2014 Sauber Formula One test driver Giedo van der Garde sued his ex-team to get a drive for this year–and won. Sauber signed drivers who brought more money to the team on top of their already contracted pair, and now Sauber could have their equipment seized if they don't comply with the ruling to let Van der Garde drive.
Sauber apparently made van der Garde a promise they had no intention of keeping: a drive for 2015. A real, honest-to-goodness Formula One drive in the races: every test driver's dream. Per RACER, he'd signed a deal to drive for the team in 2015. Then Sauber named Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr as their drivers instead, as they brought more sponsorship dollars to the table. Van der Garde was not pleased.
So, Van der Garde sued the struggling F1 outfit.
According to RACER, Van der Garde initiated the lawsuit after finding out that he had been passed over for the 2015 season. A Swiss arbitration court ruled that Sauber could not deny him the right to drive, which Van der Garde had signed for.
Naturally, the team appealed the ruling, and their appeal was denied. Van der Garde then asked to have the ruling enforced in Australia, moving the venue to Victoria.
Sauber tried to argue that the cars were already set up for two other drivers, and that putting Van der Garde in this late in the season presented a safety hazard. Furthermore, he had not been racing since November, and missed out on training in the new car.
Given the way smaller teams play musical chairs with whoever has enough money for the ride, this line of defense is perhaps the biggest load of BS ever foisted upon some poor, unsuspecting courtroom. Is it ideal to have a driver participate in testing with the car during the offseason and keep his skills up? Sure. That being said, certain teams got no in-car tests done at all, and will still be on the grid for the Australian Grand Prix.
Van der Garde's lawyer, as quoted in RACER, argued that he was "ready, willing and able" to fulfill his end of the deal.
"I'm the fittest ever," Van der Garde told the Herald Sun after the hearing. "I've been training last three months flat out and am looking forward to going back to the team. I had a very good relationship and I still have a very good relationship with the team."
Sauber just needed to get him in the car.
At this hearing, a lawyer for Ericsson and Nasr voiced their concerns that the drivers would face legal action if they drove and deprived Van der Garde of a seat. According to F1 journalist Adam Cooper, the judge actually laughed at this assertion, saying that such a thing would only happen "at the far reaches of the galaxy." Glad to know intergalactic space justice is still mega-shady, Judge.
According to NBC Sports, Sauber also argued that it would take two weeks to get a seat ready for Van der Garde, and that the process of getting a current Formula One superlicense for Van der Garde would take too long.
"I don't see any issue with it," explained Van der Garde to Adam Cooper's F1 Blog about the seat. "Even if they don't have my  seat there, it's done very quickly, in three hours you have a foam seat. I think the mechanics they know very well how to do it, so I don't see any issue with that."
According to Australian reporter Kate Jones, Sauber's explanation of fitting the car to Van der Garde even contradicted the team's own statement from December 3, where they insisted that "driver-specific changes are done quickly."
Needless to say, the courts saw through the BS, too.
The Van der Garde camp has also made several requests to Sauber regarding driver's passes, safety gear and other necessities, all of which have been ignored until now, per Adam Cooper's F1 Blog.
So, once again, the Swiss court's decision was upheld, this time in Australia, where the first race of the season will be held. Per Kate Jones, the court also clarified that this ruling was not just for the Australian Grand Prix, but for the entire 2015 season, as Van der Garde was promised in his original contract with the team.
Time to make a new seat mold (or simply whip out the 2014 one of Van der Garde's buttocks if it still fits the car), adjust the belts and pedal box, and get over it, right?
Nope. Sauber appealed the decision once more, and stuck to their bizarre "safety" argument. "What we cannot do is jeopardize the safety of our team, or any other driver on the track, by having an unprepared driver in a car that has now been tailored to two other assigned drivers." said Team Principal Monisha Kaltenborn in a statement, as quoted by RACER.
The latest appeal took place on Thursday afternoon in Australia. According to Adam Cooper, Sauber initially requested for the appeal to be heard next week, after the first race in Melbourne, but that idea was quickly shot down for obvious reasons.
That Thursday appeal was swiftly dismissed by the Supreme Court of Victoria.
According to NBC Sports, the courts were unable to find any fault in the reasoning of the trial judge in the last case, so now Sauber must figure out a way to allow Van der Garde to drive the car.
Adam Cooper's F1 Blog reports that immediately after the decision on the appeal, Giedo van der Garde's lawyer submitted a Contempt of Court Application, which is based on the fact that Sauber has made no steps towards complying with the original court order to allow Van der Garde to race.
The Contempt of Court action will be heard by the same Australian judge who handled the original case at 10:30 a.m. local time on Friday, a mere two hours before the first practice session. If the court deems that Sauber has not been in compliance with the ruling, then they will probably issue a sequestration order.
A sequestration order could mean bad news for everyone involved, including Van der Garde, as it could lead to the seizure of Sauber's assets in Australia ahead of the race. Van der Garde's lawyer requested a detailed list of Sauber's equipment and its location, just in case.
Team Principal Monisha Kaltenborn in particular could be in trouble, according to Adam Cooper's F1 Blog. Should the order continue to be ignored, Van der Garde's lawyer hinted that a last-resort action may include a prison sentence for the team principal.
Will it come to that? We're not sure. Someone, somewhere tossed Giedo van der Garde a paddock pass, as he's roaming the track this morning, according to Adam Cooper.
One hang-up: a superlicense
There is one significant practical issue that could hold up Van der Garde's ability to drive: his lack of a Formula One superlicense for the 2015 season. However, the courts have been clear that this is something Sauber should have applied for, knowing full and well that they had a contract signed with Van der Garde.
First of all, that's a big part of the issue: the process for getting a superlicense. According to Adam Cooper's F1 Blog, drivers don't apply for them on their own. Their team applies for the superlicense through the driver's national sporting authority. Of course, because Sauber made a deal that they didn't intend to keep with Van der Garde, they didn't bother to get him a superlicense, either.
The FIA Contracts Recognition Board oversees the superlicense, and they must be satisfied with the legality of it all before a superlicense is approved as well. Unfortunately for Van der Garde, Sauber won't just do him a favor on this and help him fast-track a new contract. Per Adam Cooper's F1 Blog, Monisha Kaltenborn wrote the CRB in late February to terminate the contract they had on file for Van der Garde after his legal action had been initiated.
Stall, stall, stall. Reactivating a contract takes longer, so this vital delay could keep Sauber from giving Van der Garde his legally-owed seat.
Van der Garde was optimistic Thursday that he would be able to get the superlicense in time anyway. Superlicenses have been fast-tracked on occasion, and Van der Garde saw his as no different.
"Everything is in place, everything is there, the application," Van der Garde told Adam Cooper's F1 Blog. "I don't see any issues with the paperwork on my side. Sauber just has to push it."
While Van Der Garde has already contacted Dutch authorities at the KNAF (his national racing authority) to let them know of the situation, he still needs Sauber to sign off on it.
Unfortunately, the CRB canned this optimism Friday morning. Adam Cooper's F1 Blog said that there is "virtually no chance" for the superlicense to be granted today, given the circumstances. Sauber did not write the CRB to reactivate their contract with Van der Garde, despite the court rulings stating that Van der Garde must drive for them. The ruling itself is evidence for the CRB that Van der Garde's original contract is still valid, however, Sauber's lack of approval has complicated that immensely, and it will take more time for that superlicense to be granted, even if it were to be fast-tracked through the process.
Consequently, the seizure of Sauber's assets is looking more and more likely, as this inaction suggests a definite breach of their responsibilities as a team to Van der Garde. Unless something miraculous happens in the next few hours, we may see no Saubers on track at all.
Are more lawsuits on the way?
For better or for worse, I think so.
Sauber wasn't exactly above-board with their hirings and firings during this year's silly season. According to Adam Cooper's F1 Blog, Adrian Sutil had one year left on a two-year contract after 2015, and even back in November, it was believed that Van der Garde had signed on for 2015 as well.
Adrian Sutil found out from the news that Sauber had hired two other drivers for 2015, neither of which were him. No one at Sauber bothered to tell Sutil he was out of a drive for this year until they already announced their other two drivers. Now that Van der Garde's lawsuit was successful, there are rumors of Adrian Sutil following suit.
The other ex-Sauber driver from 2014, Esteban Gutiérrez, landed on his feet with a test drive at Ferrari. Sutil, on the other hand, appears to have found out about his surprise-canning from Sauber too late to line anything else up.
Of course, there's also the case of Nasr and Ericsson. Whoever gets nudged aside for Van der Garde likely won't be happy about that, and neither will any team sponsors that they brought with them. As a team, you don't fulfill your end of a sponsorship contract if your cars get locked up by a bailiff. The precedent has been set that you can blow a big legal hole in Sauber's agreements with its drivers.
Moral of the story? Don't promise race drives to more drivers than you have seats.
Ericsson and Nasr may have come with big budgets that could help prop up the team in light of the rising costs to participate in Formula One, but it's not worth the legal mess the resulted from ignoring existing contracts with current drivers.
UPDATE [7:39 PM EDT]: According to F1 Paddock Pass, Sauber is now rushing to the FIA to apply for a driver change. Giedo van der Garde will drive Marcus Ericsson's car. Van der Garde was last spotted being fitted for a seat in the Sauber, which will in no way, shape, or form take two weeks to complete.
UPDATE #2 [7:44 PM EDT]: Or not. F1 Paddock Pass reported that Van der Garde will not have a superlicense in time for Australia and that preparations are being made for him to drive in Malaysia instead. Likewise, Van der Garde's lawyer said that Sauber confirmed last night that it terminated Van der Garde's contract legally with the CRB, according to Adam Cooper.
Van der Garde is reportedly roaming the paddock in Ericsson's overalls, however:
Will going through the motions now still be enough to satisfy the courts, despite the lack of a superlicense? I suppose we'll find out in several hours.
UPDATE #3 [10:07 PM EDT]: Here is the section in the Contempt of Court action that allows for possible prison time for Kaltenborn should the courts decide to act on it:
The full text of this section can be found here.
If you were wondering about Van der Garde's paddock pass earlier today, Sky Sports F1 commentator Ted Kravitz stated that it was not provided by Sauber. Additionally, the team refused to issue one to him when he arrived at the Melbourne circuit. Per mega-awesome-aggregator-of-all-things-motosport Twitter account BaronVonClutch, reports state that Van der Garde has been hanging out at an FIA office near race control, not at Sauber's hospitality suite.
UPDATE #4 [11:54 PM EDT]: Sauber did not participate in Free Practice 1 with any drivers. The final court ruling on the Contempt of Court action will be postponed from its original 3:15 PM AEDT start time:
UPDATE #5 [1:21 AM EDT]: Monisha Kaltenborn was just shown leaving the circuit on Sky Sports' Formula One Free Practice 2 broadcast. She was scheduled to attend a team principals' meeting later in the day, but when asked if she was attending, she responded, "No comment." "No comment" was also her answer as to whether the team would participate in Free Practice 2.
According to the BBC's live-blog of Free Practice 1, Nasr and Ericsson (not Van der Garde) sat in their cars for the entirety of the session, waiting for a go-ahead to run that never came.
The final court ruling is expected to happen any minute now. Bored in the meantime? The past court judgements that took place in Australia can be watched here, thanks to the Supreme Court of Victoria. [H/T Also_Ran!]
UPDATE #6 [1:36 AM EDT]: Sky Sports just reported seeing Kaltenborn in the Sauber hospitality suite despite showing earlier footage that looked like she left the circuit. The proceedings for the Contempt of Court are about to start off-site, without her and Van der Garde present, per Adam Cooper. As for whether Sauber will participate in FP2, Felipe Nasr headed out of the garage first thing, with Ericsson (not Van der Garde) following him shortly afterwards.
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