Just as certain drivers have ‘Formula 1’ stamped on their foreheads long before they eventually reach motorsport’s premier category, so Alfa Romeo team principal Frédéric Vasseur was always destined to make it to the top level, albeit as a team boss rather driver.
The next move for the 51-year-old from a southern suburb of Paris was to Hinwil, situated outside Zurich, as team principal and managing director of Sauber Motorsport AG, known from 2019 as the Alfa Romeo F1 Team.
Along the way ‘Fred’ employed some illustrious drivers. His team ASM – renamed ART after throwing his lot in with Nicholas Todt – commands a roll of champions which includes Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Nico Hulkenberg, Valtteri Bottas, Charles Leclerc, Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Ocon. A total of 12 ASM/ART alumni have made it to F1 to date, including four grand prix winners.
Although Vasseur’s tenure with Renault F1 was short-lived, lasting little longer than the team’s 2016 return season, his departure marked him as a man who acts on the strength of his convictions. As racing director he had a vision for a team following after a bruising period under the cash-strapped ownership of Genii Capital. But the top management had another vision, and the net result was Vaseur’s resignation after one season, as he put principle ahead of clinging to F1 at any cost.
Six months later, in June 2017, Fred was approached to take the helm at Sauber. The team was on an acute downward spiral at the time and worse – in many eyes at the time – linked to Honda for 2018.
Fred’s first move was to dissolve that deal, which was then still at heads-of-agreement stage. Shortly thereafter a ‘back-end’ deal – engine, transmission, applicable hydraulics/electronics – with Ferrari was announced. The next step was an Alfa Romeo livery in 2018, followed by full team naming rights from this season.
How long are Alfa Romeo committed to stay in F1? Paddock rumours suggest the current deal runs until the end of 2021, a claim which is met with silence when I put it to Vasseur on Saturday at the Russian Grand Prix. In my experience that tends to suggest the rumour is on the money; clearly Vasseur would rather say nothing than concoct a story, as has also been my experience with some F1 folk, most of whom eventually left the sport with bruised reputations.
However he opens up when I ask whether equity changed hands to facilitate the team and chassis naming deal: “It’s a naming [deal], like they are doing in football, it’s title sponsorship,” he explains, adding, “The denomination ‘C’ stays the same” – a reference to Sauber’s convention of naming cars after team founder Peter Sauber’s wife, Christiane.
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Given all the speculation about Antonio Giovinazzi’s future – despite the Italian rookie having upped his game significantly since that needless closing-stage shunt in Spa – the obvious question is how much input Alfa Romeo actually has into driver selection, and whether it allows them to go as far as nominating a driver.
“We have an open discussion on this,” he begins. “We did not have the discussion so far, [but] we will have the discussion quite soon.
“At the end, it’s the common interest that we are in the same boat and we need altogether to get the results. We can’t be in the situation that I would like to nominate A; they would like to nominate B. They are investing into the team and they need for us to get the results.” Clearly, then, there is some ‘dissention’.”
If ever a man has the skills and experience to nurture a young driver, it is Vasseur, so has Giovinazzi done enough to merit another crack at the red/white cockpit?
“Antonio is a rookie, and he is doing very well for me in [qualifying] since the beginning of the season, he’s matching Kimi [Raikkonen] equally now, about the last eight events.
“The first part of the season he struggled more in the races, but we have to keep in mind that he didn’t race the last two seasons. He’s a rookie in F1, and he didn’t race the last two seasons, he’s not coming like the others with two full seasons in GP2 the last two years.
“Perhaps at one stage it was a bit difficult, but he had a tough weekend in Spa. He was very close to achieving [a points finish] and he didn’t do it. The reaction was very strong. Because for me the week after we had Monza, his home race, huge pressure from the press, from the 200 guests of Alfa Romeo, and so, after Spa, and he [finished ninth].”
Clearly Antonio’s stock has risen since that needless Spa crash: “For me it was a huge step forward. And then he did a good job again in Singapore, [he] didn’t know the track, and he had a very strong weekend from the beginning. We can’t complain.”
But as is well known one of Vasseur’s former champions – Hulkenberg – is on the market for next year. When I press him for a view on whether Giovinazzi is likely to remain with the team for the 2020 F1 season, Vasseur allows himself some wriggle room.
“We are in a world that the situation of today is the situation of today,” he says cryptically. “Everybody is under pressure, I am under pressure, we are under pressure. This is the Formula 1 world, and it’s not an issue at all. He has to perform, he knows perfectly the situation, and he’s improving. The most important race is always the last one, or the next one.”
On the other side of the garage is Raikkonen who, of course, returned to the team he made his F1 debut for on a two-year deal just when his grand prix career seemed over. Vasseur is pleased with the 2007 world champion’s contribution to the team.
“I think he’s scored more or less all the possible points,” he says. “[But] it’s not just for me a matter of points.
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“He helped us a lot also into the development of the company, the development of the car, to stabilise the system. We are still growing up and we are quite young as a team, and he’s part of the balance of the system.”
In mid-2016, when the team was on course for its second 10th-place championship finish in three years, Sauber was acquired by the mysterious Longbow investment company (some say through loan default) with the word being that Finn Rausing of the famed Tetrapak-owning family was the prime mover. In a further twist, Sauber later moved from Longbow to a newly-registered vehicle, Islero Investments, in 2018, with Vasseur and Rausing listed amongst its five directors.
What Islero’s shareholders may gain from their investment is, of course, bound up with not just the team’s performance but also the outcome of F1’s long-running negotiations for its future rules package.
“It’s a challenge for us to stabilise the system,” says Vasseur obliquely, “with the result that we will get more and more prize money. I hope so [we do].
“We are improving in terms of [championship] position and FOM is improving in terms of [turnover] also, and the combination is that we will improve the prize fund. And we did a strong job altogether to improve also drastically the income from sponsors. Compared to two years ago it’s a huge step forward and if we continue in this direction, we are in a good position.”
Vasseur doesn’t envisage the team breaking off its long-running association with power unit supplier Ferrari: “Yeah, that [engine choice] makes sense, but we didn’t discuss so far. We’ll do it soon, but I don’t see the point to change.” But he admits the team’s decision over whether to resume producing its own gearboxes is less clear.
“We’ll see the regulations after ’21. But it makes sense. I think we are… to be honest with you, I’m a bit [concerned] about the regulations. I think we are going more into the standardisation of some parts; it would [not] make sense to continue like this.
“As long as we are not on standardisation I won’t develop a department into the company to do our own gearbox, if at one stage we are going to standardisation. It’s a huge investment because you have to invest on dyno. And for our company, Sauber, to do the gearbox, it’s a huge investment.”
Effectively Sauber is left with two powertrain choices – Renault and Ferrari – given that Mercedes has its hands full with three customers and its own ‘works’ operation, However, Vasseur and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff are the best of F1 friends.
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“It will be difficult for [Mercedes] to do more, but you never know. It’s not a matter of to be [a] friend or not. At one stage you are reaching the capacity of the company; it’s not because you are a friend that the guys in the factory will work 36 hours a day!”
I press Vasseur on his reservations over the 2021 rules package. It is clear that he is not as upbeat as he was when the original ‘blueprint’ was presented in March 2018.
“The road map they gave us two years ago, or 18 months ago in Bahrain, for me was a good one,” he says thoughtfully. “Now I’m not sure that we will achieve to do something.”
A few days before we met the FIA confirmed it had cancelled a tender for a standard brake system supplier. It’s another dilution of the cost-saving measures teams like Alfa Romeo stand to benefit most from.
“All the savings are stopped,” says Vasseur, “brakes for example, it was one million less on my budget. Stopped.
“You could have, let’s say 15 [component] lines like this, and we could save between 300 [thousand Euros] and one million per line. But if on each one you are trying to find good reason to not do it, we won’t do it.
“We have to [remember] the beginning of this story. The beginning of the story was ‘saving’, ‘improve the show’. But to improve the show you need to give to the small teams the capacity to develop their car. And if we are not doing saving, we won’t have the budget to do it. It’s clear. And now we have to develop a new car from scratch. If we have not some saving alongside.”
He points to the overall budget cap, which equates to around $250m when all exclusions are included in the overall figure. “It’s very difficult to compare teams, because it’s also depending on where you are based. For example, in our case Switzerland is very expensive.”
Vasseur is connected to Formula E through ART off-shoot Spark Racing, which produces the championship’s specification chassis. He has a salient warning that Formula 1 is losing the PR war with the all-electric series.
“I think we are not pushing on the good message, that [by] far the F1 engine is the most efficient of the world. We are letting Formula E [take] 90% of the space to declare that it’s the [formula] of the future.
“But at one stage we have to be just a bit clever and say, ‘Hey guys: have a look on the job that the engine suppliers are doing. Have a look on the engine. We are able to have 1,000 horsepower, 300 kilometres with less than 100 kilos of fuel. We’re able to do it, in the world.’ And we have to communicate on this.”
However he has confidence in the future of Formula 1, not least due to the emergence of ex-Sauber stars like Leclerc.
“We have to be optimistic, even if I’m a bit upset with the current situation, we have to stay optimistic. The last six or seven races were probably the most exciting races over the last five years. We have new drivers coming into the system with a big hurrah and I think it’s important for the ‘show’.
“Charles, Esteban, Lando (Norris), (George) Russell… You have a new generation joining the present, the current one. And I think it’s good for the show. But we have to take care because we can’t do Formula 1 with [only] Ferrari and Mercedes.”
Ever a man of conviction, in closing Vasseur names his powertrain supplier and the team run by his good friend…
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