INTERVIEW: James Key knows his work is cut out ahead of Audi’s F1 arrival

19th June 2024
Ian Parkes

It has not been the start to his technical leadership at Sauber that James Key had hoped for, but there is a bigger picture that has to be kept in mind.

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After 25 years in F1, Key is ramping up to tackling one of the biggest projects in the sport for many years when Audi finally enters the fray for the first time in its illustrious history, tempted by the new power unit regulations that come into force in 2026.

After departing McLaren in March last year following a technical shake-up of the team, Key wasted no time in being recruited by Andreas Seidl, the Woking marque's former team principal who left at the end of 2022 to become CEO of Sauber Motorsport, and ultimately, CEO of Audi's F1 operations.

Key joined what was then Alfa Romeo on the 1st September, stepping into an organisation with one eye on 2026 but with still just over two years to navigate the current aerodynamic regulations that have so far been dominated by Red Bull.

As Alfa Romeo, the team made a solid start in adapting to the new rules over the first few races of the 2022 campaign, only to slip towards the back of the pack last year. This season it finds itself propping up the constructors' standings without a point to its name after nine races.

"I inherited a small team, and you could tell there was a lack of resources and investment," said Key in an interview. "I would say, though, the guy who owned that team when I arrived, Finn Rausing, did a fantastic job of saving and investing in it. But, it's still a small, private team, and clearly, we're looking towards the front with our future ambition.

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"But I inherited a brilliant bunch of people, there are pockets of excellence all around, and I have to say, it's a delight to work there. You can see that small team efficiency, and you think, 'If you can invest in that, you could make it really good', and now we are beginning to do that.

"When I arrived, though, the car was pretty much done. A lot of good decisions were made on it - there are a few things I personally would have done slightly differently, but it was a bit late for that, so you take what you've got and maximise it.

"We did set out on a fairly aggressive development plan to try at least keep pace, if not move forward a little bit, which we're continuing to do now, with lots of things to come in the pipeline. We’re obviously concentrating a lot on 2024, there's a great deal of effort going into that, and the majority of people are concentrating on the here and now.

"But we've got two other things happening. One is 2026, which is becoming an ever bigger project, not just from our point of view, but everyone's point of view as the regulations develop, and with a single year to do aerodynamics on a new car you have to be well prepared.

"And then alongside both of those projects, we're trying to take a small team and make it into one twice the size, so it's an immensely busy period with all of that going on. I'd be lying if I said that my eyes weren't very much fixed on '26 and where we're headed for the vast majority of my time."

Key indicated there will be a 45 per cent increase in staffing numbers for the technical department alone when Audi is fully on board, providing additional difficulties regarding the management of the department to ensure it is all aligned and pulling in the same direction.


FIA reveal 2026 F1 rules

FIA reveal 2026 F1 rules

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The 52-year-old knows he has his work cut out, although concedes there is "a strong first line" already in place that will aid his cause, whilst at the same time "adding strength and depth at the top of the technical leadership".

Assessing the additional steps that will be required, he added: "It relies heavily on a very coherent plan and a very strong understanding of your first line. We say, 'This is what we're going to do'. We then pull that together, and as long as that's a coherent plan and everyone understands it, it kind of self-propagates, and it works.

"Then as we grow, we want to retain the efficiency we have now. Small teams are definitely a lot more efficient, but we want to grow it in a logical way such that the team is recognisable, but it just has a lot more firepower within it.

"Then we adapt what we have because I think the baseline of Sauber is a really good one to grow from, with almost all things in the right place, so we can grow it almost purely in performance terms from what it is now to a big team.

"We're doing that in a way that makes it recognisable for everyone so that basically, the way we make decisions now can still be done with a bigger team. It just filters down to more people with more capabilities."

Of course, from Key's perspective, there is still another 39 grand prix to navigate as Sauber – 15 this year and 24 next, before Audi takes full control.

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The team has encountered numerous issues that have plagued its start to this season, notably regarding the wheel nuts on its cars that led to painfully slow stops over the first few races, before a new design was introduced at the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.

There were also front-wing problems due to a design weakness that had to be addressed, but all conspiring to ensure it has been a wretched first third of the season. Zhou Guanyu's 11th-place finish in the season-opening race in Bahrain is the closest the team has come to scoring a point.

Upgrades are planned over the course of the campaign before development effectively stops at the end of this year; the 2025 car will be nothing more than a subtle evolution of the one that finishes the season due to resources required to prepare for 2026.

Key is aware that in terms of morale, and building towards 2026 on a strong footing, there has to be an upturn in results this year.

"I've always linked internally the 2024 car to 2026. Make a decent job of '24, even if we don't quite get all the results we deserve – as long as we see we've made progress and maintained a competitive level with teams we know are bigger than us," said Key.

"It does rely on us getting this right. Just a few points make a massive difference, which is why it's frustrating that we haven't quite got there yet. But, there is an emphasis on this car, and managing morale and so on is very much part of the job for people like me, Andreas, and the other leaders within our team.

"It does help if we can finish on a high with this, and then go into 2025 thinking, 'We can do this'. If we don't, if we continue to have frustrations, then we go into it saying, 'okay, let's learn from that and push on anyway'.

"I'm a glass-half-full person. I always look at the positives.”


Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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