Sauber team chief Frederic Vasseur revealed that he was only one hour into his new job, at the Swiss outfit’s headquarters in Hinwill, when he met with Honda and told them that the engine supply deal signed by the team’s old guard was not going to happen.
Vasseur said in an interview, “I joined on July 17 at 9am and the meeting [with Honda] was at 10am. For me it was important. It is never easy to change the engine supplier first, but Honda was not in a very good shape.”
“Plus, and probably most important for me, was that we were linked to McLaren for the gearbox with absolutely no internal resources to do our own one.”
“I was convinced, as I had some contacts at McLaren, that they would do their best to leave. So I could not be in a position to risk that. Imagine today if I had to request the Honda gearbox from McLaren. It would be an absolute nightmare.”
“Being in the process of working on our 2018 car, we were not able to postpone the decision,” added Vasseur who instead engineered a strengthened partnership with Ferrari and as a result, Sauber will have Alfa Romeo backing, 2018 engines at their disposal and Ferrari young driver Charles Leclerc in their line-up.
Vasseur took up the role with Sauber after parting ways with Renault as his vision for the future differed to that of the French team’s chief Cyril Abiteboul.
But Vasseur holds no grudges, “You know I spent the last 27 years of my life on track and for sure you want to succeed. You don’t want to finish like this.”
“But it is nothing to do with revenge or something like this. I was always looking for the good project for me in F1 and I think this one was perfect for me.”
“I didn’t want to say that Renault wasn’t a good one. But I had some troubles to fit with the system, so it is much better for me to leave and to stop because I have some other projects in my life. And I stopped.”
“I was quite happy to have a break – even if after six months, the break was a bit too long! My wife pushed me to find something else, and said: ‘don’t stay at home anymore’.
The Alfa Romeo deal is a feather in Vasseur’s cap as it could mean that the team will make its way up the Formula pecking order.
The partnership has been likened to Sauber becoming a Ferrari B-team, but this does not concern Vasseur, “What people call us doesn’t matter – nobody is taking care of whether we are a junior or a customer.”
“We just have to build up something with them [Ferrari], based on a common approach and mutual agreement. We need to have a close relationship but I don’t want to buy the car of Ferrari because I want to keep the know-how.”
“If we don’t do that, I will be in exactly the same position as we could be in today with the gearbox, and I want to avoid this kind of decision.”
“We were more or less far away from the guys in front of us, even if we closed the gap a little bit over the final races.”
“The first target for me was to close the gap because we have to come back into the race. We have to be able to fight with the guys around us. I think we will be able to close the gap.”
“Then it is difficult to know if we will fight for P8, P9 or P10. More will be difficult. But it will depend also on the other teams and what about their projects.”
“We have to honest with ourselves. The biggest issue so far wasn’t the engine, the engine was 2016, but the handicap was only a couple of tenths.”
“If you compare with the other teams, the biggest issue was on the chassis side, and we have to be focused on this and push like hell on the aero. At least you will remove the engine from being a pre-occupation.”
Vasseur cites Force India, who finished fourth in the 2017 F1 constructors’ world championship, as an example of how relatively modest budget teams can deliver way above their remit.
“Force India is a good model because if you look at their team, they are working with Mercedes more or less, as we are working with Ferrari.”
“They are working with drivers, they are working on collaborations, and working on the engine and some other parts, and it is more or less the same size as Sauber. It is a good example of what we could achieve and what could be the project.”
“It took time for Force India to deliver, and you remember the old times when they were Spyker, they were struggling to be in the top ten. I think they had a long-term project, something serious, and year after year they came back onto the pace and now they are quite consistent. I think that we have to take things the same way.”
“We have to be patient. It is a three to five-year project. It is not that you will sign an engineer from Ferrari or Mercedes, that next week the car will be much better.
“When you are outside the business it is sometimes not easy to understand, and you may have the feeling that you can buy the performance. Without the budget, you won’t fight with Mercedes, but you need to have a long-term project, you need to know where you need to go and how you have to do it,” concluded Vasseur.
Big Question: Did Sauber do the right thing to ditch Honda and strengthen partneship with Ferrari?