What a difference a year makes for Sauber

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Come the end of 2012, Sauber had scored several podium finishes with Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez and ended sixth in the Constructor’s Championship, yet both moved on for 2013.

Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez took up the seats a year ago, and after a challenging first half, Hulkenberg was easily one of the second half’s most impressive drivers. Still, the team dropped to seventh in points.

Hulkenberg moved on for this year, and Adrian Sutil moved over from Force India in an unofficial “ride swap” alongside Gutierrez. But on the whole, Sauber’s fortunes have changed, drastically.

As it sits this Thursday before the Brazilian Grand Prix, the team is two races away from an inglorious first in its 20-plus year history: a scoreless season in F1. This is with the field now scoring points down to 10th place compared to sixth when the team debuted in 1993.

Since then of course it’s gone through upheaval before; BMW took over the operation for several years last decade before making it back onto the grid, just as Sauber, in 2010. Peter Sauber has moved on from the team principal role, his place taken by Monisha Kaltenborn, who is largely held in high regard in the paddock for her views and observations on the state of play.

But while Sauber has, for nearly the entirety of its tenure on the grid, frequently made lemonades out of lemons in terms of punching above their weight as the oft-regarded gold standard of midfield operations, this year it has taken a notable step back.

The Sauber C33 chassis is, without question, an evil piece of kit. Sutil and Gutierrez aren’t world-beaters, but neither have been able to make miracles happen with a car woefully out of sorts on track, particularly in the corners.

It makes an effort like Sutil’s maiden Q3 appearance at Austin last weekend all the more impressive, given it’s now probably the weakest chassis in the field given the demise of Marussia and Caterham.

Couple that with the Ferrari power unit that has been a step behind the all-conquering Mercedes this season and you can see it’s been a challenge for either driver.

Even from the start of the year though, Sutil and Gutierrez have not had it easy. The team had three drivers waiting in the wings, already looking ahead to 2015, with Giedo van der Garde as reserve; Sergey Sirotkin the Russian teenager-in-waiting, and Simona de Silvestro as F1’s lone female hope, with eyes and a focus on a race seat next year.

So there was already the prospect of wondering how five-into-two would go, and as a result… none of the five appear set to race for Sauber next year. In the last week, Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr have been announced, and it’s apparent both are financial-driven decisions. Granted, Ericsson has improved over the course of the year with Caterham and Nasr has shown potential and a higher ceiling in GP2, but they’re about as uninspiring a lineup as Sutil and Gutierrez currently are – they’re also fairly inexperienced, with only one combined season on the grid going into 2015.

Additionally, you can’t help but feeling as though Sutil and Gutierrez are the latest victims of the system as it exists, and you also wonder how thorny this could get.

Sutil has been adamant he is on a two-year contract and is thus being forced out by Nasr and his available budget – a situation that also cost his countryman Timo Glock his seat at Marussia prior to 2013, when Luiz Razia was due to replace him (of course that eventually fell through, proving not every budget provider is guaranteed). It is unfortunate this has put his F1 career in jeopardy.

Gutierrez’s F1 career, meanwhile, feels a bit to me like Jaime Alguersuari’s at Toro Rosso a few years ago. He’s young and has potential in spades, but has been unable to properly get the most out of it with a difficult car not to his liking. He’s only 23 and while exploring his options, he’s now a question mark a year before his home race in Mexico returns to the schedule. The one negative about him though, is that compared to his teammates he’s not had the same level of “wow” races where he’s obviously outperformed his machinery enough to get others to take notice.

As for the other three? They’ve all fallen by the wayside without a chance. Van der Garde could well get a second chance next year depending on where he and his budget end up; Sirotkin is a viable prospect so long as Russia remains on the calendar. Meanwhile de Silvestro’s F1 voyage, while bold, has ultimately come up empty. It’s a shame given her ability level and potential marketability, although the latter fact was something Sirotkin called out earlier this year.

Bottom line though is that economics have once again dictated the state of play for another team, and considering what Sauber has been in the past, it’s been tough to watch them fall victim to the commercial realities needed to keep them afloat. There are no winners when drivers are forced out, and the new ones then have an unfair target on their back.