RACE DEBRIEF

    The conclusion of Alfa Romeo’s title sponsorship of the Sauber F1 Team at the end of last season after a six-year relationship was the first big step in the Swiss outfit's reorganisation ahead of them becoming Audi’s works team in 2026.

    In the interim, they will be known as Stake F1 Team Kick Sauber. Audi is expected to ramp up its investment while the team utilises the significant funding (believed to be in the hundreds of millions over the course of the partnership) that comes from betting, lifestyle and entertainment backer Stake to improve every inch of their facility and close the infrastructure gap to the sport’s biggest teams.

    READ MORE: Rap star Drake launches Sauber's new era as they unveil fresh identity as the Stake F1 Team

    There is much work to be done. The team finished ninth in the constructors’ championship last year, three places down on the previous campaign.

    “We were not consistent through the year and couldn’t clearly understand how to make this car work at different tracks, with different track conditions and temperatures,” says Team Representative Alessandro Alunni Bravi when we catch up.  

    “In the first part of the season, we struggled a lot on a single time lap in qualifying. In part we fixed this, but in the race, we missed the pace. This is down to how the car works the tyre – and it’s something we’re working on.”

    However, look beyond the lowly constructors’ championship position – and you’ll find the team have made significant strides in strengthening their core processes and infrastructure.  

    ZANDVOORT, NETHERLANDS - AUGUST 25: Alessandro Alunni Bravi, Team Representative of Alfa Romeo F1
    Team Representative Alessandro Alunni Bravi is already fully focussed on the new season

    “We have made a lot of steps back at the factory,” says Alunni Bravi. “We have been able to develop the car constantly during the season. Proof of this is that we brought an important upgrade – a front wing – to the last race in Abu Dhabi.

    “We brought five different specs of floor [in 2023]. We have reduced the time to market – from the design of a part to delivery on track. This is the result of some choices we have done compared to last year.

    READ MORE – END OF YEAR REPORT: Alfa Romeo's 2023 was disappointing but can a technical reshuffle provide hope?

    “One has been to invest in our production side, to bring in house production of carbon parts so we don’t depend anymore on external suppliers. For the first time, we have a night shift in the carbon department to almost double our capacity and to be able to develop and bring aero upgrades at a high level.

    “We reduced 30% time to market [of carbon parts]. Our target is to reduce by 50% in future. There is an investment plan in the production side and design side – that’s headcount, processes and technology.”

    Audi Speed83758-11.jpg
    The team will become the works Audi outfit in 2026

    It will take time for the gains from this investment to flow through to pure lap time, but being able to bring parts to the track quicker – and be in control of the whole process – should have a positive impact fairly quickly, particularly as we saw in 2023 in the case of McLaren that in-season development can transform your season, the British team going from scrapping for points to Red Bull’s closest challengers.

    James Key has returned to Hinwil as Technical Director having last year parted ways with McLaren, and after fulfilling gardening leave requirements has spent the last four months getting stuck in.

    READ MORE: Alfa Romeo announce shake-up as James Key takes over Technical Director role

    As he and the team analysed what they had, it became clear that a revolution, rather than evolution, was needed for 2024 if the team had serious ambitions of making a big step. As a result, the 2024 challenger will be a completely new car.

    “We understood this year that this concept was a good concept but there was a limit of possibility to further development,” says Alunni Bravi. “We improved the car significantly since the launch but it was not enough to stay ahead of our competitors so we need to change the concept of the car and develop certain areas.

    Alessandro Alunni Bravi: James Key signing ‘a statement of intent for Sauber’
    Alessandro Alunni Bravi: James Key signing ‘a statement of intent for Sauber’

    “We will have a new front suspension, which is a big development for us, and this should help us make the front tyres and front axle work better in all conditions. We will have a new monocoque, a different concept. This year’s monocoque was a carryover, so this will be a significant step.”

    Does this mean Sauber will be moving towards a Red Bull-esque car concept? “We have seen most teams moving to the Red Bull concept with the exclusion of ourselves, Ferrari and Haas,” says Alunni Bravi. “It’s not a matter of going in that direction, but it’s about assessing our weaknesses and finding a good technical solution.

    READ MORE: Bottas and Zhou pin hopes on ‘completely new’ 2024 car after difficult final season for Alfa Romeo

    “This won’t be an evolution of the C43, it will be a completely new car. This will also not just be a new car, but we have an aggressive development plan, especially for the first two quarters of the year, until around September or October. Then we will be devoting resources for the rest of the year and beginning of 2025 to 2026 [when new regulations will be introduced].

    “This will be similar to other [teams]. [This] year’s car is crucial as there will be a lot of carryover from this year to the 2025 cars, as was the case between 2020 to 2021 [when new rules were introduced in 2022].”

    SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 03: Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Alfa Romeo F1 C43
    The new car will be a new concept after the team reached the limit of development on the C43

    While Audi won’t have a visible presence over the next couple of years, they are heavily involved in the preparation for their arrival and Alunni Bravi says they “have an investment plan, already agreed according to the governance”.

    And Audi themselves are cracking on with producing their own power unit at a purpose-built facility in Neuberg, Germany. The technical teams of both the Hinwil factory and engine base will work in tandem to ensure seamless integration of the power unit into the chassis for the 2026 machine.

    READ MORE: Lawrence Barretto’s 5 bold predictions for the 2024 season – which of these could materialise?

    For now, though, the focus is on ensuring they deliver on track, as the better the constructors’ championship finish, the more prize money they get to push back into capital expenditure spending. And that means they need their drivers to make the most of the package they deliver.

    The team have gone for continuity in their line-up, with Valtteri Bottas entering the final year of his three-year contract and Zhou Guanyu renewed for a third campaign. The duo did a solid job with a car that lacked the teeth to fight for points all too often on Sunday afternoons last year.

    MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 27: Valtteri Bottas of Finland and Alfa Romeo F1 and Zhou Guanyu of
    The team has a new name, but there's no change in the driver line up with Bottas and Zhou set to continue in 2024

    “Valtteri has suffered a lot with the consistency of our package,” says Alunni Bravi. “2022 was strong year for him – he scored 95% of our points so we know how big is his contribution. [Last year] we struggled with the car, and he had unlucky races. If we can provide him with a more performing car, a stronger package, he will be able to deliver strong performance.

    “We need to support him with a good car. He’s very reliable, able to always be on the limit without going over the limit.”

    READ MORE: Why Alfa Romeo opted to re-sign Zhou alongside Bottas – while keeping one eye on future Audi tie-up

    “Zhou did a very good step compared to last year in terms of overall performance and we’ve seen him able to match Valtteri’s qualifying several times. We expect a further step [this year] – he needs to be more consistent from one circuit to another.

    “What I asked him this year is that we need him to be on the limit at the top of his performance from Lap 1 of FP1 because we cannot concede any single session in this tight competition, where five teams are fighting within one tenth.

    ‘We think he can make another step’ – Alunni Bravi explains why Alfa Romeo kept Zhou for 2024
    ‘We think he can make another step’ – Alunni Bravi explains why Alfa Romeo kept Zhou for 2024

    “He’s doing this step, of course it’s a process, but what I expect [this year] is more consistency in terms of race pace, to have a more aggressive approach from the very first lap. It’s not a matter of speed, it’s a matter of confidence.

    “He’s matching Valtteri on certain occasions, this should not be the exception or surprise, this should be his level. If he doesn’t do this step in confidence, of course we will be disappointed.”

    READ MORE: Zhou admits it was 'impossible' not to hear criticism after he earned his F1 seat

    Both have a chance to prove they deserve to stay on and be in with a shot of being part of the Audi era – but they will be aware their respective seats will be coveted by plenty of others given the incoming investment from the German manufacturer.

    And it’s up to the team to keep making strides at base and improve performance on track to ensure Audi get their wish of starting their debut in Formula 1 on a strong footing.

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