40 years of Sauber Motorsport
Peter Sauber had not shown any particular interest in cars, and none at all in driving them around a track. Indeed, even today he views cars as no more than a means of getting from A to B. And yet Sauber Motorsport is set to celebrate 40 years in the motor racing business. A story which began largely by chance was backed up by impressive perseverance and later driven by the virtues of hard work and considerable skill.
Sauber appeared to have his future mapped out for him. His father owned an electrical engineering company employing around 200 people which had premises in Zurich and on Wildbachstrasse in Hinwil. The young Peter qualified as an electrician with the aim of completing further training before following in his father's footsteps. However, things were to turn out rather differently.
Back in 1967, Sauber used to travel to work in a VW Beetle. That was until a friend talked him into having some tuning work done on the car. Later that year Sauber entered the Beetle in a handful of club races for a bit of fun. Far more importantly, however, the experience sparked his interest in tinkering with cars. Indeed, his modification work on the Beetle reached the point where the car could no longer be registered for road use. This brought Sauber to the next stage in his motor sport career: in 1970 he set himself up as an independent maker of open two-seater racing sports cars. He designed the Sauber C1 in the cellar of his parents' house in Zurich and used the first letter of his wife Christiane's name as the model designation for the car.
The same year he founded PP Sauber AG and moved into a specially built workshop on his father's company's site in Wildbachstrasse. In 1970 he won the Swiss sports car championship with the C1, but soon decided to reduce his appearances at the wheel to occasional competitive outings. In 1974 he pulled on his helmet for the final time, before retiring from the cockpit to focus all his attention on building cars rather than driving them. The "C" was retained as a Sauber trademark.
Sauber had not chosen an easy path to go down; making a living from building racing sports cars in Switzerland seemed like mission impossible. But for Sauber that was no reason to wave the white flag, and he battled on doggedly. Working days often extended deep into the night and money was tight.
It was with the C5, which Herbert Müller drove to victory in the then prestigious Interserie championship in 1976, that Sauber came to international prominence. This was followed by his first attempts at Le Mans, by which time Sauber Motorsport had four employees on the payroll. In 1981 Hans-Joachim Stuck and Nelson Piquet drove a Sauber-built Group 5 BMW M1 to victory in the 1,000-kilometre race at the Nürburgring.
The following year was a defining one for Peter Sauber. He was commissioned by Swiss composite materials specialists Seger & Hoffmann to build a car for the Group C World Sports Car Championship. The result was the Sauber C6. It was during this
period that initial contact was made with Mercedes engineers who were interested in motor sport. The relationship was very much on a private basis, of course, since international motor racing was still a taboo subject at the Stuttgart-based manufacturer following the tragic accident at Le Mans in 1955.
Sauber powered his racing sports cars with Mercedes engines from 1985, bringing the team closer still to Stuttgart. And just a year later Henri Pescarolo and Mike Thackwell drove a Sauber C8 to victory in the 1,000-kilometre race at the Nürburgring. More triumphs followed, eventually persuading Mercedes to return to international motor sport. From 1988 Sauber acted as Mercedes' official works team. The partnership reached its zenith in 1989, a one-two in the legendary Le Mans 24-hour race backed up by the Drivers' and Manufacturers' titles in the World Sports Car Championship. A year later the team repeated its success in the World Sports Car Championship. Sauber Motorsport had now expanded to some 50 employees.
This period also saw the establishment of the junior team, an idea of Sauber's then business partner Jochen Neerpasch. Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger were selected for the team. Peter Sauber helped all three to take the step up into Formula One.
With the luster of the World Sports Car Championship beginning to fade, Mercedes set its sights on Formula One and, in summer 1991, F1 was declared a joint project. Preparations hit full swing and Sauber built a new factory at its premises in Hinwil.
However, bad news was on its way that November. The challenging economic climate at the time caused the Mercedes Board of Management to decide not to enter Formula One with a works team. Sauber was left with two options: pocket the financial settlement and turn its back on racing or use it as start-up capital for its own grand prix operation. In January 1992 Sauber decided to take the plunge, and in autumn that year the C12 completed its first testing session, an Ilmor engine providing the power. By that time the company was employing just under 70 people.
On 14th March 1993, two Sauber C12 racers - piloted by Karl Wendlinger and JJ Lehto - lined up, as planned, on the grid at Kyalami for the South African Grand Prix. The two World Championship points earned by Finnish driver Lehto for fifth place in the race ensured the team's debut was a widely acclaimed success. Contracts signed with Red Bull and Petronas in 1995 gave the Swiss team a solid foundation and allowed it to establish itself as a fixture in Formula One. In 1995 and 1996 Sauber served as the Ford works team, and from 1997 the cars were powered by Ferrari engines and carried the name of title sponsor Petronas.
However, the crucial breakthrough remained elusive. That was until 2001, when three milestones in the team's history arrived in quick succession: the partnership with major Swiss bank Credit Suisse, a fourth-place finish in the F1 Constructors' World Championship in mid-October and, just a few days later, the groundbreaking ceremony for the team's own wind tunnel.
Peter Sauber chose this time to introduce fresh blood into Formula One, bringing Kimi Räikkönen and Felipe Massa into the team. Sauber later recommended Robert Kubica to the powers-that-be at BMW.
In 2005, and now in his early sixties, Peter Sauber decided to explore ways of passing on his life's work into good hands. An offer from BMW appeared to tick the right boxes. The Munich-based manufacturer, who had been working in F1 with Williams since
2000, was keen to line up with its own works team. On 22nd June 2005 BMW announced that it had acquired a majority stake in the Swiss team.
2008 - the third year of the BMW Sauber F1 Team - was the next high point in Sauber's history. The development of the team in Hinwil was now complete and the workforce had grown to over 400. The team set itself the goal for the year of recording their maiden victory. That first win duly arrived in the form of a one-two, Kubica leading Nick Heidfeld across the line in Canada. The BMW Sauber F1 Team notched up a total of 11 podium finishes in 2008. Kubica clinched the team's first pole position in Bahrain and Heidfeld added its first two fastest race laps to the honors board. The team finished the season in third place in the World Championship with 135 points.
A difficult start to 2009 was followed on 29th July by a piece of news that sent shockwaves through the team: at a press conference in Munich BMW announced that it was withdrawing from Formula One at the end of the season. The company bowed out of F1 with 36 points and sixth place in the World Championship in its final season.
The next press conference took place on 27th November 2009, this time in Hinwil. Peter Sauber had reached agreement with BMW and bought the team back from the carmaker. However, the joy was tinged with sadness. Prior to the agreement BMW had decided to reduce the size of the team, and the number of employees was cut from 388 to 260. It was with this slimmed-down workforce that the Hinwil-based team prepared for the 2010 season, powered by engines supplied by Ferrari and with drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Pedro de la Rosa at the wheel.
Facts and figures:
- 1967: Peter Sauber competes in club races with a lightly tuned VW Beetle. - 1970: Sauber sets up PP Sauber AG to build racing sports cars. The same year he becomes Swiss sports car champion with a Sauber C1. - 1976: Herbert Müller wins the prestigious Interserie championship in a C5. This is followed by the first few outings at Le Mans. - 1981: Enters the World Sports Car Championship with the C6. - 1986: A C8 wins the 1,000 km race at the Nürburgring. - 1988: Sauber becomes the Mercedes works team. - 1989: A one-two in the Le Mans 24-hour race with the C9 is followed by victory in the World Sports Car Championship (Drivers' and Manufacturers' titles). - 1990: Wins the World Sports Car Championship again (Drivers' and Manufacturers' titles). - 1993: First race in Formula One - the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami. JJ Lehto finishes fifth in a C12. - Between 1993 and the German GP on 25th July 2010, 21 drivers collected a total of 518 F1 World Championship points for the team from 587 starts. - The only race win so far in the team's history has been the one-two recorded by Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld on 8th June 2008 in Montreal. - The team's best World Championship placing so far has been second in 2007.
This year Sauber Motorsport is celebrating 40 years in motor racing. Swiss businessman and team owner Peter Sauber reflects on some eventful times.
Why did you decide, four decades ago, to go into business building racing sports cars? Switzerland isn't exactly the most popular place to set up this kind of company.
Peter Sauber: "My occasional amateur races in a VW Beetle and the work I used to do on the car brought me into contact with the motor sport community in Switzerland. Within these circles I met a likeminded enthusiast, and together we developed the project for building two-seater racing sports cars. If we'd looked into the economic wisdom of building and selling racing sports cars in Switzerland, there's no way it would have made sense. But luckily the sensible approach doesn't always win the day!"
Was it possible to earn enough money in this business?
PS: "No, it wasn't. Between 1970 and 1978 we built a total of 13 examples of the C1 to C5 models. But that just didn't prove to be economically viable. Building and selling the cars was nowhere near enough. However, we were able to make money by running the cars for wealthy clients."
Were there moments when you were tempted to throw in the towel?
PS: "Oh yes, there were a lot of those! The first ten years were especially difficult, as we weren't just lacking the financial resources but also the people we needed. We were pushing our limits physically as well. There were many occasions when we worked late into the night. The Le Mans 24-hour race was particularly grueling; with all the preparations for the race, you barely slept for a week. If you then had to watch the cars drop out mid-way through the race, it would finish you off both physically and mentally. More than once I called my wife from Le Mans and said to her: That's it, I've had enough now."
That idea never lasted for long, though…
PS: "No, we always kept going. I was aware from the outset that it was extremely difficult - for a whole variety of reasons - to make a living from building racing cars in Switzerland. What always drove me on, though, was the determination not to concede defeat in the face of an almost insurmountable challenge."
How did you work in those days? Who designed the cars and who built them?
PS: "We started out as a two-man operation. With the C1, which we built in the cellar of my parents' house, we started out with a pretty good idea. The basis for this racing car was a Brabham Formula 3 machine, including the engine and gearbox, for which we designed a new two-seater chassis and bodywork. The C1 was much better than the cars it was racing against. That was how I managed to win the Swiss sports car championship in 1970. I certainly wasn't a particularly talented driver."
How did things go from there?
PS: "The C2 was created according to the same principle, but for the C3 we designed every part ourselves. Like its two predecessors, it was based on a tubular frame. By then there were four of us working together, one of whom was a friend from school who was studying engineering at the time. He was responsible for the design and I did the soldering and welding. With the C4 and C5 we used an aluminum monocoque - which we also made ourselves - for the first time. From the C3 onwards Paucoplast were responsible for building the body, and the company is still doing work for us today. It was a very intense time."
And then the partnership with Mercedes-Benz gradually took shape.
PS: "Yes, it began in 1984 and was a very delicate matter to start with. Motor sport was still a taboo subject at Mercedes back then, with the serious accident at Le Mans in 1955 still weighing heavily. So a dedicated group of Mercedes engineers helped us out in their free time until we became the official works team of Mercedes-Benz in 1988."
Professor Werner Niefer played a particularly prominent role here.
PS: "Professor Niefer was Chairman of the Board at the time and a real old-school businessman - of the sort you struggle to find in large companies nowadays. Back then I worked with Mercedes without a contract; I shook hands with Professor Niefer, and that was worth more than any piece of paper with signatures scrawled on it."
What was the story with the Silver Arrows?
PS: "In March 1989 the Sauber-Mercedes C9 cars, with their dark blue paintwork, were all ready for their first race at Suzuka. Professor Niefer wanted the cars painted silver, but there was a lot of resistance among his colleagues on the Board, for whom our prospects of success were too uncertain. Professor Niefer asked me to paint a model car silver and bring it to the Geneva Motor Show, where the key meeting was due to take place. Things were not moving very fast, but then he suddenly put his arm around my shoulder, took me aside and said: "They're all such scaredy-cats. Change the color!" The cars were duly repainted, but it was all very cloak-and-dagger. This was the rebirth of the Silver Arrows. We celebrated a one-two at Suzuka, won the Manufacturers' and Drivers' titles in the World Sports Car Championship and crossed the line first and second at Le Mans as well. So we repaid his faith in us."
What would you say has been the best period you've had over the 40 years?
PS: "Off the top of my head I'm tempted to say the successful time with Mercedes. But when I think back now, the 18 years in Formula One are right up there, of course. I don't really want to single out any particular period of time; the whole 40 years have been amazing, and the difficult moments are all part of that."
You brought Mercedes-Benz back into motor sport and provided BMW with the platform to line up as a works team in Formula One. Are you proud of what you've achieved?
PS: "Yes, definitely. I'm also proud that I achieved this from Switzerland. After all, these are two big German companies with long histories. In 2005 the German automobile association, the ADAC, presented me with an award in recognition of my achievements, so it isn't as if it went totally unnoticed."
What have been the sporting highlights of your career?
PS: "In the 'old days' I would certainly say winning the Manufacturers' and Drivers' titles in the World Sports Car Championship in 1989 and the one-two in the Le Mans 24 Hours. More recently, the highlight would have to be Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld's one-two in the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal."
And the low points?
PS: "Without doubt the serious accident suffered by Karl Wendlinger in Monaco in 1994, which left him in a coma for 19 days, and Robert Kubica's horrific crash in Montreal in 2007. In the end, both accidents had a happy ending. Robert is still competing in Formula One, of course, and Karl continues to race GT sports cars. I'm very thankful that they are able to do so."
How do you hope the future will work out?
PS: "I'd like to lead the team back into a secure position and establish it at a good level from a racing point of view. If I can manage that, it will be a case of mission accomplished for me."
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