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The Sauber Story at 40 – A Tale of the Unexpected

23 July 2010

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 lustre of the World Sports Car Championship beginning to fade, Mercedes set its sights on F1 and, in summer 1991, it 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 F1 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 14 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 F1. 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 Raikkonen 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 22 June 2005, BMW announced that it had acquired a majority stake in the Swiss team. In 2007, the team finished second in the Constructors' World Championship, and 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 honours 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 F1 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 27 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.


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