The news that the future of Sauber F1 Team has been secured has come as a relief to all F1 fans. I had been reading increasingly worrying stories about the severe financial problems that Sauber have been facing.
They stand next to Williams as the sport’s premier plucky privateers. After BMW’s exit from the sport in 2009, Peter Sauber himself has dug deep to secure the future of the team and its employees. He could as easily have walked away into the quiet retirement he was probably planning for. This personal sacrifice has made the team so easy to love. It has also made the recent reports of financial struggles all the more painful.
Sauber’s new deal is with three Russian companies. The scheme is designed to “showcase Russian innovation”. It also involves a driver development programme for 17 year old Sergey Sirotkin, with a view to racing him in 2014. Sirotkin just so happens to be the son of one of company bosses Sauber has just done a deal with.
For some, this represents a new low in the long history of pay drivers in F1.
A talented young driver
But in fairness to Sergey Sirotkin, he has shown genuine flashes of talent.
I first heard of him when he competed in the Auto GP World Series last year. His results were impressive. In his first race, at the age of 16, he qualified on the front row. In his second race weekend, he won.
He grabbed another seven podium finishes before completing the season with another win. He finished 3rd in the Drivers’ Championship.
Auto GP may lack the driver talent of Formula 3.5. It may lack the prestige of GP2 and GP3. And it doesn’t quite have the history of Formula 3. But it is still a top single-seater series.
The Auto GP cars are former A1 GP cars, with real grunt and grip. The championship played a vital role in the career rehabilitation of Romain Grosjean. So it is fairly good as a proving ground. When you consider Sirotkin’s youth and inexperience, his Auto GP achievements stand out.
For 2013, he has graduated to Formula Renault 3.5, arguably the best championship when it comes to preparing a driver for Formula 1. The step up has seen Sirotkin face a tougher challenge. But he nevertheless secured an impressive 2nd place finish at Motorland Aragón.
Clearly, Sergey Sirotkin is not yet the finished product. He needs more time to develop.
Sauber have form with young drivers
Having said that, if any F1 team can nurture young talent, it is Sauber. After all, this is the team that brought the world Kimi Räikkönen. Upon the Finn’s F1 debut, he had even less experience than Sirotkin, having raced nothing more powerful than a Formula Renault 2.0 car.
But drivers of that calibre are uncommon. Räikkönen was a one-off. He gained his opportunity on raw talent alone. Indeed, Peter Sauber had a big bust-up with his title sponsor, Red Bull, who wanted to put their driver Enrique Bernoldi in the car instead. While eyebrows were raised at the inexperienced Räikkönen being given his F1 chance, Peter Sauber was soon proved right.
Indeed, Sauber have gained a reputation over the years for spotting young driver talent.
The concern is that Sergey Sirotkin is not gaining his Sauber F1 opportunity on the basis of raw talent. Peter Sauber is not currently in the position to tell his sponsors to take their ideas elsewhere. He is actively on the lookout for funding. That means taking on pay drivers.
Sponsors need to be more patient
What worries me is that Sergey Sirotkin’s pathway to F1 more closely resembles Jaime Alguersuari’s career than Kimi Räikkönen’s. Like Sirotkin, Alguersuari showed great potential in junior formulae. But his talent needed to be nurtured. Instead, Red Bull fast-tracked him to F1 before he was truly ready.
When the results didn’t fully live up to over-inflated expectations, Alguersuari was quickly removed from the Red Bull programme. He hasn’t raced anything since, never mind an F1 car. A promising career was ruined by an impatient sponsor.
Sergey Sirotkin is in an impossible position. In his heart of hearts, he probably knows that he needs more time to develop as a driver before he should be racing in F1. But the people that back his career want to see a return now. And he can’t pass up the opportunity. It might never come up again.
The pay driver issue isn’t just to do with poor quality drivers getting a chance in F1. It is also about promising young careers being fast-tracked by impatient sponsors who want a return on their investment yesterday.
Motorsport is expensive, and drivers inevitably need to backing to help them progress through the ranks. But they also need their backers to be patient enough to nurture the talent, and not to ask too much of someone too young.
That has been the big mistake of the Red Bull programme. It has placed massive amounts of pressure on promising drivers who end up caving. The only real success of Red Bull’s driver development, Sebastian Vettel, arguably owes more to BMW than Red Bull.
Sergey Sirotkin’s situation looks like an even more extreme example. The guy clearly has buckets of talent for someone so young. I just hope he isn’t being made to progress too far too soon.