Transaction Analysis: Marcus Ericsson and Sauber

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One of the more remarkable games of the elimination stage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil was the quarter-final match between Costa Rica and the Netherlands. Costa Rica survived a tough Group C to advance to the Round of 16 while traditional football powerhouses England and Italy went home after three games. They then beat the stingy Greek national team in the Round of 16 on penalty kicks, to advance to play the Netherlands – who had been a heavy favorite throughout the tournament. Despite the Dutch squad dominating possession for all 90 minutes, plus both 15-minute halves of extra time – Costa Rica’s strategy of “parking the bus” and playing not necessarily to win, but just to survive to get to penalty kicks – almost resulted in one of the all-time upsets in World Cup history. They ultimately lost the shootout 4-3, with Dutch backup goalkeeper Tim Krul making two crucial saves on penalty shots that saved their World Cup bid.

What Costa Rica did that day is what Sauber F1 Team is forced to do in 2015, as it will take on at least one driver bringing nearly $20,000,000 USD in sponsorship to a team that has not had a title sponsor in five years, not finished on the podium in two seasons, and as of the day before the United States Grand Prix, does not have a point to their name in 2014 – all the while, their financial and engineering resources continue to fall further behind those of the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Red Bull, and McLaren. Remember, this was, once upon a time, the factory Mercedes-Benz sports car racing team. This was the organization that brought the Silver Arrows back into Formula 1 in 1994, and the next year introduced new title sponsor Red Bull, and the year after that introduced new secondary sponsor Petronas, who now sponsor the Mercedes-Benz factory team that has dominated 2014. And the number of young talent that has either debuted or recieved a career-defining break with Sauber in their 22-year history in Formula 1 almost reads like a “who’s who” of contemporary F1 stars.

Shortly after qualifying ended in Austin, Caterham F1 Team driver Marcus Ericsson, forced to sit out the race as his soon-to-be ex-employers try and find a buyer for their team and their assets, was officially announced as one of a possible two new drivers for Sauber in the 2015 Formula One Season.

This is a move that is a positive development for the 24-year-old Swede’s career in a time where his F1 future seemed very uncertain. It’s a good sign for the nation of Sweden, which before Ericsson’s signing this year, hadn’t had a national representative on the F1 grid since Stefan Johansson last drove for the Footwork/Arrows team in 1991. And it’s a good sign that Sauber is able to secure at least one driver to a one-year contract for next season in a time where their future in the sport seems very murky.

Good all around, but not great – not even close. What Ericsson’s deal with Sauber amounts to is parking the bus in front of the goalkeeper and playing not to lose for 90 minutes and stoppage. For the more American audience, Sauber hit a single in signing Ericsson, when they needed an extra-base hit or even a home run.

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Sauber have taken risks on young talent in years past. There is, most famously, the coup that brought in Kimi Raikkonen – who had only driven 23 races at the Formula Renault 2.0 level going into his rookie season. The following year, they bypassed higher-profile talent from the International Formula 3000 Championship to bring in Euro Formula 3000 champion Felipe Massa at age 20. And then in 2007, they drafted their 20-year-old test driver, with only 10 Formula Renault 3.5 Series races to his name, to replace an injured Robert Kubica for the United States Grand Prix. And that marked the beginning of Sebastian Vettel‘s astonishing career. This, by comparison, is an extremely safe choice. Maybe too safe. But the signings of Raikkonen, Massa, and Vettel were made in the days where their sponsorships and resources were more plentiful – back then, they could afford to gamble here and there on untried talent.

Ericsson’s stock as a driver had risen in the last few races for Caterham. At Singapore, he got considerable screen time thanks to running ahead of the wounded Mercedes of Nico Rosberg in the early laps. He was also the only one of the three F1 rookies who was not heard complaining about the extreme temperatures during or after the race, finishing 15th. In Japan, before the tragedy of that Sunday, Ericsson qualified 19th, best of all the drivers at Caterham and Marussia, and finished the race 17th, two places ahead of hometown hero and teammate Kamui Kobayashi. And then in Russia, Ericsson again outqualified Kobayashi, the lone Marussia of Max Chilton, and even the damaged Williams of Felipe Massa and the not-damaged Lotus of Pastor Maldonado – before grid penalties, he was 17th.

These are performances worth a considerable amount of praise. But over the course of the season, Ericsson has been largely ineffective, even as a rookie.

Ericsson’s two qualifying efforts in Japan and Russia only brought his head-to-head qualifying score to a sub-par 4-10 on the season. And even though he has Caterham’s best finish of 2014 with an 11th at Monaco, he is also down 2-5 in race results and 110-413 in laps spent ahead of his teammates. He is the only rookie between himself, Kevin Magnussen, and Daniil Kvyat that does not lead their veteran teammate in at least one major intra-team statistical category. This includes being outqualified by Andre Lotterer at the Belgian Grand Prix by nearly an entire second, despite the fact that Lotterer had never driven a 2014-spec Formula 1 car. There should be less shame in that than there is, seeing as Lotterer is perhaps the best driver under the age of 35 that has never competed in Formula 1 full-time. But it did raise the question as to why Kobayashi was sidelined for that race in favor of Lotterer, and not Ericsson.

But that’s an easy question to answer, and it’s largely the same reason why Ericsson has the Sauber drive. This year, Marcus Ericsson is reportedly bringing $18,000,000 USD worth of sponsorship to Caterham through various business interests in Sweden. James Allen wrote a very good article detailing Ericsson’s funding – it is twice what Sergio Perez brings to Force India through Telcel and other Mexican companies. It is one of the largest driver sponsorship deals in all of Formula 1, that’s not in the exorbitant heights of the $70,000,000+ USD that Pastor Maldonado brings to Lotus through PDVSA. It was, to Caterham team principal Manfredo Ravetti, very crucial funding for the team that would help the team’s progress going into 2015. But that was back when there was still a Caterham team for Ericsson’s interests to buy into. Now after arriving in Austin essentially as a free agent, they can take their $18M to Sauber, maybe even bump up his sponsorship by a few million dollars as their driver is now with a team with considerably more plentiful resources than he had at Caterham.

This sort of sponsorship is also the reason that Dutchman Giedo van der Garde may soon be announced as his teammate. Van der Garde, who will turn 30 next year, has a reported eight-figure sponsorship through Dutch clothing giant McGregor, which helped secure a debut drive for Caterham last season and helped secure a place with Sauber as their primary test driver this season. Like Ericsson, he turned in some attention-grabbing qualifying performances last year by advancing to Q2 in the Monaco and Belgian Grands Prix. Unfortunately, also like Ericsson, Van der Garde was also sub-par in the intra-team parameters at Caterham last season: 8-11 in qualifying, 4-8 in race results, 367-447 in laps ahead. Closer, but still down in every category, and to current Lotus F1 Team tester Charles Pic, who isn’t exactly seen as the next Alain Prost.

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Are there better options out there than Ericsson? More than likely. Even if you have to take a paying option – consider, for instance, Jolyon Palmer – who this year accomplished the thing that Ericsson couldn’t do last year in the GP2 Series, winning the GP2 championship in his fourth season driving for the French superteam DAMS. Palmer is still on a 20-race streak of consecutive top-10 finishes, his consecutive point-scoring streak was just snapped after 19 races in the sprint race at Sochi, he’s displayed tremendous racecraft and qualifying ability through his entire championship challenge, and most importantly, he also carries a significant amount of sponsorship through his father’s company MotorSport Vision, and through British petrochem company Comma. They could also promote from within, and give a seat to Sergey Sirotkin, the polarizing 19-year-old Russian test driver who was expected to fill that role this season, who finished 5th in Formula Renault 3.5 Series this year and may have significantly more upside than Ericsson or Van der Garde – or they could take the Racing Steps Foundation-backed British rookie who outperformed Sirotkin for most of the season, Oliver RowlandThey could also try and broker a deal with Ferrari to give their top prospect Raffaele Marciello a Formula 1 drive a year in advance of what I consider to be his projected ETA – 2016, with the Haas F1 Team. But it’s not just a matter of money, but how much – and Ericsson’s interests appear to have outbid any other potential challengers before they were even considered.

This is a move that is motivated by money over talent, for sure. But please, please put this transaction in some historical perspective – it is not the all-time worst “money-over-talent” deal in recent Formula 1 history. It’s nowhere near as bad as Footwork Arrows replacing CART-bound Christian Fittipaldi, a descendant of Brazilian racing royalty who had won the International F3000 Championship as a rookie, for the big pockets that sponsored Autosport‘s Worst Driver of the Last 20 Years, Taki Inoue. It’s not as bad as Minardi almost signing Inoue for 1996, before his sponsorship ran out and the team instead chose future Grand Prix winner and F1 mainstay Giancarlo Fisichella – but then in mid-season, Fisichella was dropped for 38-year-old Italian Giovanni Lavaggi, who promptly failed to DNQ in three of his six entries to close out the season. More recently, there is HRT signing Narain Karthikeyan in 2011 – six years after his last F1 drive, then replacing him with Daniel Ricciardo in mid-season, only to then bring Karthikeyan back again to drive the entirety of the 2012 season.

Ericsson, like his all-but-certain teammate Van der Garde, is a very likeable young driver who actually has some championship titles to his credit – namely in Japanese Formula 3, where Ericsson became champion in 2009. But while Sauber can provide him with better resources to deliver better performances in Formula 1, if Sauber’s 2015 car is another flop like the C33, it is highly unlikely that he can extract maximum performance out of it the way Nico Hulkenberg did for Sauber in 2013. This is a team who has lagged behind the curve in engineering since losing technical director James Key to Toro Rosso in 2012. There’s not really a significant upgrade in talent by bringing in Ericsson to replace either the younger Esteban Gutierrez, or the veteran Adrian Sutil who has outperformed Gutierrez by a slim margin for most of the season. Hand over heart, I’m not rooting for Ericsson to fail at Sauber, but he has only recently gotten to where he has shown glimpses of being able to succeed as a Formula 1 driver tasked with making what is now a struggling backmarker team competitive.

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In signing Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, the proverbial Costa Rica of Formula 1, did not show up to their game against the Netherlands and get blown out by ten goals. They didn’t strike out. But they didn’t hit a home run either. It’s a play to tie or just not to lose, rather than a play to win.

Which is about all you can do for now when you can no longer afford to purchase the players you need to win.

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