Insight: What does Sauber's Alfa Romeo F1 rebrand mean?
It was announced on Friday that Sauber will compete as Alfa Romeo Racing in Formula 1 this year. But what does it mean for the team? Motorsport Week analyses the development.
Friday’s announcement is a seminal moment in the history of one of Formula 1’s longest-serving teams, one which has carved its identity out of plucky underdog performances and being slightly different owing to its location.
For the first time since 1992 the Sauber name will not be on the Formula 1 grid, with the team rebranded as Alfa Romeo Racing. Even during its BMW ownership from 2006-09 it was referred to as BMW-Sauber, owing to founder Peter Sauber retaining a minority stake in the operation, and which proved vital once the German car giant pulled the plug on its involvement amid so-so results in the midst of the global recession.
Sauber has brought through top drivers in the form of Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa, Robert Kubica and Charles Leclerc, not to mention leading mechanics, engineers and sponsors. It has weathered several storms and existed in several eras, from its Mercedes-linked nascent days, the Red Bull-sponsored/Petronas-engined period, and its rebirth, near-collapse and rejuvenation post-BMW.
The name may have gone as part of the rebrand but Sauber still exists. Sauber Motorsport AG runs the Formula 1 team – now called Alfa Romeo Racing – while it has its Sauber Engineering AG arm and the Sauber Aerodynamik AG offshoot, with all three companies collaborating at its base in Hinwil, Switzerland.
The Formula 1 car will continue to be produced and developed at that factory, it will continue to use Ferrari engines – branded as such – while the team set-up and structure, both in terms of staff, management and ownership will remain unchanged, as per the press release.
Indeed, it is that ownership that has permitted this next step to be taken, with original founder Sauber departing as part of the mid-2016 takeover that secured the team’s future.
The planned Honda alliance for 2018 was shelved in the wake of Frederic Vasseur’s arrival and he began to implement necessary changes as part of a long-term strategy. One key coup was the greater alignment with Ferrari that led to Alfa Romeo entering as title sponsor. Alfa Romeo, of course, is part of the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles group, while Ferrari was spun off from the group in 2016 but remains part of the greater Exor group. They are, in effect, sister companies. The relaunch of the team, under the Alfa Romeo Sauber name, took place at Alfa Romeo's museum in late 2017, where the revised livery – complete with prominent Alfa Romeo logo on the engine cover – was unveiled, with the deal described as a “technical and commercial partnership.” It meant the 2018 approach was always likely to be something of an interim step, with the Alfa Romeo name returning to Formula 1 for the first time in three decades as a title sponsor. And for while the Sauber name has now been dropped, Alfa Romeo itself has history in the championship, even if its greatest success came in an era where the sport was an entirely different animal. It is also one of the most emblematic brands in motorsport – and motoring – with its style and history combining to form an almost-romantic aura.
The name change comes at a time in which the team is on an upward trajectory, having put the misery of 2017 to bed with an encouraging 2018 campaign. Sauber started slowly but developed its well-balanced C37 strongly, shelving the previous approach of pinning hopes on major updates and instead bringing regular tweaks. The correlation between expectation and on-track results was also positive, allowing it to fast-track updates, which were boosted by the ongoing recruitment drive at a state-of-the-art factory that had previously been under-utilised. Coinciding with the rise of rookie Leclerc, whose arrival was facilitated by the closer Sauber/Ferrari alliance, the progress enabled Sauber to regularly finish in the points and battle for Q3 spots. It was also a much sharper race operation, for example being quicker at pit stops and better at strategy. Its final result was eighth in the Constructors’ Championship, but at the last handful of Grands Prix it can claim to have held the fourth-fastest package. Leclerc signed off with a string of sevenths. Such pace and consistency was unthinkable just six months previously.
Politically, it is also a development. It builds on the vision the late Sergio Marchionne had for the Sauber/Alfa Romeo relationship, and it strengthens Ferrari’s hand in future discussions with Liberty Media. Ferrari – namely FCA – also ostensibly has Haas under its wing as well, don’t forget. It is also encouraging for Formula 1 that a major manufacturer is increasing its involvement in the championship at a time when other companies appear less-than-interested. Commercially it is also a boon for Alfa Romeo to have a World Champion on board – one of only three teams on the grid with that ace up its sleeve – and a popular one at that, with the enigmatic Kimi Raikkonen still a fan favourite. And in Antonio Giovinazzi it has the dream of an Italian racing for an Italian brand – the first such occurrence in a decade.
The Sauber name may have gone in Formula 1 but the Sauber spirit remains – and there’s every reason for fans to be excited for the next chapter in the team’s distinguished history.