Key sees opportunity for Sauber on 'immensely tight grid'

James Key (GBR) Alfa Romeo F1 Team Technical Director. 23.11.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 23, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, Preparation Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Moy / XPB Images
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Sauber F1's technical director James Key is feeling positive for the 2024 season, despite the team ending the most recent campaign in ninth place in the constructors' championship narrowly ahead of wooden spoon holders Haas.

Drivers Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu brought home points in just six of the 22 races of the campaign, in what proved to be a lethargic final season in the sport for Alfa Romeo.

Next year the team will revert to its original Sauber brand, ahead of a buy-out of the whole squad by Audi in 2026 when it will become a works' factory team for the German automotive giant.

But that's two years away, and there are questions about what Sauber will be able to do in the two year interregnum which now lies ahead. It's a tall order, but former McLaren man Key sees an opportunity to make progress.

“It's an immensely tight grid,” Key pointed out. "If you look at the lap times, 1.5 per cent overall means we're all at 98.5 per cent of the quickest car and sometimes it's less than that.

"That suggests if we get everything right - both at the track and at the factory in our decisions on development, decisions on the car - then there's plenty more opportunity there.

"If you look at an overlay between let's say, us and Mercedes or Red Bull, it's just a few corners, a little bit of braking or something," he continued.

“Unless you really track the numbers it's not obvious from outside, because the pecking order is still similar," he admitted.

“Everyone's in the same boat, but there's no reason to believe we are stuck in this position at all. I believe we can definitely move further forward.

James Key (GBR) Alfa Romeo F1 Team Technical Director.
22.09.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 17, Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka, Japan, Practice Day.
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“It's not like this massive difference you used to see with a car that was in sort of P8/P9 position, compared to a car which is in P1 or P2

"“I won't bang on about this [but] the difference was very stark just a few years ago, now it's incredibly close.

"If you look at that band of, I guess it's P5 to P6 at the moment really down to P10, it's immensely close. In that respect there's every reason to be optimistic that we can go further forward."

The immediate targets for Sauber in 2024 will be to get ahead of Williams and AlphaTauri, another squad that will be taking onboard a new corporate identify before the lights go out for the first race.

Guanyu Zhou (CHI), Alfa Romeo Racing Valtteri Bottas (FIN), Alfa Romeo Racing
26.11.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 23, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, Race Day.
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After that it would be a massive challenge to catch Alpine a hundred points ahead in this year's standings, let alone another 200 points to bring them up to the level of Aston Martin and McLaren, the 'best of the midfield' teams.

Key was formerly executive technical director at McLaren until March 2023 when new team principal Andrea Stella made a number of organisational changes, including splitting Key's role into a triumvirate of three specialised roles.

Peter Prodromou took over in charge of aerodynamics, David Sanchez assumed responsibility for the car concept, while Neil Houldey was given up a newly created role in charge of engineering and design.

Key wasn't out of a job for long before Alfa Romeo tapped him to join the Hinwil-based operation in June. He's been using the time since his appointment to get to know his new team.

“I think all the basics are definitely there, which is why I think there's potential to do better immediately,” he said. “But some of the big stuff, we're definitely missing a bit too."

Zhou Guanyu (CHN) Alfa Romeo F1 Team C43 makes a pit stop.
26.11.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 23, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, Race Day.
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Key said that in the future, Sauber would "fill those gaps with more state of the art and key facilities, investment in existing facilities that we've got, which are already good as a baseline. The wind tunnel is legendary at Sauber.

"There's work to do in terms of the technology," he acknowledged. "I think all of those things will be direct performance gains, compared to where we are now.

“A lot of it is catching up, to be honest with you. So to be within this 1.5 per cent knowing there's an awful lot of stuff to do is pretty good I think, a good indicator.

"There's plenty of big projects to consider as well," he added. "We have been pushing the production side even harder to get those few tenths further down, and we need some more office space."

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