Our next stop in the Formula 1 season review/preview?
No wait Sauber.
Actually we mean Stake.
If you are a little confused regarding what to call the Hinwil-based outlet, you are not alone. After five seasons competing as Alfa Romeo, Sauber F1 is in the middle of a transition that will be completed for the 2026 season, when they will race as the Audi works team. Alfa Romeo is now out as the title sponsor of the team heading into the 2024 season, and in its place is Stake, an online casino, along with Kick, a video streaming service. Meaning the full name for the team in 2024 will be Stake F1 Team Kick Sauber.
Got it? Good.
Beyond the current name change, 2023 was something of a step back for the team. After finishing sixth in the Constructors’ Championship with 55 points on the season — 49 of which came from Valtteri Bottas — they tumbled down to ninth in the Constructors’ last season.
They were locked in a tight battle for seventh, and coming out of the August break they announced that finishing in seventh was their clear goal for the season. However, as Williams pulled away, and AlphaTauri (now Visa Cash App RB F1 Team, more on them later) soon caught them from behind, finishing seventh was becoming a tougher and tougher task for them.
Heading into the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, Alfa Romeo sat in ninth, 12 points behind Williams and five points behind AlphaTauri. Bottas told me that “perfection” was what the team needed to accomplish their stated goal. However, no more points were on offer for the team that season, and ninth place was their result.
2023 highlight: Qatar Grand Prix
The 2023 Qatar Grand Prix was a punishing affair for the drivers. Due to a combination of oppressive heat and tire management restrictions imposed by the FIA which placed a cap of just 18 laps on each set of tires, the race pushed the entire grid to the physical limit. Logan Sargeant, for example, retired early due to “extreme dehydration” and his Williams teammate Alexander Albon also needed medical treatment after the race.
Alpine driver Esteban Ocon even admitted to vomiting twice during the race.
As bruising as the event was, it was the highlight of Alfa Romeo’s season. While Bottas started ninth after a strong qualifying performance, Zhou Guanyu started at the back of the field in P19. But both managed to finish in the points, with Bottas finishing eighth, and Zhou right behind him in ninth.
“Tonight we were able to deliver the race we had been aiming for, for a very long time. We knew we had the potential to score points but we had to execute the perfect race to bring home this result. The strategy was spot on, the pit-stops faultless and the drivers delivered two solid performances, pushing from the first to the last lap with no mistakes,” said Team Representative Alessandro Alunni Bravi after the race. “Tonight’s result boosts our confidence and reinforces our belief that we can score points in any race if we do our job like tonight.”
The six points in Qatar saw Alfa Romeo pull ahead of Haas in the Constructors’ standings.
It was their only double-points finish of the season.
2023 lowlight: Hungarian Grand Prix
The Hungarian Grand Prix was perhaps the team’s best chance for a stunning result last year.
During the second practice session that Friday, Alfa Romeo looked like they might have brought the surprise package to Hungaroring. Bottas finished P7 in the second practice session, with Zhou two spots behind him in P9, but they posted their best times on the medium compound.
Everyone ahead of them posted their times on the softs.
Then on Saturday came the truly stunning result: Zhou posted the fastest time during Q1 as both he and Bottas and Zhou advanced into Q3. When the dust was settled Bottas had qualified in seventh, and Zhou up in fifth for his best-ever qualifying result.
That promise and potential, however, failed to carry through into Sunday. For Zhou, his C43 experienced a software override for an issue with the brakes right before the start, and he came off the line late as a result. Then into the first corner he ran into the back of Daniel Ricciardo, who was propelled forward into Esteban Ocon, and the resulting collision knocked both Ocon and his Alpine teammate Pierre Gasly out of the race.
Zhou finished 16th, a lap down.
As for Bottas, he fared better, but only slightly. Starting seventh he was right behind Zhou when the lights went out, and he too had a compromised start as a result. He slid out of the top ten, and could not fight his way back into the points, ultimately finishing 12th.
A promising Saturday, and a disappointing Sunday.
Outlook for 2024
Now the rebranded Stake F1 Team Kick Sauber looks ahead to a new season, with some hope for a better tomorrow. It will of course start with their challenger for the 2024 season, which according to Alunni Bravi will not be an evolution of the C43, but rather a completely new design.
“We understood this year that this concept [the C43] was a good concept but there was a limit of possibility to further development,” said Alunni Bravi to F1.com analyst Lawrence Barretto earlier this month. “We improved the car significantly since the launch but it was not enough to stay ahead of our competitors so we need to change the concept of the car and develop certain areas. We will have a new front suspension, which is a big development for us, and this should help us make the front tyres and front axle work better in all conditions. We will have a new monocoque, a different concept. This year’s monocoque was a carryover, so this will be a significant step.
“This won’t be an evolution of the C43, it will be a completely new car.”
Helping in that effort? James Key, who joined the team as the new Technical Director in September of last year. Key served in that role at McLaren from 2019 until early in the 2023 season, when he was released from McLaren as part of an organizational restructuring. Key previously served as the Technical Director for the Hinwil outfit from 2010 until 2012, so this is a bit of a homecoming.
Like every other team on the grid, Stake is seeing their 2023 driver pairing return for the 2024 campaign. Bottas is entering the third and final year of his current deal, and Zhou signed a one-year extension with the team. But with the upcoming move to Audi, both drivers — as well as the team at large — will be under pressure to reduce the gap between them and the rest of the field.
Person under the most pressure to perform in 2024: Zhou Guanyu
There is certainly no shortage of pressure to go around at Stake, but the seat is perhaps hottest under Zhou. He banked six points during his rookie season in 2022, and followed that up with … another six points in 2023 as he finished 18th in the Drivers’ Championship for the second-straight season.
With the upcoming transition to Audi now in sight, there has been no shortage of speculation about who Audi will want as their driver pairing in 2026. For a sport that moves as quickly as F1, that may seem a lifetime away, but if Zhou wants to remain in his seat for 2025 and beyond, he’ll need to improve upon his results from the past two seasons.
Because you cannot take a spin through F1 media without seeing various drivers linked to Audi for the 2026 season. Perhaps at the top of that list? Carlos Sainz Jr., whose father is currently driving for Audi in the Dakar Rally and is a legend in his own right. Then there is Nico Hülkenberg, as the German driver might make a good fit for German-based Audi.
So yes, there is a lot of pressure on Zhou this season.