Why Sauber was F1’s "best deal" for Alfa Romeo
After its involvement with Sauber concludes at the end of the 2023 Formula 1 season, Alfa Romeo will likely have to look beyond the world championship for its next motorsport project.
The Italian GP was the last home race for the Milanese marque as its six-year relationship with Sauber approaches its conclusion. The occasion was celebrated with a special livery featuring the Italian flag, while Alfa also used the weekend to unveil the new 33 Stradale, a model that reflects the sporty image that its involvement in Grand Prix racing is supposed to project.
The problem that the management of Alfa and its parent company Stellantis now face is, 'how do we follow that?'
There’s little doubt that the Sauber deal was a golden ticket for Alfa. Originally conceived by the late Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Ferrari boss Sergio Marchionne, the deal saw Alfa as title sponsor of Sauber for a single season in 2018, before the company took over the full team and chassis name from 2019, for what was in effect a bargain price.
Car manufacturers have sponsored F1 teams before, notably Infiniti and Aston Martin with Red Bull Racing, but bagging the team and car identity was something different. It was a cheap deal because when it was negotiated in 2017 the Hinwil team was last in the constructors’ championship by some margin, and it didn’t have too many opportunities. Alfa brought not just much-needed cash but was also a sexy brand that would, in theory, appeal to other sponsors and even to potential drivers.
It worked brilliantly for Alfa, who enjoyed a high-profile foothold in F1 for a fraction of the cost of developing its own power unit or subsidising a full works project. In the early years, Alfa even had a claim on one of the seats, reserving it for a Ferrari protégé. Charles Leclerc took it initially, and subsequently, Antonio Giovinazzi was nominated.
Then last year came Audi’s purchase of Sauber. After a single season in 2023 to finish out the contract it was untenable for Alfa to remain involved with Sauber for the two remaining interim years before full Audi identity comes along in 2026. It simply made no sense for Audi to invest in building up the Swiss organisation and have a rival brand enjoy the benefits, albeit temporarily.
For Alfa Romeo CEO Jean-Philippe Imparato, who moved sideways from Peugeot at the start of 2021 when Stellantis was created, the loss of the Sauber deal through circumstances beyond his control was obviously disappointing.
Alfa Romeo celebrated its last home grand prix with a special livery at the Italian GP
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
“At the end of the day it's a question of [Sauber’s] shareholders,” says the 55-year-old. “And our job is not to have any kind of I would say personal feeling in respect of the decision, no emotion in terms of business.
“The shareholders took a decision, and the minimum is that we respect the decision, and by the way, we support the decision. So the decision was made to make a business move. Who can say something on that? Nobody.
“My mission in terms of Alfa Romeo is to adapt Alfa Romeo’s programme of electrification to this type of decision. So no frustration, but when you work with somebody for years in as excellent an outside discipline as F1, it's absolutely normal that you are a human being, and you are connected with the guys.
“If you are not human at Alfa Romeo, you are dead. We agree on that as well. So no frustration. When you present the car like the 33 Stradale, you see the frustration does not exist, we are aggressive, and we want to win. So we have to find the next step, and we are working on it."
"You have on one side the reasonable level of investment that we share because it's always a question of respect for not only the shareholders but also with our people" Jean-Philippe Imparato
Imparato might not have initiated the original Sauber deal but he’s enjoyed the fruits of it for the past three years, and he’s well aware how good it has been for his company.
"For me, this is the best ROI [return on investment] ever in the paddock,” he says. “It's very clear for Alfa Romeo, thanks to the business model that was, by the way, conceived by Sergio Marchionne. And we remember that always.
“We consider with [Stellantis CEO] Carlos Tavares that we have the best business model in terms of F1, and I would say probably sponsorship motorsport structure ever. In terms of this type of business model for Alfa Romeo in terms of investment, and the return on investment, it’s the best ever. And I don't forget that.”
Alfa Romeo has made the most of the marketing opportunities presented by its involvement in F1
Photo by: Alfa Romeo
What Marchionne couldn’t have predicted when he brought the Alfa name back to F1 was the growth that grand prix racing has experienced over the last few years, and from which the Italian marque has benefited in terms of exposure.
"You have all the planets aligned in this story,” says Imparato. “Because since 2019, you have as well the fantastic job made by FIA and Formula One Management on the circuit. So you have on one side the reasonable level of investment that we share because it's always a question of respect for not only the shareholders but also with our people.
“Sometimes when you are in crisis somewhere in the world how can you explain to your people that you are paying every month, that you spend hundreds of millions on an activity, that is a sponsorship?
“So the reasonable level of investment, with a fantastic job done by FIA and Formula One Management with Stefano Domenicali, you have the top line up, and you have the cost control. When you have that, you have the best ROI ever. That's what we lived.”
Imparato’s job now is to find something that can replace the Sauber deal. He’s adamant that the brand should continue in motorsport in some form.
"We are studying I would say all the opportunities we have in front of us on the table,” he says. “I had initially forecasted to speak out in July 2023, I didn't do that, because I'm not ready.
"I'm very clear. When I'm ready, you will be the first one to be informed on the next step, because we necessarily have a next step. As a matter of respect for Alfa Romeo, and as a matter I would say of being solid in terms of position, and I don't want to play with the positioning of the brand, I don't go public if I'm not 100% sure that I am doing something that is positive for the brand and the group. So we are working a lot.
The value of Alfa Romeo's Sauber deal has increased significantly since it was first signed
Photo by: Michael Potts / Motorsport Images
“Are we ready? No. Do we want to exit from motorsport? No. Do I have the solution now? No. Can I spend, and do I want to spend, hundreds of millions? No. Because at the same time, I have to finance the electrification of the brand. And I would say that it's completely mad to spend hundreds of millions if I'm not, I would say, in a perfect business model. So that's what we are doing.
“When I see the world moving now, with the evolution of the market, the electrification pace, the software pace, the offensive from some competitors, they say, ‘Wow, I'm happy not to have a kind of cash-out commitment to anybody in the world, from January 1 2024.’
“What we know is that at the last grand prix, we will cry, that's absolutely sure. But we will cry protecting the best assets of the company, both Sauber, who shows the way, and Alfa Romeo, that's absolutely sure."
"Let's come back to something that Carlos Tavares told me. Nothing can be done without a Ferrari engine. So that's it" Jean-Philippe Imparato
It’s obvious that with Sauber off-limits there is only one place for Alfa Romeo to be if it wants to stay in F1, and that’s Haas. However, whichever way you look at it, such a deal would be a backwards step. The problem is that Gene Haas is in F1 to promote his own brand so he will never give up his chassis or team name, and he already has a solid title sponsor in MoneyGram.
There is in theory an option for the team to become MoneyGram Alfa Romeo Haas or some similar combination, but that will clearly represent a retreat from what the company has at the moment, with a full team and car identity. There would also be no technical cooperation of the sort that saw Sauber help with the development of Alfa GTA and GTAm road cars, and which has helped to justify the association.
It’s understood from sources that discussions with Haas have not formally ended, and in essence, it’s up to Alfa to decide what it wants to do.
"I cannot speak about that, never,” says Imparato. “But let's come back to something that Carlos Tavares told me. Nothing can be done without a Ferrari engine. So that's it. I cannot comment or add any statement on anything to that.
“The only thing that is sure is that I will respect the guidance from my boss. The boss is Carlos, and we said that nothing is possible without a Ferrari engine for Alfa Romeo. And if I were to express myself on that topic, I would say exactly the same for the brand positioning of our Alfa Romeo. Alfa Romeo is Italian, so there is no question.”
Striking a deal with Haas could be Alfa Romeo's only option if the marque is to remain in the F1 paddock
Photo by: Erik Junius
If not F1, where could the Alfa name go? Imperato has an obvious interest in sportscar racing, a category with which Alfa was strongly associated in the 60s and 70s. He makes it clear that the arrival of Ferrari in the WEC has made it a more attractive proposition.
“I would like to highlight two things,” he says. “I think that if you compare the ROI of WEC 2023 against 2021 – you know exactly why, there is one reason, and I will not comment on this reason. But there is one reason why if you compare the WEC at Monza, 2021, to WEC in Monza and 2023, the attractiveness, the value of the WEC is strong.
“Secondly, you see with the 33 Stradale the connection with between Alfa Romeo and the WEC. So, I think that deserves to be studied very closely."
Expanding on the WEC he adds: "You remember that one of the brands of Stellantis Group [Peugeot] exited from Le Mans, at one point of time saying that until you come back to something reasonable, we will not anymore be with you guys. The consequence was very positive because now they come back to something reasonable and the OEMs are back, obviously, you see.”
While as noted an F1 involvement would have to involve Ferrari, in WEC Alfa Romeo has a potential alternative path via some form of collaboration with sister company Peugeot, as Imparato makes clear.
"I always work with the assets of Stellantis Motorsport,” he says. “We speak about Stellantis assets only, always. I'm not going public for the future plans, because I want to find a kind of business model that is I would say interesting. The answer is a fantastic business model, superb ROI.
“But when I tell you something, I will tell you something for three years, five years. I don't want to come back to a six-month investment. No, we will do it seriously, I hope. I am studying everything. But we will make the choice based on the best ROI, and the best connection with the past of Alfa Romeo.
"I don't see Alfa Romeo in WRC, even if I love WRC and even if, by the way, I was supporting Sebastien Loeb. I will not go in rally even if with another brand, I was very involved in that. There is no sense, that's obvious.
Should an F1 exit transpire, WEC is an alternative option to keep Alfa Romeo in top level motorsport
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
“But I don't want to exit from motorsport, that's it. Even if I am really challenged by my boss, I'm as well heavily supported, because he's mad about motorsport. And we are mad about motorsport. We are a bit schizophrenic in a way!"
Imparato makes it clear that as much as he loves F1, the overall success of the Alfa brand is the bigger picture.
“My heart is at Alfa Romeo,” he says. “And Alfa Romeo P&L [profit and loss] must be aligned with the ambition of Alfa Romeo because one day I will leave. And the day when I leave, I want three things.
“One, you recognise the quality of the cars. Second, I leave something in the museum in Arese as a reminder of the past, and building the future. Third, that Alfa Romeo is sustainable. These are the three missions that I have. All the rest is personal.”
Only time will tell whether the Alfa Romeo brand will remain in the F1 paddock
Photo by: Erik Junius
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