Will Gray

Team preview: Sauber

Will Gray

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Sauber struggled last year from the departure of BMW but after an end-of-season resurgence the plucky privateers are plotting a 2011 comeback - so can Mexican money and a new technical direction succeed?

One of Sauber's biggest aims for this season, it seems, was achieved in one move well before the season had even begun. The funding generated by the signing of Mexican driver Sergio Perez has turned the plain white Sauber of 2010 into a much more sponsor-liveried car, mainly through the support of communications giant Telmex.

The stability this brings will be crucial to this year's campaign, as will the establishment of former Force India technical man James Key as the technical director of the team - and the long-standing technical partnership with Ferrari.

So far, the car has performed well without setting testing alight the way it did last year (when, remember, Sauber were pushing the top of the timesheets in the chase for sponsorship cash only to fall down the grid when the season began).

That said, a strong performance during the final test saw Perez set a benchmark ahead of Ferrari on apparently similar fuel levels, so unless they are fooling again they could be on to something.

Technical director Key made good progress after his arrival early last year, restructuring the technical side and turning the team into a points-scoring proposition once again - and this year that could reap further benefits, especially if Ferrari's gearbox layout (and therefore suspension approach) proves to be the way to go.

Sauber is running the Ferrari engine, transmission and KERS system this year, and that frees up the small team's resource to focus on the rest of the car, such as aero, suspension and mechanicals. The similarities with the Ferrari, however, are clear across the car.

At the rear, the gearbox has been designed around a pushrod suspension set-up - so Sauber has been effectively forced down this route when designing its own suspension.
That said, the ability to alter set-up easily with the pushrod system while still having a fairly open area for the air to flow through the diffuser could be massively beneficial if, as it seems, the balance and set-up of cars due to the rapidly changing nature of the new Pirrelli tyres continues to be an issue.

The other key Ferrari influence is in the sidepods, as while the front of the sidepods have an aggressive-looking square undercut, the layout of the Ferrari KERS system, which reaches the extremes of the sidepods, means that undercut does not follow through all the way around and that could reduce the effectiveness of the aerodynamics at the rear of the car.

Elsewhere, the Sauber has one of the most dramatic under-airbox undercuts of all this year's cars - so big it needs four structural support legs - and a typically high nose with now almost universal three-element front wing.

Last year, the car had a narrow operating window for aerodynamics and could not cope well with ride height changes. It was strong in high-speed corners, but was all over the place in the low speed stuff. Key believes they have addressed this for 2011.
But in testing, the slow speed treatment has not proven as successful as anticipated while issues with the rear bodywork, powertrain and various sensors has curtailed running on too many occasions. So too have two offs for Perez, in Jerez and Barcelona.

One of the Achilles heels for Sauber, in terms of time, performance and funding, could be its inexperienced driver line-up. Perez joins Kamui Kobayashi, a fast but sometimes erratic Japanese driver, and together they have limited knowledge to support the development of the car. The team's 19-year-old reserve driver Esteban Gutierrez will do little to alleviate that issue either.

The technical direction, then, will come mainly from within the design room, but in Key the team has a solid leader and if the innovatively packaged gearbox and adaptable suspension proves effective, Sauber could be a joker in the midfield pack.

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Every day leading up to the start of the F1 season, Will Gray will be breaking down a different team's prospects for 2011.

The schedule is as follows: Mar 14 Virgin; Mar 15 HRT; Mar 16 Lotus; Mar 17 Toro Rosso; Mar 18 Sauber; Mar 19 Force India; Mar 20 Williams; Mar 21 Renault, Mar 22 Mercedes; Mar 23 Ferrari; Mar 24 McLaren; Mar 25 Red Bull

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