Alfa Romeo, which will now be known as Stake F1, ended 2023 as penultimate in the constructors’ championship. Drivers Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu collected a measly sixteen points during the season and hope for improvement in ’24. But is that realistic? We asked two editors-in-chief of F1Maximaal, who shed light on the future of Sauber, a racing team that is in pocket and ashes waiting for the arrival of Audi.
During the winter break it remained relatively windless in Hinwil, Switzerland, home of Stake F1 Team Kick Sauber. Team representative Alessandro Alunni Bravi indicated that the racing stable will go in a different direction with its car next season, as ‘the current concept has reached its limits’. However, despite the fact that the new Sauber car will not be an updated version of the disappointing C43, the Swiss racing team is expected to remain in the same bed for the foreseeable future.
Waiting for Audi
Sauber is preparing for the takeover of Audi. The German manufacturer will take the helm from 2026 and is busy behind the scenes balancing and assembling each department of their team. The question thus arises: is the present in Hinwil being sacrificed for the future? Stephan Koolschijn, one of our editors, does not see it so black and white. “The team will undoubtedly try to improve their car, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all of Sauber’s sights are already set on 2026. Since no major rule changes will be implemented until Audi’s entry, I think that Stake expects little to change in the rankings over the next two years.’
How involved exactly are the Germans is a question many people are asking themselves. Mark Hanselman, editor-in-chief at F1Maximaal, speculates. ‘Stake seems to be mainly looking forward to the arrival of Audi in 2026.’ Opinions are somewhat divided in our editorial team, but there is consensus regarding the prediction for the 2024 season: Sauber will also be at the back of the coming championship and will have to compete with Haas to avoid last place.
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Get well soon in 2024?
The biggest problem for the Swiss last season was probably the race pace. The team – then called Alfa Romeo – repeatedly forgot to reap the benefits of a strong qualifying session and also had to deal with reliability problems, with a double DNF in Brazil as one of the low points. Sauber also failed to make significant progress during the season, something the competition did. ‘Since the introduction of the budget ceiling, there are more and more teams that are becoming increasingly professional,’ explains editor-in-chief Hanselman. ‘Williams has clearly become more ambitious, and the former AlphaTauri also made good progress at the end of last season. The result is that, in my opinion, the rearguard will mainly consist of Haas and Stake.’
Stake finished the season in ninth place at the bottom of the constructors’ championship. Only Haas did worse. The only way is up, you might think, but our editors do not rule out that the Swiss will fall back another position and end up in last place in 2024. “I expect the roles will be reversed,” Koolschijn predicts. ‘Gene Haas has intervened by saying goodbye to Günther Steiner. The breath of fresh air from the American team could be exactly what Haas needs. In addition, I have Nico Hülkenberg and Kevin Magnussen a bit higher than Bottas and Zhou.’
However, Hanselman sees it differently. ‘I expect that Stake will still be able to stay ahead of Haas. At the former Alfa Romeo there are few real advantages, but also few weaknesses, while in my opinion that is the case with Haas.’ The majority (56%) of the F1Maximaal panel, like Hanselman, predict that Stake will once again finish in position nine, but 44% of our editors think they will find the Swiss in last place when the 2024 season comes to an end . There is no improvement on the horizon at Sauber, as the results of our poll showed.
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A crucial year for both drivers
With a strong sixth place in 2022 still in mind, Sauber’s big bosses decided to stick with their driver duo again for next season. But after a disappointing previous campaign, it is now real money time for Bottas and Zhou. The Finn still has a contract until the end of 2025, while his teammate will see his expire next season. The disappointing performance of last season also resulted in a lot of criticism for the driving pair. Koolschijn in particular was unrelenting. ‘With all due respect to both drivers, but in my opinion Stake may have the weakest duo in the entire field. Bottas may have driven for Mercedes, but in 2023 he fell through the lower limit more than once,” says Koolschijn, who explains why he believes the Swiss racing team will be trumped by Haas.
“Still, I think Bottas will beat Zhou again,” Koolschijn continued. A statement that the rest of the F1Maximaal panel fully supports. A poll by our editorial staff has shown that everyone expects the Finn to outdo his teammate for the third year in a row. Yet the assessment of 24-year-old Zhou is not exclusively negative. ‘He shows at times that he really has talent, but just like his teammate, he is invisible much more often. I expected a bigger step in his second season,” said Koolschijn, who is supported by Hanselman. ‘The difference between the two drivers in 2023 was not as big as you might expect. Zhou was regularly able to offer Bottas a good match. I think the Finn will still come out on top, but the difference won’t be big.’
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In short, both gentlemen are facing a crucial year. For Zhou, the need to perform is greatest, but with the arrival of Audi getting closer, Bottas is not completely out of harm’s way. With ten victories in Formula 1, the Finn has built up quite a bit of credit, but he will still have to find his ‘mojo’ again to have a chance of a seat when the German manufacturer takes over within two years. Especially because Audi certainly has the ambition to be at the top in the long term and there are also many competitors waiting for a place within the team.
Rumors have surfaced in the past that Carlos Sainz will take the wheel of the Audi car from ’26. That the Spaniard will drive for Sauber in the future has suddenly become a lot more plausible, as a switch from Lewis Hamilton to Ferrari appears to be in the works and Charles Leclerc has just signed a contract extension with the Scuderia. In addition, Sainz’s father has connections at Audi, with which he won the most recent edition of the Dakar Rally two weeks ago. Hülkenberg has also been linked several times with a switch to Audi once the time comes. Due to his German nationality, the Haas driver seems the perfect fit to start the Audi era in F1.
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