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.