2013 was a year of mixed emotions for Sauber. While the campaign failed to live up to the lofty heights of 2012, which produced no less than four podium appearances, 2013 eventually developed into a promising year for the team. The change in fortunes was fundamentally down to the change in tyre construction which took place prior to the summer break. Nico Hulkenberg immediately improved and Esteban Gutierrez soon followed suit. Sauber’s season went from a dire start to an acceptable finish and they will hope to carry the momentum forward into 2014.
Sauber’s disastrous start to the season was stimulated by a similar situation to the on which plagued Williams. The design team had opted for a radical approach in an otherwise evolutionary year, with tightly packaged sidepods and a new, more aerodynamically efficient, rear axle. However, the sidepods were causing some issues as they spoilt the airflow to the rear of the car, making it unstable and difficult to handle, especially on turn-in to a corner. These issues were amplified in China, as both Hulkenberg and Gutierrez struggled to maintain grip throughout the demanding Turn 1. However, contrary to Williams’ dilemma, the team could redevelop the problem parts and notable upgrade packages in Spain and Belgium put the team back on track.
However, the huge improvement in performance, particularly in the case of Nico Hulkenberg, was not solely down to upgrades and hard work from the team – luck was involved. When Pirelli brought new construction tyres to Hungary, the C32’s potential was realised. The power-shift as a result of the change was most poignant in the mid-field as Force India, who had enjoyed a strong season up until this point, almost switched places with Sauber in the pecking order. An enormous improvement from the Swiss team was always to be anticipated once the tyres were changed, as the new construction tyres were of similar ilk to the 2012 specification rubber, which had augmented the strength of the team last season. While the change launched Hulkenberg into the spotlight at the head of the pack, it was too little too late, with Sauber failing to jump above Force India in the constructors fight – Justice, somewhat upheld.
As for Sauber’s drivers, Nico Hulkenberg won the inter-team battle by a comfortable margin, yet this was always to be expected. What was not to be anticipated was the strength of Hulkenberg this season, which has led many people to suggest the German as a challenger to the driver of the year accolade. Throughout the year, he led the team by example, even in the most adverse circumstances. His failure to start in Melbourne as a result of unreliability was swiftly forgotten, with the first points of Nico’s season coming in China just two races later. Following the mid-season break, Hulkenberg was even more impressive, highlighting his credentials and linking him with the top drives. P5 in Italy following a P3 in Qualifying was remarkable, yet he proved that the result was not a fluke by driving an impeccable race in Korea to take P4. The latter was particularly special as he had to fend off a fast charging Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton in the closing stages. What has impressed me this season is Hulkenberg’s ability to work with the engineers to develop a setup across the weekend. At circuits such as Monza, where setup is crucial, Hulkenberg delivered while his teammate faltered.
Meanwhile, Gutierrez’s season is best described as a ‘slow-burner’. The Mexican struggled greatly early on, as he failed to acclimatise to Formula One. His army of critics were building and the pressure on his shoulders was immense. However, he managed to provide his season with a new lease of life once he understood the new construction tyres, with his incredible P10 in Qualifying in Singapore, highlighting his growing confidence. His first and only points finish came with a P7 in Japan. Gutierrez has undoubtedly been given the benefit of the doubt this season, yet he will need to be a regular points scorer next season if he is to cement his standing in the sport.
Sauber’s 2013 season hinged on tyres and any season which hinges on a factor out of the team’s control can never be an entirely successful season. However, Sauber showed character by the bucket load this year and this is a key attribute which should not be overlooked.