F1 Testing: Could Sauber's Pace Be Real?

James BroomheadAnalyst IFebruary 3, 2010

VALENCIA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 03:  Pedro de la Rosa of Spain and BMW Sauber drives during winter testing at the Ricardo Tormo Circuit on February 3, 2010 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

F1 testing never fails to throw up more questions than it puts down answers, and this year is no different.

Thanks to the preseason tests being unofficial, we have no way of knowing what teams are testing what and, most importantly, on what fuel loads.

We only have what the teams tell us in their interviews and press releases, and you can pretty much guarantee they never tell the media everything.

Every year there are surprises, a team or an individual driver being fast or slow.

This year that surprise, at least after three days at Valencia, are Sauber.

They unveiled their new car, the C29, on Monday in a launch I compared to delivering a baby in the carpark of a budget supermarket.

However, since then the child has grown up rapidly and seems to be filling out an application for a top university (I’ll stop the analogy now).

On each of the three days the new Sauber, variously in the hands of Pedro de la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi, has turned the second fastest lap time behind Ferrari.

This, of course, brings up the perennial testing question: Is the pace real?

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Every cynic will tell you it’s not.

They will point at the vast expanses of white, unsponsored car and driver fire suit and tell you that their testing performances are simply an attempt to grab headlines and attract sponsors for the coming season.

But no one is saying that about Ferrari. Well, of course not, I hear you cry; Ferrari have all the money and sponsorship they could ever need. And yes, they do, but you see how the presence of a few logos changes the way you interpret results.

So, could the new Sauber actually be that quick?

Possibly.

It should be a familiar story. Manufacturer pulls out after disappointing season, and team is bought out by management. It’s a terrifyingly lofty benchmark, but could Sauber be the new Brawn?

Go back 12 months and you’ll find similar discussions as to whether Brawn GP were genuinely as fast as they appeared, and the similarities extend to the expertise of the men behind the car.

Firstly, Peter Sauber and his team know how to put together a car. Before BMW bought into the team, they were consistently the fastest privateer team, and that before you consider their exploits with the old Group C Mercedes sportscars.

The team also largely consists of the same people who worked for the team under its previous guise, though the staff were trimmed by a round 100 due to the loss of BMW’s financial input. These are the same people who were still updating the old car until the final races of last year.

But could that be a problem?

Unlike Honda or Toyota, BMW made the final decision to withdraw from Formula One relatively early on in the season in late July. Does that mean while the Japanese duo both continued chassis development, BMW passed up the opportunity to develop a new car for 2010, allowing them to try an improve a car that others teams would have written off?

Then what effect did the mess with the failed Qadbak buyout have? Is the new Sauber a considered piece of design started last year, when many of the other teams began work, or a car thrown together over the offseason once their place on the grid was secured in November?

That could be crucial. It is widely accepted that one of the reasons Brawn were so quick initially is that they benefitted from a Honda design that had been started months before anyone else’s.

Sauber also don’t have the benefit of last year’s paradigm shift in rules that helped mix up the grid so effectively.  

But what’s the biggest piece of evidence it may just be posturing? The team—and I don’t just mean technical director Willy Rampf’s fantastically noncommittal statement that the team had run with a “variety of fuel loads” in a year when the fuel loads, and so the time differences, are going to be bigger than ever.

No, it’s the drivers. Both de la Rosa and Kobayashi have lapped three-tenths shy of Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso. I think you’d be hard pushed to find anyone this side of the Sauber PR department who believed you could put those four in a single talent bracket.

That could mean the Sauber is even faster than its lap times suggest—but that’s entering the world of make believe.