Sauber, Charles Leclerc and the most-improved team of F1 2018?
From backrunners to midfield regulars. But what exactly has changed at Sauber and how good is Charles Leclerc?
By James Galloway
Last Updated: 06/12/18 3:24pm
Which is the most-improved team of F1 2018 so far?
Up the front, there's most certainly a strong case that it's championship leaders Ferrari. Then at the head of the midfield there's Renault and Haas, both of whom have already scored more points this season than they managed last. McLaren, despite falling well short of their own expectations, fall into that category too.
But what about the other team whose points haul for 2018 already exceeds 2017 - Sauber? In fact, the unfancied Swiss team's return of 16 points after 10 races is their best for three years.
Had it not been for a blunder at Charles Leclerc's pit stop when running in the points at last week's British GP, the team would almost certainly have left Silverstone ahead of eighth-placed Toro Rosso in the constructors' standings, the team whose Honda engine Sauber has originally intended to use themselves in 2018.
The decision to rip up that plan and instead stick with long-time suppliers Ferrari in a beefed-up deal was one of the first taken by Frederic Vasseur when the experienced Frenchman joined Sauber as their new team boss in wake of last year's British GP.
Twelve months on the picture on-track is very different. So what exactly has changed?
"We tried to reorganise every single department and have improved in every single area," Vasseur explained in a Sky Sports interview at Silverstone. "We improved step-by-step and we still have a long way to go but on the other hand, step by step we are coming back.
"It's always the best way to get everyone motivated and give more than the maximum. The feeling is a great one because everyone is pushing in the same direction. It's like a spiral; as soon as you are getting results you are getting more motivation and expectation to continue on the same way."
Vasseur believes part of that motivational boost has been directly achieved by the team's return to engine parity with the field this year after running Ferrari's 2016 unit last year.
"It's a huge step forward," he admitted. "It's a step forward on track on the engine but also a step forward in the mentality because we don't want to be considered a team using an engine of the year before.
"In terms of motivation again, it's important that we have the engine of the year. I think it was the main step forward but there then is not just one area that we haven't improved a lot."
In addition to steps on aerodynamic developing back at the factory and operations at the race track, Vasseur says Sauber's focus on improvement has gone into every detail
"We pushed like hell over the winter for the crew to improve on the pit stops," said Vasseur, speaking before the setback of last Sunday but after the team clocking the fastest individual pit stop at three of the previous four races.
"If you are doing 3.3s or 2.3s it's one second [difference] on 60 laps. Okay, sometimes you can decide for one position, but at the end of the day they did a lot and it's paying off together," he added.
How good is Charles Leclerc?
Aside from the brief four-year window at the end of the last decade when BMW turned Sauber into a full-fat works operation that finished second in the Constructors' Championship, the Swiss team's status on the F1 grid has mostly reflected one of perennial midfielders.
The team's calling card has instead often been their young drivers. Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel, Robert Kubica and Sergio Perez all began their careers at Hinwil and now, not even half a season in to his F1 career, it's Leclerc who is beginning to make big waves.
Last year's runaway F2 champion, and Ferrari academy driver, endured a few stumbles early on in the initial flyaway rounds - "he made some small mistakes in the approach and the management of the weekend," reflects Vasseur - but in recent months has consistently outpaced more experienced team-mate Marcus Ericsson and Silverstone would have been the 20-year-old's fourth consecutive points finish.
"Step-by-step he corrected the different topics and now he's doing a perfect job," says his team boss.
Vasseur knows more than both about the development of young drivers, having been central to the running and success of the ASM and ART junior teams for the best part of three decades. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg both won pre-F1 titles under the Frenchman's tutelage.
And while naturally reluctant to compare drivers from one generation, and one series, to another, Vasseur is clearly impressed with what he's seeing from Leclerc.
"He has the speed and his mentality is fantastic," said the Frenchman. "He is charismatic, which is a huge asset for the team because he is also pushing and able to build up the motivation around him."
The Monegasque is clearly also building momentum, so much so that an immediate promotion by Ferrari to the seat alongside Sebastian Vettel for 2019 is one of the paddock's hottest rumours.
So, if it hasn't already arrived, is Vasseur expecting a call from Maranello any time soon?
"So far it's not on the table, it's not a discussion we've had," he says. "We are discussing [with Ferrari], but not about this. Perhaps one day it will arrive, but so far I want to be focused on the current championship.
"I'm pushing Charles to be focused on the next race because he will judged not only by you or by Maurizio [Arrivabene] or someone else, but on the last race. You are always judged on the last event and the last performance."
Where next for Sauber?
While Leclerc's stay at the team may ultimately prove to be a fleeting one, Vasseur can certainly afford to plan for the longer term.
"I have personal ambition to towards the company, to be able to attract good guys, good sponsors," he explained. "We have the feeling that it's improving and we are more and more attractive. Not only with the mechanics or the engineers, but sponsors and media."
Whether moving from the back to the midfield, or from the midfield to the front, Vasseur is aware progress is often piecemeal in Formula 1 - as his former employers, Renault, are currently experiencing.
"In the short term or mid-term view it's quite unrealistic to imagine we could fight with the top teams," he said. "It's not a matter of ambition, it's not a matter of budget, it's just a matter of having to be realistic. They have capitalised in the last seasons on investment, on recruitment and to catch them for everyone it would take time.
"The best example is Renault. They have a decent budget, huge structure and they are engine suppliers and to come back to P4 is realistic, but then the next step…
"First we have to be midfield, to be able to fight with these kind of teams, and then we'll see later on."
It's a quest for more solid competitiveness that is certainly benefiting from the enhanced nature of Sauber's relationship with Ferrari, which has seen Alfa Romeo come aboard as technical partners this year.