Marcus Ericsson is sat in his full race suit, his distinctive yellow and blue helmet perched on the table inside Sauber’s hospitality unit, which is little more than an awning attached to the side of a bus. Next door is Mercedes, which has brought along its full-scale three-storey behemoth of a hospitality unit to pre-season testing, emphasising the gulf in finance and status between the outfits. As little as four years ago, Sauber came within a handful of points of beating Mercedes.
“The finance side is the biggest area to improve, Ericsson says of Sauber’s potential. “There are a lot of good people - a couple of good sponsors to the teams wouldn’t hurt!”
However, Ericsson still has a team with which to race, as he prepares for his third campaign in the sport. He made his Formula 1 debut in 2014 for Caterham, at a time when its existence was threatened by owner Tony Fernandes’ stark pre-season message that his patience was running out. A woeful, ugly chassis was compounded by Renault’s deficiencies and by mid-season Fernandes was gone, replaced by a mysterious consortium, which at least kept the team alive, albeit only until the Russian Grand Prix.
“I think with Caterham quite early in the season, after a couple of races, we understood Fernandes’ interest was finishing,” Ericsson candidly explains. “There was the change of ownership at Silverstone, we all had that going on and it was a difficult situation, money wise and everything. We knew they were struggling but still I was sure to finish the season, I was sure we would finish that at least and then maybe for the year after we wouldn’t know what would happen with the team, and then it was from one day to the other that the closure happened. It was not like suddenly we were struggling, and then because of that we were used to it, we didn’t have much spare parts, it was normal for that season, then I think Monday I was talking with my engineer for an hour about the next race in Texas, about the start set-up and stuff like that and then the next morning they [the owners] called us up and said ‘yeah, that’s it.’
“It’s a bit sad really as there was potential in the team,” said Ericsson, who had cut his ties and joined Sauber by the time Caterham reappeared for a swansong in Abu Dhabi. He was immediately impressed.
“I think straightaway when I started work with Sauber you could see a structure in the team,” he says. “You could feel they’ve been in the sport for a long time, they had the experience, it was a different calmness whereas in Caterham people were still finding their way of working together as a team, in Sauber it was like ‘this is the way we do it, now we get a new driver you need to do this, we do that’, they had a structure and that’s something I felt straightaway. Sauber’s facilities are very impressive from the BMW era.”
Considering Caterham’s woes, 2015 could be regarded as the first proper crack at the whip from Ericsson; he came up against rookie Felipe Nasr, whose career followed a similar path: an initially impressive junior career weakened slightly by some so-so GP2 years.
Nasr stole the headlines with fifth in Australia as Ericsson struggled to eighth, before spinning off in Malaysia, wasting a strong result. Ericsson caught up by mid-season and the duo were fairly evenly matched across the second half of the year. However, Nasr collected the big points in Russia with sixth, as Ericsson was bundled off at the start by Nico Hülkenberg. Is it fair to say that Ericsson was unfortunate to make progress at a similar rate to Sauber’s regression?
“I think looking back at last year like you say, [at] the beginning of the year even though I scored more points than the second half, I was not performing very well,” he says. “I was always behind my team-mate and I was struggling a bit, so for me, in the second half of the season I was performing a lot better but the car was not good enough for points.
“It was a bit frustrating but I need to focus on myself, I could see how much my performances improved throughout the season.
“What I bring with me to this season is hoping that where we start off now [we] can be back at a level like the beginning of last year and my driving can be at a level like the second half of last year as then we should have a good match!”
Ericsson has only had limited track time with the nascent Sauber C35 but is already encouraged.
“My initial feel is that the car feels better, it’s a nicer package, a step forward in downforce, I can feel it in high speed corners and braking zones that there’s more grip there than last year’s car,” he explains. “It’s a step forward, but how much? I don’t know, we have to wait before we can optimise everything. We need more time before I can say how much.”
Sauber finished eighth last season – can it maintain its position ahead of McLaren and repel the threat from new team Haas?
“I think for us as a team we want to continue to improve, from 2014 to 2015 the team did a big step forwards, 2014 was a very disappointing year, we did a big step forwards, and I feel that our car this year is another step better, the power unit I expect to be another step better, with that, of course others can improve.
“But we should be in the fight to at least stay [eighth] or maybe improve.”