Sun rose on quite a bit at Sebring, 2012. Photo: Tony DiZinno

It’s been five years since lone ALMS, WEC Sebring double in 2012

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Today marks five years since the first and only time the FIA World Endurance Championship and American Le Mans Series raced together, in the same race, but as separate series, in what was the 60th running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in 2012.

The trajectories of the two championships since – and of the participants in that race – has been fascinating to document in world sports car racing history.

Consider in that race, you had nine total classes comprising 64 cars. The same designation of car, a Ferrari F458 Italia, was entered in three different classes. There was a No. 55, 055 and 155 in the race. There were 23 different car specifications and five different tire manufacturers (Michelin, Dunlop, Pirelli, Falken, Yokohama).

And then you had the winners. This meant there were nine pole winners, then nine class winners, and a total of 27 of 64 cars eligible to score podium finish. Since all cars had three drivers, that meant you had to be ready to have 81 trophies ready… and that was before you got to the separate Michelin Green X Challenge winners, with a separate trophy awarded both for ALMS and WEC participants.

Fittingly, it was run on March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day – a day where everything is done to excess.

If ever there was a race in recent times that lived up to the joke of “everyone gets a trophy,” 2012 Sebring was it.

THE CLASSES

Then-ACO President Jean-Claude Plassart with then-ALMS President (now IMSA President) Scott Atherton. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Then-ACO President Jean-Claude Plassart with then-ALMS President (now IMSA President) Scott Atherton. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Most sports car races over the last decade or so have had between two or five classes. So how, you might ask, did this Sebring end up with nine?

The logistics of launching a new FIA World Championship – the relaunched FIA WEC – meant that their race was treated as independent of the ALMS race happening at the same time, on the same track, with more or less the same cars. But, the classes could not be combined.

The FIA WEC launched with its four classes: LMP1, LMP2, GTE-Pro and GTE-Am, the same four that exist to this day, five years later.

Meanwhile ALMS carried on with its five classes: P1, P2, PC, GT and GTC. The P1, P2 and GT classes ran cars that could have been considered part of the LMP1, LMP2 and GTE-Pro classes but could not be combined. Meanwhile the spec PC and GTC classes added an extra 18 cars to the field – nine cars apiece – all of whom had mixed levels of talent behind the wheel.

The combination of cars also created a numbering issue where if there were duplicates, a 0 or 1 was added to ALMS numbers. The quirkiest situation here was that an FIA WEC car carried No. 55, and with Level 5’s ALMS P2 car carrying No. 055, the BMW Team RLL No. 55 BMW M3 had to add a 1 in front of it to be No. 155 in this race.

Another quirk came with the TV presentation, and this wasn’t anyone’s fault but added to the degree of difficulty from a presentation standpoint. The ALMS’ five classes had five “color codes” associated with them – red, blue, purple, green and orange, respectively – for P1, P2, PC, GT and GTC. But because additional color codes couldn’t be added in graphics, the classes did have to be combined on the “hat” – the running order across the top. So P1 and P2 included WEC LMP1 and LMP2, and GT included WEC GTE-Pro and GTE-Am.

THE POLESITTERS

Photo: Tony DiZinno
Photo: Tony DiZinno

The race had to begin with polesitters, and while in most races you have one, in this one, you had nine.

Andre Lotterer set the overall pole in the No. 1 Audi R18 TDI, which debuted in 2011 and ran at Sebring prior to Audi’s debut of the R18 e-tron quattro later that year. This was in LMP1, and a lap of 1:45.820 is still several seconds faster than what you’ll see for pole today in the new DPi/LMP2 cars.

Klaus Graf had the P1 pole – best of two new cars debuting in the ALMS’ top class – in what was the No. 6 Muscle Milk Pickett Racing HPD ARX-03a. Graf’s pole lap was stunning because it was fourth overall between all the combined P1 cars, and at a 1:47.536, was more than seven seconds quicker from the other debuting ALMS P1 car, the No. 16 Dyson Racing Lola B12/80 Mazda qualified by Chris Dyson, which was only good enough for 23rd overall.

The two P2 polesitters were Olivier Pla (WEC LMP2, No. 24 OAK Racing Morgan Judd, 1:50.467) and Christophe Bouchut (ALMS P2, No. 055 Level 5 HPD ARX-03b, 1:52.129). Bruno Junqueira took the PC pole for RSR Racing at 1:54.510 in the No. 9 Oreca FLM09.

The FIA WEC got ahead of the ALMS in the GT qualifying ranks, too. Gianmaria Bruni took the No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari to a lap of 1:58.427 for the WEC GTE-Pro pole, while Jan Magnussen had the ALMS GT pole in his No. 03 Corvette C6.R at 1:58.996.

Remaining polesitters were Dominik Farnbacher (WEC GTE-Am, No. 58 Luxury Ferrari, 2:00.184) and the late Sean Edwards (ALMS GTC, No. 30 MOMO NGT Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, 2:06.674).

THE RACE ITSELF

Race start. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Race start. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Although there were 64 cars, a number reduced by one when one of two Gulf Middle East Lolas in LMP2 was excluded before the race because it didn’t meet a minimum pace standard, the race was remembered for a high amount of cautions (11 for 55 laps, for several hours of the 12)  and a bit of drama and heartbreak towards the end of the race.

Audi cruised to the overall victory with the veteran trio of Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen in the No. 2 R18 TDI. Audi led all but two laps of the 325 completed overall between its three cars.

But two other class wins were less certain. Muscle Milk Pickett, poised for an overall podium finish to go along with the LMP1 win, slowed in the final hour with a fueling issue on its final stop. It was a gut-wrenching loss for the trio of Graf, Lucas Luhr and Simon Pagenaud, and opened the door for Dyson, Guy Smith and Steven Kane to score the class victory despite the pace deficit.

It was the GT classes where the drama took center stage towards the end. Joey Hand beat Olivier Beretta after a door-banging battle to be top GT car, and Hand’s No. 56 BMW M3 he shared with Dirk Mueller and Jonathan Summerton finished ahead of Beretta’s Ferrari. Yet because this was a race of two series, Beretta’s No. 71 AF Corse Ferrari he shared with Marco Cioci and Andrea Bertolini actually won the WEC GTE-Pro class… yet dropped to third on the road among GT cars behind the Magnussen/Antonio Garcia/Jordan Taylor Corvette. Taylor was making his debut as a Corvette Racing driver this race.

HPD, which lost the ALMS P1 win it deserved, then won both ALMS P2 and WEC P2 in the same race with the P2-spec HPD ARX-03b. It was Peter Baron’s Starworks Motorsport, in the team’s WEC debut ahead of an eventual world championship-winning season, that won Sebring with Ryan Dalziel, Stephane Sarrazin and Enzo Potolicchio and came third overall. Level 5 came fourth with Bouchut, Scott Tucker and Joao Barbosa.

The other class winners were CORE autosport (ALMS PC) with an abnormal lineup of Alex Popow, Burt Frisselle and then-IndyCar driver E.J. Viso, Team Felbermayr-Proton (WEC GTE-Am) with Christian Ried, Paolo Ruberti and Gianluca Roda and Alex Job Racing (ALMS GTC) with Dion von Moltke, Bill Sweedler, and sports car debutante Townsend Bell. Bell and Sweedler have been paired together continuously through various teams, cars and series in the years since.

Among other quirky or notable moments from this race:

  • FIA President Jean Todt was present at this race for the launch of the FIA WEC, notable because the Australian Grand Prix was taking place in Melbourne on the same weekend.
  • Conquest Racing made a pre-race driver change, race morning, swapping in Jan Heylen for Francesco Dracone. Heylen’s only pre-race running came in the morning warmup; the car eventually finished third in ALMS P2 with Martin Plowman and David Heinemeier Hansson.
  • Team Falken Tire lost an engine of its Porsche 911 GT3 RSR in the pre-race morning warmup, but the Derrick Walker-led team got the car back out with mere seconds to spare before the green flag after an engine change.
  • A Dempsey Racing-entered PC car completed a pirouette at Cunningham corner where the car went airborne with Henri Richard driving after colliding with another PC car. Richard was OK but the car he shared with Duncan Ende and Dane Cameron was out.
  • The original Nissan DeltaWing was revealed during race week, ahead of its race debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. By the next year, all of the original partners – Michelin, Nissan, Ben Bowlby, All American Racers and Highcroft Racing – all moved on from the program and ALMS founder Dr. Don Panoz pressed on with the effort on his own!
Nissan DeltaWing 1.0. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Nissan DeltaWing 1.0. Photo: Tony DiZinno

HOW SPORTS CAR RACING HAS MOVED ON SINCE

The 64 cars entered for that year’s Sebring were split 30 FIA WEC entries and 34 ALMS entries.

Here are the teams still active five years later as full-season entrants within the FIA WEC or the ALMS’ successor, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship:

  • FIA WEC: Rebellion Racing, Signatech (as Signatech Alpine), AF Corse, Team Felbermayr-Proton (as Proton), Aston Martin Racing, Larbre Competition*
  • IMSA: CORE autosport, Starworks Motorsport, PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports, Performance Tech Motorsports, Merchant Services Racing (as BAR1 Motorsports), RSR Racing (as 3GT Racing), BMW Team RLL, Corvette Racing, Paul Miller Racing, Extreme Speed Motorsports (as Tequila Patron ESM), Alex Job Racing*, TRG

There are other teams from that race still active in other series, such as Black Swan Racing and GMG, for instance. Starworks and ESM have both made WEC trips but now are focused solely Stateside in IMSA. Larbre and Job have not confirmed their 2017 race schedules beyond a handful of endurance races.

Because of the rate of development, the only cars still active in 2017 that were active in 2012 are the Ferrari F458 Italia, Aston Martin Vantage and Oreca FLM09. The Aston has been heavily revised over five years. The Ferrari is in the hands of privateer JMW Motorsport, who race in the European Le Mans Series and will race at Le Mans. The Oreca, the PC class stalwart, will be retired along with the PC class from IMSA at year’s end.

The FIA WEC enters its sixth year overall in 2017 with a reduced full-season entry (at least for this year, although it figures to spring back in 2018) while IMSA is in its fourth year as a combined entity following the ALMS/GRAND-AM Rolex Series merger.

Audi’s absence will be felt within the WEC but two LMP1 manufacturers that weren’t at the first WEC race – Toyota and Porsche – will battle between themselves. The remaining privateer teams from that Sebring race have either moved on or dropped out entirely.

OAK Racing was only a team back then but Jacques Nicolet’s emerging business presence in racing has since his company grow into a new overall parent company, Everspeed, with the Onroak Automotive line of chassis a key part of that business. Nicolet’s team ran open-top Morgan chassis at the time; the Ligier JS P2 hadn’t even been conceived yet and now the new-for-2017 Ligier JS P217 is Onroak’s latest LMP2 offering.

Six of nine LMP2 cars in the FIA WEC were open-top cars, with the new Lola B12/80 chassis the lone coupes. Now, all DPis and LMP2s are coupes.

The FIA WEC’s GTE-Pro class has grown from humble beginnings. The series has eight full-season entries in class now, two cars apiece from Porsche, Ferrari, Ford and Aston Martin. The GTE-Am class has a slight dip for 2017.

In IMSA, it’s crazy to think exactly zero P1 and P2 teams from that race are left. Pickett and Level 5 dropped out in early 2014, Dyson didn’t continue into the merger, and Conquest didn’t last past 2012. It’s only Black Swan, which made its P2 debut that race, that still stands today, and that’s after Tim Pappas has raced multiple GT cars in the years since. But it’s the PC teams that have endured, all but Dempsey Racing and Pickett again still active today.

Factory participation in the GT classes have persisted while GTC’s loss is lamented a bit because of some of the dynamite battles that took place between professionals in the spec-Porsche class.

We could get to the drivers in this race, but we’re already pushing 2,000 words.

Suffice to say Sebring, 2012, was memorable. And long. And confusing. And a catalyst for the change that’s followed in both championships in their respective trajectories.

NHRA: John Force Racing won its 2,500th Funny Car round at Gainesville

Front, from left: Co-crew chiefs Jason McCulloch and Jon Schaffer, John Force, crew chief Mike Neff. (Photo Credit: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery)
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It wasn’t just a career-best elapsed time run and a final round victory for John Force at last week’s NHRA Gatornationals and Gainesville. It was also the John Force Racing team’s 2,500th Funny Car round win, as well.

The full release is below:

John Force’s Funny Car victory Sunday in the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., was memorable for many reasons, including yet another milestone over the team’s 40-year existence in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

After winning all four rounds, and coupled with Robert Hight’s first-round victory, the team achieved the 2,500-round victory threshold for Funny Cars. Force’s final-round win over rookie Jonnie Lindberg sealed the deal.

JFR’s first round victory was June 1, 1979, when Force defeated Tom McEwen at the Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La. Force himself has accounted for just over half of those 2,500 Funny Car round victories, as he now stands at 1,269, with six round wins this season. He defeated Del Worsham, Jack Beckman, and Tommy Johnson Jr. before beating Lindberg on Sunday.

Even more impressive is that JFR’s 2,500 NHRA Funny Car round wins account for more than 20 percent of wins all-time in the class.

“It was the reign of terror that started it all, with Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly and John Medlen,” Force said. “It was really about a group of guys – it wasn’t about me. I just wrote the checks, but I got to drive one of the baddest hot rods on the planet. We won just about everything.

“But those days are gone now. John Force wants to stay in the game, and now we’ve got Robert Hight, my daughter Courtney, young Austin Prock is coming,” he continued. “I’m really excited about this. We put the band back together. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones said life’s a drag, but today, life’s not a drag – it’s a drag race, and we won.”

Winning races and elimination rounds is one of the things John Force has done best. Overall, nine drivers have won Funny Car rounds with JFR. The total includes:

  • John Force 1,269
  • Robert Hight 375
  • Tony Pedregon 292
  • Courtney Force 134
  • Mike Neff 118
  • Gary Densham 108
  • Ashley Force Hood 105
  • Eric Medlen 95
  • Phil Burkart Jr. 4

Hight added to his total Sunday, besting Bob Tasca III in the first round with career-bests in time and speed, and has two round wins this season. Courtney Force won her first three rounds of the season at Pomona, making it to the final round.

“It’s amazing, but what’s really amazing is when you look at who has most of those wins,” Hight said. “John Force’s records – he’s so far out in front of everybody else – it’s not even achievable. With the competition level and everything else there is today, these records we keep getting will never, ever be broken. I was lucky enough to get the 200th victory for John Force Racing at Topeka (2011), and that was pretty exciting.”

To do it at Gainesville, Hight said, was special. In the 1990s, for example, Force participated in 37 rounds out of a possible 40, and won 33 of those 40 rounds. He just kept winning … and winning … and winning.

“He’s had good luck at Gainesville,” Hight said. “But I take away from this that all three of our Funny Cars are running good, and we’re not searching for faster cars but right where we want to be. We just need to get a little consistency. I’m just happy to be a little part of those 2,500 round wins. We have three good cars now, and we’re going to get a lot more wins.”

The milestone is more than just a number. It represents tireless efforts by drivers, crew chiefs, team members, fabricators, shop workers, and office staff who have worked with Force since the 1970s.

“If you look at the Tony Pedregons that drove for me, the Eric Medlens, the Gary Denshams, Robert Hight, my girls – if you go down that list, they were all part of that. It wasn’t just about me,” Force said. “I’ve done well in the sport, because I’ve lived it and loved it. I give 110 percent to my sponsors, never 100 percent. We overdeliver, you have to.

“With the cast of characters we have, we’re going to keep hitting them with all we’ve got.”

The team earned its 2,500th round victory across all NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series classes last year. Including the team’s Top Fuel dragster – piloted by Brittany Force and sponsored by Monster Energy – the team’s round victory total stands at 2,593. Brittany Force added another Top Fuel round victory Sunday, and stands at 93 in her career.

The fourth round of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, the NHRA Nationals, is March 31-April 2 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Nevada. John Force Racing has won five races at the spring race in Las Vegas, most recently with John Force running the table in 2015.

F1 on NBC crew previews the upcoming 2017 season

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It’s a new season of Formula 1 that kicks off this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. All times and streaming details for the new year can be found here, to be watched on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

As NBC Sports Group prepares for its fifth season of coverage, all of the broadcast team have made various rounds previewing the season to come (here’s a link to the group’s upcoming live theater presentation at Sellersville Theater next week).

Lead lap-by-lap announcer and host Leigh Diffey spoke to Autoweek in a Q&A, linked here. A quick take on the excitement of the new season is below:

“These cars are faster, will be harder to control in the corners, and will place a high physical demand on the drivers. I can’t wait to see what these cars do these drivers after 58 laps around Albert Park. That’s how I would sell fans on what we’re going to see this season,” Diffey said.

Analysts Steve Matchett and David Hobbs have also previewed the seasons, with both their interviews linked below.

Matchett’s interview with Todd McCandless for Formula1Blog.com is linked here. Hobbs’ interview with Steve Zautke on 105.7 FM The Fan’s (WSSP-Milwaukee) The Final Inspection Show is linked here.

F1 on NBC pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in with The Marshall Pruett Podcast, linked here.

Coverage this weekend begins with a live stream of free practice one airing at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday night via the NBC Sports App, which will air at midnight on Friday on NBCSN leading straight into live coverage of free practice two at 1 a.m. ET on NBCSN. The full time breakdown is below.

Hinchcliffe’s DTM test with Mercedes an ‘amazing blast of a lifetime’

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The second half of the James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens “ride swap” took place last week at the Vallelunga circuit in Italy, as Hinchcliffe stepped aboard Wickens’ usual No. 6 HWA AG Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM car for his first few laps in the tin-top beast.

After shaking off a tough end to what had been a dynamic weekend for both himself and the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener in St. Petersburg – he’d led early but was caught out on a yellow flag timing and dropped back – Hinchcliffe arrived in Italy on Wednesday to prepare for his run in the DTM car. Wickens tested Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar prior to the St. Petersburg season opener.

The ordinary challenges of getting acclimated to a new car – getting a seat made and adapting to the different driving position – were erased because of a quick and easy fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat.

“It’s funny when we saw the three-week gap between St. Petersburg and Long Beach we thought there’d be down time, and that clearly hasn’t been the case,” Hinchcliffe laughed when speaking to NBC Sports.

“I flew over to arrive a day early, meet the team, and get the lay of the land for the following day. Luckily I fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat. There were very few adjustments needed and it was pretty straightforward. It led into an amazing blast of a time the following day, to rip around Vallelunga.”

The two-hour session that followed saw Hinchcliffe learn a lot, in what is a rare opportunity for North American drivers to have a chance to race in a DTM car.

Hinchcliffe has had some closed-top car experience, but limited outings in either Mazda’s previous Lola Multimatic chassis or Mazda RT24-P prototypes and the Mazda RX-8 aren’t quite comparable to what he saw in the Mercedes.

“Yeah I’d done the RX-8 back in ’12 and the prototype off and on, so it was a very different feel,” he explained. “The seating position is very unique, sitting back in the center. The visuals are very different. Very wide. I think I missed most apexes in right-hand turns the first couple laps, getting used to it.”

But with Wickens as his de facto engineer and driving coach, Hinchcliffe quickly got the hang of it for what would be an intense couple hours.

He’d have a mix of running qualifying simulations, long runs to see how the tires degrade and just general pushing once he got the hang of it. Hinchcliffe being a professional race car driver, it didn’t take long.

“They’ve done such a good job here; you there’s a lot of money spent to make the car magic, and that’s what they’ve done,” Hinchcliffe said. “The tires were very different. We had tire warmers, then did quali sims, did a long run and saw what the (tire) deg could be like. For only two hours of running, it was a pretty nice test.”

“We wanted each other to have a blast,” he added of Wickens’ input and advice. “At Sebring, I gave him some pointers, and we did a track lap in the rental cars. He did the same thing here.

“He’d just been there testing. He did a baseline run in the morning to dial the car in. He was great. He was my engineer for the test, to be honest. He’d pull out the laptop and show data comparisons; look for what to do different and better. It was a lot of fun.”

Hinchcliffe had always tried to keep DTM on his radar from afar, watching the races he could while trying to get to at least one per year. The same goes the other way for Wickens, who tries to make it to at least one IndyCar race per year too, and fully enjoyed his own day in Hinchcliffe’s car.

“When it got announced, I had a bunch of guys say they’d had a chance to test a DTM car. I understand now why it’s one of the most fun series,” he said.

“I’ve followed it more closely with Robbie driving. Having had a taste of the machinery, now you get it even more.”

Formula 1 2017 team preview: Sauber

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Rounding out MotorSportsTalk’s team-by-team preview ahead of the new Formula 1 season, we look at Sauber, the minnow team which bounced back from years of instability to find some strength in 2016.

The arrival of new owners Longbow Finance gave Sauber the chance to rebuild and recruit after a number of losses in the preceding years, while Felipe Nasr’s charge to ninth in Brazil offered a boost in prize money as the team jumped above Manor to P10 in the constructors’ championship.

Sauber now heads into 2017 looking to continue its recent gains, with the new faces at Hinwil eager to make an impact. The goal is now to thrive, not survive.

DRIVERS

9. Marcus Ericsson (Sweden)
94. Pascal Wehrlein (Germany)

CAR

Sauber C36

ENGINE

Ferrari 061

TEAM CHIEFS

Monisha Kaltenborn (CEO/team principal)
Jörg Zander (technical director)

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

What went right in 2016: Sauber may have only scored two points, but it both survived the year and was able to secure some much-needed financial backing that kept the team in business. The on-track performances were what we’d expect from a backmarker team, filled with a number of highlights. Marcus Ericsson’s performances through the year were of particular note in the latter half of the season, despite the Swede going under the radar.

What went wrong in 2016: Sauber’s struggles still left its drivers unable to compete on-track, particularly in the run-up to the takeover when updates for the car were hard to find. Sauber failed to get anywhere near the midfield runners in the dry, but again, it perhaps could not have been expected to given the circumstances.

What’s changed for 2017: A number of new faces are at Sauber following an extensive recruitment process. Ex-Audi LMP1 technical chief Jörg Zander has joined the team, while former Haas strategist Ruth Buscombe arrived last fall and is a big, big asset on the pit wall. Pascal Wehrlein has also been signed from Manor, replacing Nasr after his backing fell through, but the team will be racing with the 2016-spec Ferrari power unit. That won’t help come the end of the year.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: In all honesty, it’s hard to see Sauber finishing anywhere but last this year. The rest of the field simply has resources that are too deep to give the Swiss team much chance. Early gains can be made in the first few races when the impact of a year-old power unit will be felt less; some points would be good. But really, this is again a year to battle on and continue to fight for a better future.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – FEBRUARY 27: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

MST PREDICTIONS

Luke Smith: Sauber can’t really expect much this year. It’s great that the team is on its feet again, and some of the personnel it has on board gives it strength. But the rest of the pack can simply outspend it. The only team it can get close to this year is Haas, I think, and that’s only if the American team gets things seriously wrong this year. P10 in the constructors’ championship with a couple of points – let’s say picked up by Ericsson early in the year – is the ceiling for Sauber.

Tony DiZinno: It’s hard to think of Sauber as the underdog and last team because they’ve been here 25 years, their reputation is of overachieving and they’ve given so many young drivers their start. Yet with Manor’s absence, it’s Sauber that enters as the 10th place team from 2016, but determined to advance from that this season. Marcus Ericsson has become that dependable, career midfielder as the Swede looks to his fourth season. More pressure is on Pascal Wehrlein, the Mercedes junior passed over by his manufacturer to replace Nico Rosberg and by Force India to replace Nico Hulkenberg. Ericsson may not be as easy a target to beat as Wehrlein might think. A couple points finishes should occur for this team and if they can get to eighth or ninth in the constructor’s points, it’ll have been a much better year.

Kyle Lavigne: With a year-old Ferrari power unit, Sauber should have strong reliability. Whether or not the car has the pace to bring them up the grid is another matter. They languished near the bottom of the time sheets on multiple days of testing, but they didn’t seem to experience reliability problems. That trait could prove very beneficial. As hard as it is to believe, McLaren is likely their closest rival as 2017 begins. And, with McLaren struggling with a car that is both slow and unreliable, Sauber has a chance to leapfrog them, so long as their car keeps going.