24 Hours of Le MansFormula 1

40 years of Sauber Motorsport: A Brief History

5 Mins read

Eagle-eyed viewers of last weekend’s German Grand Prix will have spotted – between shots of an unhappy Felipe Massa, an uncomfortable Fernando Alonso, and Stefano Domenicali trying to plead innocence – that the cars of Pedro de la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi bore inscriptions celebrating 40-years of Sauber motorsport

At a grand prix weekend that will long be remembered for those Ferrari team orders, Sauber marked an impressive milestone in their history – one that started in Switzerland with the young Peter Sauber.

Sauber’s father owned an electrical engineering company, employing around 200 people, with premises in Zurich and Hinwil. Peter qualified as an electrician and looked set to follow in his father’s footsteps, until in 1967 a friend persuaded him to tune the engine of the VW Beetle that he drove to work everyday.

After entering this souped-up motor in a handful of club races, Sauber’s interest in tinkering with cars was born. The modification work on the Beetle reached a point where the car was no longer road legal. Then, in 1970, he set himself up as an independent maker of open two-seater sports cars.

The Sauber C1 was designed in the cellar of his parents’ house in Zurich. The “C” in the model name was the first letter of his wife Christiane’s name – a designation still used today for the C29 driven by Kobayashi and de la Rosa.

Later that year he moved to a specially build workshop on this father’s company’s site in Wildbachstrasse, Hinwil and won the Swiss sports car championship with the C1.

Peter Sauber was soon limiting the number of appearances he made in the cockpit of his cars, preferring instead to design rather than race. In 1974 he hung up his helmet.

Switzerland is not very tolerant towards motor racing, and would not be first choice of someone attempting to set up a business which built and raced sports cars. However, the didn’t stop Sauber for persevering: “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,” said Sauber, reflecting on his decision 40 years ago. “But luckily the sensible approach doesn't always win the day!”

Money was tight for the team, but with the C5, which Herbert Müller drove to victory in the then prestigious Interserie championship in 1976, Sauber Motorsport received international recognition. This was followed by the team’s first attempt at Le Mans, when they employed just four people.

Peter Sauber reveals that in there were moments, especially in the early stages, when he was tempted to just give up. “There were a lot of those [moments]!”, he said. “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 gruelling; 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.”

However, Sauber stuck at it, and in 1981 Hans-Joachim Stuck and Nelson Piquet drove aSauber-built Group 5 BMW M1 to victory in the 1,000-kilometre race at the Nürburgring. The following year he was commissioned by Swiss company Seger & Hoffman to build a car for the World Sports Car Championship – the Sauber C6.

During this period contact was made with Mercedes engineers who were interested in motorsport at a time when the it was a taboo subject at the Suttgart-based company following the 1955 Le Mans accident. Sauber powered his cars with Mercedes engines from 1985 and after a number of triumphs Mercedes were persuaded to return to international motorsport.

From 1988 Sauber were Mercedes official works teams, and in 1989 they achieved a one-two in the Le Mans 24-hour race and both the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ titles in the World Sports Car Championship – a feat repeated the following year. By this points Sauber Motorsport had some 50 employees.

In summer of 1991 Mercedes turned its sights towards Formula 1, and began a joint project with Sauber. A new factory was build at Hinwil before an economic downturn forced the German motor company to reconsider. This left Sauber with a choice: pocket the settlement from Mercedes, or go it alone at the pinnacle of motor racing.

Of course, Sauber entered F1. On 14th March 1993, two Sauber C12 cars – driven by Karl Wendlinger and JJ Lehto- where on the grid at Kyalami for the South African Grand Prix. Lehto went on to take fifth place, earning the team two points in its debut outing.

By 1995, contracts with Red Bull and Petronas had allowed the team to become an established name in F1 and the team grew in strength. In the 2001 season they were placed fourth in the constructors’ championship.

Sauber also helped introduce some household names into F1. He gave Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa their first drives in the sport, and recommended Robert Kubica to BMW.

Then on 22nd June 2005, Sauber handed control of his team to BMW. Thanks to McLaren’s expulsion from the championship in 2007, the record books will shows that BMW Sauber came runners up to Ferrari in that year.

By 2008 the workforce had grown to over 400, and at Canada that year Robert Kubica led Nick Heidfeld to a one-two finish – BMW Sauber first, and so far only, win in Formula 1. The team finished the season third in the Constructors’ standings.

However, 2009 started badly for the team, and on 29th July BMW announced that they would be leaving Formula 1 at the end of the season. Peter Sauber agreed to take control of the team back from BMW, arranged a supply of engines from Ferrari, and recruited Kamui Kobayashi and Pedro de la Rosa as drivers – 40 years on from that cellar in Zurich.

Of those forty years, what are the high points for the eponymous Sauber owner?

“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,” said Sauber. “More recently, the highlight would have to be Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld's one-two in the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal.”

Peter Sauber also singles out two accidents which count as the low points of those four decades: “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.”

As Sauber Motorsport enters its fifth decade in Hungary this weekend, Peter Sauber had reasonably modest ambitions for his team. “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,” he said. “If I can manage that, it will be a case of mission accomplished for me.”

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