As I watched the first practice session of the United States Grand Prix this past week, and saw the progression of the session standings focusing on one designated FP1 driver in particular (no, this time it’s not Max Verstappen), a thought crossed my mind. With Sauber F1 Team in a very publicized shortage of funds, but coming under heavy criticism for not taking enough speed to go along with those personal sponsorships – why not take a chance on a well-funded, yet highly-rated prospect who just outpaced his grand prix veteran teammate by almost a half-second in the first practice – finishing 8th? Why not go after Williams Martini Racing test and reserve driver Felipe Nasr?
Evidentally, someone at Sauber, Nasr’s management team, or his sponsors must have been listening in. On Wednesday, Sauber came to terms with Nasr on a two-year contract, beginning in 2015, where he and soon-to-be-former Caterham driver Marcus Ericsson will replace Esteban Gutierrez and Adrian Sutil. This means that Sauber will have also come to terms with Nasr’s prominent sponsor, Banco do Brasil – the largest bank in Latin America – which has accompanied Nasr since his GP2 Series debut in 2012, and will now go with him to Sauber next season. The Brazilian rookie candidate just turned 22 in August, and is currently 2nd in the GP2 Series standings behind newly-coronated champion Jolyon Palmer.
Sutil, as well as the man who was expected to partner Ericsson next season, Giedo van der Garde, may have individual claims that they are under contract and should be driving for Sauber next season, but the harsh reality for both of them is that despite Sutil’s masterful qualifying effort in Austin, and slightly outperforming Esteban Gutierrez – who himself is looking like a bust at the Formula 1 level – throughout 2014, Sutil is still a 31-year-old career midfielder, who in 124 Grands Prix has only finished as high as fourth just once in his career, he’s not been anywhere near the level of last year’s lead driver Nico Hulkenberg even when you factor in how much worse the Sauber C33 is compared to its’ 2013 predecessor, and he’s not really bringing enough money to justify staying at a team that is very openly in need of well-funded drivers. And while Van der Garde is a well-funded driver in possession of an eight-figure sponsorship from McGregor, as I mentioned in my transaction analysis of the Ericsson deal, both Ericsson and Van der Garde have been outperformed in every major head-to-head statistical category over the course of their respective campaigns at Caterham. A team of Ericsson and Van der Garde brings a lot of money, but it does not bring any significant speed nor a driver renowned for being able to develop a car over the course of a season by any means other than just throwing hard cash at it. A team of Ericsson and Sutil would bring less money and such a marginal increase in driving ability that it wouldn’t be worth the investment in a second season of the German veteran.
In signing Felipe Nasr, Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn has found the best “paying option” available, as Nasr strikes a near-perfect balance of pure speed and significant sponsorship. A sponsorship that has spawned some of the best looking cars on the GP2 grid in the last two seasons, might I add. He is the sort of driver that Sauber absolutely needed, and he seemed to just fall right into the Swiss team’s lap when it seemed another year of test/reserve duty at Williams was in the books.
Many unfair comparisons have been drawn between Nasr and some failed pay-drivers of recent memory, which should be disregarded with haste. A better comparison that Nasr draws to a contemporary driver might be Sergio Perez. Perez, who also got his first break with Sauber, who brought significant sponsorship to the team through Telmex which was initially seen as the sole reason for his promotion, but in his two seasons with Sauber from 2011-12, Perez proved to be a very quick driver and came within just a lap or two of winning two races in the 2012 season, at Malaysia and Italy.
Nasr and Perez have been the most recent in a long line of young drivers that the Sauber F1 Team has either promoted into Formula 1, or cultivated in their early years after breaking in elsewhere. It’s a pretty good list of contemporary stars and former race winners – succeeding Karl Wendlinger (pre-injury), Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Nick Heidfeld, Kimi Raikkonen, Nasr’s Williams teammate Felipe Massa, Robert Kubica, Sebastian Vettel, and Kamui Kobayashi. This list has included a few “gambles” – drivers who were by no means a sure thing when they arrived on the scene. Raikkonen, well, most F1 fans know by now about the 23 races in Formula Renault 2.0 that made up the entirety of his junior career. Massa was a first-year Formula 3000 champion – but not in the International F3000 series that was long recognized as the premier F1 feeder series at the time, but the second-tier Euro F3000 Championship that today exists as the Auto GP World Series. Vettel had only driven ten races above Formula 3 level before he was drafted in to replace an injured Kubica in 2007. And Kobayashi’s signing was more the result of impressive drives at Toyota to close out the 2009 season, and less the result of an erratic GP2 Series record that saw him win a championship in the short-lived GP2 Asia Series, but finish 16th in both of his main series campaigns. And while failed prospects were few and far-between, indeed, not all of these “gambles” paid off. Remember Norberto Fontana?
Many up and down the paddock are optimistic about Nasr’s signing. The folks at Badger GP seem to see this 2015 Sauber lineup the way that I do:
Sauber is indeed playing Moneyball by the looks of things, and provided the 2015 Sauber C34 is a step better than the C33, it should lead to more frequent points-scoring opportunities for the struggling organization.
To go back to the baseball analogy – if the Ericsson signing represents a single or a walk, as a safe, productive, but unspectacular move, then what does the Nasr signing represent? Not a home run, but a crucial extra-base hit – a double or a triple into the gap that scores a run, at the very least it puts both runners on scoring position with the potential to break through with a big inning. If we were to instead use the association football analogy, then Nasr is a pure striker that allows Sauber to do more than just park the bus for most of the game and play for a 0-0 draw and a point in the standings, and instead allows Sauber to assume more of an attacking formation and play for the maximum three points available in the match.
Felipe Nasr is, by far and away, the most promising Brazilian Formula 1 prospect to come along in several years, since the popular Nelson Piquet, Jr. came through the GP2 Series, and he’s also the most Formula 1-ready driver from Brazil right now – the next-highest ranked prospect, Pietro Fittipaldi, has only just completed his first season at the Formula Renault 2.0 level and may not be ready for another three or four seasons. Nasr has an exceptional championship pedigree in the lower formula series that includes a Formula BMW Europe title in 2009, in his first full season of single-seater racing, and he may very well go down in the books as the last truly great British Formula 3 Champion when he won that title in 2011 as a series rookie, defeating Carlin teammate and current McLaren protege Kevin Magnussen along the way. He has starred in both the Macau Grand Prix, where he finished 2nd in 2011, and the Rolex 24 Hour race at Daytona, where in 2012 he was part of the team that finished 3rd overall in the sister car to the winning entry from Michael Shank Racing. In FP1 sessions, he has looked quick and competent against his tenured Williams teammates, and no example is more evident of that than in Austin this past weekend when he cleared Massa’s best time by over three-tenths of a second. Engineers within the Williams team including Rod Nelson have praised him for his stellar technical feedback.
The risk factor with Nasr, however, is that his strengths and weaknesses have been detailed and broadcast more extensively than any of his young predecessors at Sauber. And those who have followed Nasr throughout his GP2 Series tenure have raised concerns about the 22-year-old Brazilian.
It took him until his third and final GP2 season to win his first race and claim his first pole position, despite the fact that he has driven exclusively for top teams such as DAMS and Carlin. His rookie year at DAMS was a struggle in which he finished a fair 10th in the championship, second among all rookies to James Calado, and his intra-team numbers against fifth-year teammate and 2012 champion-elect Davide Valsecchi only serve to make that struggle look even worse. He came within six points of the championship lead last season before it all unraveled after the summer break, suffering the biggest non-Colettian collapse in the second half of the season to finish fourth overall. GP2 Series lead announcer Will Buxton has repeatedly expressed a very small shred of agitation over Nasr’s ability at times to drive overly-conservative and fail to maximize his points-scoring chances, particularly when a title rival suffers a setback. He is now out of championship contention this year, and he could still cough up 2nd in the championship to Stoffel Vandoorne, in the midst of the best rookie season in the “Pirelli era” from 2011 to today. If you subscribe to the school of rapid progression, the idea that drivers who are able to move up the single-seater ladder into Formula 1 the quickest are most likely to succeed at the top level – Nasr, with three seasons and 68 GP2 races under his belt by the end of the month, may have already stayed around in GP2 for far too long to be an impact player in Formula 1.
In fact, there are aspects of Nasr’s junior career that bear an unnerving resemblance to that of Antonio Pizzonia. Remember Antonio Pizzonia? Once a “can’t miss” Brazilian prospect, also a British Formula 3 champion, also a Williams developmental driver with plenty of backing from a major Brazilian sponsor, and he too had a few struggles in Formula 3000 before beginning his underwhelming F1 career at age 22 – the same age Nasr will be in March 2015 – a career that produced just eight points over twenty races from 2003-05, all eight of those points coming as an injury substitute at Williams after he’d already been thoroughly embarassed, and later fired, eleven races into his rookie season at Jaguar.
Even his intra-team statistics are a mixed bag. His head-to-head qualifying and race scores over three seasons is 15-15 (qualifying) and 26-25 (race results), though it is a more favorable 13-6 and 23-10 respectively when isolated to just his two seasons at Carlin.
But for all the frustrations of Nasr’s lengthy GP2 tenure, there are genuine positives. Perhaps the biggest thing that stands out is Nasr’s consistency. In 66 race starts, from Malaysia 2012 to Russia 2014, Nasr has scored points in 46 races. Over his last two seasons, he’s scored points in 33 of 42 races – almost an 80% clip. Last season, before he fell out of title contention, Nasr finished in the points in thirteen of his first fourteen races, only failing to score at the Silverstone feature race due to a mechanical failure – that DNF snapped an eight-race streak of finishing in the top 4 in every race to open the season. Despite not winning a race, the Brazilian was a genuine championship contender through consistent points production alone. In 2014, Nasr has scored points in sixteen of the seventeen races where he was classified at the end of the race. After his dismal 17th place result in the Sochi feature race where Jolyon Palmer clinched the title, his second-worst classified result is an 8th place finish in the first race of the season at Bahrain. In a series filled with erratic and inconsistent drivers, driving on temperamental and inconsistent Pirelli tyres, racing in a series with so many in-race gimmicks that breed inconsistent results up and down the board, Nasr stands out as the lone beacon of consistency among drivers that competed for GP2’s top teams in the last three seasons – and he’s only just turned 22. That has to count for something. And Nasr’s four wins on the 2014 season are tied with Palmer for the series lead in that category.
And while Palmer did beat Nasr for the title this season, and had already won his first four GP2 Series races and switched teams from iSport to Carlin to DAMS in the time it took for Nasr to win his first race – Nasr did outperform Palmer in their time together as teammates in 2013, especially when Nasr was on his game. Palmer didn’t outqualify Nasr until the Spa-Francorchamps race, and Nasr was way ahead of Palmer 11-5 on race results at the end of the season, even after Nasr went into a tailspin at the end of the year. Palmer has, to his credit, been an incredible all-around racer this season, absolutely deserving of an F1 drive on merit – but there can be no denying that he benefitted from the slightly better setups and strategy of the DAMS organization, which also has, historically, leaned heavily upon their lead drivers for results.
The thing that stood out about the most recent GP2 race at Sochi wasn’t that Nasr blew it in the feature race, but that the next day, from 17th on the grid, he rallied back to finish 3rd. When he won at Austria, he had to defend from Vandoorne and Raffaele Marciello, the two top rookie contenders in GP2, to secure that victory. And am I the only one that still has goosebumps whenever I watch that wheel-to-wheel clash with Jolyon Palmer in Hungary?
Felipe Nasr will not have any pressure on him to contend for the championship as he has in GP2. He has an easy bar to clear by outperforming Marcus Ericsson, and the feedback and the knowledge of the Williams Martini Racing organization that he has absorbed over the course of the 2014 season could, in theory, lead to Sauber developing a car that’s much better in 2015, that will allow them to score those crucial championship points they’ve been missing all season long.
While Felipe Nasr may no longer have the raw, limitless potential that a driver like Max Verstappen is bringing to Toro Rosso, he is still an extremely capable driver, and the best signing that Monisha Kaltenborn has made since assuming the team principal role in mid-2012. Which makes me wonder if those same people who tore her down so viciously for replacing Kobayashi with Gutierrez, Robin Frijns with Sergey Sirotkin, and Hulkenberg with Sutil, will now finally give her the proper dues for signing a driver with genuine upper-level potential that Nasr clearly has, and for making the sweeping changes that Sauber needed to prevent a slide into total oblivion when it became clear that their current options were no longer good enough.
I absolutely love this signing, as it projects to be a significant game-changer for the entire organization. And I hope that mine, and so many other fans’ optimism is rewarded with strong results for Nasr, Ericsson, and the entire Sauber team in 2015.