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Why an axed McLaren technical director is joining Sauber's pre-Audi build up

Alfa Romeo has made an important hire ahead of their transition to Audi, but why have they gone with an ex-McLaren technical director?

Another part of the F1 technical merry-go-round fell into place with the signing of James Key to Alfa Romeo. A sought-after engineer that was once described as the next Adrian Newey by AlphaTauri Team Principal Franz Tost, the British engineer was credited with playing a big part in Toro Rosso's regular points-scoring form in 2015/16 due to his chassis designs. Key joins Alfa Romeo having been axed from his role at McLaren, after the team inadvertently put their poor start to 2023 down to his technical leadership. While it's true that McLaren has failed to maintain their pre-2022 form, with just a single podium for Lando Norris at Imola in the last 26 races, the team has been side-tracked by numerous infrastructure projects and limitations. Key was the main guy that oversaw their technical direction, which ultimately led to them missing important targets at the start of the season. So why has Alfa Romeo elected to hire the axed technical boss?

Sauber looks to future with Audi

The timing of the move is not a coincidence given that former McLaren man, Andreas Seidl, also left the team at the start of the year to join the Hinwil squad as their CEO. This is largely in preparation for their switch to becoming the Audi factory team from 2026, the foundations of which have been quietly put together in the background. Both him and Key joined the team around the same time at the beginning of 2019, and were the main figureheads who set about upgrading McLaren's infrastructure as it was out of date compared to their rivals. While Sauber is not having to wait to start using a new wind tunnel and other important facilities, they are still having to go through a restructure ahead of Audi's arrival. Audi has already admitted that it faces difficulty hiring staff from top outfits such as Red Bull , so with Key they have managed to bring in an experienced figurehead. Whether or not he is the right one remains to be seen, as he was never considered to be part of Newey's disciples at their main team during his days at Toro Rosso.

Alfa Romeo must find ways to exploit their car's strengths

Much like McLaren, since the start of 2023 Alfa Romeo has also struggled to match their form since the start of the new rule era. The team brought one of the lightest cars on the grid at the start of last season, and by the end of it they finished sixth in the Constructors' Championship - ahead of Aston Martin. Alfa Romeo did spend a lot of their wind tunnel allowance for 2023 exploring radical changes to their car to stay in the battle for points. But when you look at the improved reliability of others and Aston Martin's pace, the shortcomings of the C43 has often left the team vulnerable in the races. "We don't have any specific corners that we're struggling. If you look in Melbourne and Baku, we were struggling on the straights, but we struggle in the corners as well everywhere," said Head of Trackside Engineering, Xevi Pujolar. "That's the area where we are pushing the envelope [the most] in all areas. But not only with the car, but also with operations with the drivers, everything at the moment is very tight." The appointment of Key together with Seidl and their experience heading McLaren's resurgence between the 2019-21 seasons, could enable Alfa Romeo to unlock the hidden pace in what should be a competitive chassis in the short term.

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