Almost a decade has passed since Sauber scored its one and only victory in Formula 1. Friday practice for next month’s Canadian Grand Prix will mark exactly 10 years to the day since Robert Kubica took an iconic win for the then BMW-backed squad in Montreal.

In 2008 Sauber had just celebrated its best-ever season in F1 having secured second place in the constructors’ standings the previous year. It would go on to score a greater number of points by the end of 2008, on top of its first pole and win.

From there and following BMW’s withdrawal after 2009, Sauber slowly fell down the pecking order, though four podiums across 2012 acted as rare highs. The V6 hybrid era has proven to be a particularly fraught period for the Swiss outfit. Sauber failed to record a single point for the first time during its F1 tenure in 2014 and slipped to 10th in the constructors’, before repeating its lowest-ever finish on two further occasions in 2016 and 2017.

High-profile departures including former owner and team principal Peter Sauber, as well as long-standing CEO Monisha Kaltenborn, upset the applecart. Ongoing financial issues stalled in-season development, and while they were eased with the purchase of the team by investment firm Longbow Finance in 2016, the team nevertheless had to keep an eye on its spend, taking a cut-price engine deal to use year-old Ferrari power units last season.

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But the tide is beginning to turn for Sauber. Ex-Renault man Frederic Vasseur was hired halfway through 2017 as team principal to fill the void left by Kaltenborn. Sauber received another boost after successfully enticing the Alfa Romeo name back to the sport after a 30-year absence, agreeing to a multi-year technical and commercial deal with parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles - which also owns Ferrari - to become its title partner.

“When Alfa joined, we had a clear project for the future,” Vasseur told Crash.net. “We know exactly where we have to go, and we know that we have support from Ferrari on the engine side and Alfa Romeo. This is a huge push in terms of motivation and productivity.

“It’s also much easier for us to recruit now. We are receiving 10 times more CVs than before! This is the good part of the picture. The bad part is that the inertia is still there, and before we improve and to get results, it will be a long process. I hope it will not be too long.”

Sauber has set a mid-to-long term aim of moving up the grid and Alfa Romeo’s presence has undoubtedly had an immediate positive impact, with the team finishing inside the points in Bahrain before sealing its first back-to-back top 10 appearances since 2015 thanks to sixth in Baku and 10th in Spain. After five rounds Sauber sits ninth in the constructors, ahead of Williams and just two points behind Toro Rosso.

Vasseur believes Sauber’s recent string of results have provided the squad with added motivation and answered the critics that had written the team off before a wheel was even turned this year.

“We are still at the back, but I think that the first target was to close the target with the back of the field, and I think we did it,” Vasseur added. “It’s extra motivation also for everybody that we can fight every single weekend. For sure it’s a good start to score points.

“At least we will avoid the question ‘when will you score your first point?’ This page is turned. The atmosphere is positive, but we know perfectly well that we have to improve. We have to improve in every single department of the company. It’s a very long process and a huge step.”

Rookie Charles Leclerc is another example of the growing relations between Ferrari and Sauber, with the Scuderia’s protege being placed into the Swiss team, which is now powered by current-spec Ferrari engines. Leclerc - whose future seems destined for the famous scarlet red of Maranello someday - thinks Sauber is not too far away from being points contenders at every race.

“I think it’s a bit early to say that for now but I am definitely sure that if we continue like this we will arrive at this point sooner or later,” Leclerc told reporters in Barcelona last weekend.

“I think we are working very well. We just need to keep the focus like we did from the beginning of the season and keep working exactly the same way. I am sure we will be fighting pretty soon for points on a regular basis.

“We have brought updates to every grand prix, and it has always gone in the right until now. If we keep on bringing these positive updates, then hopefully we can continue this positive run until the end of the season.”

Leclerc’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, has enjoyed a solid start to 2018, scoring his first points in two years with ninth in Bahrain after driving a perfect race. He is confident Sauber is in the strongest position it has been in since he joined the team in 2015.

“I think we’re getting there, there’s been a lot of things happening over the last 12 months really,” said the Swedish driver. “I think the shape the team is in now - both financially and also the structure in the team - is the strongest it’s been since I’ve been here. You can also start seeing that on-track as well. The results are coming, all moving in the right direction.

“But I still feel that there’s more to gain there, still some departments lacking some people back in the factory to be able to step it up to the next level. The team is aware of it, and working on it to get more people, and I think it’s all step by step. You cannot rush it.”


 

F1 is currently working on a new set of regulations for 2021 in a bid to improve the on-track spectacle, as well as drafting a new set of commercial agreements. Discussions between the teams, manufacturers, the FIA and F1 itself are well underway as they look to define the future landscape of the sport.

New owner Liberty Media has outlined five key areas for improvement in F1, including power unit configurations, a cost cap and a more even distribution of revenue in a bid to help level the playing field. For a smaller outfit like Sauber, it could be a complete game-changer.

Ericsson hopes the proposed changes to the sport can bolster Sauber’s chances, ultimately enabling the team to be able to push up the grid and once again challenge the established frontrunners, as it did under BMW’s influence in the mid-to-late-2000s.

“I really think the potential in this team is really big. They’ve shown in the past when they were together with BMW how strong they can be, so I see no reason why they cannot be successful in the future,” he explained.

“In the future, hopefully smaller more independent teams can be competitive, and I think the target has to be something like that. At the moment the big teams have such an advantage over the others, it's difficult to see how a small team can compete with them. But hopefully in the future that can change.”

“I think the things are moving in a good direction,” Vasseur said of the early noises regarding 2021 and talks with Liberty. “If we take the problems at the top, we have to improve the show. If you want to improve the show, you need to improve the overtaking possibilities, and part of this is to close the gap.

“All the decisions or the proposals made so far are made because we need to have 10 teams, we need to have 20 cars at least. But we need to have huge competition. The gap is too huge at the moment.

“But it’s difficult to do something before 2021. F1 has to take the right direction.”

While 2021 may be the turning point in Vasseur’s mind, Alfa Romeo’s arrival has already provided Sauber with the base foundations to succeed, while securing the team’s long-term future on the grid.

If the re-branded squad can continue to make positive steps over the coming years and take advantage of the new-look future F1, those mid-to-long term targets could well be surpassed.

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