Peter Sauber reflects: 40 years in motorsport

Peter Sauber

Peter Sauber will be celebrating 40 years in motorsport at the German GP

Jul.15 (Grand Prix 247) This year, at the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim on 25 July 2010, Sauber Motorsport will be celebrating 40 years in motor racing. Swiss businessman and team owner Peter Sauber reflects on some eventful times over the past four decades.

A Mercedes-Benz team portrait for the beginning of a new season  including: Jean-Louis Schlesser (FRA) (Front, left); Jochen Mass (GER)  (Behind); Karl Wendlinger (AUT) (Front, right); Michael Schumacher (GER)  (Behind to left); team manager Peter Sauber (Centre). Sportscar World  Championship, Suzuka, Japan, 14 April 1991.

The Sauber run Mercedes sportscar team of 1991: Jean-Louis Schlesser, Jochen Mass, Karl Wendlinger, Michael Schumacher and team manager Peter Sauber

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?
Sauber: “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.”

Andrea DeCesaris (ITA) Sauber Mercedes C13 European Grand Prix, Jerez, Spain 16 October 1994

Andrea De Cesaris drives the Sauber Mercedes C13 at the 1994 European GP in Jerez

Were there moments when you were tempted to throw in the towel?
Sauber: “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 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.”

That idea never lasted for long, though…
Sauber: “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.”

JJ Lehto (FIN), Sauber Ilmor C12, retired after his throttle jammed open. Australian Grand Prix, Rd16, Adelaide, Australia. 7 November 1993.

JJ Lehto drives the Sauber Ilmor C12 in 1993 the team's first year in Formula 1

How did you work in those days? Who designed the cars and who built them?
Sauber: “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?
Sauber: “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 aluminium 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.”

Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes-Benz C11 finished second.  Sportscar World Championship, Dijon-Prenois, France, 22 July 1990.

Michael Schumacher drives the Sauber run Mercedes-Benz C11 in the Dijon round of the 1990 Sportscar World Championship

And then the partnership with Mercedes-Benz gradually took shape.
Sauber: “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.
Sauber: “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.”

Tuesday, 20 January 2009  Peter Sauber (Advisor BMW Sauber F1 Team) This image is copyright free for editorial use © BMW AG

Peter Sauber has been involved with BMW and Mercedes at highest level in motorsport

What was the story with the Silver Arrows?
Sauber: “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 colour!’ 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?
Sauber: “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.”

Peter Sauber (SUI) BMW Sauber F1 Team Adviser. Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, European Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Nurburgring, Germany, 6 May 2006.  DIGITAL IMAGE

Peter Sauber as BMW Sauber F1 team adviser in 2006

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?
Sauber: “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?
Sauber: “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.”

(L to R): Pedro De La Rosa (ESP) BMW Sauber with Peter Sauber (SUI) BMW Sauber F1 Team Principal and Kamui Kobayashi (JPN) BMW Sauber and the new BMW Sauber C29. BMW Sauber Launch, Valencia, Spain, Sunday 31 January 2010.

Peter Sauber with his 2010 drivers Pedro De La Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi

And the low points?
Sauber: “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?
Sauber: “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.”