Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler: BlackJack’sBriefs
As with my series on drivers, I started with the Wiki ‘List of Formula One Constructors’ and quickly reduced 136 to 43 eligible constructors by removing the Champions, and those hopefuls who failed to last beyond two or three seasons, and also those who only competed before 1958. [See Part-20 – Intro for details.]
“Houston, we have a problem.”
Born in Zurich in 1943 Peter Sauber trained as an electrician before becoming a car salesman in Hinwill. After the 1955 Le Mans disaster motor-racing was banned in Switzerland and Peter’s interests were confined to hillclimbs with a VW Beetle.
Instead of running the family business (making traffic- lights) Peter built, in his parents’ basement, his first car, the C1 (named for his wife, Christiane, and won the 1970 Swiss Hillclimb Championship.
By the time he reached C3 he was also selling his cars. The C5 twice led it’s class at Le Mans, in 1977 and 1978. A sports-car relationship with Mercedes Benz began in 1985 as Sauber led the Stuttgart team to two wins at Le Mans and two World Sports Prototype Championships in 1989 & 1990.
In 1991 the company was joined by Harvey Postlethwaite (ex-March, Hesketh, Wolf, Fittipaldi, Ferrari, & Tyrrell) and Mike Gascoyne, specifically to build an F1 car.
The Sauber story is in three parts: 1993-2005, owned by Peter (with Credit Suisse holding a 60% stake); after which BMW bought the bank’s shares and ran the team as BMW Sauber during 2006-2009; when BMW withdrew, their interest returned to Peter. In 2012 a third of the shares were transferred to CEO, Monisha Kaltenborn, who was subsequently promoted to Team Principle as Peter took a back seat.
Postlethwaite had departed before the C12 raced, and although Mercedes had pulled out of having their own team, run by Sauber, they continued to discreetly fund the project, using V10 Ilmore engines, with Sauber badging. The drivers were Karl Wendlinger, who had had a season with March, without much success, and JJ Lehto, who had been expected to shine in F1 but had achieved little in the three previous years.
The car was no slouch (and finished 5th on it’s debut) but suffered dreadful reliability, although both drivers were able to finish in the low-points positions (4th – 6th) several times, and the team finished their first season, equal to Lotus, in 7th place.
André de Cortanze was drafted in (from Alpine and Peugeot) but only stayed for two seasons before moving on to Ligier, and Sauber seemed already destined to the same rapid rotation of key staff that seems to court failure. Lehto was dropped in favour of Frentzen and, after Wendlinger’s accident at Monaco (leaving him in a coma for several weeks, and resulting in the introduction of higher cockpit sides), Andrea de Cesaris was brought in, from Jordan (who seemed happy to lose him) but scored just one point before leaving F1, being replaced for the last two events by Lehto… having himself been replaced at Benetton. The musical chairs never stopped.
Dissatisfied with their results Mercedes asked for their ball back, and went off to play with McLaren, leaving Sauber with Ford engines, and Red Bull sponsorship. Wendlinger made a welcome return but was considered not quite recovered and replaced by Jean-Christophe Boullion, 1994 F3000 Champion, who scored just 3pts. in his only year in F1… The C14 was little changed, and little better, but did give Sauber their first podium at Monza which, if only temporarily, lifted the team to the bottom of the ‘mid-field’.
Johnny Herbert smiled his way from Benetton to join Frentzen, while Ford introduced their V10, which was even less reliable than their previous V8, and Leo Ress played ‘safe’ with a chassis that seemed desperately in need of a major redesign. In the totally chaotic Monaco GP, where only three cars were still circulating at the end, Herbert took 3rd, and Frentzen was classified 4th.
Now came the much needed revolution (small ‘r’). With Petronas funds added to the Red Bull(ion) Sauber started building ‘secondhand’ Ferrari engines, with some Ferrari staff on the payroll (though it was never established, whose payroll), and it was even suggested there were similarities between the chassis. The intention was to eventually build a ‘Sauber/Petronas’ engine but the Asian economic crisis (when ‘tiger-cub’, Thailand, objected to not being regarded as a ‘full’ tiger-economy and decided not to play any more, thus bursting the bubble) belayed that plan.
Frentzen took his talent to Williams, and Herbert was joined by Nicola Larini, whose only points, in a seven-year career, had been acquired from 2nd place in a Ferrari at Imola, 1994, and he hadn’t had a single F1 race since then. After five races with Sauber his F1 career ended a second time, and he was replaced by Gianni Morbidelli, alternating with Norberto Fontana, which makes one wonder whether Peter Sauber had difficulty choosing personel, or Ferrari were supplying more than replacement piston-rings… Many years later some 1997 photos of Michael Schumacher testing a ‘de’-badged C16 at Fiorano were leaked.
Larini took 1pt. in Australia but Herbert took the other 15pts. won this year, along with the team’s third podium.
Herbert stayed for a third season, joined by Jean Alesi, whose ocular twinkle provided ample competition for Johnny’s grin… Jean’s Championship record during the previous nine seasons had netted him 9th, 9th, 7th, 7th, 6th, 5th, 5th, 4th & 4th… His 10th year in F1 would see him drop to 11th.
Having been the first car to adopt higher cockpit sides in 1994 Sauber was the last team to dispense with round steering-wheels, at the end of 1998.
Alesi scored Sauber’s fourth podium, which helped them up to 6th place in the Championship, but still only the best of the backmarkers.
Alesi decided to drift away and Herbert was joined by the uber-rich Pedro Diniz, having his final stab at being a racing-driver, and Sauber had their worst year ever. For 2000 Herbert moved to Jaguar and was replaced by Mika Salo, who had done well in 1997 with a few appearances at Ferrari… but… that had been three years before… and the end result for the team was no happier than 1999.
Now came another mini revolution. Sergio Rinland was finally brought onboard, to ‘assist’ the uninspiring Leo Ress, but there was friction and both left by the end of 2002. Peter also took a risk with Kimi Raikkonen and Nick Heidfeld. A truculent Mateschitz, who had wanted Bernoldi onboard, sold back his shares in the team (which went to Credit Suisse), but Sauber went on to take 4th in the Championship, albeit still only the best of the backmarkers – Ferrari, McLaren & Williams, together won 361pts – Sauber scored just 21.
It is fascinating (now) to recall that Kimi’s arrival on the scene, at the perceived tender age of just 21, caused some concern with other (older) drivers, and the FIA, who questioned the wisdom of granting a Super Licence to one so inexperienced – quelle amusement. Kimi had been tested by Sauber, three times, before being signed for 2001, after just 23 car races, although he had won 13 of them. On his debut, in Australia, Kimi finished 6th, for his first Championship point, while Nick finished 4th…
Heidfeld, after several years in lower formulae with considerable success, had rather disgraced himself in his first season with Prost, before moving to Sauber, where he achieved his first podium in Brazil. It was Sauber’s best year so far.
At the end of the year, despite all the fuss over Kimi’s age, Mika Hakkinen ‘fan-boy’, Ron Dennis, quickly replaced the departing Mika with Kimi… and thoroughly crossed Sauber’s hand with silver, for the priviledge. Enough for Sauber to start building its own wind-tunnel.
Heidfeld was now joined by another new-boy, F3000 Champion, Felipe Massa, and Willy Rampf was promoted from race-engineer to the drafting-table, but the results were too inconsistent to be impressive, and the team fell to 5th in the Championship. Unlike today, when we usually talk about three ranks of teams, back then the difference between the front of the grid and the rear was much more marked, with a less obvious mid-rank. Sauber thus took 5th place with a mere 11pts., beaten out of 4th by Renault, who only had 23pts. The winner, Ferrari, had 221pts. with Williams and McLaren on 92 and 65, so maybe they were the mid-rank. Back then of course only the first six finishers won points. If points had been awarded down to 10th place then, in most years, all the teams would have scored, but reliability was arguably worse then, and it was perhaps easier for the backmarkers to pick up points.
Apart from Pacific in 1994 (who didn’t finish a single race, and didn’t even qualify for most of them), and Super Aguri in 2008, every team between 1993 and 2009 (after which points were awarded down to 10th), would have won points for the Constructor’s title. Since the addition of the three new teams in 2010 none of them has scored a single point, thus generating the third rank of team. If anyone can figure out why this is, they should inform Gene Haas, which might save him some embarrassment – if not hard cash.
[NB: updated – Marussia have subsequently altered the course of history, for what it’s worth.]
Considering the increasing sums of money F1 was now spending on developments and upgrades it seems surprising that each new car from Sauber looked little changed from the previous year, and the huge jump that was required, if the team was to score even half as many points as the Champions, just didn’t happen. In 2003 Frentzen returned from his ‘downhill-racing’ spells with Williams, Jordan, Prost & Arrows, for a final year in F1. Sauber needed better, although they did get 4th & 5th at Indianapolis.
In 2004 they seemed to see the error of their ways (or were in need of a new batch of Ferrari valve-springs) because they reinstated Ferrari’s blue-eyed boy, Felipe, while Nick swapped with Giancarlo Fisichella (who was at least better-looking, and more marketable), whose best days (at Renault) were yet to come. It was a better season, points- wise, but the team still only finished 6th, with 34pts – they would have needed another 36 to have taken 5th place.
In 2005 the only major changes were the loss of Red Bull sponsorship (which moved to Red Bull Racing) and the addition of ex-Champion, ex-BAR limelight, ex-star, present-day pundit, Jacques Villeneuve… How often have up- and-coming teams ‘discovered’ new drivers, only to lose them after one season (or sooner, if sufficiently ruthless), and be obliged to select from mid-rank drivers, who often bring nothing but (often limited) experience, and/or drivers who are already on the slippery slope…?
Villeneuve managed a 4th at Imola, plus a 6th and an 8th. Massa had a 4th in Canada, plus a 6th, a 7th and an 8th, while Sauber managed 8th overall. Half way through the season BMW bought the Credit Suisse 60% and formed BMW Sauber. It was a bad year for F1 as Minardi, BAR and Jordan also withdrew from the fray.
Although Peter Sauber retained 20% of the company he only held a background advisory position, so I have decided to omit these four years from this saga.
Despite finishing 2nd & 3rd in the Championship in 2007 & 2008, in mid-2009 BMW anounced its intention to withdraw at the end of the year. Various salvage plans were attempted until BMW agreed amicable terms to sell the team back to Peter.
There was one problem in that the FIA had already announced the three new teams and Sauber was only allowed to compete in 2010 after Toyota also decided to pull out, leaving a ‘vacancy’.
Sauber, with Ferrari engines again, but without a single sponsor, started the season with Pedro de la Rosa (after nine years as a test-driver, interspersed with four unsuccessful seasons as a race-driver), and Kamui Kobayashi (fresh from winning the GP2-Asia series), in the hot seats. Kamui shone in Valencia, running 3rd for part of the race, before slipping to 9th after a pitstop, passing Alonso and Buemi, for 7th, and closing on Sutil at the end…
Mid-season, de la Rosa was replaced by Heidfeld (has any other driver ever been replaced so often, with so little effect, as these two…?), who wasn’t much better whereas Kamui continued to better them both. Thus Sauber were able to join (albeit at the bottom) a newly established (lower)mid-rank (in 8th) as a ‘new’ bottom rank, consisting of the three new entries, plus Toro Rosso was created.
Designer Willy Rampf, whose loyalty seemed to outshine his inovations, was (finally…?) replaced by James Key as Technical Director, after twenty-two loyal years with Jordan/Midland/MF1/Force India (but lasted only two years before moving to Toro Rosso), and another young whiz-kid, Sergio Perez. arrived from Mexico (the first in F1 for thirty years), aided & abetted by Snr Carlos Slim, as ‘New’ Sauber obtained their first sponsor – Telmex. Mexican Estaban Gutiérrez also arrived, as ‘reserve’ driver.
Kobayashi gave another good account of himself, and Perez was no slouch although, after a severe crash at Monaco, he was replaced in Canada by… er… de la Rosa – Heidfeld was busy trying to do something for Lotus… and reserve-driver, Estaban, was, er… um… back in Mexico… Am I the only one who feels this new ‘test- driver’/‘reserve-driver’/‘third-driver’ situation has become just a tad nonsensical…?
Finally, as it seems, after nineteen years in F1, Sauber came good. With, amongst others, several Mexican sponsorship deals (courtesy of Sergio and Estaban), the financial worries of 2011 seemed to be alleviated, for a while and, in Malaysia, Perez managed to get his car into 2nd place (the team’s first, not counting the BMW years), and repeated this at Monza, and both drivers recorded a 3rd. Along with several other points-scoring positions (now down to 10th)(and two fastest laps) Sauber finished the season in 6th place, firmly in the mid-rank, just behind Mercedes Benz.
At the end of the year Lewis Hamilton felt obliged to make his Richter-move, and was replaced at McLaren by Sergio, for whom great things were forecast… until he was unceremoniously dumped twelve months later.
Another rising star and, it seems, everybody’s whipping boy (having been dropped by Williams, and then Force India, due to sponsorship deals – and soon by Sauber as well…), Nico Hulkenberg, joined promoted Gutiérrez, as Kobayashi ‘took a powder’.
Matt Morris assumed the reins now vacated by James Key, who had moved to Toro Rosso(!), but the car was off the pace from the start and the previous year’s results became yet another ‘flash in the pan’…
Nico only three times got into Q3 (including a wonderful 3rd behind RBR at Monza) whereas Estaban rarely got out of Q1, until the 2/3‘s stage when, in Korea, the team qualified 8th & 9th, followed by 4th & 10th in Austin… but the points didn’t come and the team finished the year, 7th, down with Toro Rosso, a miserable Williams, and the other two.
After financial problems in 2013, which nearly took the Sauber team off the grid altogether, and saw them choosing potentially odd sleeping-partners (who were unlikely to have remained sleeping partners for long) Nico was informed, mid-season, that he would not be paid, and was free to seek another position. Although he remained with the team, in the end, after much wrangling, and apparently Nico’s extreme common-sense, he sidestepped an offer (of sorts) from Lotus (who peculiarly thought Nico would be happy to continue to drive, un-paid, to replace the un- paid Kimi…), and returned to Force India, along with refugee, Perez, while Adrian Sutil was very lucky (some say) to replace him at Sauber.
Perhaps, as with Arrows, Sauber deserve extra recognition for managing to even stay afloat in F1 for so long, let alone score several podium positions but… nevertheless… Sauber have always languished in the bottom half of the Championship tables. They have never won a GP, nor recorded a Pole (although Robert Kubica did both, in 2008, for BMW Sauber) and, to be blunt, they show no signs of ever changing. I would surmise that Monisha Kaltenborn might remain enthusiastic and keen to keep trying but… Peter Sauber could soon become too disconsolate… and he holds 66% of the shares. Maybe, with Credit Suisse assistance, the team could become Monisha Motors…
In recent months I have become rather bemused by the apparent intention of Gene Haas to form an F1 team for, as he continually declares, publicity for his company in world markets. The FIA require him to put up a bond (about $45.M) to commit for five years. Bernie has suggested he will need at least $200.M. for the first four years. Unless he really has something up his sleeve (of which there is no sign at the moment – just intentions, of utilising existing expertise. Haas needs to talk to Ron, real quick…!) the odds are, the best he will achieve is to beat Caterham and Marussia, assuming they are both still around to beat – otherwise ‘Haas Formula’ (even the name sounds more like a baby food, rather than macho machinery…) is heading for the bottom spot… and where is the publicity in that…? It isn’t selling lots of Caterham cars, and probably won’t sell too many machine-tools, either.
However… if Haas put just half that amount ($25.M./year) into sponsoring Sauber (for example) he could get ten times as much (and better) publicity, for less than half his currently expected outlay. If all he wants is publicity, and he has no actual interest in F1 itself, this has to be a better business proposition… It would also allow Sauber to bid for better drivers which, in turn, also helps Haas…
On the other hand, Haas has been getting quite considerable free publicity recently (as have a few Russian interests), so maybe he’ll never actually appear on the starting grids… which would be a shame for F1, which needs more teams, and would be much improved if they came from other countries, even if they must have a base in England. But the first thing is to break the stranglehold exerted on F1 by a few over-opinionated people, and to return it to a ‘sport’ (with a playing-field as level as your average cricket-pitch), however business-like it also needs to be.
F1 might have started as a sport, but it has also always been a business. Now it is only a business.