Tales of the unexpected
Peter Sauber had never been particularly interested in cars, and motor racing didn’t do anything for him at all. The fact that, in 2010, Sauber was able to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Sauber Motorsport had a lot to do with chance in the early days, but afterwards it was down to sheer perseverance and, later on, a good deal of hard graft and skill.
Sauber’s father owned a company for electrical systems which employed around 200 staff and had premises in Zurich as well as on Wildbachstrasse in Hinwil. Sauber’s career path seemed to be mapped out. He trained as an electrical fitter with the aim of gaining further qualifications and following in his father’s footsteps. But it would all turn out rather differently.
In 1967 Sauber used to drive to work every day in a VW Beetle – until a friend persuaded him to have some tuning work done. For a bit of fun he then entered it in a few club races in 1967. Far more significantly, it sparked his passion for tinkering with cars. He modified his Beetle to such an extent that eventually it was no longer fit for road use. This led to the next stage in Sauber’s career: in 1970 he decided to set himself up as an independent builder of open two-seater racing sports cars. Out of the cellar of his parents’ home in Zurich emerged the Sauber C1. He used the first name of his wife Christiane as the model designation.
That same year, he set up PP Sauber AG and moved into a specially built workshop on his premises of his father’s company in Wildbachstrasse. With the C1 he won the 1970 Swiss sports car championship, but soon whittled things down to the occasional appearance as a racing driver. In 1974 he donned his helmet for the last time before turning his full attention to car construction. The “C” was retained as a trademark.
It wasn’t the easiest of tasks Sauber had set himself: surviving on constructing racing sports cars in Switzerland seemed a doomed prospect. But he would not be deterred and was determined to battle on. The working day often stretched deep into the night and money was in short supply.
Sports car successes
Sauber achieved international prominence with the C5 in which Herbert Müller won the then acclaimed Interserie championship in 1976. That was followed by his first forays at Le Mans. By this time Sauber Motorsport had four employees on the payroll. In 1981 Hans-Joachim Stuck and Nelson Piquet won the Nürburgring 1000-kilometre race in a Sauber-built Group 5 BMW M1.
The following year was a decisive one for Sauber. He was commissioned by Swiss composite materials manufacturer Seger & Hoffmann to build a car for the Group C World Sports Car Championship: it was to become the Sauber C6. During this time he made contact with engineers at Mercedes who expressed an interest in motor sport – though all very much at a private level, as international motor sport had been an unmentionable subject for the Stuttgart carmaker since the tragic accident at Le Mans in 1955.
In 1985 Sauber began fitting Mercedes engines into his racing sports cars, moving that bit closer to the Stuttgart company. Just a year later, Henri Pescarolo and Mike Thackwell won the Nürburgring 1000 Kilometres in a Sauber C8. Further triumphs were to follow, ultimately prompting Mercedes’ comeback to international motor racing. From 1988, Sauber and his crew acted as Mercedes’ official works team. Professor Werner Niefer, Chairman of Mercedes at the time, decided the cars should be painted silver, marking the revival of the famed “Silver Arrows”. The highlight of this partnership was the year 1989, which brought not only the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles in the World Sports Car Championship, but a one-two result in the legendary Le Mans 24-hour race as well. The following year saw a repeat win of the World Championship title. Sauber Motorsport had grown to a workforce of 50.
It was also during this time that the junior team was set up, based on an idea of Sauber’s business partner of the time, Jochen Neerpasch. The drivers selected were Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger. Peter Sauber paved the way for all three to enter Formula One.
With the lustre of the World Sports Car Championship beginning to fade, Mercedes now looked to Formula One. In the summer of 1991 it was declared a joint project, and preparations went into full swing. Sauber set about building a new factory on the company site in Hinwil.
However, that November brought with it bad news. Due to the straitened economic climate, the Mercedes board had decided against sending a works team into Formula One. Sauber had two options: to accept a financial settlement and withdraw, or to use the money as start-up capital for his own Formula One involvement. In January 1992 he took the plunge, and by autumn the first tests in the C12 were under way, with an Ilmor engine providing power. The company was then employing just under 70 staff.
On 14th March 1993, according to plan, two Sauber C12 cars driven by Karl Wendlinger and JJ Lehto lined up for the South African Grand Prix. With two World Championship points for fifth place claimed by the Finnish driver, this debut turned out an acclaimed success. Contracts signed with Red Bull and Petronas in 1995 provided a solid foundation and enabled the Swiss team to establish itself as a firm fixture in Formula One. In 1995 and 1996 Sauber served as the works team for Ford, and from 1997 onwards the cars were powered by Ferrari engines bearing the name of the title sponsor Petronas.
But the breakthrough was some time in coming. Finally, in 2001, three high points in the team’s history arrived in rapid succession: the partnership with major Swiss bank Credit Suisse, fourth place in the Constructors’ World Championship secured in mid-October and, just a few days later, the ground breaking ceremony for the team’s very own wind tunnel.
Sauber also decided to introduce some fresh blood into Formula One at this time, signing up Kimi Räikkönen and Felipe Massa to his team and later recommending Robert Kubica to the decision-makers at BMW.
Two thousand and five saw Peter Sauber on the lookout for a new engine partner. Now in his sixties, he was not disinclined to pass his life’s work on into capable hands. An offer from BMW seemed like a good solution. The car manufacturer, which had been involved in Formula One with Williams since 2000, was keen to set up its own works team. On 22nd June 2005, BMW announced its acquisition of a majority stake in the Swiss team.
The 2008 season – the third year of the BMW Sauber F1 Team – would mark the next milestone in the history of the team. The extension at Hinwil had in the meantime been completed and the workforce had crossed the 400 threshold. The team’s target for that year was to achieve its maiden victory – which turned out to be a one-two, with Robert Kubica winning in Canada ahead of Nick Heidfeld. In all, the BMW Sauber F1 Team notched up 11 podium places in 2008. Kubica claimed the team’s first pole position in Bahrain and Heidfeld boosted the statistics with the first two fastest race laps. The team ended the World Championship in third place with 135 points.
Following a challenging start to the 2009 season, shock news broke on 29th July: at a press conference in Munich, BMW announced it was withdrawing from Formula One at the end of the season. The company bowed out with 36 points and sixth place in the World Championship.
The next press conference would be held on 27th November 2009, this time in Hinwil. Peter Sauber had reached an agreement with BMW and bought back his life’s work. But the joy was tempered by disappointment as BMW had already decided to reduce the workforce. Employee numbers were whittled down from 388 to 260. It was with this pared-down workforce, with Ferrari as engine partner and drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Pedro de la Rosa that the Hinwil team embarked on the 2010 race season.
The first half of the season was marred by numerous retirements for technical reasons, which were unprecedented in the team’s history. After the first eight races, the team had a single World Championship point to its name. By the end of the season this had risen to 44, of which Kobayashi had picked up 32, with De la Rosa and Heidfeld – who replaced the Spaniard for the last five Grands Prix – each contributing six points.
The 2011 Season
The team hired another rookie, Sergio Pérez, for the 2011 season. The Mexican’s arrival meant Kobayashi would have to take on leadership responsibilities in only his second full season on the F1 grid. The year began with the team getting to grips with the tyres developed by the new sole F1 supplier Pirelli, completing a promising programme of winter testing and jetting off for an opening race in which a strong team performance ultimately gave way to frustration. Pérez and Kobayashi crossed the finish line seventh and eighth in Melbourne, only to be subsequently disqualified after a rear wing element was deemed to have contravened the rules. The team lost the ten points its performance had earned, but consolation arrived in the knowledge that the necessary speed was there. Strong showings duly followed in the next few races. In Monaco, for example, Pérez had just made it through to the top-ten qualifying shootout for the first time when he lost control of the C30 on the exit from the high-speed tunnel section and slammed into the barriers with devastating force. The Mexican youngster was initially motionless in the car. After what felt like an eternity the news came through that he had got away with severe concussion. Kobayashi went on to show great mental strength to finish fifth in the race, the best result of the season for the Sauber F1 Team. Pérez also had to sit out the next race in Canada, with De la Rosa taking his place at short notice.
After a good first half to the season, which saw the team occupying what looked like a safe sixth place in the Constructors’ World Championship, the team endured a drop in form. The cause of the downturn was rooted in a controversial technology: diffusers fed by the car’s exhaust flow, even – thanks to sophisticated engine mapping – when the driver is off the throttle. The FIA announced a ban on the practice, only to subsequently reverse its decision. In the meantime, the team had stopped development of an “outboard blown” diffuser for the C30, which put it at a disadvantage against rival teams still running the technology. Despite this handicap of well over a second per lap, the young drivers still managed to add to the team’s World Championship points haul. The Sauber F1 Team eventually finished seventh in the Constructors’ Championship on 44 points. Kobayashi was responsible for 30 of those, with Pérez recording 14 points. Both Kobayashi and Pérez, together with Mexican reserve driver, Esteban Gutiérrez, were confirmed for the 2012 season as early as the summer.
The 2012 Season
The Sauber F1 Team lined up for 2012 with the unchanged pairing of Pérez and Kobayashi in the race seats. And the season began strongly, Pérez coming home eighth and Kobayashi sixth at the opening race in Melbourne. But that was only the start; even greater excitement was to follow in Malaysia, where Pérez delivered a sensational performance in fluctuating weather conditions. A clever tactical move in the early stages saw him make up a number of places, and the Mexican driver was subsequently the fastest man on a wet, then merely damp and finally drying track. Moving up into second place, he even put the race leader – Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso – under pressure before briefly running wide and losing critical seconds. Second was still an outstanding result, though, and, most of all, it underlined what an excellent car the team had developed in the Sauber C31-Ferrari.
The next highlight of the season was not long in coming. Pérez qualified 15th for the Canadian GP, but a well thought-out strategy and the Mexican’s ability to look after his tyres allowed him to work his way up to third – giving him and the team their second podium of the season at this still early stage.
The low point of the season came at Spa. The weekend had begun perfectly; Kobayashi secured second place on the grid, with Pérez starting immediately behind him. However, the race had barely begun when both the Sauber cars were involved in the same collision caused by a rival driver. Their race was ruined and the disappointment was immense.
However, compensation for the Sauber F1 Team arrived just a week later in Monza, Pérez providing further evidence of his tyre-preserving prowess. The Mexican cut through the field like a hot knife through butter – most notably in the latter stages of the race after taking on more fresh rubber – to wrap up another second place. The final highlight of the season came courtesy of Kobayashi in his home Grand Prix at Suzuka. The Japanese star had already qualified third to send his compatriots into raptures. Then he also made a fine start to the race, cementing his position at the business end of the field. Going into the final quarter of the race he came under increasing pressure from the ever-closing Jenson Button, but the local hero held firm to set the seal on his first podium finish in Formula One. For many in the team, the podium ceremony provided the season with its most emotional moment.
It was a very good year for the Sauber F1 Team, headlined by four podium finishes, 126 World Championship points and sixth place in the constructors’ standings – a position higher once again than the previous year and an achievement that earned the praise of many outside observers.
Handing over the reins
The 11th October 2012 marked a milestone in the history of the team – the day when Sauber stepped down as Team Principal and passed on the baton to Kaltenborn.
Only three teams on this year’s grid – Ferrari, McLaren and Williams – have been in Formula One longer than Sauber. Between 1993 and 2012 a total of 22 drivers lined up for the Swiss team in 346 Grands Prix.