Sauber bullish as it unveils 2001 challenger

A clear determination exuded from the Red Bull Sauber Petronas combination yesterday (Wednesday), at the launch of the team's new challenger for the 2001 season, the C20.

Speaking from the Hinwil facility in which his father manufactured electrical equipment, team principal Peter Sauber stated that the team's youth policy in hiring drivers Nick Heidfeld (23), and Kimi Raikkonen (21), was the key ingredient in lifting Sauber from the eighth place in which it ended the 2000 constructors' championship.

"To move forward we need good drivers," said Sauber. "In order to go up the rankings we need to get a driver such as Jarno Trulli, Rubens Barrichello or Heinz-Harald Frentzen and at the moment we can't. When we tested our new, young drivers the times were so good that the drivers we had said 'what have you changed on the car?' and our Technical Director Willi Rampf told them that we simply changed the drivers."

Straight talking such as this was a feature of the launch, where lucrative new sponsorship from major financial house Credit Suisse was also highlighted as a positive step for the team both on and off the track.

The factory where, 30 years before, Peter Sauber tuned his first Volkswagen will shortly be the site of Sauber's wind tunnel, and when work commences in April doubtless the Credit Suisse backing will be of great help towards the undertaking.

It is also clear that Red Bull is chafing at the bit and that it for Sauber 2001 is a make-or-break year in terms of its relationship with the soft drink giant. Going in to its seventh season as the team's headline sponsor Red Bull is anxious for the Swiss outfit to sparkle, and even Sauber himself admitted that the relationship could be drawing to a close. "We have a contract with Red Bull until at least the end of 2001," he said.

"They are very pleased with our new backing from Credit Suisse and hope that together we can bring the team forward. Red Bull wants to make a positive impression - particularly in the United States market - and therefore it makes sense for them to do a US series but Formula 1 will always be an alternative."

One source of hope for an improvement in performance could well be the renegotiated use of its Ferrari engines, as previously Sauber was not permitted to conduct any work on the Petronas badged units as a part of its contract with Maranello.

Although the team now has the same unit that powered Michael Schumacher to the 2000 championship, the team's engine guru, Osamo Goto, believes that there will be scope to build on this foundation in the coming season:

"This engine is the latest specification used by Ferrari to win the World Championship in 2000. I believe we can improve it another step compared to last year. It is already 10 kilograms lighter and has a lower center of gravity than the engine we used last year and that will improve performance, but there is always more possible and we hope to improve this engine through the year."

Certainly Peter Sauber was bullish about the team's prospects as it goes into a pitched battle in Formula 1's second division behind the all-powerful Ferrari and McLaren teams. Although clearly stung by the addition of Prost to the Ferrari-powered ranks he firmly believes that the unit will be the cornerstone of the team's campaign.

"The engine regulations for 3-liter V10 engines will stay the same until the end of 2007 and I'm sure that the performance curve will be flattened. We can't increase the current power of around 800bhp by a lot but the lightness, torsion resistance and engine speed are open for development. If the 'new' Ferrari engine is working at 100% then ours will be about 96 or 97% in contrast - and the other manufacturers will struggle to match even 96% of a 'new' Ferrari engine."

The Sauber C20 is a neat and shapely interpretation of the current regulations and, prior to the launch, completed 72 trouble-free laps of Jerez at a pace that has heartened lead driver Nick Heidfeld going into a ferocious midfield scrap this season.

"We had good tests so far but we have to go out with the other teams to get a true comparison. My aim is to be in the top six from time to time but preferably on a regular basis," stated the German.

Technical Director Willi Rampf added that the team's Bridgestone rubber was also going to be a major factor in performance: "The competition between Bridgestone and Michelin will spark a tire war and we expect Bridgestone to develop its tires through the year. We have tested on 2001-spec tires and clearly there is better grip already, I estimate around one second per lap."

"It's very difficult to give a reliable answer as to our speed right now," Rampf added. "Next week we will be in Barcelona and we will see."

As will the rest of the Formula 1 fraternity, and if determination is measured in tenths of a second then Sauber could well surprise in 2001.

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