So it’s here, the 2015 Motorsport season kicks off proper this weekend with the traditional opening race in Albert Park, Melbourne (Now if we could just restore either Japan or Brazil to the finale that’d be great Bernie). The race has a history of upsets, the simple flowing track is a little tricky to overtake on but the walls are close, the cars are new and the circuit is a temporary track where the grip can change dramatically from session to session.
However while usually most eyes look towards the front of the grid at the beginning of the season to see who will be in the title mix, the spotlight this year however is on the back of the grid. Manor Marussia (I’m still not 100% sure what the official title of their chassis is) will complete their return to the sport after entering administration before the US Grand Prix in 2014. It will boost the grid to 10 teams and they will field Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi for the “opening rounds”. Mehri has a contract to race a second season in FR 3.5 which starts in April and is he is expected to still take that up after an impressive rookie season left him 3rd in the standings. The team will use a modified 2014 car that complies with the regulations until their 2015 challenger is ready sometime around Bahrain / Spain.
While Manor have pulled off a Lazarus act, Sauber have got themselves into a right mess. The team had a contract with Giedo van der Garde to race this year and people have suggested this would have been alongside Jules Bianchi who would come with cut price Ferrari engines. Van der Garde does have decent sponsorship behind him but after Sauber failed to score a point last year and the accident involving Bianchi has left him in hospital the team had to look elsewhere for drivers and more importantly, funds. The team snapped up former Caterham pilot Marcus Ericcson alongside Brazilian GP2 ace Felipe Nasr (who finished 3rd in the standings showing constant improvement over his 3 seasons), both of whom bring huge sponsorships to the table rumoured to be around 16 -18 million euros EACH! However the team apparently hasn’t been able to tie up the loose ends with Giedo who has taken them to court but unlike Adrian Sutil who will seek damages, Van der Garde has demanded a race seat for the year.
Surprisingly the courts in both Switzerland (where the team is based) and Australia (where the first race is) have agreed with the Dutchman who apparently should be racing this weekend. However it is thought there has been no seat fitting done as Giedo wasn’t in their plans for this year and now it has emerged that van der Garde hasn’t filled out the proper paperwork and doesn’t have a super license. This throws up yet more issues to a strange episode for the struggling Swiss outfit, who are the 4th longest-serving team after Ferrari, McLaren and Williams.
The team desperately need their current two drivers to race due to the sponsorship they bring but one would assume that Guido is also a pay drive so will be required to bring funds, a super license and a court injunction to race. Furthermore if Guido does race the spurned driver and their sponsors are not going to be too happy!
After the heroics last year at Hinwill where drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez claimed multiple podiums between them, it was back to reality this year for Sauber. Sergio Perez was snapped up by McLaren (before being dumped after a single season) the team moved to secure the services of Nico Hulkenberg who has been the midfield star over the past few seasons. Kamui Kobayashi couldn’t be retained despite being a fan favourite as the teams independent status means they have to look for sponsors and pay drivers. The Telmex sponsorship is a little of both, with Carlos Slim happy to part with cash for any driver as long as they are mexican thus Esteban Gutierrez was promoted from GP2 to partner the hulk for 2013.
Unlike 2012 the car was no match for the Pirelli’s and in the first part of the season it chewed its way through rear tyres like a Mercedes, however after the tyre change and a clever upgrade in Hungary the season turned around but the team couldn’t catch their rivals and well back to 7th place. Nico Hulkenberg scored the lions share of points as Gutierrez looked like a fish lacking copious amounts of water, the Mexican would turn things around somewhat in the latter part of the year claiming a single 7th place to put some points on the board. At this time however his team mate was scoring faster than anyone in the midfield recording a 4th, 5th and two 6th places in the final half of the year.
However despite this up turn in form, it was looking like the bank balance was heading the other way. It was revealed that Hulkenberg had not been paid at all during the season and the team were in serious trouble at one point with winding up orders asked for from various suppliers. The team have taken on some wealthy Russian backers but it may lead them to having to place Sergy Sirotkin in the car next season, which could be a disaster as he has little pedigree in even the traditional feeder series for the top flight. However this hasn’t discouraged Adrian Sutil from signing up in a straight swap for Nico Hulkenberg and will lead the team next year. His team mate is still a mystery and could depend on which set of foreign investors have the deeper pockets.
It has emerged over the past week or so that Saubers fiscal problems were very real indeed, after admitting that it currently was unable to pay its main driver Nico Hulkenberg and certain suppliers. This can spin out of control very quickly for a team as suppliers can withdraw parts and developments which makes the car slower in real terms (as F1 is always moving forward at a blistering rate).
It has taken a Russian firm the National Institute of Aviation Technologies to step in with cash and to develop the business outside of Formula 1. Sauber have been slightly left behind after being the BMW works team until 2009 didn’t develop complementary technology businesses alongside its race team in the way that Williams and McLaren have pioneered to great success. It also means that the owners son Sergy Sirotkin will be joining the team to “prepare him as a racing driver for the team in 2014”. Now at only 17 years old and his first campaign in World Series by Renault going steadily if not brilliantly one would imagine this will not be in a race seat but taking part in testing and simulator work.
It is good news for a team that have really struggled fiscally since the departure of BMW from the sport leaving them to try and find the budget to run a works size team with no other revenue streams. Time will tell if it will be enough with the huge price hike for teams next year with the new expensive “eco” engines and new rules.