Nobuharu Matsushita: Frederic Vasseur’s bargaining tool for the 2018 Sauber-Honda engine deal

With relations between Sauber and Honda seemingly breaking down, Chris Soulsby looks at Nobuharu Matsushita, who could become a bargaining tool to keep the 2018 deal alive.

After Monisha Kaltenborn left Sauber “by mutual consent” prior to the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, former Renault team principal Ferderic Vasseur has been named as her successor, where he will also undertake the role of Managing Director and CEO of Sauber Motorsport AG. Due to Vasseur’s other connections in motorsport however, could his name at Sauber pave the way for Formula 2 driver Nobuharu Matsushita to join the team?

Nobuharu Matsushita: Frederic Vasseur’s bargaining tool for the 2018 Sauber-Honda engine deal

This may be a feasible suggestion, especially because of the current situation at Sauber regarding its new engine supplier in Honda for 2018, although recent speculation has suggested that the deal may be off due to the departure of Kaltenborn, a disagreement between the former principal and the team’s owners in Longbow Finance, or even because the deal was never finalised in the first place.

In his long and distinguished career, Frederic Vasseur has been involved in a number of motorsport projects and with a number of teams, one of which is ART Grand Prix – a team that he founded in 2004 alongside Nicholas Todt. After 13 years of competition, ART still remain as a competitive team, and currently compete in Formula 2 (once GP2) and the GP3 Series – series that have seen a number of talented drivers step up to Formula 1 including Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Esteban Ocon, and Stoffel Vandoorne.

Their current driver lineup is an impressive one, with Sergey Sirotkin, Alexander Albon, Jack Aitken, George Russell, Anthoine Hubert, Nirei Fukuzumi, and, most interestingly, Nobuharu Matsushita.

Out of this long list of talented drivers however, why is Matsushita the most interesting name among them? It is because of his ties with Honda and the situation with Honda and Sauber, and of course, Frederic Vasseur who has recently joined the team.

An issue between Sauber and Honda seems to be emerging, and Sauber is a team that cannot afford to spend another season (or multiple seasons) drifting around at the back of the pack in Formula 1 as they are in 2017 and have done since 2014. A Sauber-Honda partnership offers the Swiss team a fresh start and also, reportedly, a cheaper engine deal, which is why Sauber cannot afford to let the deal go and spend another season using one year old Ferrari engines, despite the clear power disadvantage that Honda have when compared to the rest of the field.

By becoming the new team principal of Sauber, it is perhaps Frederic Vasseur’s job to make sure that this deal follows through and ensure that the team has Honda power behind it in 2018. Due to his ties with ART Grand Prix, Nobuharu Matsushita being an ART driver, and Honda backing Matsushita in its current collaboration with McLaren, the driver could act as a key part of the engine deal for 2018 and could be a point of leverage for Vasseur to bargain with.

It is without doubt that Honda would like to see a Japanese driver that it backs behind the wheel of a Japanese powered car in Formula 1. But is Matsushita good enough to compete in the top tier of motorsport?

Matsushita started competing in GP2 in 2015, which since become Formula 2 for 2017. In this time, he has had a best championship result of ninth in his rookie season while 2016 was more difficult when he ended the season in 11th. Currently in F2, he lies in sixth place in the championship. Among these average championship results come average race results, although he has won three races in the series in the Hungarian, Monaco, and Spanish rounds, along with four other podiums over his three years in the series with ART Grand Prix.

In lower tiers of motorsport, namely in Asia, Matushita has excelled, having won Formula Challenge Japan and All-Japan Formula 3 in 2012 and 2014, taking an impressive number of wins and an equally impressive number of podiums in both series.

The biggest issue for Matsushita joining Formula 1 as a possible Sauber driver in 2018 is gaining a super licence, which is something that the driver is currently far from achieving. Only a top three finish in the Formula 2 Championship this year would qualify him for a licence, and this is something that will be difficult to achieve due to the domination of the series by Charles Leclerc and the seemingly locked out remaining podium places that are currently held by Oliver Rowland and Artem Markelov.

Alternatively, Matsushita could be handed a super licence by showing “outstanding ability in single-seater formula cars” and completing 190 miles behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car. With the lack of a testing role however, this would also be difficult to achieve.

Ultimately, Matsushita could be a very handy bargaining tool for Frederic Vasseur to secure the Sauber-Honda engine deal for 2018, however, before this can be considered, Matsushita needs to qualify for a super licence. Although it looks unlikely, the current Formula 2 season is far from over, and Matsushita could improve to secure a top three finish in the series. Only time will tell however, if this is something that he is able to do, and if he can qualify for a Sauber drive in 2018.

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