Barring an unexpected twist, a faux Formula 1 manufacturer will drop off the grid again in 2024. Even though it wanted to stick around if it could.
The Sauber deal that started in 2018, was upgraded in 2019, and finally concluded this year was clearly one of great value to Alfa Romeo and a genuinely smart, efficient and valuable way of going F1 sponsorship hunting.
Alfa Romeo gave a tried and tested F1 approach a new twist: it replicated title sponsorship in the form of a car company. This created the image that the manufacturer was involved in Formula 1 and had an F1 team when it was not and did not.
It was possible because Alfa Romeo struck that deal early and Sauber was the right kind of team to target - a neutral, malleable identity that has been bought out before, and a wealthy owner but not one massively utilising their bottomless pockets, so the money was useful too.
The deal was also rooted in a time where F1’s value in general was a lot lower and Alfa Romeo was able to ride the crest of a wave through 2021 into 2022 and 2023, benefitting when others would have barely thought twice about seeking exposure via Sauber.
The initial sponsorship morphed into tremendous value for money for Alfa Romeo, which was able to masquerade as an F1 team for the cut-price sum of a reported €20million a year (at least in the beginning), gaining full team identity, lots of activation, and - so we have been repeatedly told - some Sauber technical support for Alfa Romeo road cars.
Sauber feels that the “commercial partnership” was successful but it was also a source of tension once Audi decided to buy the team and the deal was always going to end once the bit-by-bit takeover made Audi, another car manufacturer, a shareholder.
“Alfa Romeo in the past few years was not really active in racing,” said Sauber team representative Alessandro Alunni Bravi.
“And I think Formula 1 provided a platform that is unparalleled. We have seen from the very first year, all the activations that we have done all around the world with their dealers.
“But then we also tried to transfer all that we learned on track together to the road cars. So we have developed, thanks to Sauber Technologies, important projects for them. We have been acting as an R&D department for Alfa Romeo.
“Our partnership has been successful for me, both on track and off track. Mainly because we introduced a different business model for a car manufacturer to be in Formula 1.
“They've been instrumental for the team's growth. Don't forget in 2017, when I joined the team with Fred Vasseur [ex-Sauber CEO and team principal], there was no sponsor, and to have Alfa Romeo on board with a long-term project with us, to extend the deal with Ferrari for the long term, all of this helped us to present Sauber as a credible team for partners for drivers for people that join our team to work with us.”
With 2023 the end point for the Sauber relationship, the same deal was not on the table for Alfa Romeo to stay in Formula 1 somewhere else. Well, not by the end of 2023, anyway.
There were discussions with Haas, so clearly Alfa Romeo wanted to find something that worked. It would be naïve to believe it walked away because the same deal did not appeal, though - the suggestion is that's exactly what Alfa Romeo wanted.
The idea seemed to be to rebrand Haas and ideally not pay that much for it.
Certainly not pay the market price. All that was missing compared to Sauber was the opportunity to assist with the technology projects Alunni Bravi mentioned, such that they were.
Haas was open to something, but striking a Moneygram title sponsorship meant it was not desperate. And it became clear that the two sides were far apart in what they valued such a deal at.
Keep in mind, Haas is a team that has not only sold its title sponsorship to Moneygram recently, it's a team that over the last few years has been left to fend for itself financially because of Gene Haas’s apathy and unwillingness to put the money into the team that it really needs to be more competitive.
Much like Sauber was a few years ago, if there was any team on the grid that looked like a great candidate for Alfa Romeo to stay involved in Formula 1, it would be Haas. But Alfa Romeo would not put its money where its mouth was. And is now considering alternatives in other categories to create this impression it is involved in motorsport (when it really is not), and is happily arguing it got all it needed out of F1 and did not want to just do the same thing all over again.
Ultimately, Alfa Romeo did create a new way for a manufacturer to ‘enter’ F1. It wants to rent a racing programme and present it as its own. Now it will need to find something in the World Endurance Championship to scratch that itch. And it is good, really, that this will not be something for F1 to worry about anymore.
Although harmless enough on the surface, and handy in terms of how good it looks for a brand like Alfa Romeo to be involved in F1, this kind of deal is not in a profitable, successful F1’s interest.
It detracts from the serious commitments of actual works projects, and makes a bit of a mockery of team identity to fans. It would have been frankly stupid for F1 to be in a situation where an Alfa Romeo team was entered next year but it was actually a different team to the one that's existed for the last few years. And in hindsight, it is regrettable that 'Alfa Romeo' has hoovered up a bunch of race start and points stats, as it wrongly inflates Alfa's own F1 legacy while simultaneously detracting from Sauber's.
Of course, there would have been benefits to Alfa Romeo sticking around. There was certainly sincere enthusiasm from CEO Jean-Philippe Imparato, who was seen embracing senior Sauber figures at the partnership’s last race in Abu Dhabi. And Sauber definitely got something out of this deal too.
"When the conditions are right, we will return to thrill our fans once more," Imparato declared in November.
But if Alfa Romeo really wanted to remain involved in F1, it would have done so. There was an opportunity, even though it would still not have meant doing it properly.