A tale of Sauber, Longbow Finance and Alfa Romeo but first a brief history lesson.
In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. – Harry Lime in The Third Man
Switzerland also produced Sauber, the plucky F1 privateer founded by Peter Sauber, who we are generally led to believe was able to defeat the odds for twenty-five years, and independently produce a car that has gotten fifteen podiums, with one being a race win. But is that really what happened?
Last week I wrote an article where I outlined who I believed were in contention for what will likely be an opening at Williams for their second seat. Several of the comments made reference to Marcus Ericsson and why I hadn’t included him, especially in light of what appears to be an effort by Ferrari to put both of their junior drivers, Leclerc and Giovinazzi , into the team. With rumours now coming out of Italy that Ferrari may be in fact attempting to buy Sauber and rebrand it as the Alfa Romeo F1 team. I began to wonder how Sauber had arrived at this point and just who is the mysterious Longbow Finance, who now own Sauber, and are also Marcus Ericsson’s backers. I hadn’t included Ericsson as I didn’t believe at the time that his seat at Sauber could be in jeopardy. But the Ferrari rumours have potentially changed that.
Unlike most British and Italian F1 teams who started in lower formula single seaters, Sauber, like most “Germanic” teams, started in sports car racing. The team paralleled what Zakspeed had done a decade earlier. While Zakspeed effectively became Ford’s “works” team in Group C (what today we would be LMP1) and used that as their springboard into F1, Sauber did it with Mercedes, becoming their de facto work’s team. The team won LeMans in 1989 and World Sports Prototype Championship in 1989 and 1990.
With the banning of turbo’s and the return to normally aspirated engines in 1989, Mercedes with their engine partner Ilmor, being looking at a return to F1. Having little experience in chassis design, Mercedes planned to form an F1 team which they would own, but Sauber would do all the technical work and manage the team. In 1991 work started. By 1992 Mercedes had developed cold feet and decided not to enter F1 as a team but solely as an engine supplier (Ilmor). Mercedes gave the operation to Peter Sauber and guaranteed two years of funding. Sauber, who never intended to own an F1 team now found himself owning one. It’s also the point where Sauber starts looking more like a condo flipper than a team owner.
Sauber did eventually enter F1 in 1993 as Sauber –Ilmor and then in 1994 as Sauber- Mercedes. But with the Mercedes money ending at the end of the 1994 and also losing his Mercedes engine to McLaren for the 1995 season, he had to do something and quick. Enter Dietrich Mateschitz, the Red Bull energy drink owner and F1 fan. Mateschitz bought 80% of the team and guaranteed Red Bull sponsorship for the next ten years. Sauber as he had done with Mercedes was able to make sure he was solely in charge of technical and personnel, which would later become an issue.
1995 and 1996 saw Sauber using the Ford engine and being a relatively competitive mid-field team. In 1997 they were equipped with a year-old Ferrari engines rebadged as a Petronas, a new main sponsor, who also paid for the engines. The new engines made Sauber slightly more competitive but still a mid-field team. By late 2000 the team’s direction issue between Mateschitz and Sauber would erupt over driver selection. Mateschitz wanted his Red Bull protégé Enrique Bernoldi in the team for 2001, Sauber opted to go with an unknown Finn named Kimi Raikkonen. Sauber got his way and Mateschitz looked for an exit, but learned a valuable lesson – if you own an F1 team don’t let someone else control it.
Enter the team’s fourth owner in eight years – Credit Suisse. Like many other financial services companies in the early 2000’s, Credit Suisse believed F1 was a perfect marketing tool. Peter Sauber yet again was able to control the team and personnel without having a controlling ownership interest. With the Red Bull, Petronas and now Credit Suisse sponsorship money flowing in, he was able to turn Sauber into one of the most technically advanced teams in F1. Even with all this shiny new technology Sauber were never able to replicate their 2001 fourth place constructors standing and gradually starting slipping back to the end of the mid-field. By 2005 Credit Suisse came to the conclusion that owning an F1 team wasn’t what they wanted to do and started searching for a way out. And luckily BMW was looking for a way in.
Credit Suisse in 2005 sold their 80% of the team to BMW. And what occurred was one of F1’s more remarkable transformations. With BMW’s engine’s, technical expertise and lots of money the team was second in the 2007 constructors WC and third, with a win, in 2008. While on the track the team was doing well, they were dealt a double whammy, first with technical changes and then with the global financial crisis. BMW calculated that F1 was a luxury they could no longer afford and in August 2009 the BMW board announced it would pull out of F1. With no buyer on the horizon it looked like the end for Sauber. That is until Toyota announced that they would also be pulling out of F1. With Honda, BMW and now Toyota leaving the sport, F1 was in a genuine crisis. With prodding from Ecclestone, BMW sold (gave would be a better term) the team to Peter Sauber. Twice in fifteen years Peter Sauber would be given the team that bears his name.
2010 saw the team survive on minimal support from BMW. They also switched to Ferrari engines. There was supposed to be Russian investors coming on-board. Then it was a place for Ferrari to park a couple of Mexicans who were part of their Ferrari Driver Academy. It was truly now a pay to drive team.
The low point came at the beginning of 2015 when it was discovered that the then CEO and team principal, Monisha Kaltenborn, had in fact signed three pay drivers. Giedo van der Garde, the odd driver out, sued and was eventually paid $16M in compensation. But what was interesting was the signing of a rather unremarkable Swedish driver – Marcus Ericsson, who had driven for Caterham in 2014. Ericsson was also reported to be linked to a mysterious, very wealthy Swiss finance group called Longbow.
Longbow Finance would in July of 2016 announce that they had purchased all of Sauber’s shares. And so ended Peter Sauber’s involvement with the team as he also announced his retirement from F1. In the twenty-five years of the team’s existence it changed ownership seven different times. But who are Longbow Finance?
As it turns out Longbow Finance is a Swiss investment company, but the people who own Longbow Finance aren’t Swiss. It is in fact a finance / investment services company owned by Tetra Laval, which is owned by the Swedish Rausing family, whose worth is in the billions.
Corporate disclosure regulations are tight in Switzerland so Longbow were never obliged to file publicly-available financial statements or reveal the identity of its shareholders, thus adding the veil of mystery.
And that brings up back to Marcus Ericsson. If Longbow decide they want to maintain control of Sauber as a way of keeping him in F1 they certainly have the means to do it. But if it’s clear Ferrari want the team so it can be re-branded as Alfa Romeo and they sell out and Marcus is looking for a seat, their only real option is Williams. And if Stroll was willing to pay $30M a year to get his son into the team, would Longbow be willing to do the same? For Williams maybe good things do come to those who wait.