Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn has leapt to the defence of her driver, Pascal Wehrlein, after the young German was criticised for pulling himself out of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix due to fitness concerns, and labelled claims that he should have battled through the pain barrier as “awful” and “appalling”.
22-year-old Wehrlein pulled himself out of last weekend’s grand prix after battling through Friday’s two practice sessions, with Ferrari test driver Antonio Giovinazzi replacing him for the remainder of Saturday’s and Sunday’s action.
Wehrlein suffered a nasty accident at the Race of Champions exhibition in January in which he rolled a Polaris Slingshot and crashed into the concrete barrier and suffered a back injury that ruled him out of the first pre-season test in Barcelona last month.
After coping with last Friday’s two practice sessions, Wehrlein decided he was not fit enough to race at his full capacity, and elected to give up the seat so that Giovinazzi could give Sauber a chance of achieving a points finish.
“My back is fine but I took a step back in terms of fitness and I’m trying to catch up,” Wehrlein said last Saturday. “I am not feeling like I could do a whole race at my best level.
“Nine weeks ago my injury happened. Then I couldn’t train as hard as I wanted and as I needed to do. I feel like I couldn’t do the whole race distance. If I think after a few laps, ‘That’s painful, I’m losing concentration, I’m losing focus,’ and this would be too high risk.”
But the decision drew criticism from some individuals, one of which was former grand prix winner Mark Webber, who admitted he wasn’t impressed with Wehrlein’s attitude.
“I am not a fan of Wehrlein,” Webber said. “That’s backed up by his soft call saying he wasn’t fit enough. I’m not too disappointed about that change.”
The criticism has not impressed Sauber chief Kaltenborn, who heavily defended Wehrlein and praised him for having the nerve to speak up about his fitness when it would have been easy to stay quiet and put himself in danger.
"He just needs time," Kaltenborn said when speaking to Motorsport.com. "I think it is really awful how people think they have any sort of competence to say anything about him.
"They just have their weird views from wherever they come and have no authority at all to judge over anyone. I think it is rather appalling how people think they can judge this and they should look at themselves first.
"It takes a lot for someone so ambitious to openly admit and say, 'Guys, in these circumstances, I cannot cover the entire race distance'.
"So one should rather appreciate that kind of openness and honesty, which is not easy to maintain with the kind of pressure these guys have."
Wehrlein is expected to return for the Chinese Grand Prix next week, with Giovinazzi going back to Ferrari despite leaving Sauber “impressed” after qualifying 16th and finishing 12th in his very first outing in Formula One.