Sauber may be experiencing its worst start to a season since it entered Formula 1, but new technical director James Key (left) is optimistic that the team has what it needs to recover the lost ground.
The Swiss-based squad headed into the campaign full of optimism after some encouraging performances in winter testing, but the C29 failed to carry through that strong form into the first race, while reliability dramas have also hampered its progress. Those factors have left Sauber without a point to its name after the first four races – the first time that has happened since 1996 – and have increased the need for Key, who took on his new role earlier this month, to turn things around.
Rather than be downbeat about the situation Sauber has found itself in, however, Key believes the team is more than capable of making the progress it needs.
"Obviously, the pressure is on to see if we can make some steps forward," said Key, whose first race with the team was the Chinese Grand Prix. "That pressure is not just on me, it is on everyone. Perhaps the season isn't quite what everyone hoped, but we have to take it a step at a time. Some of it may be that the competition has made more steps than we expected, but we have plans for the future.
"We have some tweaks for the next race and other steps after that. It is just a case of making sure we are optimizing ourselves as the small team we are now to hit the big areas of development. There is work to do, but there is no mystery at the moment as to what needs to be done. There is direction, it is just a question of getting there."
Key has conducted a thorough analysis of the operation and car since he joined Sauber, and has seen nothing that has left him unduly concerned. In fact, he is encouraged that he has been able to find obvious areas that need improving.
"The fundamentals are there, first of all and I don't think there is anything fundamentally wrong," he explained. "The straightline speed is something that needs to be improved, but the team is aware of that already – and that is just a drag calculation. It is something the team is working on and there are clearly some tenths wrapped up in that.
"There are certainly other things, too, that we are setting directions on now. I can't go into too much detail, but there are certain things aerodynamically that are slightly different in terms of characteristics in the way the car is to what I would expect or would want to see in a car.
"These are directions that we are working on now to see if we can develop for the future. They are not quick fixes that you can bolt on and it works the next day, but they are development directions for the future. There are things I have identified, but I don't think there are any mysteries about the car at the moment – we will have to see how things develop. But there are certain things we have to try and work out.
"It is a very neat car, it is extremely well built and the quality for me is extremely good. There are also some neat features on suspension and those sorts of areas. There are some areas that are different than what I am used to, there are areas where development direction will form around, and I think a few areas that need a bit of work at the moment. It is a nicely put together car."
Although one of Sauber's main concerns at the moment is reliability, with the team having suffered engine and hydraulics problems in the first races, Key believes the team must continue to balance curing those issues with bringing more speed, too.
"Naturally, reliability is a big priority and the team is working on that very well," Key added. "It's been unfortunate because in winter testing there wasn't any hint of there being a reliability issue, but now we are keeping a close eye on it. But you have to do that in tandem with performance, because as soon as the reliability is there you want to make sure that you are in a position to score points."
Key believes one of the main challenges over the next few weeks is in getting the team's new structure working at its best, in the aftermath of BMW's withdrawal and the subsequent cutting down of manpower at the team's base in Hinwil.
"There is a little bit of work to do in making sure that we take what the team is now and glue it together in the right way, after what went on over the winter and the uncertainty there," Key said. "There are some departments that were much bigger before and now are just one or two people, and if there are several of those then it is a question of putting them together and helping the team reform a bit as a smaller operation than it has been used to. But as I have said before, the fundamentals are there."
Key is hoping to agree to a development plan with the team within the next two weeks, to take into account updates for this year and the creation of next year's C30.
"We have the balance with next year's car as well to consider, like everyone," he admitted. "As a small team it is always more difficult, because your resources are only so big, but there are plans emerging now.
"We have some tweaks for Barcelona but over the next couple of weeks a clearer picture will emerge of which events we will try to hit with updates, and how we want to pitch them. There is a preliminary plan already."
Although Key could be forgiven for feeling a tinge of regret having left Force India at a time when it has made another big step forward, he actually feels his old team's situation is a cause for extra motivation for himself and his new employers.
"I feel very proud, actually," he said about Force India's form. "It is a team I was involved with for a long time and in some ways I wished I hadn't pushed them so hard over November and December, because obviously it worked! But I think, good for them. I am glad it worked for them and it is a pretty good target for us. We have to aim to beat them and aim for that level.
"For us, there is this middle group of teams and Force India and Renault are leading that right now. But there is no reason why we cannot catch them up. It may take a bit of time, but we can do that – and then it's the top four after that."