How Sauber Have Become Formula 1's Forgotten Team

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2014

Sauber driver Esteban Gutierrez  of Mexico  steers his car during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix, at the Monaco racetrack, in Monaco, Sunday, May 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Luca Bruno/Associated Press

Sauber are in trouble.

The Swiss team currently lie 10th in the constructors' championship, with no points to their name.

The C33 is probably the least-competitive car they have ever produced, and in Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez they have one of the weakest driver lineups on the grid.

It seems unlikely any great improvement is around the corner, and it's entirely conceivable they will go the entire year without scoring a point. Needless to say, that would be a disaster. It has never happened to them before.

Sauber have long defined "middle-of-the-road" in Formula One. In the 21 seasons since their debut in 1993, they've finished between fifth and eighth in the constructors' championship 18 times.

The exceptions were 2001 when they came fourth, and two of the seasons they spent under the control of BMW, which yielded second and third.

But now, Sauber are in danger of disappearing into the abyss of the back-markers for the first time in their existence.

If things get much worse, they could even go out of business.

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How did it come to this?

The Sauber Story

Sauber began life in 1970. Peter Sauber, then the 27-year-old part-time racing driver and son of a businessman, set up shop as an independent sports car builder in Hinwil, Switzerland.

His company progressed to the highest level of sports cars, which at the time was the World Sportscar Championship. In 1982 the FIA introduced the Group C category, and in 1985 Mercedes made their return to the series30 years after the 1955 Le Mans disaster, which sparked their withdrawal.

Peter Sauber in 2013.
Peter Sauber in 2013.Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

At first they supplied engines to Sauber, and the partnership progressed into a full works arrangement in 1988. Sauber-Mercedes, as the team were known, enjoyed great success with the C9 and C11.

The next step was Formula One.

Initially a joint entry between Sauber and Mercedes was planned, but the global recession in the early 1990s made the Mercedes management think again. The German giant took a back seat, quietly supporting Sauber in 1993 and providing funding to Ilmor to build the engines.

Mercedes put their name to the power plants in 1994, marking their return to F1 for the first time since 1955, but they departed to link up with McLaren at the end of the year.

Fortunately, Peter Sauber had already secured new partners to help his team move forward.

Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz acquired a majority stake in the team and Sauber became the Ford team in 1995 and 1996. They also began what would become a lengthy relationship with Malaysian oil giant Petronas.

The 1995 Sauber C14.
The 1995 Sauber C14.Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

In 1997, Sauber began their link-up with Ferrari, which would later lead to Felipe Massa spending three years with the team. Though not especially successful, Sauber were what all midfield teams strive to becomfortable.

Mateschitz was unhappy when Sauber chose Kimi Raikkonen over Red Bull-backed Enrique Bernoldi in 2001, but the transition from one partner to another was fairly smooth. Credit Suisse bought the shares in 2002.

But the deals mentioned above pale to insignificance when compared to Sauber's biggest tie-up to date.

In 2005, German motoring giant BMW bought a majority stake. The team was renamed BMW Sauber for 2006 and, for the first time in their history, Sauber had a taste of success.

Their best year was 2008. Sauber scored 11 podiums and Robert Kubica won the Canadian Grand Prix as the team finished just 37 points behind eventual constructors' champions Ferrari.

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 08:  Robert Kubica of Poland and BMW Sauber celebrates on the podium following his victory in the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve June 8, 2008 in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

BMW Sauber were on the verge of becoming serious title contenders, but they didn't react well to sweeping regulation changes for the 2009 season. To make matters worse, the fallout from the global financial crisis was starting to bite, and BMW announced they would be withdrawing at the end of the year.

Peter Sauber bought his team back, but later admitted that he did it for sentimental reasons. Speaking to Formula1.com, he said:

When I decided to take over, I had to make the decision in a short period of time. I was led purely by my gut feelings, which is something you should try to avoid. If it was a purely logical decision, you wouldn’t have done it. But in the end I didn’t have a choice because Hinwil would have been closed down.

He was by then in his mid-60s. Enjoying his well-earned retirement, Sauber had no desire to run the team on a day-to-day basis. He handed over control, and later a third of the business, to CEO Monisha Kaltenborn. She is now the team principal.

With the exception of an encouraging 2012, Sauber have struggled ever since.

Looking to the Future

The recurring theme throughout the history of Sauber is one of partnerships. As F1 became more professional and expensive throughout the 1990s and 2000s, privateer teams disappeared from the grid with alarming regularity.

Jordan, Lotus (the proper Lotus), Minardi, Benetton, Prost, Arrows, Footwork, Lola (twice) and Tyrrell. All these teams fell by the wayside, either closed down or bought out by bigger, wealthier concerns.

The Credit Suisse/Petronas-branded 2005 C24.
The Credit Suisse/Petronas-branded 2005 C24.EUGENE HOSHIKO/Associated Press

Sauber survived because they always attracted and benefited from the involvement of one or more big partners. They would not have lasted without the substantial investment they received from the likes of Mercedes, Petronas, Red Bull and BMW.

But from the end of 2009 when BMW departed, they have been alone.

Big business appears to have fallen out of love with F1 as cheaper and more effective ways to market their brands have come to the fore. Even the major motor manufacturers have little interest in the sport.

They have even less interest in a team which, with no disrespect intended, has become a byword for mediocrity.

Without the storied history of a team like Williams to attract investmentnot that Williams have had it easySauber have spent the past few years in a holding pattern.

Relying heavily on their drivers to bring in the sponsors, the team have been waiting and hoping for someone to come in and save the day.

Last season, it seemed their prayers had been answered. In July 2013, Sauber announced a partnership with a group of Russian companies. It was a curious deal with at least two of the companies involved strongly linked to the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin. This would later prove significant.

An unwanted gift in the deal was Sergey Sirotkin, the 17-year-old son of one of the companies' directors. He was supposed to drive for the team in 2014.

But as yet, nothing has really happened. Someone intelligent realised Sirotkin wasn't ready, and though this revelation didn't in itself delay anything, discussions over the deal ground on until the Crimean crisis erupted in February this year.

Crimea is now controlled by Russia.
Crimea is now controlled by Russia.Sergei Grits/Associated Press

Russia's annexation of the peninsular threw a massive spanner in the works.

Western powers imposed a variety of sanctions on many Russian individuals and companies, and the resulting uncertainty has further delayedand maybe even killedthe deal. Sauber's team principal, Monisha Kaltenborn, explained at the Spanish Grand Prix press conference:

We’ve definitely seen an effect because a lot of talks which are very advanced have virtually come to standstill because people are waiting and seeing what’s going to happen and nobody really knows the entire impact it can have.

The sanctions that have now been imposed are really biting some of them, so they’re very careful which again means that we simply have to wait and there’s nothing we can do about it, so we really hope that the situation can be clarified soon and all our deals can be sorted out.

If the Russian rescue does eventually fall through, Sauber face a deeply uncertain future. They will struggle to survive alone for much longer, and another former privateer boss, Eddie Jordan, thinks Sauber should sell up.

He told Swiss newspaper Blick (h/t grandprix.com for the translation), "It's obvious that they've reached the point where it can't go on like this. Before the damage is even greater, the best solution would be to stop and sell the team."

It does appear to be the only way the team can survive as a competitive entity, and Sauber himself probably agrees.

But finding a buyer for a non-profitable team in a sport with a questionable financial future may be the toughest task he has ever faced.

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