Although his first venture into Formula 1 leading a reformed Renault team in 2016 wasn’t deemed a success, it didn’t take long for F1 to come knocking on Frederic Vasseur’s door again. In July 2017, the Frenchman became CEO and team principal of Sauber Motosport AG, becoming the latest ASM/ART Grand Prix graduate to carve a path in F1.
Not long after graduating from the famous ESTACA engineering school in France, Vasseur founded ASM, which entered the French Formula 3 championship in 1996 with Renault support. The team grew and built up success over the next decade, winning the ’98 French title with David Saelens and successive F3 Euro Series titles between 2004-’09.
Ahead of 2005, Vasseur wanted to take his team into the new GP2 Series, and struck a deal with driver manager Nicolas Todt to form ART Grand Prix. It won eight combined titles before the championship was replaced by Formula 2 last year, in which it added the drivers’ championship with George Russell. During this time there have also been programmes in GP3, GP2 Asia, DTM and A1GP, the latter in which it ran A1 Team Brazil, and handed management of to Charouz Racing System after 2006.
Founded by Antonin Charouz in 1985, the Czech team has only recently been a regular appearance in the F1 support paddock, having raced successfully in prototypes after racing in A1GP and winning an International Formula Master title.
In 2010 it joined Formula V8 3.5, sticking with the championship until its ’17 demise, where it won both titles with Pietro Fittipaldi. For much of this time it ran with Lotus branding, reflecting a partnership with former DAMS, Lotus and McLaren team principal Eric Boullier’s Gravity Sports Management company.
It switched championship and allegiances last year, running with Ferrari Driver Academy branding in F2. Shortly after joining Sauber, Vasseur had cancelled a deal for the team to run Honda engines from 2018 onwards, choosing instead to strengthen relations with current engine supplier Ferrari.
Both teams seemed to be on a path towards working with each other, with Charouz eager to strengthen its ties with F1 and Vasseur willing to revisit the kind of operation he had with his own ASM team.
Exactly one year ago, Formula Scout reported that Vasseur planned to create a Sauber Academy, with a proposed start date of 2019. It hinged on there being drivers with “real potential, as with Charles Leclerc”, and looked to mimic Stewart Grand Prix’s team-led “staircase of talent” from the late 1990s rather than the individual driver support that its successor Red Bull Racing has famously gone with.
Charouz won twice in its first F2 season, and also won the ADAC Formula 4 title with Lirim Zendeli in conjunction with Ralf Schumacher’s US Racing team. Shortly after, Sauber was added to that partnership and formal plans for a junior team were cemented. The choice of teams may have been a surprise to some, what with Vasseur’s involvement with ART, but that team was headed in its own direction, exemplified by Todt selling his stake in the team in December.
The Sauber Junior Team line-up of the team was revealed on Tuesday, with drivers being picked from Charouz’s entries in F2, the new FIA Formula 3, and ADAC F4.
“The Sauber Junior Team is heading into the 2019 season with a strong line-up in the FIA single-seater categories,” said Vasseur.
“Our project was launched with the goal of passing on our experience to young drivers and providing a platform where they can successfully develop their skills and come closer to their dream of racing at the pinnacle of motorsport one day. We look forward to our collaboration and will follow the progress of these young talents closely.”
Ferrari junior Callum Ilott and American-Ecuadorian Juan Manuel Correa fill the F2 line-up, both having already tested with Charouz and been long linked with those seats. The F3 squad, which will support the F1 and F2 teams on eight weekends, consists of F3 regulars Raoul Hyman and Fabio Scherer, and F4 champion Zendeli.
The F4 operation will be spread across the ADAC and Italian championships with US Racing, and include reigning F4 South East Asia champion Alessandro Ghiretti, French F4 Junior champion Theo Pourchaire, Czech karting graduate Roman Stanek and a yet to be announced fourth driver.
“It’s clear that the Sauber Junior Team by Charouz programme provides a unique opportunity for young drivers and I think we’ve brought together an extremely talented and determined line-up for 2019,” added Charouz.
“This is the beginning of an exciting new chapter in our team’s history and we’re looking forward to building on our recent race and championship-winning form in F2 and F4, as well as showing or strengths in F3, as part of our partnership with Sauber Motorsport.”
The members of the junior team have already got themselves immersed in the programme, including visiting Sauber’s factory in Hinwil, Switzerland.
Alfa Romeo is part of the same Fiat Chrysler Group that owns Ferrari, and the strengthened partnership between Sauber and the Scuderia means that the latter has a veto on one of Sauber’s F1 seats. Last year it was filled by 2017 F2 champion Charles Leclerc, who is now racing for Ferrari, and Antonio Giovinazzi will take his place for this season.
It’s unclear how much financial support Ferrari is offering beyond the components, such as the engine, that it sells to Sauber at a discounted price. If it’s enough to push the team further up the grid, then Sauber shouldn’t worry about promoting one of its own juniors in addition to Ferrari’s selection in the coming seasons.
But if the ‘Alfa Romeo Racing’ name is little more than branding, and the team needs a financially strong driver to fill that gap, then Sauber may be falling into the trap of rearing talents for its F1 opposition.
Top Frederic Vasseur stars
A list of drivers who raced under Frederic Vasseur during their junior single-seater careers. ‘Vasseur’ statistics in italics
Lewis Hamilton – 2008, 2014, ’15, ’16, ’17 & ’18 F1 champion – 2006 GP2 champion, 2005 F3 Euro Series champion
Romain Grosjean – 7th in 2013 F1, 2011 GP2 & GP2 Asia champion – 2008 GP2 Asia champion, 2007 F3 Euro Series champion
Nico Hulkenberg – 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours winner, 7th in ’18 F1 – 2009 GP2 champion, ’08 F3 Euro Series champion
Jules Bianchi – 17th in ’14 F1, 2nd in 2012 FV8 3.5 – 2nd in ’11 GP2 Asia, 3rd in 2010 & ’11 GP2, ’09 F3 Euro Series champion
Paul di Resta – 12th in ’13 F1, 2010 DTM champion, 2nd in ’08 DTM – 2006 Euro Series champion & Masters of F3 winner
Stoffel Vandoorne – currently 22nd in 2018-19 FE, 4th in ’16 Super Formula, 16th in ’17 & ’18 F1 – 2015 GP2 champion
Valtteri Bottas – 3rd in ’17 F1, 4th in ’14 F1 – 2011 GP3 champion, ’09 & ’10 Masters of F3 winner, 3rd in ’09 & ’10 F3 Euro Series
Esteban Ocon – 8th in ’17 F1, 12th in ’18 F1, ’14 European F3 champion – 2015 GP3 champion
Charles Leclerc – 13th in ’18 F1, ’17 F2 champion, 2nd in ’15 Macau GP, 4th in ’15 European F3 – 2016 GP3 champion
George Russell – 3rd in ’16 European F3, ’14 BRDC British F4 champion – 2018 F2 champion, ’17 GP3 champion