By Adam Tate, Associate Editor
Sauber and Honda have finally confirmed the longstanding rumor that the Swiss team will switch from Ferrari power units to Honda for 2018. It appears the team will also use McLaren gearboxes which is the surest sign yet that McLaren will also stick by Honda instead of jumping ship back to Mercedes as some had speculated.
Sauber CEO Monisha Kaltenborn gave the following statement about the deal. “It is a great honor for the Sauber F1 Team to be able to work together with Honda in the coming seasons. Our realignment is not just visible through the new ownership but also now with our new technological partnership with Honda. We have set another milestone with this new engine era, which we await with huge excitement and of course we are looking for new opportunities. We very much look forward to our partnership with Honda, which sets the course for a successful future from a strategic as well as from a technological perspective. We thank Honda for making this great partnership happen.”
This means that after a lengthy relationship with Ferrari, albeit one interrupted by the brief but successful BMW-Sauber years, the Hinwil, Switzerland based team will embark on a new partnership with a power unit supplier they have no prior experience with. With all of the trouble Honda and McLaren have had the last several years, it is on the surface surprising. Yet delve a little deeper and the writing has been on the wall for some time.
Only one Ferrari engine customer has won a race, Toro Rosso when Sebastian Vettel won the Italian Grand Prix in 2008. From the early to mid 2000’s Sauber was essentially Ferrari’s B team, they used it as a training ground for Felipe Massa and brought him up to the red team when Rubens Barrichello departed for Honda in 2006. At the same time Sauber struck up a partnership that saw BMW take control of the team. BMW had previously worked with Williams and had some success with Juan Pablo Montoya challenging Michael Schumacher on occasion, but the Germans wanted more control and Peter Sauber was happy to accommodate them. The team instantly became a force to be reckoned with at the front of the grid, scoring podiums, and finally a race win in Canada, also in 2008. The financial crisis hit hard and BMW Sauber only lasted through 2009 before the Germans pulled the plug. Peter Sauber did everything he could and admirably saved his team from the edge of collapse. He turned to Ferrari to once again be the Scuderia’s B team, but Maranello is not the most forgiving place.
In the years since Ferrari continued to supply Sauber with engines, but offered them less and less support as time went by. When Gene Haas and his eponymous team came on the scene, Saubers days as Ferrari’s favorite customer came to an abrupt end. So much was invested to bring the American outfit to the grid that Sauber suffered even more. In less than a decade they have gone from a top line, race winning team, to a woeful backmarker, clinging desperately to existence in an ever more expensive sport.
Honda is a lifeline to Sauber and Sauber is a lifeline to Honda. They will give the Swiss team current power units, not year old ones like Ferrari has. They will be closely involved with the design of the car and mating it to the aforementioned McLaren gearboxes. Sauber will give Honda valuable data, heaps of it they can compare with what McLaren has in order to more quickly improve their power unit and both teams chances of success. McLaren-Honda’s current problems make the deal look questionable, but it is the last, best hope that Sauber has.
The new partnerships success could see a new era for Sauber, move them up the grid and build a strong base for the future. If the deal proves a failure it could be the death-knell for one of F1’s greatest independent teams. For the sake of the sport, let’s hope they get it right.