James Key was credited with turning Sauber's form around when he joined the Swiss outfit as technical director early last year, and began a restructuring process that saw the team go from scoring a mere one point in the first eight grands prix of 2010 to ending the team with 44 and eighth in the championship.
This season Sauber has what is likely to be Formula 1's least experienced driver lineup in Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez, and a C30 chassis that has looked quietly promising in testing. Key relates how things are progressing at Sauber.
Q. The car has been setting some good lap times and looks good on track, particularly when it comes to stability in the faster corners...
James Key: Stability-wise it's definitely a step forward from last year. Some of that has come from what we wanted to try and achieve anyway and the directions that we are finding are naturally helping the car to be stable. That's good and the high-speed performance that we knew we had last year is still there. We have got work to do, but one of our objectives was to go into testing, understand that car and not have any nasty surprises. By and large, that's where we are at the moment.
Q. Last year the trend was that Sauber was competitive on the fast tracks and not so strong on the slower ones. The car looks great in the fast stuff, but although it looked fine in the Barcelona chicane it wasn't quite so impressive. Is that a fair impression?
JK: It's probably fair at the moment. In Barcelona, we found that sectors one and two were reasonable and sector three was a weak point. We haven't 100 percent nailed the slow stuff yet, but some of that we think is balance and also because the high-speed sections are reasonable we were eating the tires fairly quickly if we nailed it on the first lap. From what we can see, we need to work on the low-speed corners. We're not too bad, but not 100 percent.
Q. It seems that the mid-pack, where we would expect Sauber to be, is very close and competitive with teams like Toro Rosso and Williams looking good. Do you see that part of the field as very competitive?
JK: It's close, but it's difficult to tell. The different tire compounds definitely offer a clear single lap time advantage when you go softer, so if you go out with a low fuel level and soft tires, you're going to look quick. That hasn't been our approach. We've been concentrating on setup and more general things rather than out and out performance. But it does look quite tight and it's very difficult to tell where people are. Where we are, I don't know; I think we're OK and we're being fairly sensible with our approach.
Q. It seems that aside from the odd off-track moment, you've had a pretty smooth program. Have you put the usual cooling/overheating problems to bed early so you can concentrate on other things?
JK: We've been really pleased with cooling. We took a very different approach to last year with this year's car in terms of layout. It's fairly aggressive – the coolers are more efficient but more tightly packaged and we feel it's better than the C29 as far as cooling efficiency is concerned. We've had to play with thermal management elsewhere on the car, but there has been no big show-stopper or any major concerns.
Q. Although the team has run KERS before, this is your first experience with it personally, and the team is running the Ferrari system rather than the old BMW system. How have you found it?
JK: It has been a bit of a learning curve. I can't comment on 2009 and what happened at this team, but there were quite a few people with bad memories of KERS – and probably a lot of people from other teams as well! The good thing with the Ferrari unit is that it has done a season and they were one of the few teams to have progressed with it. It's well-proven, it's updated and optimized for today.
I wasn't sure what to expect with braking, but that hasn't been an issue. Ferrari has done a really good job, because our drivers haven't had any problems under braking at all. What's also good is that it's consistent. You get into a rhythm of doing it and it does what it does. The things that I was worried about before have not been the problem that I thought they could be.
Q. Kamui Kobayashi seems to be one of the last drivers to close the rear wing slot gap before braking and he opens it pretty early in the corners. Does that suggest that you've got a very stable car under braking?
JK: It seems to be. Braking stability and turn-in was one of the weaknesses of C29. The priority for C30 was to sort that out and we've been pleasantly surprised that the direction we've taken has made a difference. Braking and turning hasn't been an issue, which is important because if you have rear end problems, tire degradation can be quite severe.
Q. We've seen Sergio Perez off the track a few times. Is that to be expected from a rookie?
JK: To a certain extent. The off in Jerez was just inexperience and optimism on his part – personally I think he should have lifted! I think the Barcelona off was because of slippery conditions and the tires take some getting used to, so you can't hammer him for sliding off. Otherwise, he has been good. He's still got a bit to go in terms of getting used to the car and extracting the most out of it, but his long runs have been consistent.
Q. Is the inexperienced driver lineup of Kobayashi and Perez holding the team back at all in terms of development?
JK: No, I don't think so. They are both doing their best and doing a good job at giving us decent feedback. Kamui is being very good. He's trying to assist as much as possible with our understanding the tires and the way that the car is responding and we have all agreed with him where we think the weaknesses lie that we need to work on next. His feedback reflects what we are seeing.
You always want to have a reference point with lots of experience because they can pick up on something that they remember from five years ago and they can run through the ways to deal with it, but it's not really an issue for us.
Sergio is coming up to speed quickly with his understanding of things and he's beginning to make proactive comments rather than waiting to be asked. He's coming up with ideas and he discusses things in the garage, which at this stage is good. It's never ideal to be in the position we are in with such inexperience, but it's certainly not to the detriment of the team.