“I am suing the team so I can be friends with them.” This is what Giedo van der Garde seems to say through his actions. The situation at Sauber is difficult to handle, as well as delicate and downright ridiculous.
The Dutch driver has won his right to compete for Sauber in Australia, but he is yet to find out if he actually will. Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr were both registered in the official race sheet just as the Supreme Court of Victoria was ordering Sauber to let van der Garde drive for them.
While nobody knows what will happen in Friday’s practice sessions or in Saturday’s qualifying, it is a good moment for us to imagine how things would go.
You are a former test driver for a team, but your contract offers you the right to sue your way into a full-time job for the season. Meanwhile, the team has named two other drivers in your place and you are left empty-handed. You win the case and your place in the team, and one of the two new men is sacrificed.
You find yourself in the team garage on Saturday’s qualifying session (because let’s face it, Friday is way to close and you won’t be in a car for practice). You climb in a car that is not fitted to your measurements, but that has to be the least of your worries.
The people on the team – engineers, mechanics, managers or other staff – must help you as best a job as you can do no more than 48 hours after you were fighting them in court in an unexpected struggle for justice. It’s like – legally, mind you – taking them their toys and then nicely asking them to play with you expecting to receive a decent reaction from them in exchange.
The atmosphere in the team is already hard to take in, and if van der Garde will actually replace either one of the newcomers, it will be really dangerous. Collaboration and communication would not be able to be at the desired level. Formula 1 is essentially a team sport, and it is clear that when a man fights against an entire team hoping he will then be helped by it to compete at a high level, something is not right.
In a way, van der Garde’s gesture can be seen as arrogant. Surely he knows what’s in store for him if he will be in the cockpit any time during the weekend. On the other hand, everything is perfectly legal.
Sauber’s options are pretty much limited. The team basically has three drivers. Logic might tell us that the simpler solution is to choose two of them, and seeing how van der Garde put so much pressure to drive in the weekend, one of Ericsson or Nasr would have to be left behind.
Of course, that would in turn have the ability to cause another court case, and a certain escape from this vicious circle is unimaginable. The easiest way to deal with that would be to pay-off one of the drivers, but that is not as easy to manage as it sounds. Ericsson and Nasr have both brought in major financial support for the team, and Sauber will lose that if they choose to get rid of one of them. They must also pay damages afterwards.
My colleague Alexandru Șiclovan has tried to look at things from a sporting perspective, so he analysed the time the three drivers have spent in GP2, as they cover a similar time span. Ericsson and van der Garde have both competed in the inferior formula for four seasons, with the Dutchman having better results (4 victories to 3 managed by the Swede and 17 podium finishes to Ericsson’s 13, with an average finishing position of 6.25 compared to 10.25). They both have the experience of one season in Formula 1 for Caterham.
Nasr’s record is actually even better. He has managed 4 victories and 20 podium finishes in just three seasons, with an average finishing position of 5.66. However, the fact that he never started an F1 race is a drawback (although he did participate in five practice sessions), so a choice is very difficult to make even when having this in mind.
Ferrari is Sauber’s engine provider since 2010, so it might try and help the team financially or by hiring van der Garde in a secondary role. Even if this is possible, it remains highly unlikely. Maybe Bernie Ecclestone or FIA will try helping as well. Bernie certainly does not want his F1 grid shrinking in number even further than it has.
In a situation like this, the last thing we need to ask ourselves is how come a team with such tradition in F1 as Sauber, which clearly has the staff capable of handling contractual issues, has managed to get into this mess.
The crisis is blooming at Sauber, and Monisha Kaltenborn is right in the middle of it as team manager. Pressure might start mounting on her role in the team in the near future, and the issues might lead all the way to a sad and unwanted financial breakdown.
Night has fallen in Melbourne and the whole situation is pressuring not only van der Garde, but also Ericsson and Nasr. Not one of the three knows if he will have something to drive in the morning, and the night will definitely not be quiet for them.
Since the appeal decision has been issued Sauber has not issued a press announcement, although the situation might require one. It is possible that they don’t even know what their next move should be. Instead, the Supreme Court has announced that the case will continue tomorrow morning. Will that mean Sauber will miss practice altogether?
The time remaining is short but it will provide answers. All in all, the whole issue only managed to yet again highlight the problems modern day Formula 1 is facing.