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A look into the past
It is the worst kept secret that the expensive new engines have taken a chainsaw to the finances of the smaller teams. Lotus, Sauber, Williams, Force India, Caterham and Marussia – they all were on the brink of collapse at some time or other and only Williams seems to have gotten themselves out of this mess, mainly because of Maldonado’s PDVSA millions and because they have other business ventures that keep the company afloat. Also, they have the name to attract a sponsor like Martini, although word is, that the deal is a relatively cheap one for the drinks company, compared to what title sponsors used to cough up in the days o’ yore.
When Sauber were still dreaming of a Ural 4320 roaring into Hinwil and dumping 8 tons worth of Rubles at the front gate, they activated the option in their test drivers contract that promoted him to regular driver for the 2015. Giedo van der Garde thus had a legally binding contract to drive the Sauber C34. But alas, when Simona de Silvestro’s sponsors ran out of cash, and the Russian White Knights were slapped with some big ol’ sanction because of their president’s rather liberal attitude to the law of nations and the status of select parts of neighbouring Ukraine, the Swiss suddenly found themselves very short of coin
And since this isn’t Age Of Empires, where you just send a few more peasants harvesting the resource from a lump of dreck on the ground, someone, and we had to suspect Mrs. Kaltenborn was at least aware of it, thought it was a good idea to start up a Ponzi scheme to relieve the pressure on the team’s anorexic bank accounts.
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When Sky Germany TV expert Mark Surer who drove for Arrows and Brabham in the eighties, met Giedo van der Garde in a hotel elevator before the Austin GP, he asked the Dutchman if it wasn’t a bit early yet to leave the track and head back for some Z’s, but VdG answered: “I just got an SMS that I’m fired. I need to call a lawyer.”
Now lets just gloss over the fact that this has less class than Christian Horner’s approach to the sanctity of marriage, and have a look at what happened.
Sauber were broke, as were several other teams. Two of them were actually missing from the GP. Seeing the chance of scooping up a lot of coin by signing Felipe Nasr and Markus Ericsson, Kaltenborn did so in blatant disregard of the valid contracts the team had signed with van der Garde and Sutil. The reasoning might seem logical – the offer of Ericssons anonymous backers to pay 75% of the dough upfront was the only thing standing between Sauber going bust or struggling on.
Konkursverschleppung n, noun
This is the Swiss German word for wantonly failing to deposit a bankruptcy petition and putting the company into Administration. Caterham and Marussia did so, Sauber apparently not, despite the fact that the team claimed in the hearing before the Supreme Court of Victoria, that signing Nasr and Ericsson was the only way to keep the team going.
But is it valid to avoid one criminal offence by committing another? Even more so since either option might constitute financial malpractice – a criminal offence according article 165 of the Swiss criminal code – which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.
The termination of Sutil’s and VdG’s contracts was unlawful, which meant Sauber had now contracted four paying drivers for only two seats. In most parts of the world that approach would be described with the word fraud.
The consequences for Sauber and Formula 1
I’m starting to wonder, what team founder Peter Sauber is thinking now about the appointment of Monisha Kaltenborn. His silence in these matters is deafening. One thing is for sure. As the one ultimately responsible for the team’s business decisions, there is no way Monisha Kaltenborn could remain in charge of the team. The operation, that once stood for Swiss integrity and solid management, has been dragged through the mud in the worst way by her mismanagement. And not only has she damaged the team that was entrusted to her, she also took the proverbial wrecking ball to the cause of providing better opportunities for women in the male dominated world of F1.
At the time of writing this, the ruling on Sauber’s appeal is still a few hours away, but no matter what Judge Croft will decide, there will only be losers. F1 will have its image damaged even further. The fact that a competitor with 20 years experience needs to be dragged before court repeatedly to honour their contractual obligations is a PR disaster and makes the sport look like it’s being run by crooks… oh wait… scratch that.
The team will die one way or the other. They either have to cough up large damage payments that they don’t have, so they’ll die. Or they will lose either Nasr or Ericsson, together with many sponsor millions, will have to pay damages to them and Sutil and they’ll die. Or Bernie does his thing by throwing gazillions at the problem to make it go away. In that case Sauber might struggle on, but they’ll be dead still. The sympathetic image they once had is truly and utterly destroyed. They have become the epitome of ruthless capitalistic cowboys. Not something that wins a lot of fans.
What if Sauber wins the appeal?
There are only two realistic options on which Sauber could ‘win’ this. If the Judge goes by the ‘not enough time’ route, Sauber will be stigmatized for their cynical stalling for time. Not that their image can be thrashed any further.
If His Honour buys the line of bull that says VdG is too dangerous, it would plunge F1 into utter chaos. FIA would have to adjust their rules regarding the wheeling in of replacement drivers. Teams would have to give up a sizeable portion of their limited winter testing to their reserve drivers to make sure they can use them should one of their regulars fall ill during a GP weekend.
Manor wouldn’t be able to start at all, as both their drivers have never run the MR4.5.
There is but one practical solution to this. Sauber needs to be banned from the race for bringing the sport into disrepute. That gives them time to remove Kaltenborn, sort out the contractual mess they’ve made and come back in Malaysia, after publicly apologizing for the utter show of travesty they’ve been presenting. That is if they survive. If they don’t, they have nobody else to blame but themselves.