Why Sauber have kept the faith with unchanged driver line-up

Thomas Maher
Alfa Romeo's Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu in the F1 paddock in early 2023.

Alfa Romeo's Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu in the F1 paddock in early 2023.

Alfa Romeo, who revert to their Sauber iteration in 2024, have signed Zhou Guanyu and Valtteri Bottas for another year together. Why have they made that choice?

In what has been the least silly ‘silly season’ in recent memory, Alfa Romeo are the latest team to confirm an unchanged driver line-up for next season, with the Hinwil-based squad choosing to stay with Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu for another season.

Bottas was never in doubt, given his long-term deal signed with Alfa Romeo back at the end of 2021, but Zhou’s position had looked a little more shaky – the Chinese driver ultimately performing well enough to convince the management to keep him on for another year.

‘Stability’ the keyword as Sauber looks to the future

2024 is an odd year for the team, as long-term major sponsor Alfa Romeo will depart. From 2026, the team will collaborate with Audi as the German marque enters the sport, but the two-year gap in between means two years of effectively treading water as an independent entity.

The team’s current performance level isn’t particularly a high benchmark, but there have been assurances that there will be absolutely no let-up in terms of carrying on with the normal development push as Hinwil tries to pull itself ever further forward.

In light of all that, the drivers themselves are perhaps less important than if the team knew bigger prizes were on offer. Bottas is a known quantity – fast, solid, dependable, and unlikely to take excessive and expensive risks. That dependability is perhaps not the most exciting quality, but it is what a smaller team like Sauber requires.

Zhou has shown a similar dependability in his two seasons so far. The sport’s first-ever Chinese driver has been a close match for Bottas’ level and has been unlucky with various mechanical issues hampering some strong results on occasion. But, with the car itself not a world-beater, Zhou has settled into taking a similar mindset to his racing as Bottas and is calm and collected behind the wheel.

With Sauber set for two years of waiting around for their new overlords to arrive, it is no surprise that stability has been the desired status quo. After all, why take a risk and upset the dynamic that has developed – Bottas and Zhou get along well, and that is unlikely to change any time soon (until the stakes are higher as the Audi seats come up for grabs).

“The decision to continue our journey with our driver line-up unchanged is a testament to the investment we have made in our project,” said Alfa Romeo team representative Alessandro Alunni Bravi.

Bravi is the defacto team boss but does not operate under that title – perhaps another further indication of the team keeping an eye on the future for a change of direction under Sauber CEO Andreas Seidl in the medium term.

“Nothing in Formula 1 changes overnight, and we have made a conscious decision to focus on stability and to keep building our team up together as we embark on an important period of transition,” Bravi continued.

“Valtteri and Zhou are drivers of known talent and skill and they work really well together: they are well-matched and can push each other.

“Valtteri has taken a real leader’s role within the team, pushing us all to give our best; Zhou has made impressive steps forward in the last two years and we expect him to continue on this trajectory in 2024.

“Now the baton is back to us – we have to give both drivers a good car and put them in the best conditions to perform.”

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With Zhou’s future assured, which he had never appeared to be in much doubt about in his recent exclusive interview with PlanetF1.com, the Chinese driver spoke of the gratitude he has towards the team for placing their trust in him.

“Signing again with the team is always a great feeling, especially when we know how things are shaping up,” he said.

“I am proud to be part of Alfa Romeo F1 Team Stake and grateful for their trust: I have been working extremely hard since day one and there is an incredible level of motivation to keep doing so every day forward.

“My relationship with Valtteri is really good, and we are working closely together and with the team to push everyone forward.”

Both Zhou and Bottas have indicated a desire to stay on long enough to make it through to the upcoming Audi era – perhaps a slightly tougher task for Bottas, given his age relative to Zhou.

The Finn acknowledged the changes upcoming in the future, and said he is thrilled to have taken another step closer to them.

“I have a feeling we have an exciting journey ahead of us, so I am happy and grateful to be able to look forward to 2024 knowing how the team is shaping up,” he said.

“There is a good atmosphere within our squad, I get along with Zhou and we both push each other hard to improve.

“There is an impressive amount of work going on behind the scenes, in Hinwil and beyond, and now that the line-up is set for next year, we can focus fully on improving, starting this weekend in Singapore already. Every step forward we make is a step forward for this year and next, so we are motivated to give everything we have every time we’re trackside or at the factory.”

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