At the end of 2009, BMW — like Honda and Toyota before them — pulled out of Formula One after a disappointing year with a promising car. In the end this led to team founder Peter Sauber buying (back) his team, now equipped with an impressive BMW-built development facility but burdened with a shoestring budget, a glaring lack of sponsorship, and no engines. The end result was the Ferrari-powered C29, driven by ex-Toyota firebrand Kamui Kobayashi and the long-suffering Pedro de la Rosa. (Nick Heidfeld maintained his ties to the team but took up with Pirelli as a test driver, while Robert Kubica hared off to Renault.)
The C29 suffered from poor reliability at the beginning of the season, retiring far more often than it managed to finish races and holding the team point-less until Kobayashi scraped together a 10th-place finish at the Turkish GP. From that point on, Kobayashi drove himself into the points more often than not as the car’s pace and reliability both improved by leaps and bounds. For his part, de la Rosa put together a 7th-place finish at the Hungaroring before being replaced by Nick Heidfeld (and taking the latter’s job at Pirelli); Heidfeld managed a pair of points finishes (each one place behind Kobayashi) at Suzuka and Yeongam before the season’s end. He’ll be replaced by Mexican GP2 star Sergio Perez and his Telmex sponsorship money next year.
The two big stories about Sauber this year are their return to form from Istanbul on and Kobayashi’s performance in the car. In a year when other rookies often stumbled — Nico Hülkenberg and Vitaly Petrov being the biggest names, despite their excellent end-of-season form — due to the testing ban, Kobayashi picked up right where he’d left off in the TF109 and quickly asserted himself as the team’s number-one driver.
Of all the teams, you’d expect Sauber to have the best opportunity to take advantage of the switch to Pirellis — after all, Pirelli’s test driver came to the team for five races at the end of the season. Peter Sauber would be foolish to have ignored Heidfeld’s experience with the new tires’ developments, and I don’t think he’s a fool. How well that preliminary testing experience carries over to the tires we actually see in 2011 will of course remain obscure for another month or so. I’d expect Sauber to give Williams and Force India a run for their money next year, though I’d be surprised if they made the jump up to compete with Renault and Mercedes.
- Kobayashi stars as Sauber recover in 2010 (F1 Fanatic)