Stake F1’s technical director James Key has explained why his move back to Sauber feels like a “breath of fresh air” and why copying Red Bull is not a guaranteed path to success.
Speaking at the launch of Stake’s new car, the C44, in central London, PlanetF1.com, alongside other select F1 media, caught up with the man charged with navigating the team further up the grid.
Key spoke of how his return to the team has been a “breath of fresh air” and why they have avoided the temptation to copy Red Bull.
Q: You have been in the role since September, how has it been so far?
James Key: “It’s been great, actually. Of course, I’m familiar with the team, there’s many familiar things and aspects because of the people with the team, which has been great to return to, but a lot that’s changed as well.
“It’s a much bigger team than it was, so a lot of fresh faces as well. But no, I’ve loved going back, it’s a breath of fresh air, actually, it’s all very positive. I’m very motivated to take the next steps. Everyone’s looking to the future as well at the moment, which is very exciting.
“So I think it’s a very sort of proactive and positive place right now. But we know we’ve got challenges ahead after a disappointing season last year. So, truth be told, it’s been extremely busy. It’s been really flat out but in a very positive way.”
Q: What makes the C44 different from the C43?
JK: “The pull rod is the first thing that’s aggressive because it’s brave to do that. I think particularly for a team of our size, it’s not an easy project but they’ve done a fantastic job with it.
“I think it’s more the refinement you can’t see under the floor but that is several steps beyond where we were last year and that’s another tough area where there’s huge potential if you can get the little nuances right. The team worked very hard at that.
“But the bodywork, I think is the thing you’ll notice most. The sidepods are very three dimensional and very, sort of, organic.
“There’s this interaction between the floor and the bodywork, which doesn’t exist intuitively when you look at a car but there is a strong interaction with the way that bodywork modifies conditions for the floor and the team have been pushing these to a quite large extent so we’ll see quite a lot of that and to allow that to happen.
“That means the packaging volumes that you’re using are tiny and that’s where the really aggressive stuff comes in. You’ve got to take some risks. Will it do this? Will it do that? It should do, the numbers said it will but it’s aggressive to the point of just got to make sure on track.”
Q: Where will the car be quick?
JK: “I mean, we’ve looked at performance across the board. To be honest, I was pleased with the lap time gains. We did some simulation work with Bahrain, which is not really a high speed track but it’s got some high speed dependencies in certain places.
“You could see that in races to be fair. If you look at Suzuka in particular, some of the quicker cars were stronger in the high speed but could kept their tyres alive so there could be aspects of that, which is better with our new car.
“But we’ll see. It’s all relative. I don’t know what everyone else has done and hopefully not as much as us.”
Q: How tempting is it to copy Red Bull?
JK: “The thing with aerodynamics is you can see what other people have done but it’s so subtle.
“If we took a Red Bull front wing and went out, that car wouldn’t go any quicker and probably goes slower because it’s the rest of the car that isn’t compatible.
“So you can’t just copy a car and we saw that maybe last year when Aston Martin produced a very similar looking car to Red Bull because it wasn’t identical, but very similar, and performed a bit better, but it wasn’t suddenly put into the front.
“They did their own thing over winter, they made a great stride forward. So you’ve got to have control of your own destiny, if you try and just leave it to others to do that for you and you just take snapshots, it’s never going to work. Everything needs to become compatible.
“It’s not the geometries, it’s actually the flow physics around those geometries which counts and you can create that in more ways than one.
“So you have to be your own boss with this, which is why perhaps a great indicator of that was we turned up in ’22 and look at the massive difference in the top three teams. They were their own boss and they were close on performance levels ultimately. When Mercedes had a good day for them in those earlier periods, it was quick.
“So they skin the cat in a different way but you can still generate performance and so if it was as simple as copying a Red Bull, everyone would look like a Red Bull and we’d all be P1.”
Q: How close to the regulation ceiling do you think teams like Red Bull are?
JK: “There’s definitely diminishing returns. I think we know the regs have helped close the grid up.
“I mean, you look at Q1 in Abu Dhabi, we were a team that was six tenths off and we’re 18th. That’s nuts, there were hundredths of seconds between most drivers.
“I’m not saying that’s representative of all the races, but that’s the sort of environment we’re in. Two years previous, it was seconds, which is what we’ve seen for many years. So I think there is a convergence.
“I think fresh cars give the opportunity to open up new potential, what’s the next thing that drops out as being the right thing to do? I guess we’ll see that maybe that’s the ’25 project for those who maybe can’t accommodate it now.
“I have to say, if you just exclude drivers and strategies and other things that could influence championship position, just look purely at the car, I think there’s increasingly tiny levels of detail you need to go into to generate performance.
“I think that could be what separates some of the bigger teams who have got kind of everything in place to look into that level of detail from some of the smaller teams.
“So we’re sort of aware of that. There’s a lot to it. So I think there’s elements of that which can still play a role this year and probably into ’25.
“The other thing is, second and third order performance differentiators begin to count. If you’ve got a tenth between P6 and P16, for example, something as ridiculously close as that, your centre of gravity plays a role in that. Your really accurate type preparation plays a role. Many other things play a role.
“So I think we’re also seeing a refinement of everywhere being necessary to extract the most rather than just aero which is what it’s been for a long time.”
Q: Can Red Bull be caught?
JK: “They were outstanding last year, that race pace really stood out as being a strength. They’ve got something on the teams there I think.
“For sure the rest of us will be wanting to catch up, perhaps they will. You’ve got to hand it to Max [Verstappen]. He is the best of the bunch right now. He absolutely nails it every weekend so they’ve got that strength as well. But you’d like to think so.
“I think I’d like to see Mercedes, for example step up and take them on, Ferrari be that bit closer because occasionally they’ve been in the mix but it hasn’t been every race, so it’d be great to see a bit of challenge for them and hopefully the field behind them sort of squishes up even further.
“We’re all sort of there or thereabouts but it will be interesting to see what they’ve done.”
Q: How difficult is it to work on a car when there are only two more seasons before the regulation changes in 2206?
JK: “I know that that’s going to be on every team’s mind right now because ’26 isn’t actually that far away. At the end of this year, we’ve got to be willing to press the button on that aero and so on, so that’s very quickly beginning to give us directions.
“So, yes, it’s an element that we’re that we are strategising around. Of course, we have activities on what we know on the ’26 chassis side. Colleagues that are working totally separately with Audi at the moment to support the engine side which is working fine.
“Obviously, we’re concentrating very much on ’24, and ’25. As you say, you’ve got to build stuff into that to try and make sure you’ve got a good enough platform to carry across the thing so you can think ‘we don’t need to do anything with that anymore. It’s just further aero steps and little tweaks here and there.’
“So we’ve got that going on. But I suppose in a sense, it’s doubly more important for us because it’s not just that we’ve got ’26 to deal with, we’ve got a huge expansion on the table.
“Which in a sense is why it’s been so busy, because you’re looking at the here and now and thinking ‘well, we’re going to squeeze a lot more out of what we’re doing here. So let’s do this, this and this.’
“But you’re putting an eye on the bigger picture and not just to do ‘26 but to be ready for ‘26 as a works team as well. So it’s a pretty intense period.”