The cycle of Formula 1

By Elle Haus | This year the Sauber name graces the Formula 1 entry list for the 25th consecutive season, an impressive accomplishment in the cut-throat world of motorsport’s elite. I was lucky to sit down with Team Principal Monisha Kaltenborn to analyse the key to their longevity and discuss the financial constraints faced by the private teams in the sport today.

Sauber celebrates 25 years in Formula 1 this year; firstly, congratulations, that’s a massive achievement for a private team. 

Absolutely. We are the fourth oldest brand today in Formula 1 and in the time, if you look back on these 25 years, how many big names have come into the sport and have gone out again? We do have a very unique setup and are still in the sport for these 25 continuous years. And our history in motorsport is of course longer, it’s our 47th year. Looking at these 25 years we are not situated in a country which is really known for its high-end racing heritage, so we’re truly independent. We had to set up everything ourselves; it’s not so easy for us to tap onto any supplier network which is around, also getting the right people is very challenging. I think we have still proven that we’re a very interesting platform even for big names to re-join the sport or even to come in for sponsors for the first time into the sport. So we have our attraction and that has allowed us with these partnerships to stay independent, to maintain obviously a certain Swiss DNA, but still always be perceived as an international team.

We’ve always been used to working in a very, very efficient and small structure.

Monisha Kaltenborn

Is it those partnership and sponsorship deals that you think is the key to your staying power?

Yes, absolutely, because the way things have been changing in Formula 1, you do need strong partners. And we have been able to always maintain a certain basis, a certain infrastructure, a certain core group of people to be able to work in a very lean and efficient way which made us attractive. People who came in always saw how we are actually very relentless in how we’re working. We never give up because we’ve always had a difficult surrounding for the reasons I’ve mentioned. So this relentless behaviour of ours is somewhat a trait we have and that’s made us attractive for big names on the sponsorship side like Petronas who entered with us, Credit Suisse, Red Bull for that matter was a long-time partner and shareholder. Equally for BMW who came in, and then if you look at our recent change there are many teams out there which are struggling and yet we managed to be the one to secure this partnership. So that speaks really for how the team works even in difficult times, and how it remains attractive.

There seems to be a lot more stability within Sauber than in some other teams; you seem to be a very solid, close-knit team.

That’s true. It’s not about any kind of superstars that we have; it’s really that we try to build a strong structure, particularly at heads of department level which has always been our strength, and the workforce we have. We’ve always been used to working in a very, very efficient and small structure. Even when BMW was the majority owner, we were a small manufacturer team, never as big as the others, so that’s one of our strengths that we do have a strong core.

And has that core strengthened since the new ownership last year with Longbow Finance, has that helped to increase stability?

Absolutely. The moment the new ownership kicked in we already could feel the stability. Obviously, at first you have financial stability which is very important for your operational stability. And then you start getting in step-by-step; you see how your procedures are coming back to how they should be, what you really want to focus on. Just even a bit before that, the people knew there will be some change coming up and we’ve been able to attract also very good people because they share the vision and they believe in where we want to go. They see with the kind of infrastructure we have, of course we have to invest which our new owners have done. But they see all we can do and what we’re capable of.

What would you say are the biggest financial constraints facing the private teams in Formula 1 today?

You have to look at two sides here. First of all, you have to look at the cost side. We once with another team put together the cost as such to make a car, to put it on the track for the first race and to run the car. And there you are pretty much on a similar level as others are. Where the difference lies, and that’s the big challenge, is how much of cost or how much of time you put in your development, which then generates all these costs. So that’s something which is a big issue for private teams and smaller teams, to keep up with that pace of development. That’s not easy to maintain that kind of development speed. And the other side you have to look at is the income side because the current Formula 1 system gives certain teams privileges which has a direct effect on the competition. The more you have, the more you can do and back we are to what development you can do. So it’s just a cycle we’re all in.

You need to look at the tools which are out there; they don’t necessarily lead to instantly more income but you reach out to the people and the race has to again be that wow-effect event.

Are you hoping with the changes in Formula 1 ownership with Liberty Media that the distribution is something they will look at and make some changes there to make it fairer for all teams?

We certainly hope so because what the sport needs is to primarily bring the field closer together again. And that you can only achieve if you create an environment where teams have a level playing field. And then of course it’s up to you. It is at the end of the day a competition. We’re not saying everybody should get the same; we are here in a competition and the top teams shall get more than the last one. But that difference doesn’t have to be so big and there have to be factors which are objective, which are rational and which can be met basically by everyone if they show that kind of performance. So I do hope that they look at that because if you can sort that out, and there are many ways to do that, Formula 1 will have a better product for everyone and that’s what’s in the interest of the new owners and of all teams as key players.

What other changes are you hoping they will bring to the sport?

The most important thing we need is to have again the connection to the fan. And that you can only have if you make certain changes looking at what the world out there is like today. We have to first of all understand where does the brand stand.  And from what we’ve seen so far the positive, optimistic aspect to it is that we have a lot of room to grow [laughs]. So it’s a lot you can do which is good, and we have to be able to engage with the younger people out there who should come here. You need to look at the tools which are out there; they don’t necessarily lead to instantly more income but you reach out to the people and the race has to again be that wow-effect event.

From a Team Principal perspective, what are your short- and long-term goals for the team?

The short-term goal is that we want to re-establish ourselves in the midfield because we historically have always been there. It’s just these last two to three years where, due to the difficulties we had, we were not quite there. And then of course, this is part of our core business, so we want to step-by-step go up the ladder. We all have the dream to be up there one day. And that’s what we really want to achieve: to be attractive again, to have more sponsors again, to show great performance and get great drivers.

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