps and it's the best way to convince people.
"If we are punching above our weight - I don't know where our weight is compared to other people - we are showing that we are very efficient. Everybody knows and we are very open about having limited funding and limited personnel, but still I think the team is doing a fantastic job."
There's every reason to believe that Sauber will continue to develop on its upward trend in 2013 with the C31 morphing into the C32, but new technical regulations in 2014 present a significant bump in the road. The looming introduction of V6 turbos has already forced most teams to start designing a completely new car two years in advance and Sauber is no different. The problem for teams with fewer resources, however, is that they are unable to explore as many development directions, and engine customers, such as Sauber, have the added difficultly of not knowing all the details of the engine they are building the car around.
"That's something that you always have to live with as a customer team," Kaltenborn explained. "You always have a certain disadvantage on the timeline and we of course could see that very well when we were a manufacturer team [with BMW] - you simply have quicker access to information because it's there. Sometimes in our case when things are not there, like now because of the uncertainties, it just happens that it's delayed and that's something that you have to consider when you are doing your own planning. There is always this slight time delay that you have."
To add to the uncertainties, Sauber has yet to confirm which engine it will run, although Kaltenborn said negotiations had started with current suppliers Ferrari.
"It's natural because of our historic relationship with Ferrari and the fact that they are our current supplier, that we talk to them first, which is what we have done. At the moment it's so difficult because there is so much uncertainty around certain technical details about the engines. We just hope that over the next few months these can be clarified."
So the change in regulations present a challenge for the likes of Sauber, but the Swiss team has been in the sport since 1993 and has run Mercedes, Ford, Ferrari and BMW engines in that time - essentially it's nothing new. Perhaps the bigger concern is the cost of the new powerplants, and even though Sauber has a strong history of running on a modest budget, Kaltenborn is still waiting to learn the exact costs of the V6 turbos and what that will mean for her team.
"There is no clarity on that. It's important for us to say as a customer team that we certainly do not want to go back to those times, seven or eight years ago, when the costs were so enormously expensive. Over these years and together with the RRA, although the RRA is chassis related, in that whole movement, including the engine freeze, we have seen F1 moving in the right direction. We don't want to take three steps back and that is definitely a concern for us."
Cost-cutting in general has been a key factor behind Sauber's recent success and Kaltenborn is understandably eager for F1 to continue to cut costs, be it through developing the Resource Restriction Agreement under the jurisdiction of the FIA or a budget cap.
"All teams have committed to cutting costs and they have to know the implications for their own positions if they want to change that," she said. "I think the route is clear and 10 of us have asked the FIA to help us in implementing the RRA, which they accepted, so for us that stands as it is, and we still believe the FIA will take action on this and that the teams will hopefully stick to what they have said.
"We will have to deal with it if they change their opinions, but fans will not understand this because there are many questions that come from the fans about why costs are so high. The other thing, looking at the overall economic development, is that it is becoming increasingly tougher for teams to attract sponsors into Formula One. So it is essential for Formula One also to portray that we are going down with our costs in the surroundings we are living in today in the world. So I think it has far bigger implications than just looking at your team and saying what car you are going to make because we have to look at the picture of Formula One and if it's no longer attractive we will all suffer."
The Sauber case study, therefore, is not only an example of how a team can bridge the gap between the midfield and the podium, but also useful for understanding the issues on the horizon for Formula One. Due to the paddock's hierarchical nature, the voices of teams like Sauber are all too easily drowned out by the din of the championship challengers, yet more often than not they are more in touch with the reality of the challenges the sport is facing.
Kaltenborn's message is clear: "Each stakeholder in Formula One should be aware that there are many teams out on the grid that are in a financially challenging situation. If you put further challenges you are making it more difficult for a lot of teams and Formula One needs more than just three or four teams."