As Sauber recently solidified its future in Formula 1, we take a look at how the team started, and what it has gone through. Without a shadow of a doubt, the deal with Audi will make Sauber a top team. Despite its 29 years of experience, it has only once been a contestant for the championship.
Table of Contents
Before Formula 1
However, let’s not get too hasty, as we have a lot to cover before we reach this stage of its life. As some of you know, the team traces its origins to Peter Sauber. He started building models in his parent’s basement (such a cliche, right?) and raced them in the Swiss Hillclimb championship.
After being associated with BWM through the development of Le Mans cars, and the BMW M1 sportscar, the turn of events swung the Sauber organization in the path of Mercedes-Benz. This relationship began in 1985 and resulted in a 1989 24 Hours of Le Mans victory. Two years later, there would be a certain Michael Schumacher, that will make the fastest lap in the same competition in a Mercedes-Benz C11 built by Sauber.
Beginning with Mercedes
The success in endurance racing was the fuel needed by Mercedes to fund a Sauber project in Formula 1. While a works deal was scrapped, the German behemoth supplied engines to Sauber C12. Team owner, Peter Sauber, continued with the same naming scheme he started with the “C” coming from the name of his wife – Christine.
Unfortunately, the lack of progress in the next year, when the Ilmor badge was replaced by Mercedes-Benz, was the nail in the coffin of their relationship. Instead, Mercedes went with McLaren, which proved to be very successful down the line, while the outfit was “left” with an uncertain future.
Red Bull affiliation
Thankfully, the late Dietrich Mateschitz has stepped up and purchased a majority chunk of the shares of the team. Sauber struck a deal with Ford for engine supply. To be honest, these engines were underperforming, and the Swiss team had to find something better quickly.
And what better than a Ferrari V10? However, this was a compromise option, only to stay put until the team together with partners Petronas built their own engine. Sadly, this never happened, due to an economic crisis in Asia, which saw Malaysian firm Petronas back down.
The Sauber-Petronas project
However, they did not back down from Sauber entirely. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’d set up a new company, called Sauber Petronas Engineering. It was built with the purpose of making Ferrari-licensed engines and their own gearbox.
This meant that the team was a strong affiliate of Ferrari. Not so long ago, an image appeared on the Web that showed Michael Schumacher testing the 1997 Sauber C16 to help them sort out a balance issue.
Sauber’s arguably longest relationship in Formula 1 resulted in their best finish of 4th in the 2001 World Championship, with drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Nick Heidfeld. From 1997 to 2005, they scored four podiums – Johnny Herbert in Hungary, 1997; Jean Alesi in Belgium, 1998; Nick Heidfeld in Brasil, 2001; and Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the USA in his second hiatus with the team in 2003.
By the way, Sauber brought Kimi Raikkonen to Formula 1, after only 23 races to his name. We all know that he turned out to be one of the best drivers in the sport. However, Dietrich Mateschitz was not buying it. He wanted to put Red Bull junior Enrique Bernoldi. As a protest, the brand sold its shares, which Credit Suisse bought.
This would be another turning point in Sauber’s history, as the Swiss bank would later sell the team to BMW. In a similar fashion, Mateschitz would acquire the Jaguar F1 team to make it Red Bull Racing.
Sauber becomes a factory outfit of BMW
In 2006 began the most successful era of Sauber’s Formula 1 existence. Now a true factory team, then called BMW Sauber was given the task that Williams was not able to achieve – win the World Championship.
After a challenging first year, which resulted in two podiums, one of which was by the debutant Robert Kubica, BMW Sauber entered the 2007 F1 season as a solid team. Thanks to Spygate, the biggest Formula 1 scandal of the 21st century, which saw McLaren disqualified from the championship, BMW Sauber achieved its best finishing position in the sport – second place overall.
But it was in 2008 that the outfit could achieve its ultimate goal. Exactly a year after his scary crash, Robert Kubica achieved his (and the team’s) only victory at the Canadian Grand Prix. Not only that, but it was a one-two finish. BMW really had a shot at the title that year.
Although the car was clearly not the fastest on the grid, it was definitely up there. And its drivers were consistent. Weirdly, BMW decided to put all its efforts towards the 2009 competitor with an aim to hijack the new rules early on.
BMW makes an exit from Formula 1
Not only did this lead to the demise of Robert Kubica, and BMW Sauber’s chances in 2008, but it also proved fruitless. A wrong approach and too much thought in KERS resulted in an unbalanced car with an occasional breakthrough. Ultimately, this pulled the plug on BMW’s Formula 1 project, as they announced a shocking exit from the sport in the middle of the season.
Close to the end
Once again, Sauber was left on the brink of extinction. Peter Sauber, the hero of this team, repurchased the majority share and struck a deal with Ferrari for customer V8s. What followed is a weird diplomacy masterclass by the team owner, which gives an insight into the absurd bureaucracy F1 was (and still is to this day).
BMW has ultimately sold the team to a mysterious buyer. One, that did not sign the Concorde Agreement. This led to Sauber losing its F1 spot, which was sold to Lotus. However, Peter Sauber found a way to use Toyota’s entry. So at the end of the day, the team was still called BMW Sauber F1 Team but used Ferrari engines and Toyota’s spot.
Another good thing that came out of that Toyota thing is Kamui Kobayashi. He brought in sponsors and was a great rookie. The car, on the other hand, used inspiration from the 2009 BMW Sauber contender but was newly designed. It performed pretty well for a late-night effort and finished 8th in a 12-team championship.
After being saved from the abyss, the Sauber F1 team competed with mixed results, which culminated in 2012, when the team got four podiums. Two 2nd places and 3rd places were enough for 6th in the championship with 126 points overall.
Unfortunately, the V6 era began in the worst possible way. It scored no points in the 2014 F1 season. The team slightly lifted itself up for 2015, when it earned 36 points, before crumbling down to two points in 2016. It was in 2016 when Longbow Finance bought Peter Sauber’s shares in the company, which removed any involvement from the team founder.
The Alfa Romeo F1 project
Then, in 2018 Alfa Romeo decided to become Sauber’s title sponsor. This was the debut year for Charles Leclerc. After three difficult races for the Monegasque, he got the grips of Formula 1 and showed incredible consistency. This brought the team to 8th in the championship.
Seeing potential in the outfit, Alfa increased its involvement in the team, which was now fully rebranded as Alfa Romeo Racing. 2019 marked the first year since 1993 that didn’t see the Sauber name in Formula 1. On the other hand, the structure, management, ownership, license, and factory remained the same.
As Kimi Raikkonen and Charles Leclerc swapped places, this meant that the Finnish driver returns back to when his career started in 2001. Kimi had his last season in the sport in 2021. Sadly, his years with the outfit were marked by very low results, courtesy of Ferrari’s rather slow engine formula for 2020 and 2021.
Sauber will once again become a factory team
Fast forward to 2022, when Audi and Sauber announced a factory relationship, which will start in 2026. Is this going to lead the team (although Peter Sauber-less) to their first championship, or it will prove unsuccessful, as all partnerships that were previously made by this team? Only time will tell.
One thing is sure though, we are extremely happy that we’ll still see the Sauber name in the sport. The team went from Mercedes backing to affiliation with Red Bull, Petronas, Ferrari, BMW, back to Ferrari, and then Alfa Romeo. The same team that almost went extinct on several occasions. Like a cockroach in the radioactive Formula 1, the Sauber name lives one. In the same world, where huge conglomerates like Toyota, BWM, and Honda didn’t want to risk it, Peter Sauber and his team had the balls to continue doing what they do best – racing.