The newly independent Sauber team has a real chance of becoming a thorn in the side of Formula 1's "big four" teams this year because its car is so easy on its tires, according to a Bridgestone analysis.
With the Swiss-based outfit's C29 having already shown some strong pace in preseason testing, the team's hopes of delivering some surprise results are boosted by the fact that early data reveals it suffers less tire degradation than Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull Racing and Mercedes GP.
That ability to look after its tires could prove crucial on two fronts this season – by first of all allowing the team to use a softer tire than its rivals in Q3, but also in delivering it greater consistency over the course of a race when there will be a premium on looking after the rubber now that refueling is banned.
Hirohide Hamashima, Bridgestone's director of motorsport tire development, says there is little separating the big four teams in terms of tire degradation – but says Sauber is a different case.
"We have compared many teams' data and looking at the quick [four] teams – their degradation tendency is very, very similar," he told AUTOSPORT. "Once they have the 150kg start weight, with both the medium and soft compound, then there is little difference – so we could expect a very close pace. However, Sauber is more consistent."
Although this weekend's race is Bahrain will not be too punishing on the tire front, Hamashima believes the difference between Sauber and the other teams is enough to offer the outfit strategy options that others do not have.
When asked if there was a chance for Sauber to opt for more marginal tires than its rivals to help boost qualifying performance, Hamashima said, "Yes, it is possible. With an easy car, you can have the possibility to do that. Somewhere like Barcelona will be very interesting – because the circuit is severe and the softer tire may only be good to get one lap time before suffering big degradation in the race. But even places like Monaco and Bahrain, which are very, very easy on tires, the specification that shows the best lap time should be the best race tire – which could make it interesting as well."
Sauber's technical chief Willy Rampf acknowledged that the C29's tire performance was one of its main strengths.
"The car doesn't have any stability problems, and its performance and balance on high fuel loads is a strong point," he said. "We will build on this – it's a very good thing. Our car is not too heavy on its tires, so we can do reasonable long stints without killing them. That will help keep the strategies more flexible, if you're not forced to stop by tire wear."
Hamashima also believed that the competitiveness at the front of the field had closed up in the final preseason test at Barcelona, as McLaren and Red Bull Racing delivered car improvements.
"At the first three tests, Ferrari it seemed had a little bit of an advantage over one lap. However, in Barcelona, McLaren and Red Bull used their latest cars and the picture was very mixed. It's now very difficult to judge."